the industry

How to Get a Black-Led Indie Film Funded in Hollywood

Tessa Thompson as Irene and Bill Camp as Hugh in Passing. Photo: Netflix/YouTube

In Passing, the Rebecca Hall film based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play childhood friends who have a tense reunion in adulthood. Irene (Thompson) is a middle-class Black mother living through the Harlem Renaissance; Claire (Negga) is passing as a white woman and married to a wealthy racist white man. And yet the star some of the film’s investors were most focused upon was Benedict Cumberbatch.

The actor had voiced an interest in playing Hugh, a writer friend of Thompson’s character. The role was tiny — it would shoot over three days and account for a handful of minutes onscreen—but for certain financiers, a Dr. Strange cameo was worth more than any of the other actors (including Thompson, who had appeared alongside Cumberbatch in Avengers: Endgame). By October 2019, it became clear Cumberbatch couldn’t make the timing work. Without the white star, a few of the financiers worried the movie would no longer be a viable investment.

Shooting began at the beginning of November, and days in, the production still hadn’t cast its Hugh. One financier who had pledged 15 percent of the budget dropped out a week before principal photography began. It fell on Nina Yang Bongiovi — whose company, Significant Productions, was producing the film — to convince her investors the vision for the film was strong enough to survive the loss of a bankable white star. At one point, Thompson — also an executive producer on the film — came over as Bongiovi, Hall, and producer Margot Hand were brainstorming Cumberbatch replacements. “She was like, ‘Should I call Chris Hemsworth?’” Bongiovi recalls. They considered it for a moment before moving on — it would read too much as stunt casting to reunite Thor and Valkyrie in this period piece. Still, Bongiovi was moved; it was clear Thompson grasped the realities of how Hollywood works.

In an increasingly top-heavy industry, every non-franchise movie is a miracle. But it’s doubly so when it’s an independent movie starring Black actors. Passing is just the latest film produced by Significant Productions to encounter such challenges. Created in 2009 by Bongiovi and the actor Forest Whitaker, the company has become a pipeline to some of the industry’s buzziest independent productions, including Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, and Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brother Taught Me. 

In a different Hollywood, the producers who had discovered and championed Coogler, Riley, and Zhao would have endless cachet. Still, a decade in, every independent film they have backed has been a grind to get made. “The needle hasn’t moved much,” Bongiovi says. “It’s a continual struggle.”

Bongiovi and Whitaker met in 2009. At the time, Bongiovi (pronounced like Bon Jovi—Jon Bon Jovi happens to be her brother-in-law) was just starting out in Hollywood. Raised in East Los Angeles, she moved to Hong Kong and Shanghai after finishing her master’s degree at USC, working behind the scenes on action films. During her flights back to the U.S. from China over the years, she would see couples flying with their newly adopted babies. She never saw a Black parent, though. Bongiovi asked a friend to write a spec script about an interracial couple — a Black father and an Asian American mother — who head to China to adopt a child. When they get there, the parents face a wave of prejudice. Her connections in the Chinese film industry helped land actress Maggie Cheung. Then Bongiovi decided to take a swing: She made an offer to Whitaker’s agent. “This was a year and a half or two years after he won the Oscar for Last King of Scotland, and I’m like, He’s my ideal person to play this role,” Bongiovi tells me over lunch in Studio City. “Thinking back, I’m like, Man, I was naïve. But I think that naïveté took me far.”

Whitaker read the screenplay and called Bongiovi. He loved the idea but wanted to have his friend, screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man, The Joy Luck Club), take a pass at it. Bongiovi had a vacation planned to Shanghai to see her father and brother, which would double as research for the project; she was surprised when Whitaker said he’d like to come along. Each night, they had dinner with her family and film-industry friends. Bongiovi mainly remembers the familial humiliations — her older brother tried to sell Whitaker on Herbalife, and her father arrived with a stack of pirated DVDs of the actor’s films and had him autograph each one. But to Whitaker, Bongiovi’s ability to organize a location-scouting trip from 6,000 miles away was striking. “I got a chance to get to know her as a person,” Whitaker says. “I would find her to be a force of nature in her desires to get things made and what she’d do to get them made.”

