Gregory Scott Williams Jr. pitches his project, “Selfies from the Hill,” at a previous PitchBLACK session.
So often it’s not the artistic merit of a project that keeps it from being made.
It’s the business logistics.
Does the content’s creator understand how to secure funding for a project? Fill out a grant application? Make a production budget? Secure distribution?
Those challenges don’t even touch on the creative process. But they hold back many would-be creators who don’t know how to address them.
Helping black storytellers navigate those issues provided the seed for what became Black Public Media’s 13-week 360 Incubator+, which culminates later this week in PitchBLACK.
Here’s the program in a nutshell: BPM, a nonprofit focused on media about the black experience, chooses the 360 Fellows in January, people with a story to tell about what it’s like to be black. The fellows go to a boot camp followed by workshops where they learn business and production skills from experienced producers and filmmakers. At the PitchBlack forum, being held this Thursday at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in Manhattan, the fellows pitch their projects to an audience including funders, distributors and others in the industry, competing for $150,000 for broadcast, digital or virtual reality projects.
Up to three projects will win a licensing agreement for public media distribution, with winners announced on Friday. But even non-winning projects have a chance to secure money or distribution, with representatives from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute and Women Make Movies and more slated to attend.
Black Public Media, which has been around for four decades, has funded documentary content since 1991. Executive Director Leslie Fields-Cruz says that over the past few years, organizations providing professional development for these creators began to disappear. BPM launched its initiative in 2014 to fill that gap.
“We noticed we had projects coming to us, especially from media makers at a mid-career point who wanted to expand from associate producer to producing their own work, who needed added support. We wanted to make sure their projects were really strong once they started presenting to other people for funding—looking at the proposal as it was written, making sure the budget actually is written in the proposal, working on a sample they would be able to sell,” says Fields-Cruz.
“PitchBLACK came out of that. We said, ‘Let’s create an incubator.’”
BPM pairs fellows with mentors based on their strengths and weaknesses, also providing detailed feedback on proposals and how to improve them.
“Our approach is to identify those content creators who are maybe not in New York or LA. One of our fellows worked in theater and was moving into the documentary area after years as a theater producer. He’s got the skill set and ideas, but making that transition, he may not be able to access as many spaces out there,” Fields-Cruz says.
This year’s incubator theme was social justice. Projects include two focused on post-incarceration, or what happens after people get out of prison, while others examine gentrification and community policing. Others have LGBTQ themes.
“I’m interested in all the topics of these projects. That’s why we have to have a jury—I would fund everything,” Fields-Cruz laughs.
For the 2019 incubator, BPM received 70 to 80 applications, with the application window closing in September. It held a review of those entries in November, whittling the field to 25, then invited people in the industry to help with final selection.
Fields-Cruz says she's eager to see what happens Friday but knows this won't be the end for these projects.
“We do our best to stay on top of where former fellows land and whether or not they develop their project,” she says. “We really try to help them find a wider network, so that they can then approach other potential funders and distributors.
“We’re glad there are organizations out there working with us who are trying to support the work of black content creators.”