Tommy Nichols hadn’t lived in his adopted city 12 months when he decided it needed a black film festival.
His timing in the summer of 2010 was accidentally perfect: Black film entrepreneur Dennis Darrell had died that May. The Charlotte African-American Film Festival started by Floyd and Stephanie Rance had recently entered a coma from which it has yet to emerge.
So Nichols inaugurated the Charlotte Black Film Festival during CIAA week in winter 2011. He earned the right to call it an annual event the next year, and it returns Thursday with three days of panels and screenings.
The festival isn’t Nichols’ livelihood: He runs Glorified Media, a film and video company under whose aegis the CBFF operates. But it has, these days, become his life:
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“Right now, I’m spending 14 hours a day on it,” he says, over coffee at a Starbucks on West Trade St. “My life isn’t balanced until this thing is over.”
He’ll get his emotional payoff Thursday at the Mint Museum Uptown. There he’ll kick off the fest from 6 to 10 p.m. with a networking reception, a panel titled “How to Find a Mate, and Why I Am Single?” and a regional premiere of “24 Hour Love,” a drama about commitment starring Tatyana Ali, Malinda Williams and Keith Robinson.
Things come to a head Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m. at the UNCC Center City Building with the Vision Awards, a ceremony with a comedian as host, live music, dance performances and prizes for best film and acting. Nichols will honor Darrell with an award presented in his name to a visionary.
It’s not just about the movies
The word “vision” crops up a lot in the 53-year-old Nichols’ conversation. He wants this festival to do more than show films and showcase speakers.
“The ultimate goal is to be a brokerage house, to have the industry look at Charlotte as a place where minorities create content and you can find casts and crews,” he says. “I think you’ll see a little bit more of that every year.”
To that end, the festival offers two days’ worth of workshops at the Center City Building. They range from “Women in Film and Entertainment,” featuring professionals from around the country, to “Pitch Me!” Nichols calls that one “speed dating for filmmakers: We give an overview of how to pitch an idea for a film, and you get quick sessions where you pitch to professionals and are critiqued.”
The biggest name this year will be Chicago native Mark Harris, who’ll lead “How to Write a Hollywood Script” Friday morning. (That session, like most, costs $25.) Harris has written six features and produced or directed others, including “The Good Life” and “Black Butterfly.”
Independent films will screen Friday and Saturday afternoons; Nichols says submissions more than doubled this year, from 16 to 35. The festival’s other stand-along feature is “The Tree Widow,” part of a Friday panel and screening titled “God, Faith & Film.”
Says Nichols, “The two main (genres) urban audiences support are relationship films and faith films. We’ve covered both of those.”
Nichols had no template when he began, but that has never fazed him.
“Everyone was blue-collar where I came from,” he says of Dayton, Ohio. “I had no models, if I wanted to work in the white-collar world. So I examined the behavior of white men who were doing what I wanted to do: how they spoke, shook hands, conducted themselves. I learned from that.”
He moved here in 2009 to be nearer his extended family. His mother came from Winston-Salem, his father from Shelby. His grandfather, he recalls, once owned a tract of Mount Holly land so big it was dubbed Nicholsville.
Once again, he discovered how a community functioned. He learned from folks at CPCC, the Light Factory, Johnson C. Smith University and in local politics, then gathered an eight-member board and got underway.
The first year, he says, he ran the festival with little help and fronted his own money. When the community realized it wouldn’t disappear, “people started coming out of the weeds.”
Though the fest runs during CIAA week to piggyback on the audiences coming to Charlotte, it actually has year-round elements: a Late Movie Fridays screening series, a bimonthly meet-up group for black actors, writers and filmmakers, and a summer camp for young people. (Work done there on this year’s topic, “Stop the Bullying,” will be seen in a short film program Saturday morning.)
His festival and other film endeavors share an aim: To expose people to the possibility of making a living in a field they may never have considered.
“Exposure is the thing that may separate a future cab driver or janitor from a filmmaker,” Nichols says. “When we expose people to these possibilities, seeds are being watered.”