By Rebecca Green
Huriyyah Muhammad produced the Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition entry FAREWELL AMOR and received this year’s Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Feature. The film was acquired by IFC Films and will be released this December. Dear Producer spoke to Huriyyah about raising money for the first time, building strong relationships with financiers, and how she defines success far beyond the outcome of one film.
My last few pieces have been a little dark so I’m going to try to make this one more positive… You received this year’s Sundance Institute Producers Award for narrative feature producer for your film FAREWELL AMOR. Tell me about the film.
FAREWELL AMOR is a drama about an Angolan immigrant and his family. He came to the United States 17 years ago with the intention of bringing his wife and his daughter on a Visa, but it took them 17 years to actually get the visa. The opening scene of the film is their emotional reunion at JFK airport. After so many years, they can hardly believe it. They go from being thousands of miles apart to being crammed in a tiny Brooklyn apartment and they have to navigate this strange new reality and the fact that after so many years apart, they’re complete strangers. The challenge becomes letting go of the expectations that they held of what life would be like and what they would be like together. They must accept the reality of who they all are at this point in their lives.
It’s a film that we made out of love, Ekwa Msangi (the writer/director) and myself. We started this process in 2016 with just an idea. Ekwa and I had been working together for several years and I was getting my MBA at NYU and she, having graduated from Tisch, was teaching and working. When I graduated from NYU she wanted to make another film and I encouraged her to explore a feature. I had been making features in Los Angeles for a number of years before I moved back to New York and I wanted again to do so. She told me this really touching story about how her uncle lives here in the US, but her aunt is back in Kenya. They’ve been separated and maintaining their marriage at a distance for over 20 and even raised a son and put him through college. They continue to maintain the hope that one day they’ll be together, but that would just be the beginning of their problems. That’s where our story starts, after being reunited at the airport and seeing that there is so much ahead of this family to figure out.
On the surface, this is not an easy film to make. Did you think about that when you were developing the script? Did you think about how you would raise money?
This was the first time I’ve had to raise money for a film. All of the films that I’ve worked on before, the money was already on the table. With FAREWELL AMOR, I looked at it as a lesson on film finance. I knew that this may not be a story that financiers would automatically relate to because number one, it’s the story that features black people and the majority of film financiers are not black. Number two, it’s a story about immigrants. Number three, the casting would require talent that may not be household names as the actors have to convincingly speak with an accent. In addition, the daughter not only speaks with an accent, but also is an incredible dancer and has to look young enough to play a 17-year old.
There were actors out there who really excited us. In fact, there were several that had been doing wonderful, wonderful work for many, many years and were well known within our community. So to fully answer your question, did I say, “this will be too hard to find the money”? No, I didn’t say that because everything is hard, but we do it.
Are there any takeaways you can pass on to a producer who’s going into raising money for the first time? Maybe taking on a film with similar challenges?
The biggest piece of advice we received before we did our first pitch was to not send out the script before we were confident in it because you will only get one read! We held on to this and despite being asked by so many financiers along the way, we just maintained that “we’re not yet ready to send it out”. As we continued to develop the overall project however or got into more labs, etc, we kept the financiers we were meeting along the way updated. We knew that a story that showed another side of what immigrants experience everyday, was extremely relevant within our larger society and political landscape. We also felt that it was a story that really just boiled down to being separated from the people that you love and the ways one copes with that distance. We spent a lot of time pouring our hearts into the story. Ekwa did such an amazing job being open to notes and ideas. We had sixteen drafts of the script before we sent it out to a single financier. When we finally sent it out, we had a pledge for half the equity within 72 hours.
We raised all the financing within less than six months from the time that we sent out the first script. We were lucky in that I participated in not only the Sundance Creative Producing Fellowship, but we also participated in the Tribeca Film Institute’s Tribeca All Access and IFP No Borders, so we got great at pitching. Additionally Ekwa participated in the Cine Qua Non and Sundance Screenwriters Lab to develop the script. So, by the time we participated in the Sundance Catalyst program which introduced us to about 30 financiers we were in a really solid place. Shortly after the Catalyst pitches, we began to send out the script. Most of those financiers passed because the story didn’t resonate for them or it didn’t check their boxes, but we knew we didn’t need (or want) thirty financiers. We only needed a few and we found them.
You had a great experience with your financiers. Are there things that you think contributed to the experience going well? Any communication tips? It’s such an important relationship and when it is strong, it makes the whole process so much better.
