Miami Beach has been the host city for the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for 17 of its 25 years. Seeking to keep the festival here for at least the next couple of years, City Commissioners gave preliminary approval to $200,000 in sponsorship money for events in 2021 and 2022. The funding still needs final approval when Commissioners vote on the FY 2021-22 budget in September, but support for the festival was clear at a recent budget briefing.
Mayor Dan Gelber who has focused on strengthening the City’s reputation as an arts and culture destination said, “I think if we want to rebrand our city we have to have at least a handful of anchor events that we make a commitment to support.” Noting Art Basel and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, he said the ABFF should be another anchor event.
“It’s the kind of event that attracts worldwide attention in exactly the way we want it to be so I think if you want to do that you have to support them,” he added. “We’ve got to give them a sense that they are our partner in this… they’re helpful to our city.”
“We give money to the Super Bowl and other groups as well which, obviously, have a big economic impact but this is a group that will be coming every year, so we ought to let them know that we’re there for them,” Gelber said.
Jeff Friday, who founded the festival in 1997, said the first five ABFF events took place in Acapulco, Mexico. After the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau’s David Whitaker sold him on Miami Beach, Friday brought ABFF here in 2002 where it has continued annually for all but four years since. (Whitaker will be coming back to the area himself as the newly appointed President and CEO of the GMCVB.)
“We’ve left twice and I want to be very honest about why. Money,” Friday told the Mayor and Commissioners. In the years the festival was not here, it was held in Los Angeles and New York.
“It’s very expensive to get celebrities to leave their cushy homes and come to Miami,” he said. The moves to LA and New York were “solely driven by economics.”
“I have an African-American-owned company. My wife and I own our company,” Friday emphasized. “We have six employees and, to be very frank, we struggle to do this every year… It’s difficult to raise the money to bring this event here.” Friday and his wife, Nicole, own and operate ABFF Ventures, an entertainment company specializing in the production of live and digital events. "The company’s primary mission is to create properties that entertain, educate and inspire communities of color while showcasing the work of Black artists and content creators in Hollywood," according to ABFF Ventures website. "ABFFV also regularly provides consulting services to studios and networks aimed at marketing content targeted toward African American audiences as well as companies looking to secure talent for promotional engagements."
ABFF plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary in Miami Beach, November 3-7, Friday told Commissioners. “We plan to stay here for as long as I’m doing this.”
The event, he said, attracts “Black celebrities and a 90% African American audience,” adding he is “very proud of the type of audience that comes here.”
Addressing recent incidents and tensions, Friday told Commissioners, “I also would recommend, to the degree that you’re willing, that the City lean into us more to help drive the kind of relationship with Black people and Black culture… It pains me to see some of the images that I see on television. I don’t want to pretend I don’t see them. I do. And I want to be a part of the solution.”
Friday highlighted some of the other community benefits, including quarterly seminars that would focus on how to get into the entertainment business and internships.
“I’m very dialed in to the responsibility that we would have to bring a community benefit here,” he said. “We’re not here just doing an event. We really consider ourselves a platform to help you guys have a better relationship with the African American community. That’s my commitment.”
Gelber said the ABFF is “consistent with who we are but also who we aspire to be which is a cultural capital.”
Connie Kinnard, VP of Multicultural Tourism & Development for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) agrees. “In our efforts to attract more conventions, festivals and events to Greater Miami and Miami Beach, the national visibility with the American Black Film Festival is important in helping encourage other cultural groups of the same realm to consider Miami for a meeting destination,” she wrote in an email to RE:MiamiBeach. “The longevity of the ABFF and their commitment to bringing the main festival back annually speaks to the type of partnerships that we as a Bureau and the city of Miami Beach want to continue to build.”
According to ABFF’s website, it is “the nation’s largest gathering of Black film and television enthusiasts” attracting “a broad audience of celebrity talent, emerging artists, upscale consumers and industry stakeholders.”
“Historically,” ABFF says, “7,000 to 10,000 people have traveled to Miami Beach each year for the event.”
“While the festival is widely known for promoting what’s hot in Black film and television, our most significant work is to uplift new voices,” ABFF notes. “What began as an endeavor to showcase the work of African American filmmakers has grown into a global celebration of Black culture, pride and strength. Among our most esteemed accomplishments are the ABFF images and artifacts that the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has included in its permanent collection in Washington, D.C.”
The last festival was held in Miami Beach in 2019. It is usually held every June but was cancelled last year due to COVID with the 2021 festival delayed until November of this year. With the City’s fiscal year running from October 1 to September 30, that means two events – the one in November and the 2022 event in June – will fall into the same fiscal year. Despite the heavy lift for the coming budget year, Commissioners agreed it was an important event for the City and allocated $200,000 – $100,000 for the November event and $100,000 for June. The event that will be held in 2023 will go through the City’s new events sponsorship process.
Photo courtesy ABFF
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