When Film Independent's Project Involve offered its first free mentorship program a quarter century ago, fewer than ten applicants could be accepted into the program. For nine months, young women of color aged 18 to 25 were provided the opportunity to network and collaborate with veteran members of the film industry. Over the years, the annual program has grown exponentially, enabling 30 promising filmmakers of varying races and genders to receive one-on-one mentorship, monthly master classes on the art and business of filmmaking, and resources necessary to make short films that go on to premiere at the LA Film Festival. In honor of its 25th anniversary, Project Involve will be holding a benefit dinner on Saturday, September 22nd, at the home of Catharine and Jeffrey Soros in Los Angeles. (Tickets can be purchased here.) The event will be chaired by RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert, who has been a longtime supporter of the program through the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation. "The stories I have seen from Project Involve Fellows give me hope that we are going in the right direction to begin crucial healing and transformation," said Ebert. "Those inclusive voices and viewpoints are necessary for positive change."
“Our focus has always been on supporting writers, directors and producers from under-represented backgrounds, but we also support editors and cinematographers, as well as people on what we call the 'industry track'—people who want to work in acquisitions, marketing, distribution, festival programming, and other critical 'gatekeeper' roles in the industry,” said Film Independent President Josh Welsh. “This year we are expanding the industry track to support people who want to write about film—film critics as well as people who write about culture and film more broadly.”
“Project Involve shifted from being a training ground to an atelier where Fellows, confident in their respective craft, exchange ideas, make bonds and collaborate to create short films,” noted Project Involve’s Senior Manager Francisco Velasquez. “One thing that has never changed is the Fellows. They bring freshness and authenticity with their storytelling.”
Three accomplished Fellows from the program will be honored at the anniversary benefit: Jon M. Chu, director of the box office smash, “Crazy Rich Asians”; Cherien Dabis, director of “Amreeka” and supervising producer of “Empire”; and Effie T. Brown, producer of the Sundance sensation “Dear White People” (along with longtime champion of the program Charles D. King, founder and CEO of MACRO). Brown recently spoke with RogerEbert.com about how Project Involve and Film Independent provided her with a far better and more cost-effective education than any film school could offer.
“When I was getting ready to graduate college, it became really apparent that I needed more help or access than what I was privy to,” recalled Brown. “I wasn’t a part of the same clubs or had the same last name as my peers connected to those in the know. I come from a lovely middle class family. My father is an army vet who worked in corporate human resources and my mother was a social worker. When I mentioned my interest in making films, they were like, ‘What are you talking about? You grew up in New Jersey!’”
Future Grammy-winning music video director Dave Meyers was the first person to recommend Project Involve to Brown, who applied soon after graduating college at age 21. Reflecting upon her experience, she marvels at how ahead of the curve Film Independent was in launching the program back in the mid-90s.
“We have the fortune of Film Independent’s reputation supporting the program,” said Velasquez. “With the many years running the LA Film Fest and the Independent Spirit Awards, Film Independent is respected in the industry. So when we reach out and ask professionals to participate they know that they will be advising serious artists who are the future of the industry. We do a lot of match-making, we get to know the fellows and after a while figure out who would be best to pair them with. It’s trusting the instinct and leaving some room for an organic click.”
“Our first step is always to ask the filmmakers in the program: who would be your ideal mentor?” added Welsh. “When we can make those matches, we do. But of course we also have deep connections in the industry and a good sense of who is interested in and good at mentoring, so we look at where the Fellow is in their career and make a pairing based on who we think would be the most beneficial to that person at this time. The program is well-established and we find that a lot of people in the industry are eager to mentor our fellows.”
Past mentors who have participated in the program include Ava DuVernay ("Selma”), Catherine Hardwicke ("Twilight”), Destin Daniel Cretton ("Short Term 12") and Alexander Payne. Brown is immensely grateful for having Laurie Parker—producer of Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho”—as her mentor.
