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Last week, at a talkback session between Lena Waithe and a group of film students, one particularly burning query emerged: “How do I get funding to make something?”
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said the multihyphenate talent, noting that lack of adequate financial resources is a problem that plagues nearly all filmmakers.
So when the job listings company Indeed approached Waithe’s production company, Hillman Grad, with a million-dollar question of its own, she jumped at the opportunity to form a partnership.
Indeed was looking to use its marketing budget to invest in BIPOC filmmakers, who traditionally have had a tougher time landing their big break. “To produce a high-end television commercial, we would easily spend $1 million on production,” Indeed CEO Chris Hyams tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We came to Hillman Grad saying, ‘We have a million dollars. What’s the best way to spend it?'”
It was Hillman Grad president of film/TV Rishi Rajani who suggested that splitting the money 10 ways would maximize impact. That’s the centerpiece of the two companies’ Rising Voices initiative, which will select 10 filmmakers to create short films with a production budget of $100,000 each. Finalists will be chosen by Indeed and Hillman Grad execs, as well as directors from creative studio Ventureland, based on their screenplay submissions (earning them each a $10,000 writing fee), and Indeed will allocate an additional $25,000 to each of the 10 productions for COVID-19 safety measures. Hillman Grad and 271 Films (founded by Mexican filmmakers Constanza and Domenica Castro) will dedicate line production crews, while Waithe and Rajani will closely mentor the participants, along with frequent collaborator Melina Matsoukas and music video directors Paul Hunter and Calmatic.
“Rishi and I will basically act as their executive producers to make sure they’re putting their best feet forward, but funding is so, so important,” says Waithe, who adds that a $100,000 production budget for a short film is “unheard of” for up-and-coming directors, and that what amounts to a $1.35 million commitment for an emerging filmmaker program wouldn’t be possible for a production shingle like Hillman Grad to achieve without Indeed’s partnership.
“Just for clarity, we’re not doing this because it’s a good thing to do or because it looks good — we think we’re going to get more powerful and meaningful stories,” says Hyams. “Ultimately we think that this investment just produces better outcomes.”
Hyams believes BIPOC storytellers are best situated to respond to Indeed’s Rising Voices call to describe the meaning of work, noting that Black and Latino populations have been most severely impacted by COVID-19. “They are more likely to be working in the industries that have been hit the hardest, they’ve had the most job losses, they’re most likely to be front-line essential workers, to be most exposed, to have the worst health outcomes,” he explains. “So when we think about the meaning of work in the context of the last year, these are the voices that are probably the most important, and the ones that need amplification.”
One of the 10 shorts will be turned into a national TV commercial, with its creator offered an additional $75,000 to create more work as a non-exclusive filmmaker-in-residence for Indeed. The company is leaving open the possibility of offering the latter opportunity to more than one finalist.
Waithe and Hyams hope that their partnership inspires other companies to marry their marketing budgets to Hollywood players’ industry know-how in order to give actual jobs to emerging but marginalized creative talent. “Every business has a media requirement,” says Waithe. “Yes, we have a lot of wonderful directors in our business that are tried and true, but how cool is it for some big companies to know up-and-coming directors? And sometimes an ad or a short can be turned into an opportunity to do a full-length feature or a pilot, and then that person is off to the races.”
“It starts with just an openness and a desire to do it,” adds Hyams, who noted that the company’s first Super Bowl ad eschewed celebrity cameos for actual job-seeking Indeed users. The emotional spot was set to Andra Day’s stirring anthem “Rise Up,” but rather than using her version, the company reached out to the Golden Globe-nominated star for permission to have it covered by Christian Shelton, a 19-year-old college student and viral TikTok singer. Day’s response? “This is a great idea, and you need to pay him more.”
“She’s doing what Lena’s doing,” Hyams continues. “Talent is universal, but opportunity is not. I think we’re going to be able to produce some really amazing work from the places where people aren’t looking, and I hope that inspires more people to give opportunity where it doesn’t exist. That’s the thing we hope from a sustaining perspective.”
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