I attended Crain's Entertainment Summit today in New York City and witnessed a robust panel discussion on why the state's film and television tax credit is so important to New York's economy. The bottom line is that the tax credit hugely incentivizes people to bring their productions to New York, which in turn leads to increased job opportunities for New Yorkers working in the entertainment industry, and bolsters revenue for local businesses. As an actor and a writer living and working in NYC, I am all about that!
The panel included: Scott Levy, Founder & President, Eastern Effects, Inc.; Julie Menin, Commissioner, Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment; Clyde Phillips, Showrunner, Dexter, Feed the Beast, and Nurse Jackie; Alan Suna, Chief Executive Officer, Silvercup Studios; and Beau Willimon, Creator, House of Cards.
Beau Willimon, there in his capacity as a Writers Guild of America Council Member, additionally advocated for a tax credit to incentivize diversity behind the camera. He and Writers Guild of America East are asking the state to allot $5 million of the $420 million Empire State Film Production Tax Credit towards productions that hire women or minority writers or directors. A few times the crowd, myself included, broke out in enthusiastic applause as he spoke truth to power about how behind we are with diversity when it comes to people behind the camera. As he says, it's our responsibility to the industry and our peers to work towards having a greater variety of people employed.
If we're going to tell stories in NY, the people telling them should reflect the people in NY. - Beau Willimon Click to Tweet
A LOT of stories are currently being told in New York. In the last year 52 Episodic TV shows and 336 movies were produced in NY, according to Julie Menin, the Commissioner for the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME). That is truly exciting and I can't wait to see how that number continues to grow.
The state's film and television tax credit is up for renewal soon, it is currently extended through 2019. To keep tabs on what's happening with the credit and how you can apply for it check out the MOME website.
I'm currently writing for the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) blog and on Friday October 7th had the pleasure of leading a workshop on blogging at Otisville Correctional Facility, to a group of men who are currently serving time. I've visited the men there in the past to write about the prison's monthly TFI film screenings. The VP of Education Programs at TFI, Vee Bravo, has just started this workshop program to teach the men creative skills such as writing short films, and blogging. I'm thrilled to be a part of it!
I stayed up late Thursday night figuring out how to structure the blogging workshop. It was a unique challenge because the men at Otisville do not have access to internet and some of them haven't for decades. One man has been in prison since 1981, so the last time he was free we lived in a pre-internet world. Blogging is a powerfully democratic tool that only exists because of the internet, ditto social media. A lot of the 'how-to' guides for writing blogs I saw on the web begin with choosing your platform, and frequency of posting, items that aren't applicable to men in prison.
I decided to focus on the basics first, 'What is a blog?' 'What are different kinds of blogs?' and opened it up to the room of six men for discussion and collective brainstorming. The absolutely remarkable thing about the men was how focused they were on the work we were doing. With the short film and blogging workshop combined we were sitting in a room for 6 hours doing intensive thinking and learning. By the end of it my brain was tired, but the whole time the men were focused and interactive and eager to learn. A sight I have rarely ever seen in the outside world, where we're constantly offered new sources of distraction.
Next, I wanted to convince the men they each have a unique voice, and that blogging is an excellent way to share it. I brought the below Martha Graham quote with me. The men immediately began writing the quote down, as soon as I put it up on the board, and while I read it out loud.
Then I asked the men to describe who they are. I started by sharing a bit about who I am, my heritage, the neighborhood I grew up in, my home life and educational background, my skills and passions, and the men wrote a bit about who they are and then shared it with all of us. I did this exercise because all of their experiences, leading up to their time in jail and during their time being incarcerated, contributes to their unique point of view. They have a lot of knowledge and insight to offer the world through their writing. I wanted to be sure they knew that.
Finally I shared sample blogs I curated from the web to give them various differing examples to be inspired by.
Being there, working with them, I felt grateful for the enormous amount of time and freedom I have to write whatever I want whenever I want and post it in a blog. I'm going to commit to posting a blog every Wednesday and Saturday, from now onwards, taking advantage of the freedom I have and the life I've been given.
Right now the plan is for the men at Otisville to write a blog in response to a TFI film screening at the prison, and they'll mail it to TFI where I will type it up and post it to our blog.
