'The ability to say yes' to stories long neglected on the screen

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'The ability to say yes' to stories long neglected on the screen
Erica Tremblay's "Little Chief" premiered at Sundance in 2020.

by Nicole Sperling

NEW YORK, NY.- Like so many anxious filmmakers the week before the start of the Sundance Film Festival, Erica Tremblay was tucked inside a dark room in Los Angeles, prepping the final sound mix for her feature debut, “Fancy Dance.”

Tremblay has one of those quintessential Sundance tales: abandoning her career in publishing at age 40 to pursue filmmaking, specifically to tell stories centered in her Seneca-Cayuga Nation in Oklahoma. Her first short film, “Little Chief,” premiered at Sundance in 2020. Her script for “Fancy Dance” was accepted into the 2021 Sundance Lab, and with the help of the Sundance Institute, she secured financing to make the movie. Production concluded in September, and just three months later, her film was chosen out of 10,000 submissions to be shown at this year’s festival, which begins Thursday.

None of it would have happened without her financiers. One, Nina Yang Bongiovi of Significant Productions, has been financing indie films like “Fruitvale Station” and “Passing” since 2013. Another, Tommy Oliver, the founder and CEO of Confluential Films, is relatively new to the finance game after spending the past decade producing and directing his own films.

“The thing that I like the best about working with Tommy is that I had creative autonomy,” said Tremblay, who has worked in one of Oliver’s bungalows on his Confluential campus since Thanksgiving. “Even though it’s hard to trust first-time filmmakers, whatever he saw in this, he was like, let’s do it. He has been there for the project but also been there for me as a creator. He was somewhat of a resident therapist in that regard.”

Oliver is one of a number of financiers of color with films debuting at the festival whose mission is to elevate underrepresented voices with financial investments, including Charles King, Luis A. Miranda Jr., Kimberly Steward, Doug Choi and Yang Bongiovi.

It’s a far cry from how things used to be and a sign that diversity efforts have moved from the periphery of the business more toward its center.

“When I started in the business, in the ’80s, I was so used to being not only the only Asian American but the only minority at the table ever,” said Chris Lee, a former president of production at Sony’s TriStar Pictures. He is executive producing the Justin Chon film “Jamojaya,” which received financing from Starlight Media, a Los Angeles-based Chinese financier that backed “Crazy Rich Asians.” “Now, you want an A-list director, you can go to John Chu, you can go to Destin Daniel Cretton, you can go to Justin Lin. There’s so many choices to put people in front of the camera now that people didn’t think of before.”

Still, just appearing at Sundance is not the endgame. The true standard for success for these financiers will be how these movies perform at the festival and if they are bought by distributors. Alexis Garcia, from the independent studio Fifth Season, previously known as Endeavor Content, said distributors have told him that the festival’s lineup of films this year doesn’t look commercial and that it could be a soft year for acquisitions.

Should that be the case, that could be a setback for the financiers who are just getting started.

“When you are working with directors who are from an underrepresented group, there is actually more at risk, because if it doesn’t work, it just perpetuates the mythology,” said Kevin Iwashina, Fifth Season’s senior vice president of documentaries, who helped finance the Sundance doc “Going Varsity in Mariachi” and fully financed “AUM: The Cult at the End of the World,” a documentary about the cult responsible for the 1995 sarin gas subway attack in Tokyo. “And so decisions become that much more precise. There is more at risk than just financial capital.”

Oliver is staking a lot in the four films he has headed to Sundance, in something of a coming-out party for Confluential Films. Oliver began the operation in 2013 as a label for his own productions — he is also a writer and director — but has recently expanded his ambitions. Oliver hired Charlotte Koh, formerly of Searchlight Pictures, as Confluential’s president in 2021 and has dedicated the company to financing projects by creators of color. Goldman Sachs helped raise $100 million to $150 million that Confluential will use for operating and production costs.

Best known for creating the popular OWN series “Black Love” with his wife, Cody Elaine Oliver — the two own the show and all its ancillary products: podcasts, live events and merchandising — Oliver’s ambitions run from indie films to prestige pictures to helping finance studio movies.

In addition to “Fancy Dance,” the producer has invested in “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” a documentary about Giovanni, the American poet, and the narrative features “Young. Wild. Free.” and “To Live and Die and Live.” The upcoming Netflix movie “The Perfect Find,” starring Gabrielle Union, is also being produced by Confluential after the company optioned the novel by Tia Williams.

“We have the ability to say yes, and not just say yes, but to look at what the makeup of those projects are, and that’s significant,” said Oliver. “What I’m really excited about building is something that is sustainable to support, not just one director, but a bunch of directors. We can do something now where we have a different type of seat at the table.”

Miranda is using the money he made from the theatrical hit “Hamilton” — created by his son, Lin-Manuel Miranda — to invest in young artists, many of whom are from underrepresented groups and communities. After receiving an unsolicited email from producer James Lawler, Miranda invested in the Sundance documentary “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” which depicts high school mariachi contests popular in the border towns in Texas. It’s one of the better-known documentaries scheduled to debut in competition. To Miranda, a veteran political strategist, the film was the perfect combination of storytelling and politics and showed where he wants to put his money.

“We are a huge part of the audience of movies but not a large number of the ones that are financing films,” he said in an interview, referring to his Latino roots. “And I know that there are a lot of voices out there who have not been able to tell their stories. I know that because my son was one of them. If I would have had the money then, Lin-Manuel would not have had to go through three years of rewriting and knocking on doors. So if I can make young, talented people’s lives easier in telling their stories, I will do that.”

Yang Bongiovi said finding financing for films featuring people of color remains challenging. She recalled her experience with “Passing,” from writer and director Rebecca Hall, starring Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Ragnarok”) and Ruth Negga (“Loving”). The film was bought by Netflix for a healthy sum out of Sundance in 2021 and was lauded by critics. Yet getting it made was “practically impossible,” she said, “and that was not that long ago.”

“I was told, ‘You have two women of color starring in it, that’s challenging,’” Yang Bongiovi said. “And then I remember telling folks, ‘Tessa Thompson is a Marvel superhero. She’s Valkyrie!’ But it just didn’t equate. It was a reminder that we still have a long way to go.”

The growing number of financiers from underrepresented groups has Yang Bongiovi feeling hopeful. It means that instead of competing for projects, they can work together, reduce their individual risk and contribute the money needed to make these films.

“Because there are more multicultural financiers and producers, we are teaming up,” she said. “We don’t see each other as competitors. We’re like, ‘Hey, we’re allies. We got to go in together, to force the tide to come through for us.’”

Yang Bongiovi and Oliver worked together on “Fancy Dance,” while King and Oliver both backed “Young. Wild. Free.,” a film directed by Thembi L. Banks about a high school student whose life turns when he is robbed by the girl of his dreams. Oliver and Yang Bongiovi are also supporting “To Live and Die and Live” from director Qasim Basir.

“To me, that’s where you see real change, how we have found ways to partner and come together to move entire ecosystems,” said King, founder and CEO of Macro, an 8-year-old company that has helped finance films like “Judas and the Black Messiah” with Warner Bros. and “Sorry to Bother You” with Yang Bongiovi. The latter was sold to Annapurna Pictures out of Sundance in 2018.

“When I launched Macro, it was with a vision for building a multibillion-dollar media company that is going to have global impact, but also economically empower our communities and help to shape culture,” he said. “That companies like Confluential and others who’ve raised capital, who are financing, that they’re doing it as well, and then to be able to do things together, that’s fantastic. That’s only creating more opportunities for all of us.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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