“Laurie gave me the education in producing that I never got as a female in film school,” said Brown. “She said to me, ‘I believe you’re going to make it. I feel you talk a good game. But as I’m helping you, your job is to lean back and help somebody else when you’ve made it. That’s the deal, because the biggest lie they tell us is that there is room for only one of us. Then when you get to the top, you realize there’s room for all of us, and you’re the only one sitting up there, looking crazy. If there was more of you with that power, you would be stronger.”
Due to funding problems, only one of the short films created by the Project Involve participants in Brown’s year was able to be made, an early lesson in the heartache that can often occur in the industry. Yet under Parker’s guidance, Brown landed her first job as a production assistant on the Russell Crowe drama, “Rough Magic,” before joining the producer on a series of extraordinary projects. They worked for Tim Burton when he made “Mars Attacks!”, and for Jane Campion on “In the Cut.” Brown applied for her first passport in order to join Parker on a location scout in the jungles of Guatemala. When Parker left the business for several years, Brown’s career took off in a big way. In 2003, she earned the Producer’s Spirit Award for her work on Patricia Cardoso’s “Real Women Have Curves,” which launched the career of America Ferrera, and Cheryl Dunye’s riveting TV movie, “Stranger Inside.” Parker is currently creating a TV series with Lynne Ramsay, and has asked Brown to produce it, a beautiful instance of life coming full circle.
“Film Independent is the longest relationship I’ve ever had besides my parents,” laughed Brown. “It really is a family. It’s where I grew up, and I continue to grow there. Times are changing, and you always have to be learning and adapting. Film Independent is always the place I go to look for talent, because I know we have the same foundation, which is comprised of integrity and power to the people in arts and activism. When I hire someone from Film Independent, I know they have character and nine times out of ten are aiming to leave the world better than they found it. They know that storytelling—whether it be via film, television or digital—is the way to make their mark on the world and create lasting change.”
One of the first films Brown worked on that demonstrated the mind-expanding power of cinema was “But I’m a Cheerleader,” Jamie Babbit’s 1999 satire about a teenager shipped by her prudish parents to a gay rehab camp. Brown served as a line producer and became even more proud of the film after she showed it to her own “Bible-thumping” parents. The premise was ahead of its time, and is echoed in two prominent contenders of this year’s awards season, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “Boy Erased.” Have the #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp movements combined with the success of films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” finally made diversity a top priority for an industry as slow to change as the Vatican?
“The industry is changing, but very, very slowly—far too slowly!” stressed Welsh. “Every year, new reports are released from USC, UCLA, and other institutions that track diversity in film and television, and the numbers remain terrible. The fact is that the industry simply does not reflect the world we live in—neither the talent behind the camera nor the onscreen talent. The conversation around these issues is far more intense and public than it used to be, which is a good thing. And as a result of that, I think we are seeing a real increase in the number of applicants to Project Involve. Also, the industry definitely looks at the program more closely as a source of new talent.”
“Project Involve has been at the vanguard of this wave,” agreed Velasquez. “25 years of championing the marginalized voices has now found a space and time of what has been needed for decades. Project Involve continues with more vigor to nurture the voices that need to be heard, because now the audiences are vast and varied and they want to see themselves reflected on whatever platform.”
“I love telling stories about people who are ‘the other,’ residing outside of dominant culture,” said Brown. “Whether it be a Latina coming-of-age tale like ‘Real Women Have Curves,’ a black girl’s coming-of-age in the prison system as portrayed in ‘Stranger Inside,’ or an exploration of what post-racism means in America such as ‘Dear White People,’ the stories are all universal. I just executive produced a Disney Channel movie, ‘Z-O-M-B-I-E-S,’ that’s all about the integration of zombies at a normal school for kids. Even though the perspective may be different than what you’re used to seeing onscreen, you don’t have to be the ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation of the characters in order to find them relatable. I want to tell stories that build bridges between people, that show how similar we are in a very interesting way. Right now, I want to work within the thriller/action/sci-fi/horror genres and populate them with women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities, both in front of and behind the scenes. That’s what I love, and that’s the way to get butts in seats.”