- Lillian Isabella
A Show You Need to See, Now
Tonight I saw my friend Dominique Fishback performing her solo show SUBVERTED in the East Village, NYC. Dominique exudes charisma and talent, pure talent, but on top of that her words rip the bandaid off the historical moral injury American society has perpetrated against black people for centuries.
Dominique questions why she's told to be grateful and pledge allegiance to a country built on the backs of her ancestors. During the days of slavery white slave owners physically whipped and hung black people. Now cops are murdering black people in the streets with guns, they are being filmed doing it, and they are getting away with it. This quote repeats throughout the show:
"Part of the mechanics of oppressing people is to pervert them to the extent that they become the instruments of their own oppression." - Kumasi
In SUBVERTED the main character's neighbors, the people she grew up with and around, are 'prisoners of the block' becoming instruments of their own oppression as they deal with broken homes, racial profiling from cops, and teachers who don't teach them standard English grammar, among other issues. They search for acceptance and love by joining gangs while also judging one another by the standards put in place by an inherently racist system. Surrounded by junk food chains and police towers the system trains them to accept feeling locked in with limited choices.
Words, reading, writing, and finding a means of expression become powerful tools for the characters in SUBVERTED. In finding her voice Dominique's character begins to shake up the world around her and insist that world wakes up with her. As does Dominique with this show. You absolutely cannot help but be moved after watching her.
On my train ride home I overheard two black men sitting across from me talking about race in America. What they were saying really resonated with what Dominique explores in her show and after listening to them for 20 minutes or so I dared to find a moment to cut in. It felt awkward to randomly talk to someone on the train, much less about race, but I told them a little about Dominique's show and gave them my SUBVERTED playbill so they could look up the info. The guy who had been doing most of the talking seemed happy I reached out and the other guy was already looking at his schedule to see when he could see SUBVERTED. I really hope they do!
Somewhere in the rinse wash repeat cycle of making money and trying to stay alive it's easy to lose track of LIVING. Easy to forget our responsibility to one another to be present, alive, and communicative. Conversation with others, opening up to our loved ones, parents, friends, opening up to our co-workers, the people we see everyday working in the lobby of our work building, the humans we stand next to and sit across from on the subway in NYC, is the key to peace. Living in the present, eliminating systems of injustice and working towards understanding are the keys to peace. And my god, are we ever a country in need of peace.
Please go see Dominique's play SUBVERTED. It's playing on Monday September 26th, Wednesday 28th
All Performances 8pm
East 3rd St, NY, NY, 10009
- Lillian Isabella
On June 15, 2016 I got to go to Otisville prison with Tribeca Film Institute’s® (TFI) VP of Education, Vee Bravo, when he took a group of TFI staff for a screening of Musa Syeed’s documentary A BRONX PRINCESS. The film follows the journey of Rocky Otoo, a Bronx-bred teenage daughter of Ghanaian parents in a coming-of-age story set in both the Bronx and Ghana.
Syeed came with us to the prison for a post-screening Q&A with the inmates. The screening was part of our Community Screening Series, where we hold free screenings of independent films across various communities and civic spaces to encourage dialogue, introspection, and social action. The facilitators, inmates themselves, prompted the post-screening discussion with the question ‘What is culture?’ The 30+ prisoners in attendance then talked about Otoo’s balancing of two cultures, her homes in the Bronx and Ghana, and how socialization can be a hard transition. They also asked Syeed questions about his filmmaking process.
This was the first time Syeed had screened any of his films at a prison, and he said the experience was eye-opening.
“The screening at Otisville was one of the best in my career, thanks to the men who facilitated the conversation,” he said. “They read my film closer than maybe anyone ever has, making new connections I hadn't considered. In the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl, they found inspiration for the transitions they're hoping to make. That's perhaps the best gift an audience can give you – helping you see your work in a new way. And the men at Otisville were very giving.”
Also at the screening we explored cultural differences between Ghana and New York, touching on how gender roles and expectations differed in the two different cultures. As all the prisoners are men, the facilitator invited the women visiting from TFI to weigh in.
The invitation to participate and voice my perceptions of the film made me feel relaxed and valued. When I go to a film screening with a Q&A I often engage in the discussion, but right before I speak I’m struck with nerves – life outside prison is a competitive world, full of judgmental people and status quos that can make it feel unsafe to explore and share ideas.
However, inside the prison’s gymnasium walls where the screening happens at Otisville, the facilitators work to make sure everyone is heard and given time to talk – prisoner, guest, and guard alike.
