How to Win $1 Million for Your Film? Pitch, Pitch, Pitch

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Dream makers: From center left, the actors Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Mackie, with Josh Deutsch, chief executive of Downtown Records, and director Lee Daniels, foreground, hear filmmakers’ pitches for a $1 million prize. Credit Phillip David Nondorf for The New York Times

It was the chance of a lifetime. It was a terror like no other.

Five promising filmmakers, most young and all hungry, were competing for a $1 million grant to make a feature that would have its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next year. The money came from AT&T, and the setup was very “Shark Tank”: They would have 10 minutes to pitch their movie to a jury whose members included Lee Daniels, Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Mackie.

The idea was hatched earlier this year when Fiona Carter, AT&T’s chief brand officer, asked Jane Rosenthal, the executive chair of Tribeca Enterprises, how to get more women and minorities making films.

Giving someone $1 million, Ms. Rosenthal replied, would certainly help; most indie filmmakers have to scramble for a hodgepodge of funds and grants.

So Ms. Carter made it happen. The winning film will stream on AT&T platforms, including DirecTV Now, and the four runners-up will each pocket $10,000.

Staffers at the festival and the Tribeca Film Institute sifted through hundreds of entries, looking for strong projects that were ready to go, and the final five were chosen.

All the filmmakers had to do was win over Mr. Daniels and company.

“There’s no other grant like this in the country, if not the world, that gives a cool mil to a film,” said Ani Simon-Kennedy, 29, who was pitching “The Short History of the Long Road,” about a teenager living nomadically in a van. “There’s so much on the line, and the jurors are mere feet away. You could sit on their laps.”

On Monday each team arrived at the Tribeca Film Center to run their spiels by institute staff members and get tips (among them, “Relay a sense of urgency”). Next, they practiced on set, walking from backstage into a blaze of lights, and facing a stand-in jury. The reality-show feel of it left them all, to a one, unnerved.

Faraday Okoro, whose film, “Nigerian Prince,” explores the back stories of email scammers, fretted about his delivery. “I’m better one-on-one, or two-on-two,” he said. “It’s all in the prep.”


The filmmaker A. Sayeeda Moreno, whose project “I’m Not Down” was a finalist for a $1 million grant, applauds the prizewinner at a lunch in TriBeCa yesterday. Credit Phillip David Nondorf for The New York Times

Andres Perez-Duarte, whose “Forever, Even Longer” tells of a Mexican father coming to terms with his estranged gay son, worried that he’d be self-conscious about his English pronunciation. For a morale booster, he said, “I’m going to look for that one person who’s smiling in the room.”

On Tuesday the teams showed up at the Film Center, wearing their Sunday best, racked by nerves and sleep deprived.

Mr. Okoro had spent the previous night and predawn hours rehearsing every 30 minutes. Derek Nguyen, who, with A. Sayeeda Moreno, was pitching “I’m Not Down,” about a fight against gentrification in the East Village, paced the block outside.

Around 9 a.m., Mr. Daniels, Mr. Wright and Mr. Mackie joined the other jurors: Ms. Carter; Len Amato, the president of HBO Films; Josh Deutsch, chief executive of Downtown Music; and Frida Torresblanco, whose production credits include “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Things went pretty smoothly. Pitching her film, “The Hand of God,” about a child refugee who goes on to soccer superstardom, Lissette Feliciano found herself impassioned to the point of tears.

“Well, I love it!” Mr. Daniels declared after she wrapped.

Soon before 11 a.m., the jurors repaired to deliberate behind closed doors. Minutes ticked by. They were scheduled to appear on the red carpet for a noon luncheon, but noon ticked by, too. Someone stuck a head in to say time was up but was shooed away.

Finally, nearly two hours after the jury began, a decision was reached. Speaking to The New York Times later, Mr. Daniels said the judges had pored over the entrants’ short films, and two projects were neck and neck. “I found it very, very humbling,” he said, “because it’s a million dollars.”

The jurors headed around the corner to the restaurant Thalassa, where glamorous pre-luncheon cocktails were in full swing. Robert De Niro was milling about, and so were the actors Emily Mortimer, Alessandro Nivola, Cynthia Erivo and Malik Yoba.


Filmmaker Faraday Okoro in Tribeca on Tuesday. Credit Phillip David Nondorf for The New York Times

Finally, after salads were served, Ms. Carter summoned the other jurors to the front of the room. “This was astonishingly moving for us all,” she told the crowd, before announcing the winner: “Nigerian Prince.”

Beaming, Mr. Okoro approached the front of the room, where Mr. Daniels leaned over to him and stage-whispered, “Your movie better be good.”

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