Author, programmer and all-round film expert Nadia Denton is behind the new book ‘The Black British Filmmaker’s Guide to Success‘, which is available now as a download, and is a timely, practical resource that caters specifically for black content work. Permanent Plastic Helmet caught up with Ms Denton recently to discuss the book’s origins and key themes, as well as her fascinating views on the current landscape of black British filmmaking.
PPH (in bold): Where did the idea for the book come from?
Nadia Denton (in regular): It came from me taking a wider exploration of the industry after I left [media group] BFM at the beginning of 2010 and realising that while there was a lot available in terms of resources and ways to do things, many black filmmakers I worked with were not accessing this. I found that I was one of the few persons of colour at a lot of the “mainstream” events I was attending, and the filmmakers I work with weren’t really represented. I started to think about why they weren’t there, what some of the challenges they had, and if they were there, how these might be addressed. Those ideas formed basis of the book, as well as me wanting to share some of the best practice I’ve observed over the years.
The book is available as a download. What prompted you to go down that particular distribution route?
Originally I was going to seek publishing, and I toyed with the idea. However, friends and advisors were very concerned about having “black” in the title, they felt that it narrowed the market. I accepted that, but I felt it wouldn’t be true to the book’s content if I didn’t have that in it, because that’s who I was writing it for. I started to explore the option of self-publishing, and spoke to a number of sponsors around printing and partnerships. Again, I found there was a bit of a narrow view. They didn’t really understand that there was much of a market, they thought only a handful of people would even be interested in the book. To their minds, they didn’t think it made business sense. And I thought, I haven’t written this book for money or for profiteering, I’ve written it because I think the information is going to be helpful to this community of filmmakers. In the long run there will be a reward for all of us because there will be more work, there will be more opportunities to put on film events, and it will help to generate a bit more of what I think could be quite a strong Black British Film industry.
Because there’s not currently a prominent core of black filmmakers out there, very visible in the quote/unquote mainstream – that could be interpreted in some circles as ‘black filmmakers don’t exist’, which is obviously not the case.
No. There’s such a strong underground. I think unfortunately a lot of filmmakers who are operating on the periphery, the cuts and challenges that they’ve had personally in their creative careers haven’t helped, and I really saw this book as a way of trying to encourage and further sustain some of their actions because certainly there’s no shortage of ideas and creative potential. But the key issues that came up again and again were around the funding, marketing and distribution of films.
There’s a strong element of “self-help” evident in the book, which is quite a unique approach.
I am actually a qualified life coach and I’ve spent many years reading self-help books which I’ve enjoyed, so I come to this more from that angle and the little bit of experience I’ve had exhibiting films, as opposed to a lot of the other film industry books which are generally written by people who’ve worked in the industry for donkey’s years, or with filmmakers. I don’t try to go down that line. It’s really what I felt was good advice, things I’ve observed, information I’ve gathered, and the expertise from people that are featured. What I have found is those filmmakers who have been the most successful have a lot of self-confidence, they feel very rooted about who they are in terms of their identity, don’t feel they have to conform or that they have to be like everyone else to be accepted.
So essentially it’s less about breaking into the mainstream, more developing your own interests and making that viable and financially sustainable.
Yes, and also to better engage with audiences. This whole thing about the “mainstream” – I feel that in a way, black filmmakers are already in the mainstream, in the sense of the interest that there is in our culture and some of the films that have been deemed to be popular. However I’m concerned about filmmakers making good films, and I think if you’ve made a good film and you’ve been true to those people that film is representing and who have those interests, then to me, that’s my idea of mainstream. It’s more about filmmakers being integral, not making films because they think that it will suit this audience or it will suit that funder or distributor. But telling true stories and being very open about the alternative methods that they can use to market and distribute their work.
In the book, there are many different itemized sections and many contributions from industry specialists. It seems to have been a very collaborative process, so how did you go about that?
One of the strengths I thought I had in writing this book was the number of filmmakers I’ve interacted with over the years. In the seven years I ran the Film Club at the ICA, every month I was working with a different filmmaker. I felt like I knew their personal stories, I knew a lot of the background behind why they made their films. I felt like I had a storehouse of relationships with filmmakers, much of which was hadn’t been documented but which I think we all agreed would be useful to put out there. As I was making more manoeuvres in the wider industry, I was meeting people who again, I felt were very receptive when I approached them and happy to share. I probably approached three times the number of people who were in the book. In terms of the filmmakers, I had a very clear idea of who I wanted to be in it. Unfortunately there are a few people who I wanted to be in there that aren’t. Perhaps when I write the next version there might be an opportunity to include them.
Who is your target audience for the book? Is it UK specific?