When they returned, Bongiovi learned they were denied a permit to film in the country. She was crushed and nervous about breaking the news to Whitaker. “I remember going to his office and telling him, ‘I’m so sorry I failed,’” Bongiovi says. “I thought, That’s the last I’ll see of Forest.” But a few months later, he called again. He’d signed a television deal with ABC, and he was starting a production company. “And he goes, ‘I wanna know if you want to join me?’”

By that point, Whitaker had collected decades’ worth of Hollywood capital. Many actors cash that in for passion projects or vanity plays — “One for them and one for me” is an industry cliché for a reason. With Significant Productions, Whitaker wanted to tell human stories about people of color and to get inexperienced filmmakers in a position to make them. Their first project came about when Bongiovi got an email from a professor at the USC film school, who’d heard about Significant from a colleague. “It was like, ‘I usually don’t do this. I teach a lot of filmmakers and students, but something about Ryan’s really special. Would you meet him?’”

He was referring to Ryan Coogler, a kid from Oakland who had played college football before applying to USC for his master’s degree. His classmates had tapped their connections and landed summer internships, but he couldn’t afford to work for free. “Every chance I could get, I was going back home to the Bay Area to work to try to make money,” Coogler says. “Even though people say USC is the most industry-adjacent film school, when I was in film school, L.A. felt worlds away from the industry.”

Bongiovi and Whitaker watched five of Coogler’s short films. The storytelling was simple and raw — Locks, which has since become the most well known, featured a young Black man shaving off his dreadlocks to comfort his sister with cancer. Bongiovi saw bits of herself in the 24-year-old director: an outsider from an inner-city neighborhood who’d hustled his way into USC. Bongiovi and Whitaker invited Coogler back for a meeting at their offices by the Disney lot. “I pitched a few different projects, but Fruitvale Station was the one that really stuck with Whitaker,” Coogler says. “He was like, ‘I’d love to do it,’ right then and there.”

Fruitvale Station, an intimate portrait of Oscar Grant on the last day of his life, cost less than $1 million to make. But at the time, it was rare for studios to take a chance on an unknown Black director. This was before Justin Simien, Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, and other Black directors had gotten the opportunity to helm films and TV series. Add in that Fruitvale was the story of a police killing in Oakland, and it was a nearly impossible pitch. “I don’t know what would have happened with me if it hadn’t been for that meeting,” says Coogler. (A half-decade later, he would direct Whitaker in Black Panther and have his own office on the Disney lot.)

Soon after Significant agreed to produce the film, Michael B. Jordan signed on to play the starring role. A few financiers Bongiovi approached were still wary of the film’s prospects. They told her and Whitaker that Jordan wasn’t a star. When Octavia Spencer, who had just won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, signed on, Bongiovi told her financiers, “‘We have an Oscar winner!’ And everyone was like, ‘Well, it’s different.’”

Without a recognizable piece of intellectual property like a Marvel comic or a best-selling book, film marketing relies on the actors’ star power (or, in rare cases like Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, the director’s). And as director Shaka King told Indiewire in 2016, the industry’s tendency to prioritize white stars hinders the financial prospects of non-white films. “It’s just hard to get a feature film financed with Black people in lead roles when the industry doesn’t create Black stars,” King said. Patching together the production of Fruitvale Station took a series of hustles and favors. Bongiovi reached out to her childhood friends Michael Chow and Michael Shen, who ran the Hong Kong– and Shanghai-based MNM Creative. They put up 80 percent of the budget. Coogler’s relationships throughout Oakland made finding filming locations possible.

Fruitvale Station brought in $17.4 million on a $900,000 budget. After its critical and financial success, Bongiovi saw what she calls “the Coogler Effect”: Agents and producers who had been terrified to work with first-time directors were suddenly okay betting on them. When Coogler’s next film, Creed, made $174 million on a $35 million budget, and his third film, Black Panther, became the top-grossing superhero movie in history, bringing in $1.34 billion, Bongiovi hoped there would be a second Coogler Effect — one that convinced studios Black-led films of any scale could make money. But despite the massive successes of Get Out, Straight Outta Compton, and Girls Trip, every time Bongiovi and Whitaker went to fundraise another project — Famuyiwa’s Dope, Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and Michael Larnell’s Roxanne Roxanne — they would hear the age-old Hollywood trope: “Black films don’t travel.” It was surprising how durable the racist stigma was after directors like Coogler, Jordan Peele, and Ava DuVernay had so thoroughly disproved it. When it came time to seek funding for Passing, Bongiovi recalls pushing back against a credulous financier by asking, “What about Hidden Figures? It stars all these Black women!” They responded that it was different because Kevin Costner was in that film. “And you’re just like, What?”