I honestly think it helped take the drama out of the process that Ekwa had final cut. I wouldn’t budge on this during our negotiations and we were prepared to walk away without it. Luckily, our financiers agreed. So it took a lot of the drama out of the equation to know we could make the film we set out to make. We had no doubt that we were all in this to make the best possible film. We welcomed and received such thoughtful notes that really elevated the final cut of the film. We also just had such an amazing financing team. Many of our financiers also came on board as producers, so they were involved in the making of the film, which strengthened our relationship from the onset. We were truly blessed all around.
Although it seems like so long ago considering the events of 2020, you were fortunate to get a coveted slot at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. Dramatic Competition. What were expectations going into Sundance? Where are you in the distribution process now?
Yes, that does seem like many many years ago considering the pandemic and also the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the globe. It took us a few months, but we are really happy to have partnered up with IFC Films. It was just announced that they acquired NA distribution rights to the film. Internationally, we are working with Film Constellation to sell the film. Hopefully the domestic sale will aid with that. Also we are carefully watching to see how the disruption in the supply chain impacts the marketplace in the next 6 – 12 months.
Okay, now let me think back to January…
Going into the festival we believed that we had a really, really great shot to get an offer shortly after the premiere because we knew we had a really strong story, a timely story, with amazing performances. Then our reviews started coming out and they were stellar. Of course this only increased our confidence. As the days were ticking, ticking down, I started to get more stressed about a sale. Our publicist and our sales team told us not to worry, that it takes time et cetera. It turned out to be a really, really, I don’t want to use the word brutal, but I will. It was a really brutal festival because a lot of films did not sell at the festival this year. Only a handful. There are so many producers that I know right now that are still trying to sell their films. Our film sold many months after the festival. It was an eye-opener for me because I didn’t really go into Sundance thinking we needed to hustle like we had hustled at other festivals. This was Sundance. All of our shows were sold out, but at the same time, I wonder if there’s more that we could have done to get the buzz going because we weren’t “a buzzy title”.
What were your sales agents saying and doing during the festival?
They were hustling, working hard to get our film seen by decision makers. When it became clear many of those decision makers had left the festival, the sales team began to send out links, but we realized a link is not ideal. Watching on a link increases the likelihood of interruption – pausing the film to check an incoming text message, answering a call, having a conversation with someone who comes into your office or room…etc. It’s hard to get a buyer excited through a laptop. We had an amazing premiere, which was really special and I’ll always remember that moment, but looking back, I’m wondering if there is something else that we could have pushed for, maybe a special screening perhaps because of our schedule. Now the world is completely different. Most festivals have gone online, so I think the challenges of link viewing will need to be figured out. Can you really tell a buyer, you get one shot to watch this link, at this time and if you don’t – tough. No, of course not. You just pray they watch it and fall in love with it.
What I’ve learned is that as producers, we have to take more responsibility for selling our films. There are only a few select sales agents selling all the films at the major festivals. The reason they’re not setting up special screenings is because they’re also representing 10 other movies. They’re off to the next film, the next screening, and then the next screening. You got into Sundance in a competition slot, you had amazing press, you did all the things you’re supposed to do, but that isn’t always enough when it comes to distribution.
If I had one thing to do over again, it would have been spending the time to build our social media. We didn’t do any social media because we were told that distributors don’t like when you do that. I would do it anyway because you never know what position you will be in later down the line and it’s better to have and not need, than need and not have.
I also learned that with an indie drama, it’s better to play offense rather than defense. I would rather do too much than too little. Also, you can’t wait for the cavalry to come. The cavalry is not coming. You are the cavalry.
You’re told, ‘this is just how it is’ or ‘this is how it’s done.’ Unfortunately, our infrastructure, the agencies and distributors, they have very archaic ways of doing things. There has been little to no innovation when it comes to selling and distributing independent films.
I feel really bad for the filmmakers who have had their premieres cancelled due to COVID-19, but there is an unhealthy dependency distributors have on festivals. I wonder if this crisis will force a radical shift in how films are sold.
I don’t know what the solution is. Is the solution not to make indie dramas anymore? No way. There are too many important stories that need to be told, but how to make them and find a distribution partner is the question. I don’t know. I do know that I’m excited about my partnerships with Ekwa. We’ve been friends for a little bit over 15 years and we’ve been working together over five years and we’ve just launched a company together – Outrageous Pictures. I also know I’m having a really fun time writing a comedy rooting in my experience growing up with seven brothers and sisters.
In terms of our slate though, there are dramas and comedies at various budget levels. I think you have to diversify. If we make a comedy that can play wider, maybe that helps us with the dramas that are harder sells. With the dramas we’re thinking comprehensively to ensure the full team (in front of and behind the camera) is one that makes sense from a sales and distribution lens.
