An Interview With Independent Black Filmmaker Alton Glass
Courtesy of Alton Glass
A few weeks back, I wrote a post entitled, “Dear Netflix, You Are A Liar”. In this post, I spoke about the Black movies that Netflix was alleging were popular that I found hard to believe. Now, as a cultural arbiter of Blackness, Black movies are my bag, baby, but still, lies are lies. Well, in this post I mentioned the movie CRU and lo and behold, the writer and director of the movie came across the post and offered some opinions. I decided to engage that opportunity and see if I could get an interview to ask some questions about indy Black movies and the culture as a whole from somebody on the front lines. Mr. Alton Glass, thankfully, obliged. You can check his resume on IMDB, but this is a man who has done a lot and earned the right to parade through my Netflix queue.
He took some time out of his day to answer some of my questions and offer somewhat of a call to action about the constant gripe about the lack of Black movies. Check out the interview below!
VSB: Thanks for doing this interview. You have no idea how avid a fan I am of Black movies. I’m such a fan, I watch each and every movie with Black people in them on Netflix, which is no easy undertaking. I have even purchased some. I think Clifton Powell needs to have an award named after him for his contributions to the genre. I love Black movies that much; I am about that life. With that being said, I’m also super curious about the HUGE divide between movies with a big budget and what seem like the lowest of low budget movies ever. I feel like in the mid-2000s, we got lots of movies that weren’t going to kill the box office, but came out in theaters like Deliver Us From Eva, This Christmas, or even N-Secure, one of the worlds worst movies of all time. It seems like now, unless Tyler Perry is attached, its difficult to get a movie into theaters, with War Room being a recent successful exception. Is that an accurate reading of the climate in “Hollywood”? As somebody on the front lines, what is driving?
Alton Glass: What drives the market for African American films is revenue and timing. Film festivals are what helped CRU and are the major booster these days for Black Indies when you look at other successful films like Dope or Dear White People. Back in the 90’s the Theaters and Home video market was booming so there was plenty of revenue generated, unlike today. Flash forward to the Digital age of the Millennials and post Napster and the collapse of Blockbuster and now you have Netflix and Redbox, which has minimized the former revenue streams tremendously. When the cashflow slowed down the first thing to go at the studio was Urban Films because they felt African American films were not viable overseas for worldwide revenue. Now you have limited capital and limited distribution options and its only getting smaller for African American feature films as consumers get more options and watch more short form content.
So when you see Tyler Perry driving the box office making millions then that’s what Hollywood feels is a safe bet. However, when we do get other films we have not shown the support needed to keep these higher budget films being made like Beyond The Lights. The film was not a big draw in theaters unfortunately. Gina Prince-Bythewood made the classic film Love & Basketball and if that does not get people in the seats it makes it tougher for the next filmmaker. In terms of timing look at films like Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station in the wake of Trayvon Martin. It was a good film with perfect timing which made it cross over. The other films that still keep strong are faith based a la War Room which did great at the box office, too.
VSB: How does this affect how you write and direct the movies that you make?
AG: Budget will always impact storytelling but you can still create gems if you use your limitations to fuel your creativity. Sometimes its actually better because you can’t throw money and explosions to cover up a weak story and bad acting. Even big Hollywood blockbuster movies suffer from this because they put financial band-aids over bruised and battered scripts. As a storyteller relying on independent capital we have to find “hot buttons”. I often compare indie filmmaking to boxing. You know in order to get a title shot you have to keep people entertained in the ring. Although you may not have the best trainers or perfect stats you still have to show you have something to look forward to during your twelve rounds. A nice jab, strong hook and at the end people walk away saying damn I enjoyed that. Everyone can’t be Mike Tyson but people have to at least look forward to seeing you fight again. You get better, your work harder and work within your means and that ultimately becomes your strength.
VSB: I feel bad calling them low budget movies, but I don’t know the proper term to differentiate between the movies I’ve found all over Netflix versus a Beyond The Lights, so excuse me if it sounds condescending at all. But I’ve had such a curiosity about “low budget” movies. What constitutes a low budget anyway? I know Friday was filmed for like $3.5 million. That seems low budget to me. But is that accurate? How much do a lot of those movies, feel free to talk about yours specifically should you like, cost to make?
AG: Most of these “ultra-low budget” films to DVD are under $1M. The film CRU was less than half of that. It’s often difficult even at levels under $10M because the more you spend the bigger the names and marketing to get that money back. With these smaller Black Indies, most of them get small distribution advances and never see their money back.
VSB: What’s the process like for you? You have quite a bit of writing and directing credits to your name. How do you approach each new project?
