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BlackMen Digital Interview: Jeff Friday

Thursday 17th, March 2011

With a resume like his, it’s hard to believe that Jeff Friday has the time to be the consummate family man.  But the CEO of Film Life and founder of the American Black Film Festival is half man, half amazing.  It has been 14 years since the father of four changed the face of Hollywood by creating the annual international film festival that draws film industry elite from around the world.  The American Black Film Festival has played host to the likes of Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and this year Lee Daniels.  Friday was the man of the moment being honored with the Career Achievement Award. 


However, the ABFF is more than a place where film industry professionals and film enthusiasts alike convene under the Palm trees of Miami Beach to party to the signature sounds of DJ Driis [Idris Elba].  Yes, it is all of those things too, but most of all, it is a platform for films made for us by us.  Jeff Friday is the man behind the vision, and he’s got his eyes set on a Hollywood takeover.  We caught up with Friday to talk the future of Black Hollywood, why Idris Elba is the leader of the pack of leading men, and the American Black Film Festival year one to 14.


BM: How do you manage family life with film life?

JF:  I had a lot of practice.  I started the family really young. I’ve got four children, 2, 4, 18 and 23.  I’ve been doing it since I was in my late teens or early twenties.  But, of course, family always comes first.  I don’t get a lot of sleep.  I probably sleep about four hours a night.  Yeah, so I got 20 hours to run.


BM: What were you doing prior to starting the ABFF?

JF: I had my own company but at the time we started the festival, I was the president of Uniworld, an African-American advertising agency, probably the longest running one. Uniworld had been around a long time before I got there, and I had my own marketing consultation company prior to that.  I was also the brand manager for Bristol Meyers and Hennessey Cognac.  Uniworld wanted to launch a film division, so Byron Lewis created this subsidiary of Uniworld called Uniworld Film, and I ran that company.  The very first project we got was a film called "Amistad", produced by DreamWorks. 


BM: What inspired you to create the American Black Film Festival?

I was the president of the film division of Uniworld.  Back in 1997, Jessie Jackson called for a boycott of the Oscars.  He called my boss, Byron Lewis, and a bunch of other professional leaders because he said that the Oscars excluded Black people.  This was before Denzel and Halle got their Oscars.  There was a long drought prior to that. Byron [Lewis] invited me to lunch.  We invited Warren Cutler, one half of the Cutler brothers. We were all talking about the Jessie Jackson thing––this is like January ‘97.  He asked me what I thought.  I had been in film a long time.  I went to Sundance and the Cannes film festival.  I said I thought that was kind of purposeless because the Oscars are a relatively kind of open minded arch first organization.  If we were going to boycott anybody, we should be boycotting the studios because the studios make the movies, not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  If we really want to do something, we should create our own Sundance. Most of the really good stories come from the independent films and if we really wanted to change the game, we should do one for Black people.  That’s essentially how it started, from that conversation.  He said, “All right, let’s do it.”  We decided over lunch, very serendipitously we were going to do a Black film festival. That was in January ’97 and we decided to do the first one in June of that same year.  We planned the first one, in three and one-half months.  It’s funny, the less you know the better off you are.  Now it takes up to a year to do it when the first time it took us three and half months.


BM: How did you do it?  Did you just call up Halle Berry, Robert Townsend and Bill Duke? 

JF: Once we decided to do it, he said, “What does it take to do a film festival?  I said,  “It’s going to take a whole lot of money because we are not going to get any sponsors the first time, so we need some celebrities.” There were a few people I knew pretty well.  We called Robert [Townsend] and Halle [Berry] and Debbie [Allen].  Spike Lee and John Singleton, started coming the second year. There was no Internet in ’97, so to be honest, I don’t know how we even got the word out.  I had this amazing mailing list that I had used for different things I had done for private parties.  The second year we honored Denzel Washington.  Denzel Washington came and that’s when it really hit because Access Hollywood came and Entertainment Tonight came down.


BM: You had the chance to see a lot of careers blossom.  Two of them are Rob Hardy and Will Packer of Rainforest Films. Packer’s two films "Stomp The Yard 2" and "Takers" both premiered at the festival this year.   What is it like to see their growth?

JF: Will Packer and Rob Hardy came to the second [festival].  I remember they were real green.  They called me up, with this film called "Trois", and the submission deadline had passed or was approaching.  Will called me up and asked if they could have two more days.  They ran out of money, and I was like, “No, the rules are the rules.  If I extend it to you, I have to extend it for everybody.”  This might have been a week before the deadline. He just called me and wore me down, which is real hard to do.  They called me up again, three times and begged.  He told me the whole story.  He eventually got the film in.  We gave him a couple of extra days. I don’t like to say that, but I did and he came, and his film played well. They did "Trois 2", a couple of years later.  They released it and it did really well theatrically. We introduced him to the people at Screen Gems and basically that’s the story.  You know they’ve become kind of poster boys for the festival.  Believe it or not, we still get questions from media, the general market media, asking why is there a need for a Black film festival.  I just laugh. I don’t get defensive about it.  I tell them to go to  Those guys are very talented; I didn’t make them talented.  Their mother made them talented, but we gave them a platform for showcasing who they were and what they could do.  Without the ABFF, I don’t know if those movies would make it. The whole trick is to give people a chance. This year to open with "Takers", their film, the whole thing for me really did come full circle. Those are the rewarding parts.


BM: Idris Elba served as Festival Ambassador this year.  Why did you choose him?

JF: We choose one ambassador every year and we try to select people who are not only popular but people that have an appreciation for what we are doing.   The fact that Idris was there before he got well known makes him the best ambassador we’ve ever had by far.  We have had some major people, but his spirit, how he communicated what the film festival did for him made him the best person.  I think the fact that he came as an unknown actor first really made it all sort of make sense.  He felt a different kind of appreciation for it.


BM: What’s your advice for aspiring Black actors, producers, and directors?

JF: My advice would be two things. For aspiring people I would say information is power.  You have to be as informed as you can if you want to be successful. There are a lot of film fakers—people who just bought a camera and equipment and don’t have any experience.  Then there is Spike Lee and John Singleton who went to film school.  I know everybody can’t afford to go to film school, but I think your goal should be to go to film school.  If you want to be a doctor, you don’t just pick up the medicine bag; and if you want to be a professional anything, athlete, you know you got to put in work [shooting] free throws. You’ve got to also be a networker because this business depends on influence. It’s about who you know.