Paola Espinosa, TFI's Manager, Operations and Events, coordinates cultivation screenings at TFI and was blown away by the amount of participation.
“I have never seen that level of engagement from an audience,” she said. “The men at Otisville were not only paying attention to the film but also actively taking the content and having a conversation about it.”
TFI's Manager, Creative Design, Ryan Pattison echoed that sentiment and observed the conversation had to be pulled back at times.
“It’s rare to see a group of people as engaged as this group of 30 or so,” he said. “The facilitators would sometimes need to halt the discussion to keep the event moving forward. It’s inspiring to see men who have had so much taken away make so much of what little they have.”
It is inspiring, and worth noting. Whenever I leave Otisville I ask myself, what am I making of all the freedom and time I have been given?
- Lillian Isabella
(Originally posted on the Tribeca Film Institute Blog)
On May 19, 2016 a group of Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) staff members accompanied Vee Bravo our VP, Education Programs, to Otisville Prison for a screening of Gillian Laub’s HBO documentary SOUTHERN RITES. The film documents the repercussions that occur when a white resident of Montgomery County, Ga., a community with longstanding race and equality issues, is charged with the murder of a young black man.
Laub came with us to the prison for a post-screening Q&A with the inmates. It was the first time she had screened a film in such a setting, as is the case for most filmmakers participating in our TFI Community Screening Series. The Community Screening Series is a public initiative of TFI that holds free screenings of independent films across various communities and civic spaces to encourage dialogue, introspection, and social action.
Throughout the entire 87-minute screening at Otisville the inmates focused on the TV screen, quietly absorbing every detail of the film. The only noise came from the guard’s radio and the buzzing fans, turned on by the inmates to keep Laub, who was pregnant, comfortable.
After the film, many of the men participated in a discussion led by three inmate facilitators: Charles "Chas" Ransom, Alejo Rodriguez, and Moses El-Sun White. All three are serving life sentences. During the discussion, they prompted their fellow inmates to put themselves in the shoes of the film’s characters and asked what they would do in those circumstances. They also made diagrams exploring key themes of the film to guide the discussion.
Laub shared a photo of one such diagram with her more than 28,000 Instagram followers, and reflected on how deeply the inmates dove into the subject matter of her film. She wrote:
After screening SOUTHERN RITES for the inmates of Otisville prison there were amazing and insightful group discussions where they wrote down major themes of the film and their responses. The men talked about morality, justice, hope, disappointment, redemption, rehabilitation, choices, and history… “Racism is part of the American family,” one man said.
The film casts a harsh light on institutionalized racism. The white man at the center of the story serves just over a year of jail time for the murder he is charged with. In sharp contrast, most of the 50 inmates who watched the film at Otisville are people of color serving life sentences after being convicted of murder. The difference in sentences is painfully stark, yet it didn’t take the inmates by surprise. During the post-show discussion one inmate said the film shows how “the system is the villain.” Another said, “we know the system is messed up already; the thing to figure out is what are we going to do about it?”
Laub, however, went on to express frustration with the inmates’ situation in her Instagram post.
Most of these men are called ‘lifers’ (they’ve been incarcerated for decades and serving life sentences) and have been denied parole numerous times. What blew my mind is that these same men who talked about rehabilitation and morality had so much wisdom to share and could be assets to society and yet, they most likely will never be able to, outside of the prison walls.
Indeed, having the ability to leave Otisville prison after the screening felt like a privilege. As the TFI staff members were heading out, one inmate shouted out to us ‘get home safe,’ and it required effort to not say the same to him. For most of the inmates, the prison walls have been their home for decades, and will be for decades to come.
Our VP, Artist Programs, Amy Hobby, screened her Oscar-nominated film WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE at Otisville last month as part of our TFI Community Screening Series. For her, watching the film with the inmates helped her find new meaning in something she had seen many times.
“During the opening Nina Simone is interviewed and says, ‘I’ll tell you what Freedom is to me…’” Hobby said. “Well, the context of her dialogue on freedom really hit me hard this time around.”
- Lillian Isabella
(Originally published on Tribeca Film Institute's Blog)
Women in Independent Film Speak Out
Gender inequality in Hollywood is on everyone’s mind in the industry – and with good reason. Even the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has launched an investigation into gender bias in Hollywood. We wanted to hear more from women independent filmmakers: Have they been impacted by discrimination? How do we fix it? According to a cross section of women we interviewed from around the country, the solution lies in dollars and sense.
