This is part of "Leaders of Color" month of the Generocity Editorial Calendar. Find the series here.
After five years of producing BlackStar Film Festival, founder Maori Karmael Holmes is still trying to figure out how to make it sustainable.
The festival lost fiscal sponsor Art Sanctuary in 2014. They’ve experimented with corporate partnerships. But both of those funding mechanisms can be tricky business for a niche film festival that might expect to draw 4,000 attendees or so. Those numbers, Holmes said, are too low for most sponsors.
BlackStar largely relies on foundations like Knight Foundation, Barra Foundation, Ford Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation these days, and Holmes said the festival has slowly been raising more and more money. For the first three years, BlackStar ran entirely on volunteer power, and while there are paid workers now, none are full-time.
“Doing this work after your day job, after several day jobs, after freelancing, doing it on the weekends, not going on vacation or spending vacation days to run the festival —” Holmes took a breath.
“It’s taxing, both physically and emotionally.”
If BlackStar is going to continue, said Holmes, someone will need to be doing it full time, and that person doesn’t necessarily need to be her — the festival founder is a notorious busy bee who balances producing the global film festival with her full time job as director of public engagement at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Having an exit strategy is totally normal for founders and executives, but a BlackStar Film Festival without Maori Karmael Holmes? The festival has picked up so much steam and gained notoriety on the film festival circuit. How can Holmes walk away from what’s become a cultural mainstay for artists of color?
"There's no reason things can't end if they have a really lovely life."
“Things have a moment. Oftentimes we’re afraid to end things. There’s no reason things can’t end if they have a really lovely life,” said Holmes. “I don’t know if [BlackStar] should end or not, but I’m not afraid of it.”
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Holmes isn’t going anywhere just yet. There are milestones to reach, first — like figuring out how to make money.
Holmes will be the first to tell you she isn’t a business person. She’s an artist and an organizer who has had to adapt her skill set to make the festival work, and she’s savvy enough to do it well. But there are folks who can probably do it better, and Holmes isn’t ashamed to say that.
“We have ideas but right now we don’t have the capacity to do them,” she said with a hint of exhaustion in her tone. Some of those ideas have included a regular journal, smaller events throughout the year and distributing content for other publishers’ platforms.
Another goal, Holmes said, is going more global. BlackStar will showcase films from five different continents this year. Holmes hopes to get there by landing funding to attend festivals across the world to scope talent.
But none of those goals meet the personal challenge Holmes has been facing the past five years.
“What’s been challenging for me has been trying to take care of myself in the middle of this massive project,” she said.
If something doesn’t feel joyful, Holmes said, you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s easy to lose sight of that joy when you’re in the weeds, but she’s always reeled back into bliss when she remembers the lasting impact the festival has had on artists.
“We’re now in this place where in the fifth year, there are two people who have made films from coming to the first festival and feeling like they could make films because they saw people who looked like them make it work,” Holmes said. “Things just coalesce. I feel like it’s magic.”
BlackStar Film Festival starts this week on Thursday, Aug. 4, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 7. Check out the schedule here.-30-
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