How independent movies, lagging in funding and promotion, are getting a boost from big media

Donovan Russo, special to
Faraday Okoro, director of "The Nigerian Prince"
Sheldon Chau via Vertical/AT&T Tribeca

With the help of one of the biggest names in media, Faraday Okoro recently achieved a feat most aspiring filmmakers can only dream about.

"Nigerian Prince," Okoro's cinematic labor of love, tells the story of a teenage boy sent to Nigeria by his mother against his will, but ends up teaming up with others to scam unsuspecting foreigners to buy a ticket back to America. After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, the film debuted in wide release last month thanks in large part to a $1 million award Okoro won from AT&T.

"Working with AT&T was great. For the most part, they were not cooks in the kitchen," the 31-year old New York University graduate told CNBC recently. With AT&T's help, Okoro became the latest recipient in a class of independent film makers that are getting a boost from established media companies to promote their works.

"For a debut feature, that's invaluable," Okoro said. "You just get to make a film with your voice."

While the movie industry earns billions per year, those vast sums rarely — if ever — trickle down to independent features, which are largely starved for money and attention.

Within the last decade, only a rare club of independently-produced movies — including Weinstein Co's "Django Unchained", Lionsgate's "La La Land" and Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire" — have attained critical acclaim and commercial viability, with only a few of those earning more than $100 million domestically, according to data from Exhibitor Relations. The ones that do take off usually have A-list talent at their disposal.

In 2017, AT&T teamed up with Tribeca Film Institute to create Untold Stories, a program that promotes diverse storytelling by providing funding, mentorship and distribution to filmmaking beginners each year. The winner's project also appears at the Tribeca Film Festival, and AT&T's video platforms across the U.S.

'A significant barrier'

Faraday Okoro, director of "The Nigerian Prince"
Sheldon Chau via Vertical/AT&T Tribeca

The telecom giant's lifeline to movie making industry aspirants comes during a particularly flush time for Tinseltown. To date, 2018 has been a banner year at the box office, with the top 10 movies reaping a whopping $10 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo data.

Yet those sums eclipse the sort of business most indie films usually see. The top 10 pulled in just over $600 million collectively in 2017, according to Karibe Bible, a box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, and not a single 2018 release has grossed over $100 million.

Those sums underscore how, for every hit like "Avengers: Infinity War," "Black Panther" and "Jurassic World", scores of independently produced movies remain underfinanced and under-promoted.

Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Drax (Dave Bautista), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) in "Avengers: Infinity War" from Disney and Marvel Studios
Source: Walt Disney

Yet observers like Kia Afra, a professor and film expert at Chapman University, remain unimpressed. Afra pointed out that independent movies like "Nigerian Prince" still languish in relative obscurity, despite their high profile backing.

"As Steven Soderbergh has stated, it's now easy to make a film, but hard to get someone to see it," Afra told CNBC recently. "In other words, independent production is cheaper and more accessible than at any time, but distribution remains a significant barrier," said Afra.

He also pointed out that aside from AT&T, behemoths like Amazon and Sony are also active in the indie movie game – even producing Oscar winners like "Manchester by the Sea." The influence of major media players may not be entirely beneficial, he argued.

"It's quite revealing that the major independents or mini-majors of the 1980s (e.g., Miramax, Orion, Tri-Star, Carolco) were ether dissolved or absorbed by larger media conglomerates," he said, citing =former indie powerhouses like Miramax, Orion, Tri-Star and Carolco, specifically. Their wane coincided with "Hollywood majors...taking over the independent field," said Afra.

This glut of cheap, digitally produced films means that the financial prospects for the average indie film are not good at all, unless a major star is attached.
Kia Afra
professor and film expert, Chapman University

"So, indeed, we now have massive conglomerates with their hands in the indie pie, but what about truly independent producer-distributors or the mini-majors?" he asked. "The latter are all gone except for Lionsgate," Afra added, which is rumored to be in the market for a possible buyout.

For indie movies to be truly successful, "word of mouth and social media presence are major components for the success of independent films, much like they are for blockbusters, but on a vastly different scale," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for Box

"Indie films still have an important place in the world of movies. For filmmakers, they are often the gateway into more projects throughout their career," he added.

Okoro hailed AT&T's involvement, and the boost it gives to emerging film makers. "To do a feature at this scale shows the industry what I'm capable of," he said. "With AT&T's backing, they are ready to help you. They have validated what you are doing."

However, Chapman University's Afra voiced skepticism that big media was the solution to the independent film market's woes.

"This glut of cheap, digitally produced films means that the financial prospects for the average indie film are not good at all, unless a major star is attached," he said. "There will always be micro-budget indie films" that get backing from major film festivals and media giants, he said, "but that is the exception and not the rule."

—By Donovan Russo, special to