Diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera, has been a major topic of debate around the country.
UCLA's recent Hollywood Diversity Report found that film and television content that is more diverse tends to be more successful. Yet, people of color are still underrepresented in fields such as writing and film directing.
AT&T (No. 4 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) and Tribeca Film Festival, along with the year-round nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute, have partnered to launch "AT&T Presents: Untold Stories." The competition gives underrepresented filmmakers in the industry opportunities they have not had before.
At a luncheon in New York City on Tuesday it was announced that Faraday Okoro, a Nigerian American filmmaker, won the inaugural competition's top prize.
Okoro is a graduate of Howard University and NYU Graduate Film School. He will not only receive a $1 million grant, but his film "Nigerian Prince" will be distributed across DIRECTV, DIRECTV NOW and U-verse. And, his film will premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
AT&T is increasingly becoming an entertainment company, including its planned merger with Time Warner (No. 37). The company's partnership with Tribeca Film Festival creates an avenue to celebrate inclusivity in storytelling.
The idea for "Untold Stories" derived from a conversation between Jane Rosenthal, co-founder and executive chair of the Tribeca Film Festival, and AT&T Chief Brand Officer Fiona Carter.
"We've been a sponsor of Tribeca Film Festival for four years, and we've had a wonderful partnership," Carter told DiversityInc at the luncheon.
"But I wanted AT&T to play a real role and make a real impact not only on the world of film and content, but also on an individual.
"We have 150 million customers. America was originally in our name. And if we're going to truly reflect our customers and their experiences and their stories and their lives, we have to help those stories get told."
Carter said that as she and Rosenthal were talking it became clear they share a personal passion around ensuring that the "real diversity of voice" is heard.
The Competition and Judging
Okoro competed with other "Untold Stories" filmmaker finalists Andres Perez-Duarte, Lissette Feliciano, Ani Simon-Kennedy and A. Sayeeda Moreno, who pitched their projects during a Facebook Live event Tuesday morning.
Carter was a part of the greenlight committee that evaluated the scripts and pitches. Prominent entertainment professionals on the committee included Lee Daniels, film director, writer and producer; Jeffrey Wright, producer and actor; Anthony Mackie, actor; Chairman and CEO of Downtown Records Josh Deutsch; President of HBO Films Len Amato; and Braven Films CEO Frida Torresblanco.
There was stiff competition for the $1 million prize.
"It's a huge decision," Carter said. "A million dollars is a life-changer in this business. And, I think it was this morning that we all really processed the impact of that, seeing young filmmakers on the brink of being able to kick their careers off; it was high stakes."
Each filmmaker surely brought their A-game to the pitch session, as Lee Daniels told DiversityInc: "It was a blood bath to get that million dollars."
Okoro's winning film, "Nigerian Prince," is a story about a stubborn Nigerian American teenager who, after being sent to Nigeria against his will, joins forces with an Internet scammer in order to return to the United States.
"This film rose to the top because it's simply a unique story that literally nobody has seen before," Carter said.
"It just has a voice and an energy that is truly new, and truly fresh. We couldn't think of another film that had told that story. And we felt it really deserved the prize for that real, true uniqueness."
Carter also said that each of the finalists will receive a $10,000 grant to go toward the production of their films.
"Untold Stories" Reflects AT&T's Culture
Cynt Marshall, AT&T senior vice president and chief diversity officer, was present at the luncheon; attendees also included actor and Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro as well as actors Jussie Smollett, La La Anthony, Brandon Victor Dixon, Malik Yoba and Andre Holland.
Marshall told DiversityInc that "Untold Stories" is a reflection of AT&T's culture.
"This program is another example of where we say, 'every voice matters,'" she explained.
"If there is any doubt in anyone's mind about whether or not AT&T can make a difference in the entertainment space, today is an example.
"It's not just about what's on your screen. It is about what is in the heart of AT&T and how we can tap into the hearts of other people.
"And what we did today was touch the souls, the hearts and the minds and the dreams of these artists. That's the impact we have in the entertainment space."
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson had a candid and honest conversation on diversity and inclusion with more than 1,000 employee resource group members at a conference in Dallas in September.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson Forthrightly Addresses Current Racial Tensions, Says 'the dialogue must start with me'
Addressing 1,700 resource group members, Stephenson discusses all the tough issues — and in an honest, forthright, personal and humble way.
Stephenson urged his staff to have difficult conversations about race and not just be tolerant of each other. A cell phone video of his speech went viral on social media.
AT&T's Olga Serna
Olga Serna is a senior marketing manager at AT&T who has been involved in the partnership between Tribeca and the company since its inception. Serna told DiversityInc that AT&T's culture of inclusiveness is important to her.
"Quite frankly, I don't know that personally I could work at a company that didn't foster inclusiveness from the top down," she said.
"[In May] I will be with AT&T for 10 years. And from the moment that I stepped into the company, it truly felt that this company recognizes that the benefit and the advantage that we will have as a company truly comes from a diverse workforce."
Serna also said that the connection between AT&T, Tribeca Film Festival and Tribeca Film Institute is an ideal one because of a shared commitment to give a voice to underrepresented filmmakers.
"For the last 14 years, Tribeca Film Institute has been working at finding underrepresented filmmakers and they've sifted through countless screenplays and they've seen the passion of these filmmakers."
"AT&T Presents: Untold Stories" competition and luncheon kicked off the annual Tribeca Film festival, which runs through April 30. Submissions for next year's competition will open September 6 through November 6.