Hall had written the script for Passing more than a decade ago, and in August 2018, Deadline reported Thompson and Negga would play the leads — which is why Bongiovi was surprised when she got a call from Endeavor, the production arm of the William Morris Endeavor agency, asking for her help that fall. Even with an Oscar nominee and a Marvel superhero onboard, it had proved impossible to raise the full budget of less than $10 million for the 23-day shoot. By this point, she and Whitaker had earned a reputation for getting “difficult” projects funded — perhaps they could lend their expertise?

Bongiovi was hesitant. The prospect of bringing a story about colorism, the Harlem Renaissance, and a Black middle-class family to screen excited her. But she wondered if Hall, a light-skinned actress she understood to be white, was the person to make the film. So she met her for lunch. She was surprised to learn Hall’s grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white while living in Detroit. More than that, she was impressed by how thoughtfully Hall talked through her own misgivings. Partway through the meal, Hall reached across the table and handed Bongiovi a notebook. “She’d storyboarded the entire movie by hand,” Bongiovi says. “It was mind-blowing.”

Convinced, Bongiovi reached out to Chow and Shen at MNM Creative. Significant had never lost its investors a dime, so they had faith in Whitaker and Bongiovi’s instincts. Other financiers took more convincing. They were short $500,000 weeks before filming was set to begin, and reaching their goal meant untangling a web of complicated logistics to secure two different grants. Into the third week of filming, the Hugh role remained vacant. The budgetary realities and tight timeline meant they would need an actor who lived in New York. Finally, on November 21, they landed on Bill Camp, a recognizable face and an actors’ actor but certainly not a superhero lead.

Nina Yang Bongiovi (right) speaks to executive producer Chris Liu on the set of Passing. Photo: Courtesy of Nina Bongiovi

“I immediately was like, How do I explain this to investors?” Bongiovi recalls. “And given the fact that we’ve been doing this for quite a while, I just said, ‘You gotta trust us.’ It’s about constantly reinforcing that we are choosing the best artists for the role.” Part of the reason Passing could survive the loss of Cumberbatch was Bongiovi had put together a film industry rarity: a majority Black and Asian American group of financiers who were invested in the mission of the film. (Almost 90 percent of producers on the top 300 grossing films from 2016 to 2018 were white, according to USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative’s 2019 study; 1.6 percent were women of color.)

There’s no doubt having Cumberbatch in the trailer would have made Bongiovi’s role selling Passing easier. Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment has long leveraged Pitt’s star power to get films made. Pitt told Vulture in 2013 his appearance in the Plan B–backed 12 Years a Slave was “a cameo in support of the film,” but on the Italian poster for the film, Pitt and Michael Fassbender’s faces were front and center. Distributors weigh a film’s ability to perform internationally when calculating their purchase prices. The long-held perception that Black films don’t do well internationally leads to films starring Black actors getting smaller distribution deals. Black films don’t travel because they have never been allowed to travel. The institutional bias becomes part of the model.

Passing debuted this January at Sundance to warm reviews, and Netflix paid nearly $16 million to acquire the worldwide-distribution rights — one of the largest deals in the festival’s history. Still, Bongiovi is wary. She told me her agent called after Minari won Sundance 2020 to inform her that “multi-cultural stories are a hit!” Then, last summer as Black Lives Matter protests rippled throughout the country, there was a scramble in Hollywood’s C-suites to green-light Black stories. She worried the energy was performative. For Bongiovi, true change will only come when studios invest in not just making but also marketing Black stories. She knows that for the industry to embrace Black storytelling, the studios need to see there’s commercial value in bringing these stories to the screen. “No one’s ever wanted to take a risk,” Bongiovi says. “So if they devalue it up front, how are you even gonna give it a chance to live?”

How to Get a Black-Led Indie Film Funded in Hollywood