The pandemic has been hard on many parts of society, and especially on the arts. Movie theaters have been closed for months, and independent filmmakers have faced the tough task of investing thousands of their own dollars on production and hiring actors, despite the risk of infection.
Because of these complexities, the annual Miami Urban Film Festival extended its submission deadline this year. The three-day event will be held virtually from Sept. 4 – 14 courtesy of the Urban Streaming Network. In ordinary times, it is held by the Florida Film House over Labor Day weekend at the Lyric Theater in Historic Overtown, which was a mecca for Black art and culture during segregation. The festival is dedicated to educating, exposing and providing distribution opportunities for the new generation of filmmakers.
The festival celebrates global culture-driven content that shares the stories of young filmmakers and their communities.
“We are committed to pushing the culture forward one film at a time,” said Marco “Mall” Molinet, co-founder of Urban Film Festival, “providing filmmakers the tools and skills they need to thrive in this ever-changing industry.”
Filmmakers found ways to thrive while following social distancing rules, but the struggle for recognition in major cities remains. Nonetheless, this festival provides filmmakers with a unique showcase.
“You have to keep on going no matter how many no’s you get and the struggles you face,” said 27-year-old filmmaker Carlton Heard.
Heard was born and raised in a middle-class family in Athens, Ga. He played football starting at age nine as a quarterback. He continued his football path as a wide receiver at Clarke Central High where he took his first film class.
“My sophomore year, I would make my own videos at home,” said Heard. “I took classes and I just learned the software.”
But he never thought about pursuing filmmaking as a job. “I didn’t know I could have a career doing this,” Heard said. He thought football would be his ticket to fame. “Everybody who plays has dreams to make it big so they can take care of their family.”
Heard played wide receiver at the University of South Carolina while majoring in sociology, but never got close to the NFL draft. After graduating in 2015, he worked as a personal trainer. Then in 2017, he secured his first film gig making commercials for the South Carolina trucking company Diesel Laptops.
“I was just making videos,” said Heard. “I was excited that I could actually be doing something that I love that’s not only football. I love creating and storytelling.”
Heard shot his film, “The Black Hole” as a passion project in June 2020 on a budget of $700. With a limited production team and only one actor, he shot the entire film in his Atlanta home and neighborhood. It took him a month to shoot and edit.
“I brought the same type of drive and ambition I have for football to film,” said Heard. “I had my daughter, Haylie, in her jumper, jumping up and down and my wife holding the boom pole.”
The film stars 28-year-old Georgia actor, Cedrick Cooper, who plays a Black man living in America and feeling trapped by the trauma of unjust killings of unarmed Black people. The concept takes viewers on a ride similar to the 1993 film “Groundhog Day.”
“I was really angry about the George Floyd incident,” said Heard. “It felt like it kept happening every single day, which pumped the idea of living the same day over and over.” His film has amassed over 10,000 views on Instagram. While he continues pursuing his art, Heard creates commercials as a video producer for Georgia Power.
Another filmmaker who will show his work is 32-year-old Marcellus Cox, who shot “Mickey Hardaway,” which he spent over a decade writing. Despite the long lead time, it was filmed on a tight schedule, he said.
“We shot everything within a week,” said Cox. “We just barely made the deadline.”
Cox was born and raised in Los Angeles. At age 11, he fell in love with film. He likes thrillers, live-action animation and sci-fi. After his freshman year at Washington Preparatory High School, he submerged himself in film.
“Meeting the film teacher opened my eyes up to films and I really studied them,” said Cox. “He would send me links to scripts and recommend movies, which kind of added fuel to my fiery passion.”
In 2008, he received his bachelor’s in film from El Camino Community College in Torrance, California. His career really started in 2014, when he released his first short film “Rise Up.”
His most noticed work was the 2017 short film, “Rolling In The Deep” about a World War II Black veteran who travels back home to South Carolina and honors his late father by eating at a whites-only diner. It aired on ABC, FOX, CBS, PBS and Shorts TV.
Last year, he said, an investor offered $900,000 to help him make Mickey Hardaway, but then backed out.
“We had agents locked in, the actors that we wanted, and at the very last minute, the investor vanished on us,” said Cox. “it’s not a done deal until the film is made.”
He began shooting on his own dime, but faced many challenges because of the pandemic.
“The actors were nervous about working with each other because they didn’t know who had the virus or not,” said Cox. “We had the actors get tested, and once they were negative, we began shooting.”
Shooting for just a week while social distancing was difficult. Actors dropped out. The pandemic has taught him to adapt quickly.
“It’s hard to do anything with limits that are beyond your control,” said Cox. “If you can ensure everyone’s safety while on set, the production gets easier.”
He works full-time as a grocery clerk. But he is saving up to make more films.
“I just want to be a good filmmaker,” Cox said. “ If you don’t love my work, at least you like it and that’s good enough for me.”
Darren Heard is a 44-year-old filmmaker who moved to Miami in 2013 from his native New Jersey. He loved the movies growing up, but enlisted in the military at age 19 to support his young family. Now retired from the armed services, he is enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“Being in the military has prepared me for being on set,” said Heard. “Actually making a movie is like going to war but with fewer deaths.”
In 2017, Heard entered his short film “Sam” into the Urban Film Festival. He won the People’s Choice Award.
“I learned so much last year from the festival, watching a masterclass and seeing how I can better my work,” said Heard.
This year he is entering his latest feature film, “Puppy Love.” It’s loosely based on a crush the filmmaker had on his neighbor when he was 10 years old.
“The film is named that because I came home telling my mom I liked a girl,” Heard said. “She would say, ‘Boy, that ain’t nothing but puppy love.’”
The film concept was developed in 2017, with a budget of almost $15,000. It was shot before COVID-19, but even after a year of editing, the audience will not see the movie in its entirety.
“We had an issue with the files and a lot of footage was missing,” said Heard. “We tried to recover them but we couldn’t. Now everyone including myself will have to watch an alternate ending.”
The festival will have content continuously streaming from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the Urban Film Festival homepage. Through a link, viewers will be able to reach the Urban Streaming Network, which will have unlimited access to curated filmmakers’ content along with educational tools. It will be available until September 14.
With over 140 films entered and 20 trophies as well as numerous certificates to be handed out (or actually mailed), filmmakers and viewers will be happy to watch the award show via Zoom in the comfort of their own homes.
“You never know who could’ve been the next big filmmaker,” said Mall. “That’s why we have to teach and encourage people. We’re doing this for the culture.”