Today marks a rare occasion in North American movie-going as an anthology of short films will be released via Virtual Cinemas across the US and Canada. While presenting short films theatrically is not unheard of, what differentiates Who Will Start Another Fire, a 9-film collection of otherwise unrelated films, is the absence of star power, award-season hype, or tentpole tie-ins. Instead, it is the debut release from a new startup called Dedza, spear-headed by its magnetic founder, the 21-year-old Kate Gondwe, and which is dedicated to a curatorial approach to acquisition that targets creators from underrepresented communities.
With partnership from Kino Lorber, whom Gondwe pitched the idea after interning with the company, Gondwe is seeking to found a sustainable model for shorts distribution and community-building, one that leverages the radical new developments in strategy that the indie feature distribution space has developed in recent years. Learning from her experience at stops like Kino Lorber, as well as NEON and Mubi, in addition to the release in Virtual Cinemas Who Will Start Another Fire will simultaneously premiere on Kino Lorber’s SVOD service, KinoNOW, and pursue opportunities in areas like educational licensing.
A lot of what Gondwe discusses with us is contrary to ideas we’ve formulated in articles like Be Everywhere All At Once, yet this tension is productive and we hope useful, especially to the filmmakers in our audience. The disruption that COVID precipitated has lead to many initiatives that seek to upend established ways of doing things, and we can’t help but be enthused by the energy Gondwe brings to Dedza’s goal of amplifying the work of diverse filmmakers, and also in working to bring adapt distribution and promotional practices from the wider industry to the short film space.
We caught up with Gondwe, as well Aaron Hunt, Dedza’s VP, to ask them questions about the release, their new company, and what niche they think Dedza is addressing in the short film market. My conversation with them is presented below and has been edited for flow and clarity.
Jason: Let’s get started with a boring, functional question, but Kate, can you describe, in your own words, Dedza’s mission?
Kate: Upon creating Dedza I had a lot of thoughts and ideas around the impact that COVID had put on our industry, especially around festival play, which is a large part of how short films have their theatrical run. (The space) where filmmakers could actually have a distribution strategy for their short is usually through festivals. During that time, which was August to May, a lot of festivals obviously had to be put on pause. A lot of films had their premiere status either changed or they just didn’t have a festival run during that year.
You have festivals like South by Southwest and MailChimp doing something really amazing, where they actually still put their shorts online and that’s a really incredible thing that I really am inspired by. But there are still so many other shorts that just weren’t able to have that festival strategy and route which is needed for a filmmaker to not only propel themselves but also for that film to be met with a community and audience.
There are so many shorts that weren’t able to engage in a general conversation with the community and that’s the number one thing I think is so important with cinema and also distribution—that community aspect. How you can, once you actually have a distribution strategy and your film is on the big screen, have a larger impact because your film is actually engaging in some sort of discourse and dialogue with other people.
Jason: Yes, I saw in the press materials for Who Will Start Another Fire that COVID was a big factor for your inspiration in creating this. The follow-up question then is as the world, knock on wood, starts moving back to normal, how do you envision Dedza going forward as some of the unique circumstances that led to its birth start to lose their relevance?
Kate: During my research, I had spoken to a lot of other filmmakers who were in the short space, and most of my research dealt with just looking at different distribution routes for short films. Theatrically it’s still an issue, it’s still really hard to find distribution for short films, theatrically.
I think that a lot of the distribution space really revolves around online. Filmmakers have this choice either to have an online premiere or, if they do get acquired by a distributor, it’s a streamer like Netflix or HBO. And that depends on if it’s going to get awards play, or if it’s going to be a part of an Oscar campaign, otherwise you don’t necessarily get that huge press run for your film. You don’t get that huge push that’s needed for your film to not just be a part of “content”, that’s just a pile on their platform.
“There’s a reason why we care about this film, and there’s a reason why this film should be out there”
What we’re doing is trying to make sure that the audience that is engaged with Dedza and the community that we’re trying to build around us really feels that we’re actually picking these films for a reason and that there’s a curation part of it. We spent a long time on it and our acquisition process is very different from a traditional distributor’s because there is a real curatorial-based aspect in how we approach picking films.
I wouldn’t say, especially with this first release, that the way that we did acquisitions revolved around questions like, “does this film have a sound business behind it in terms of there being something comparable in the marketplace? Are there other films that we can base this short off of that can help us understand the box office for it, or if it’s the right acquisition to be making for a company?” That’s not how we’re picking shorts. I would say that’s more suitable for features obviously because in the shorts space you don’t necessarily know, we don’t know just yet how much a film would make. It’s so hard to find comps for that.
So it’s less about the financial model and budget within acquisitions and more about the artistic merit of the short and also the filmmaker themselves. Do we feel this filmmaker aligns with Dedza? We have general meetings with all of our filmmakers and in that meeting, we’re able to discuss not only Dedza, but about them and their goals and their missions and their plans. I think after that we really, as a team, collectively come together and be like, “Okay, this filmmaker and this film means something really special, does it match and align with what we’re trying to do with this collection?”
