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Filmmakers Vie for $10,000 Prize at American Black Film Festival

The American Black Film Festival, running Wednesday, June 14, through Sunday, June 18 in Miami, has been plugged into black film and TV culture for more than two decades.

The casts of OWN’s Queen Sugar and HBO’s Insecure will roll through, and attendees can get first looks at new docs on Dr. Dre and Biggie Smalls.

There’ll also be master classes, such as Producing with Stephanie Allain (Hustle & Flow, Dear White People), TV One’s screenplay competition, and plenty of stars to gaze upon, including Regina Hall, ABFF’s Ambassador this year.

But for the lucky filmmakers who ascended to the top five in HBO's Short Film Competition, everything will be leading up to the moment, on Saturday night, when they find out if they’ve taken the top prize—and the $10,000 that goes with it.

Winnings for the four runners up won’t be too shabby either; they walk with $5000, and all the filmmakers score a two-year licensing deal to have their projects shown on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand, according to Dennis Williams, the company’s Senior Vice President for Corporate Social Responsibility.

This year marks the 20th that the premium cable channel has sponsored the competition.

Dennis Williams, Senior Vice President for Corporate Social Responsibility. Courtesy of HBO Connect

And the nominees are:

Amelia’s Closet about a girl who gets revenge on bullying classmates by taking their stuff.

Gema, a twist on the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” concept.

Plaquemines, which ventures into a dying fishing Louisiana town, where a boy is uncertain about following in his father’s footsteps.

See You Yesterday (presented by Spike Lee), which follows two teen scientists whose time machine alters the past—or so they hope—to stop a loved one from being killed by police.

And We Love Moses, set in London, tracks a girl obsessed with her brother's best friend, and the surprising turn it takes.

A scene from "Amelia's Closet" written and directed by Halima Lucas. Courtesy of: HBO, Inc.

While some of the projects clearly benefited from sizeable budgets, clever writing lifted the others that were made on a shoestring.

Related: The New York African Film Festival Turns 24

“It’s not always the shiniest film. It’s the skill with which it’s executed, the vision,” Williams said. “I remember a very low budget (competition) film about a young Haitian kid struggling to get the resources to go to college. You or I could’ve shot it on our iPhones, but our execs went crazy for it; it was smart, heartfelt, and nuanced,” he added.

The ability for people of color to be able to tell meaningful stories is particularly important because many don’t have access to film school, Williams says, but adds that that is not necessarily an impediment: “Some of the best actors are not always classically trained [either]; they show what’s in their hearts, and connect with everyone.”

Jerome Holder stars as Moses in the short-film "We Love Moses." Courtesy of HBO, Inc.

The opportunity to connect is another prize of the competition. “In this business, it’s who you know, and who knows you. HBO can be a calling card for the young filmmakers who are selected to participate; they gain recognition by being associated with our brand and our executives, and use them as a springboard," says Williams. “It happens organically, and an exec may gravitate to the way a filmmaker tells a story, their talent, bring them in for meetings, and stay in touch, which can be as valuable as the [monetary] prize.”

Related: Black Filmmakers Take on Sundance Film Festival

Williams points to how show runner Issa Rae, about to enter a second season at HBO with her comedy Insecure, broke through because her name was one that people were talking about, and more importantly writing about. "The story goes that our president of programming read about Rae’s web series MisAdventures of Awkward Black Girl, thought she sounded fantastic, and discovered a new, emerging talent.”

The exec recalls several highlights from his years attending ABFF: Lee Daniels bringing his film Shadowboxer; the cast and creator of a new (now classic) HBO series called the Wire doing a panel at ABFF, and Ryan Coogler, who won the 2011 Shorts competition long before his films Fruitvale Station, Creed, and the upcoming Black Panther.

“And if you have gotten your start through ABFF,” Williams says, “it’s important to continue to come back [and support] the next generation of filmmakers.”

A scene from "Gema" a short-film written & directed by Kenrick Prince. Courtesy of HBO, Inc.

The exec never misses the fest. “Most of my team goes, too. It’s our signature marquis sponsorship event of the year, and the one we have the longest history with. [ABFF founder] Jeff Friday had a vision to tell black stories with black filmmakers, and we felt this could and should be recognized.”

Friday is equally grateful. "Our 20-year relationship with HBO has evolved into an amazing partnership... I look forward to what our continued partnership will foster.”

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