I write what moves me from the inside first and I try to educate and entertain without being preachy. Life is short. That’s what motivates my narratives. I try not to get caught up in trends or chasing other business models because the business is always changing. My risk is on me every time so I can’t blame anyone else.
VSB: I was somewhat hard on CRU (one of your movies) in my write-up about Netflix, though it was largely about the same actors ending up in every single movie. How real is that? Is there an actor shortage? How do all of the same actors end up in the same movies whether its “low budget” or blockbuster?
AG: It varies because people like Richard T. Jones just likes to stay busy and he will book a blockbuster like the recent Godzilla and Netflix show Narcos to films like CRU. Keith on the other hand just enjoys working with his peers and happened to work with a company on several films but I think people really overlooked his talent and CRU shows another side to his skills.
You also have to keep in mind “Black Hollywood,” as they say, is small. These actors and filmmakers all cross paths regularly and just work well together. The problem is when you see Seth Rogen and his Superbad ensemble doing films together over and over again no one says anything about that. The only difference is they have $30M and we have a fraction of that so these Black ensembles are bashed. Dismantle that and then your Popular list on Netflix will probably cease to exist unless Tyler Perry gives them his TV shows.
VSB: How does one break that glass ceiling? I presume that most of the actors and directors (and writers, etc) who are working on these movies would love to hit the big budget arena. What’s holding that back?
AG: The Black consumers have to engage and consume the content. Most of the time they just vent on how bad the movies are without asking for what you want us to give you.
People/audiences have to engage and express what they want and just support these filmmakers so they can get better and get more resources. African Americans are expected to spend $1Trillion dollars according to Nielsen in 2015 and that shows we have buying power. Take 1% of that and you have a black booming movie studio with $100M to create content. The sky is the limit from here but we often trash our own movies and the efforts of these filmmakers with the lack of financial support. This creates the ceiling. No tickets sales, no revenue. No Netflix and then there’s the black movie in the $5 bin at Walmart at the bottom of the see through bucket.
VSB: Do you all in the industry have as many conversations about Tyler Perry and Spike Lee as we who aren’t in the industry do? I feel like every single time a Black movie comes out, some renewed convo about Tyler Perry vs Spike hits the waves.
AG: Mainstream Hollywood does not do that to each other. You won’t hear George Lucas bashing Tarantino even though they are totally different filmmakers. I think Tyler has excellent business acumen. So does Spike Lee and if you look at Spike’s work its good but his branding is stronger than his films. Spike needs Tyler, if you really think about it, just as much as anyone else. Otherwise he can’t complain and make noise that lives up to his brand then he’s not the Spike Lee we love. He’s a genius. They both are great and they both are needed in the marketplace, which is all that matters.
VSB: One thing you always hear people complain about is the lack of Black movies. It’s a refrain I echoed before I ventured onto Netflix and picked a movie liked Who Made The Potato Salad, which was apparently a cheat code into the world of Black movies I never knew existed. Why do you think more people don’t realize how many Black movies are out there? Writers and directors like yourself are clearly constantly working, but unless you stumble upon the right channel, you’d never know it. How do we get more recognition and acknowledgement for movies like CRU as well as movies like Selma?
AG: We need to share these films. Talk about them. Even if its bad. Fine. Express that. But we still need to give it something for the effort so people can judge the films for themselves and keep the numbers up.
VSB: As a filmmaker, what’s your goal or purpose? Are you making movies to fill a hole in the community, or are you making passion projects about ideas you’re curious about? What’s your motivation, basically?
AG: My motivation is awareness. Every film carries its own theme. Sometimes they are carried over to other films but the motivation is sharing an experience that makes us all aware of something and brings us together even for a brief moment to share a laugh or cry.
VSB: We’ll make this the last question (I asked a lot): What should we look out for from you and your company? Feel free to push and promote you and your work as much as possible. Anything you want people to know that maybe they’re not thinking about when it comes to Black movies? Fire away.
AG: I’m currently shifting my gear toward Immersive Storytelling in Virtual Reality. I will be releasing a line of hardware and content that can be ordered directly from my company to enjoy exclusive content along with my forthcoming feature films and short form content. In a nutshell I’m developing my own distribution outlet designed for independent filmmakers to connect directly and engage with our audience. I want to be accessible so I can provide the demand and hear what we need to do so we can all grow together culturally and financially.
At the top of 2016 you will also get a chance to see my new film with my co-writer Oliver W. Ottley III on a Crime-Drama set in my hometown of Detroit. When Detroit’s former mayor is released from prison 20 years after bankrupting his city, he immediately returns to the life of crime that he knows. But when he befriends an impressionable boy on the verge of adulthood, he has to choose between his self-destructive path, or repairing the city and people he left broken.
VSB: Thanks for taking the time!