Epicenter is a proud community partner of the Urbanworld Film Festival, which kicks off on Nov. 1 with over 100 films, an opening night screening of “American Fiction” and a conversation with filmmaker Nia DaCosta. The festival, which runs through Nov. 5, highlights the work of BIPOC creatives, showcasing narrative and documentary features, short films, web originals, music videos, spotlight screenings and conversations and live staged screenplay readings. Learn more and purchase tickets here. This week, Epicenter contributor Curtis Rowser III sat down with the festival’s director and head of programming, Karen McMullen, who discussed the origins of the event, how it’s evolved over the years, the respective writers and actors strikes and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Epicenter: Can you give some insight into how the Urbanworld Film Festival came to be and where the idea generated from?
McMullen: The Urbanworld Film Festival was created in 1997 by a visionary man named Stacy Spikes who wanted a place for Black creators to be able to show their films. It was hard then, and it’s hard now, to get into the bigger film festivals and a lot of our stories were not being shown. Urbanworld started as a Black film festival but it quickly expanded to include all people of color.
Epicenter: What does the festival entail – what does it look like for someone who attends?
McMullen: Urbanworld is a five-day festival that takes place in New York City this year from Nov. 1 to Nov. 5. We have an opening night film. We have three days of film screenings. And the last day is an awards ceremony where we award the best of the fest as voted by the audiences and juries. We have shorts, we have features, we have documentaries, we show streaming content. We have some TV episodes as well. We also have a day of panels called Innovation Summit, and that’s five or six panels from industry professionals discussing everything from distribution to the role of AI in filmmaking, to employing people of color behind the scenes. It’s everything that filmmakers and audience members would want to hear about.
Epicenter: Can you speak to how the festival has evolved over the years, especially with changing technology and different distribution channels and methods of media consumption?
McMullen: When we started, we showed all our things from film prints – 16 millimeter, or 35 millimeter projection in the cinema. We didn’t have TV content and there were no streamers. So [the evolution] has been really wonderful. The technology has been a point of access for a lot of filmmakers. Filmmaking used to be so exclusive because it was so expensive to buy film, but now people can shoot movies on their cell phones. If you have good content and know what you’re doing, you can produce something that’s worth seeing. So we’ve found that we’ve been able to open up to more types of content and more people. We’ve been able to be international because people can send us their content virtually. And we can communicate with our audiences through our website and social media, of course, so it’s a lot more audience engagement.
Epicenter: Was there anything different about planning this year’s festival in particular, especially on the heels of the writer’s strike and with the actor’s strike still going on?
McMullen: That’s a great question. The festival is looking different this year because in the past we’ve had everybody at our festival. I mean everybody, Ava DuVernay, Jay-Z, Kerry Washington… every person of color in Hollywood has been through the festival. Our festival isn’t huge; it’s pretty intimate. So, if you’re gonna see these people, you’re rubbing elbows with them. We don’t have that opportunity this year because the actors who are in these films can’t attend. But the directors can still come and a lot of times the directors get overshadowed by the beautiful celebrities on the red carpet. So I’m actually not disappointed at all that this year we get to focus more on the makers of the festival.
Epicenter: You mentioned how it started off as a primarily Black film festival and now it’s open to everybody. How have you seen this particular festival impact the industry, especially for people of color?
McMullen: Urbanworld really stresses inclusivity and we love showing a diversity of content, and there’s this commonality with people of color, even when we’re not from the same culture, there are consistent themes. We find that when people from inside the community are telling stories, they don’t focus on the trauma and the dysfunction that tends to get highlighted when mainstream movies are making movies that display our stories. So you get more family tales, you get more tales of love, you get more humor and it’s like a balm to sit in the theater and know that the stories you tell are really going to reflect your authentic experience and you get to see the authentic experiences of other communities of color.
Epicenter: Looking ahead to the future, what are some ways you’d like to see the festival continue growing and expanding?
McMullen: Urbanworld has launched a lot of careers. So I would love to just keep doing that. I see us as a launching pad for a lot of careers, and it starts with a short film. Short films often don’t get the shine they deserve, but they’re a clear indicator of talent and voices to watch. I really hope we continue to be as careful as we have been at recognizing new talent and giving them a platform. We show all this great content for a five-day festival. And if you don’t see it at the festival, oftentimes you don’t ever get a chance to. So another way I would love to see us expand is to be able to do more year-round.