I think it does have an international remit. I have to say, when I had these debates about the title, I was prepared to compromise the international audience for keeping the title, because I thought it was very important to celebrate what we have here in Britain. I do sometimes get a bit irked when African-Americans come to the UK and have quite a disparaging attitude towards our work and have this sense that we have to look towards America for successes or how to do [things], when actually we have enough of our resources here. So I very much wanted to keep it integral to a UK audience, however much of what I’ve written is fairly generalised so it could apply in an international context. I’m quite delighted that [influential black film website] “Shadow and Act” have taken some interest in the book.
In many ways, especially with the advancement of digital technology, it’s easier than ever to make a film. How have you approached that element in the book?
I have to say the book doesn’t include any content about making films. It’s really more about the infrastructure around it: the finance, the marketing, getting it out to screening, and distribution. I think filmmakers need to be clear about having a chain of action with their marketing. So, it’s great if you’re on Twitter, it’s great if you’re using YouTube and Facebook, but it should lead to something. It should be leading to your website, or buying something, or signing up to your mailing list, or knowing more about you. I feel sometimes that filmmakers’ efforts are a bit scattered. I would hope people would have a more structured approach. Also, the advent of digital technology means that where distribution is concerned, filmmakers have many more opportunities for people to view their films and buy their DVDs online, and they should be maximising that.
In my distribution chapter, I’ve done an interview with Owen Alik Shahadah who made a film called 500 Years Later in 2005, and he’s made over a million dollars, and much of that was through DVD sales online to an African-American market. I feel that sometimes filmmakers aren’t so cognizant of the effects that an online presence can have. And it’s also not just about them doing it themselves, but having a team of people who will assist them.
It also seems to be about promoting the idea that creativity alone is not enough, and that it needs to be complemented with organisation and measurability.
To me, organisation and knowledge of the industry is key. Sometimes when I hear the testimonies of filmmakers, particularly those who are disgruntled and have had disappointments, it’s really that they’ve just not been working as effectively or smartly as they could.
An element of naviete, perhaps?
Yes, and also I feel sometimes that people can get in such a hurry to do what they want to do that they take what they perceive as shortcuts, and actually they can end up going a long way around.
In terms of the measurability with platforms like Twitter or whichever methods they might be using, I’m a stickler for some form of tracking to see is it working. If it’s not, then change it. There’s no reason why you should be using one method day in, day out if you’re not seeing any results from it. So I am a big advocate of filmmakers – particularly where their marketing is concerned or even distribution – using different methods, and seeing which works. So your distribution – whether it’s going to be Video On Demand, whether it’s going to be you selling your DVDs, whether it’s going to be you putting on screenings – really look at what works best and how audiences interact, and that’s where your income streams are going to come from.
We’re living in economically straitened times. Would you say the key issue was lack of funding? Or lack of knowledge?
I would personally say lack of knowledge, in that I’ve met a number of high-networked individuals in this city who are very interested in the arts, have a love of the arts, but it seems that the language that filmmakers speak versus the business person or the private financier is not the same, and I think that sometimes filmmakers can be unwilling to perhaps compromise or to bend or to learn that language. The key things are really about the presentation of their projects. Many of the business people I’ve spoken to have said that [the projects] are just not up to the standard they would expect – you know, the business plans, the financial forecasts, et cetera. I’m not expecting a filmmaker to know these things straightaway, that’s fine. But they do need to surround themselves by people who might know this, or to be open to learning this. Certainly, the first interview I have in my book, the financier says that basically, there’s always opportunities to find a backer – it’s just what are you proposing to them and is it something that they’re interested in.
I think also filmmakers don’t often put themselves into situations where they meet these people. I don’t know how many of them go to business events, business breakfasts. I don’t know how many of them are members of clubs whereby they might be meeting individuals who have the resources and are interested in the arts. That’s not the impression I get from some of the conversations I have with them.
Is this borne of some deep-rooted ideological clash between art and commerce?
I think particularly in a place like London, we seem to be quite tribal, and sometimes we don’t necessarily tend to mix. Sometimes there can be a reticence maybe on both sides, particularly filmmakers, where there’s a different kind of tone, a different kind of approach. I would say that even within their own personal networks, there are chances that they know people, but the question is whether they’ve explored that, whether they’re open to that.
Is there one single piece of advice that you’d like to give? One particular through-line running through the book?
To me, the key thing that I’ve found is really about acquiring new information. I think the more filmmakers can put themselves in a situation where they acquire information about everything, the easier it will be. The acquiring information part can be networking, meeting the right people, have the skills you need to work on your project, understanding how you write, navigating certain financial terrains, even reading the book. Just knowing where it is is key.
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