Vera Miao, a filmmaker born to working class immigrants from Taiwan and one of the filmmakers chosen for THROUGH HER LENS: The Tribeca Chanel Women's Filmmaker Program’s inaugural year says:
"Money, financing, that’s the gatekeeper. All the issues we talk about in filmmaking, it almost all comes back to financing."
Simply put, you need money to make a film. Miao, goes on to say:
"It wouldn’t matter what men thought of women broadly or generally if women controlled money."
So, how do women get more control over the money?
One way is by applying for grants like those Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) offers. All of the women quoted in this article have at some point been either awarded funding from TFI or participated in a TFI development program to help them build resources.
Angela Tucker, a Tribeca All Access® Alumni grantee for the documentary web series Black Folk Don’t and a New Yorker born and raised, drives the point home:
“You do need to work with someone who is going to pay you. I would like to be able to continue to do work as I do and find a space where I can be a little more financially supported. That’s the dream.”
Having resources, money, and an amazing story can yield an independent film that reaches and inspires mass audiences, and it’s the reality any filmmaker desires. Ideally further directing opportunities follow, but it isn’t always so simple.
As Crystal Moselle, a New-York-based director of the TFI-supported hit documentary film The Wolfpack reveals:
“Often I get called for commercial jobs that are looking for a female director. It’s incredible that it’s not about the work it’s about your gender.”
Even after a well-received film puts a female director on the map, the industry often takes more notice of her gender than the filming style or genre that got her in the door. A woman director is still thought of by many in the industry as an anomaly – something to be sought out. Maybe they’re feeling the pressure of being politically correct or they suppose a film can need a woman director full stop, as if all women have the same vision. Either way, with this thought persisting among film financiers, funding a ‘female-directed’ film appears to be a radical thing to do.
Paola Mendoza, a Tribeca All Access® grantee for Entre Nos, born in Bogotá, Colombia, reveals why putting dollars behind women filmmakers is just common sense:
“I would eliminate the idea that investing money in women is revolutionary, or bold or progressive. The investment of dollar bills should be the norm, as we are half the population. If investing in women was as commonplace as investing in men, I strongly believe the playing field would be much more equal.”
Widening the Lens: From Her Point of View
Investing money in a small subset of the entertainment community because of bias against half the population hugely limits the lens through which we’re all viewing our world. What would happen if we widened that lens and got a look at the bigger picture?
Anna Martemucci, the recipient of production funds for the inauguralTHROUGH HER LENS: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program, believes it would be an eye opener:
"If the numbers changed to reflect the actual world (a world of people of many ethnicities, sexual orientations, and one comprised of half women) it would create a deeper, more nuanced cultural understanding of what it is to be a human. And that, to me, is what movies are all about."
Occasionally a film that breaks the historically-favored mold of the heterosexual white male point of view reaches a large audience, but it’s rare, and because of that it becomes precious.
Roja Gashtili, who along with her producing partner Julia Lerman was aTHROUGH HER LENS alum, explores the unfair pressure this often puts on any film telling a previously sidelined narrative:
"I watch (and judge) minority or female stories with such scrutiny because it often feels that we only get the one each year so it better be amazing, but imagine a world where a minority-led show did not have to be everything for every minority but could stand as just that person's view of the world, take it or leave it."
Filmmaking: The Ultimate Satisfaction
As many trials as women face in filmmaking, it’s the challenge of being on set itself that lights them up and keeps them going. Deb Shoval, who divides her time between New York City and rural Pennsylvania and is an IWC Filmmaker Award recipient for AWOL, shares her love of filmmaking:
"Being on set is addictive and euphoric because it forces us to be present at every moment."
Moselle confesses that filmmaking gives her the ultimate sense of fulfillment:
"I’d much rather be on set doing what I love, than walking a press line."
At the end of the day, by investing in all kinds of filmmakers from all diverse walks of life, entertainment will become more interesting, audiences will respond, and we all have the opportunity to be more empathetic. Everyone stands to gain.
By, Lillian Isabella
(Originally posted on Tribeca Film Institute's Blog)
I am an advocate for gender parity in the entertainment world and write, act, and produce with a mind to facilitate that change.