10-Year-Old Urbanworld Fest Still The Showcase For Black, Latino, Asian Filmmakers

Founder Stacy Spikes talks about vision for 'people's festival,' hopes for Urbanworld's future.

On the eve of the 10th annual Urbanworld Film Festival in New York, MTV News spoke with 38-year-old founder Stacy Spikes about where the idea for the festival came from, how it’s grown in the decade since its inception and his hopes for its future.

MTV: How, exactly, did Urbanworld get started back in 1997?

Stacy Spikes: I was vice president of marketing for Miramax at the time, and whenever I’d go to Sundance or any of the big festivals, there were always what I would call “African-American studio films” — but you’d never see smaller black films there that could be acquired.

After a few times, I went to the programmers of one of these festivals and asked, “Why aren’t there more black movies here?” And when I brought up the idea of a sort of sidebar black festival, the programmers said, “There just aren’t that many good ones. There are not enough films out there to [justify thinking about a black film festival] — because if there were, we’d do it.”

At which point this light bulb went off, and I was like, “Are you kidding me? You gotta be crazy.” The big thing we decided was that we were going to build Urbanworld from the perspective of the audience. It started first with the African-American audience, then the Latino audience, and then the Asian audience. We said, “Let’s program and create a people’s festival.”

So that was the genesis of Urbanworld.

MTV: You seem to have had great success with premieres ever since the festival began.

Spikes: The first year we premiered “Soul Food,” which of course went on to become a huge hit — Bill Duke’s “Hoodlum” was our first opening-night film, and “Soul Food” closed the festival — and after that it was like a horse bolted from the stable and we’ve been trying to catch her ever since.

We premiered “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Best Man,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “Drumline,” “The Original Kings of Comedy” [one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time in terms of its rate of return — that is, what it made at the box office versus its production costs], “Collateral” with Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx and on and on.

As far as we can tell, we’ve premiered more #1 and #2 films than any other festival in America — 90 percent of our premieres and closing-night films open at #1 or #2. Prior to Urbanworld, [these sorts of films] had strong legs, but they never opened at #1.

MTV: You mean they lasted and they made money, but they never came out of the box that strong?

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Spikes: Exactly. It was kind of like these forces in the universe evolved, where black media matured, BET matured, and we at Underworld kind of became the Cannes Film Festival for minority content. We were the only home these films were gonna get — they weren’t going to be at Cannes or Sundance unless they were made by John Singleton, or maybe Spike [Lee]. When [“Best Man” writer/director] Malcolm Lee and I were on [“The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer”] on PBS back in 1999and Jim Lehrer asked us about this phenomenon of black films performing so well at the box office, and why it was happening, and when he asked Malcolm why this was Malcolm said, quite simply, “It’s Urbanworld.”

You can’t really explain it any other way. You bring all these people together and there’s such pride in these films and they really fight for them, because there’s this understanding that if we don’t fight for them, it’s not going to happen.

MTV: Movie fans seem to be enjoying something of a golden age for documentary filmmaking right now, and Urbanworld reflects that — you have almost 20 docs on the slate this year. Talk a little bit about where documentaries fit into Urbanworld’s mission.

Spikes: I believe that the civil-rights movement has come off the streets and onto film in documentaries.

Over the years, we premiered “4 Little Girls” [a 1997 Spike Lee doc about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four young black girls were murdered], “Soldiers Without Swords” [an award-winning look at the history of black newspapers in America] and so many more. This year we have “American Blackout,” about the 2000 presidential election and how black votes weren’t counted. And “Programas,” about sexual tourism in Brazil and the American business execs who go down there for that very purpose.

Then there’s “The Pact,” an amazing film about three black kids growing up in a really bad part of Jersey, and they commit to each other that they’re going to make it out of there and become doctors.

It’s heartwarming — I think of it like [Steve James’ epic, award-winning 1994 doc] “Hoop Dreams,” but with a good ending. “Hoop Dreams” was a tragedy, but this is a success story, where you see that the will of the individual really can overcome any odds. It’s just three kids saying, “We are going to become black doctors.” And they make it!

MTV: It’s been a great 10-year run for you and Urbanworld. Do you ever foresee a time when you can say to yourself, “We’ve fulfilled our mission, we’ve done what we set out to do,” and you can then fold up shop and move on?

Spikes: I think the hope is really that we get to the point where we can focus on individual filmmakers. I’d like to see us at a point where Urbanworld has grown big enough and is credible enough to start spending energy on breaking new directors and new talent, instead of featuring movies that, while they might be studio films, nonetheless need whatever leverage and promotion we can bring to bear on them.

I’d like to see it never die.

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