We want the people that engage with us to feel they’re actually being met with a film that was considered—that there was a plan behind it, that there’s a reason why we care about this film, and there’s a reason why this film should be out there. And one last thing—Dedza was also formed, not just because of the short space, but because of my experience in distribution. I had been an intern at Kino Lorber and I’ve now interned at other companies and it’s so rare to see black people, quite frankly, in this space. I don’t think that we’re there yet, but there is a large part of Dedza I would like to focus on how can we change that? I think that having my presence a part of Dedza, there’s a lot of action because of that. To continue to go forward and focusing on how we can, as a company, better provide change and conversation consistently (is a priority).
Jason: Diversity has been a grassroots push in the industry for a few years now, and industry is paying attention and enacting initiatives (even if sometimes it is only lip service) do you find that the time is right for a company like Dedza?
Kate: When it comes to diversity and inclusion in this industry, it so often is a trend, and whenever black death happens, it tends to arise even more. I’m so sick and tired of that because this should just be something that should be implemented and just be the standard going forward and it’s just not.
I felt what was happening in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and with other issues that were occurring at that time in this country, it felt urgent to do Dedza. I’m still in undergrad, and I’m still interning, but it’s really shifted my life, and all of our lives as a team really, in a very exciting way. I think the urgency of Dedza is mainly to do with so many stale responses to the BLM movement from industries and corporations that really ignited a fire in me to keep going, especially when it got hard.
As you know from running Short of the Week, it’s not easy to create something, and it’s not easy to stick with something for so long. It takes a lot of dedication and love, and it’s not only our filmmakers, it’s also that idea that there actually is some change that we can implement with Dedza that can hopefully be long lasting and that can sustain and be here even when this trend of supporting people of color ends.
Jason: You mentioned being an undergrad and intern, and a lot of the buzz I’ve heard around Dedza is based on your precocity as a young person. You talked a little bit about your inspiration in terms of why you felt it was important, particularly in creating something that’s enduring, even after the energy around BLM, as you suggest, may evaporate in the future. What gave you the confidence to say that, “Yes, I am the person who should do this,” and that you had the abilities and skills to take this on? What has been challenging so far? What do you feel you learned in this initial process as you’re on the brink of your first release?
Kate: Yeah. I think I would love for Aaron to also answer the second aspect, because I think there’s a mutual feeling of what was difficult. The confidence aspect I think is, growing up I had a love for cinema and I was actually met with the support that I think so often women and particularly black women, don’t necessarily get in this industry starting off.
I was met with people that saw my love and passion and wanted to support me. Because of that happening at a young age, I never got shut down and that helped. Also, the way I was raised and my perspective on life, I think that really helped. If you really think about, it’s kind of insane and stupid that I really felt I could do this, but the fact that it actually happened and we actually are releasing is inspiring.
“I wanted to help people that look like me be able to have this opportunity”
Sometimes it’s hard to feel proud of yourself because you forget that this is something that is so new. But then you have moments like this, where you ask questions like that. I do realize that, “Oh my gosh, we really did this, this is fucking insane”.
But there’s still so much that I want to continue doing with Dedza. To be honest, it wasn’t perfect and I’ve learnt so much within distribution—I’ve been working in the industry as well as doing Dedza, and because of that, it’s opened so many more doors for me and I’ve met so many other people. We like to have conversations with other people, especially people in the short space and learn from them and vice versa.
I think any entrepreneur has a moment where you do something and you don’t necessarily think about it as “this might be actually insane and might completely change your life.” I don’t know if it’s that drastic for Dedza, but I think that there was this idea that I wanted to help people that look like me be able to have this opportunity. I was upset because there was no one else really doing something at the time.
Jason: I want to follow up a bit about the program itself and Dedza’s curatorial values because as you mentioned earlier Kate, that’s a very important aspect to your approach.
Maybe Aaron you can handle this: What are the curatorial priorities for Dedza? Besides highlighting underrepresented communities, are there particular values or points of view that you prioritize in your programming?
Aaron: I think something Kate talks about is that we didn’t want to acquire “issue films”—films by filmmakers of color that are purely about race or politics. I think our films acknowledge all these intersections: race, class, sexuality, gender identity, history, etc. and live in that world and they’re conscious of it. But they’re about other things too, they’re about a slice of life, intimate relationships, they just happened to acknowledge those larger contexts without being about those things, or checking a box.
Jason: Can you talk briefly about the process of acquiring the films? How are you sourcing them? How are you discovering them? What’s the pitch to filmmakers? What’s the value prop that you’re describing to them?
Kate: In terms of acquisitions, obviously we offer our films and filmmakers an MG (Minimum guarantee), and we have those general meetings which give us a time to meet the filmmakers and go over what they want and how they envision the distribution strategy for their film—who do they want to engage with?