I would make FAREWELL AMOR again in a heartbeat. It’s such a special film and I love everything about it. Films like FAREWELL AMOR will continue to get made because I think that there will always be passionate producers and passionate writers and directors that will put everything into getting them made.
Agree, but will they get seen?
Ours will. It’s coming out in December!!!!
How do you define success? What is success to you?
I define it in a lot of ways. I look at my life and I know I have a really, really beautiful life and support system. I really am living my dreams. I have a really beautiful wife and we don’t want for anything. At the same time, I get to make movies and I get to tell stories. I’m learning along the way and trying to be smarter in my decisions. I just know that I’m not going to stop.
I’m trying to figure out a way to mitigate the risk, in terms of the projects that I take on and in terms of thinking about the path forward. You’re not born with all the answers, you just have to live your way into those answers, and along the way, try to enjoy the journey.
I feel really great about the future and about the choices that I’m making as an artist and as a professional and the relationships that I’m developing. I was talking to another producer, because I talk to a lot of freaking producers. I called him up and asked him how he picks his projects. This guy is a really prolific producer and I really admire him. He said that he picks his films based on whom he wants to work with. That made a lot of sense to me because that’s the thing that I really love about filmmaking. I love the fact that you get to work with so many people and it’s so collaborative. So I started thinking about it, like, “who do I want to work with now?” I think that that’s amazing, to be able to chart a path forward based on who do I want to be sitting next to, who do I want to be in a room with.
For me, success is continual growth, with the films that we do next, move up in budget size. I also am a writer and director and would like to continue to develop my talents in those areas. Growth is the only benchmark right now. I don’t want to stay stagnant in my career and just continue to work at the same level and keep butting my head up against the same obstacles, the same conversations, the same problems.
At the same time, I try to enjoy myself along the way and that’s what success looks like, and as long as my wife is happy, as long as my wife is not trying to divorce me…
I like your answer for success because it shouldn’t just be about an individual movie.
This industry is not going to fucking break me, because my life is bigger than this and so are my goals as a human being. I’m just going to continue to learn and try not to repeat the same mistake. The things that you can consider mistakes, they’re not really mistakes, you’re figuring it out as you go.
Sometimes I’m hard-headed like everybody else, but I wouldn’t change much about FAREWELL AMOR. We made an amazing film. The only thing that I honestly would do different is trusting myself more and relaxing into the process. I trusted that the industry would immediately say, “Hey, this is a great film. It checks all the boxes.” What I realized is the “industry” is just people. Thankfully at every step along the way, we found teams of people who saw the vision, who were moved enough to join the journey with us. Now, we offer it to the audience to do the same.
We use this word “industry.” But it boils down to people just like you and I, who have jobs, who are trying not to get fired. They have formulas for things. If they don’t automatically see it, if it doesn’t fit their formula for the past 20 movies, they’re not interested. But sometimes you’ve got to do a little bit more work. That’s something that is not new to me. A couple of times I’ve caught myself waiting for the cavalry to come and then I got my hand slapped because I was like, “You know there’s no cavalry. Keep going.”
How are you staying afloat? Do you work other jobs? What is your way of making a living when these movies don’t pay enough to sustain ourselves?
I keep my expenses low.
In addition to producing, I run a nonprofit organization called the Black TV & Film Collective. We have over 1,400 members including writers, directors, cinematographers, editors. It’s a membership based system. We share knowledge and resources and help each other with our work. I don’t make money from it, but it’s incredibly fulfilling to help others who are trying to better themselves as artists and professionals. I honestly believe we have to help one another.
What are you most hopeful about in terms of your future?
I’m really excited because the development is going well on a number of my current projects. There are a couple comedies, adventure, a bit of fantasy and drama. It’s a good slate. My calls to agents are getting returned finally. [laughter]
I hope in 24 months you don’t have a follow-up interview with me and I’m like, “F* this shit. I’m moving to Costa Rica”.
I think your amazing attitude has a big part in what’s coming your way. I do think that matters, what you put out in the world. You’re doing it right.
Well, I’m going to try to keep it up, but 24 months from today, let’s schedule another one.
You got it.
Huriyyah is an award-winning writer, director and producer whose projects have been invited to the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, New Voices in Black Cinema, American Black Film Festival and many others. She is a 2018 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow and recipient of the 2020 Sundance Creative Producing Award for Farewell Amor, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in US Dramatic Competition.