Indie Cinema 101: Interview With Filmmaker and Actress Constance Ejuma

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Constance Ejuma in scene from Ben & Ara

TEN QUESTIONS FOR CONSTANCE EJUMA

Q: Constance in an interview on the Voice of America you spoke about the challenges of financing films for ethnic minorities in this country. Could you talk about that a bit while considering these questions as well. How much of it is due to lack of interest in serious content? For example if one were to come up with a film that replicates the formulaic box office model of the Barbershop franchise would it be easier to get funding? Is that a constant challenge for a filmmaker; quality versus commercial appeal -- even though there are cases where quality is combined with commercial impact?

A: One of the challenges with funding an ethnic minority film is a fear that ethnic stories don't have a mass commercial appeal. From a business perspective, an investor won't be motivated to pour money into a project if they don't believe they'll get it back, so they're less likely to be interested in a non-mainstream narrative as it's too much of a financial risk. But there are so many other variables - usually with financial implications - that go into first getting a movie made and then getting it out to the masses.

For instance, even if you have a great story idea that follows the right formula for box office success, there's no guarantee that you'll get access to people with funds. And if you do get into those rooms and start having those conversations, investors want guarantees of a return on their investment. I went to Cannes a couple of years ago and every time I pitched my film to someone, the first question they'd ask is, "who's attached?" The people involved in your project can sometimes overshadow the project itself.

Q: Your background, raised during the earlier part of your life in Cameroon but basically growing up in America and with continental Europe connection in terms of education, do these influences make you want to tell particular kind of stories? What kind of stories are those, without prematurely revealing any storyline or ideas for future projects? Do you believe the success of a play like Eclipsed also starring Lupita Nyong'o can open opportunities for other cinematic story lines?

A: My background definitely has an impact on the types of stories I want to tell. I grew up straddling two cultures so I'm interested in stories about identity, belonging and yet not belonging, perspective, grey areas. I'm intrigued by the idea of challenging assumptions we make about people we consider to be 'other.' 'Eclipsed' is certainly creating an opening and we're already seeing evidence of African stories making it to the mainstream. 'Queen of Katwe,' which also stars Lupita Nyong'o is due to be released by Disney, a major Hollywood studio, this fall.

Q: Talk about the feature film you co-produced and co-starred in, Ben and Ara. How much did it cost? How did you raise the funding and what was helpful to your success in fundraising?

A: We shot 'Ben & Ara' on a shoestring budget. We successfully raised $30,000 on Kickstarter and started production with that. I think my partner and I were a bit naïve to expect to shoot a feature film on a short film budget but our lack of experience was a protection; it kept us from setting limitations on ourselves. We got tons of support from our families, people donating locations and accommodations, the cast and crew generously sharing their time and talent.

Q: Now that the film has been completed what other challenges have you faced? Distribution for example. And is that just as big of a challenge or even bigger than funding? Or are there different appropriate distribution models for different films?

A: Distribution and marketing in general is a different kind of challenge. People want to get their films made but I don't think a lot of independent filmmakers have a clear plan or vision for what happens once the film is in the can. My biggest lesson through this process is that getting your film "out there" can be just as difficult as getting it made in the first place. And the world of traditional film distribution can be frustratingly mysterious and downright baffling to the point that you wonder how indie filmmakers ever turn a profit. Fortunately there are other avenues available for independent distribution which we are exploring.

We've been on the festival circuit for a while now and have been approached by a few distributors and sales agents but not many are offering deals we're 100% comfortable with. Having said that, we are getting close to the finish line and are pretty close to locking things down on that front.

Q: What lessons did you learn from making the film? For example what are some of the things you know now that you wish you knew when you started making the film -- knowledge that will help with the next project?

A: Staying on top of legal matters like contracts and release forms at every stage of production.

Q: We often hear that technological innovation, cheaper equipment, online platforms, and social media marketing have made it easier to make films. Is this true? At the same time I imagine there are major challenges that have arisen, or remain, including the funding already mentioned. In short generally speaking is it much easier to make a good film now than in the past --and how past is past?

A:  My kneejerk response is yes, it's a lot easier to create content given the proliferation of platforms like YouTube and the evolution of devices like smartphones which people are using to make feature films. But since this is my first time producing I don't have a past point of reference to compare to. Some things might be a little cheaper, but you still have to pay your crew.

Q: What tips can you offer to a young African with talents and a dream who wants to get in the film business?

A: We're in the business of telling stories, so find a way to tell yours no matter what. It doesn't have to be perfect as long as you have something compelling that resonates. There are so many storytelling mediums available now that there's no reason why you can't shoot a 3 minute short and put it up on YouTube. Take every opportunity to study the craft, watch films, work on set. If there isn't a film industry where you are, consider breaking in through television.

Q: What are some of your own film projects you're working on?

A: I have a couple of things in development but none are at a stage where I can disclose them yet.

Q: How can people find out more about your work and keep in touch -- fans and potential collaborators?

A: I can be reached at my website: www.constanceejuma.com

I'm also on social media: Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/ConstanceEjuma Twitter - https://twitter.com/cejuma Instragram - https://www.instagram.com/cejuma/

Q: If you weren't in the film business what else could you see yourself doing that would make you as happy?

A: I can't think of anything else. But if there were, I'm sure it would be in the arts.

 

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