In terms of the acquisitions process, I worked closely with Kinos legal team and Wendy Lidell, who is head of their acquisitions department, and really learned about the business. I would say that now, after working more on acquisitions, there are different things that I would do within the short space. We learned so much more about, not only how to properly structure short films within distribution, but also what are the films that make sense for certain packages.
There are many ways to acquire rights for a short film that make sense and are suitable to the film. It’s a very different short that is suitable for EDU versus other rights and routes. I think that there are shorts that are more suitable for Svod (subscription video on demand) and Avod (advertising-based video on demand) than they are for Tvod (transactional video on demand). It’s very much like in the feature space, where different stories are meant for different routes and strategies for distribution. I think that’s something that’s actually quite exciting and interesting to figure out within the short space.
“So much of what we’re doing is making sure that there’s a reason why this market should engage”
I would also say that even theatrically, if we were to do another release where we had more of an omnibus series of shorts, it would feel different than if we were to pair a short with a feature—that would be a completely different short. There’d be a reason why we’re picking that short, which is different than the shorts that we have in our collection.
Acquiring Svod and Avod rights also changes a lot, because then we’re now able to have the chance to do more standalone shorts. However I definitely think that the collection route, as of right now, is the best model to do the theatrical runs for the film and having a rollout plan.
Within that, we’ve learnt so much more about which exhibitors are interested, and regionally what spaces make sense. You’re competing for the screen. Especially now that you’re able to have a theatrical release in person and cinemas are opening back up, it changes a lot.
Jason: What you’re describing is pretty unique in the short space. It’s not so much that you’re reinventing the wheel, but if you are indeed bringing a lot of what has been formulated and tried and tested in the feature distribution space and bringing it to shorts. Other companies have not found the value in that, or do not think it’s viable. I think it’s going to be a really fascinating test case to learn from your experience, whether or not shorts can benefit from this kind of strategy.
I want to dive into one last aspect, which is Scrapbook. Scrapbook is kind of near and dear to our hearts, addressing as it does the lack of quality criticism in the short space. This was, in a lot of ways, the inspiration for creating Short of the Week so long ago. Why is the Scrapbook content important? What is your vision for how this aspect will grow? What are the sort of values that you’re trying to cultivate there?
Aaron: As you know, it is so rare and so difficult for shorts to get covered and for there to be a conversation around shorts. They come into the world and there’s… I don’t know… a little buzz, but it’s not comparable to the way features have criticism and debates within criticism. It’s difficult to sustain a conversation that helps shorts have a longer life.
It’s also rare for shorts by filmmakers of color, or marginalized filmmakers, to be written about. It’s even more rare for them to be written about by critics of color or marginalized critics. I think Scrapbook is creating a rare space for an actual conversation around these films. I think even when films by filmmakers of color come out into the world, often a lot of the criticism is by white critics and it’s filtered through this Western gaze, so the conversation that they do get is not really sustaining it in the correct way or preserving it. Scrapbook is our humble step towards making a space where the right words can preserve these films and hopefully create more conversation around them.
Jason: A lot of festivals are thinking in this way too. I know TIFF, for example, is running inclusivity programs for critics in order to cultivate more diverse voices for the people who are talking about the films as well. How are you sourcing the writers that you’re inviting to Scrapbook? Obviously the goal is to create a better conversation for your filmmakers, but do you also have aspirations for what you can achieve by platforming these critics?
Aaron: Definitely. In terms of how I found them, mostly it was Twitter. A lot of aspiring critics are starting out on Twitter and blogging and writing for free and really desperately trying to write something and they are creating a body of work. But it is difficult.
“Critics of color get boxed into writing about films about race or very specific subjects. We wanted to mix it up”
Jason: Do you find this is mostly on private blogs or are they using Letterboxd or other sort of social platforms for this body of work that they’re building?
Aaron: There are blogs and then, honestly, there are a lot of websites that don’t pay writers that are, I don’t want to say names, but that kind of survive off the free writing of all these critics.
What we want with Scrapbook is, that even in the design of it, we’re really centering the critic, where they get an author bio and a whole spread at the end and they get to shout out other organizations. They get to see their work, get a treatment that it doesn’t typically receive.
I also think critics of color get boxed into writing about films about race or very specific subjects. We wanted to mix it up, we want to create a space where they are not limited to that. I gave them a lot of choice and what films they wrote about.
Jason: Thank you both. I think there’s probably 10 topics that we touched on that I could go deeper with you, but I think this is really interesting and exciting.
Before we wrap up here, is there anything that we didn’t touch upon or some final thoughts that you want to hopefully communicate to the Short of the Week audience?
Kate: No, but thank you so much for this opportunity. I would love to have a conversation about Short of the Week and talk with you more about your process and experiences too!