AT&T Gives Indie Directors $1 Million to Reach a Wider Audience

(Bloomberg) -- As AT&T Inc. reinvents itself as a “modern media company,” one of its first initiatives focuses on movies and shows made by women, immigrants and people of color.

Exhibit A is “Nigerian Prince,” director Faraday Okoro’s glimpse into the West African country’s scamming industry. On Friday, AT&T made it available to its 140 million customers across properties including DirecTV, U-verse and DirecTV Now, a live, online TV and video-on-demand service.

Okoro received $1 million in funding for the film via a year-old program called AT&T Presents: Untold Stories, designed to identify and fund feature-length films by independent directors, to be distributed across AT&T’s various outlets.

AT&T makes this push as the entertainment industry grapples with a shortage of female and non-white directors and showrunners for both the big and small screen. Of the films screened at the Sundance Film Festival from 2002 to 2013, 80 percent have been directed by white people, according to researchers at University of Southern California.

Other media companies are also pouring resources into elevating the work of underrepresented groups in the U.S. Earlier this year, Netflix launched its “Strong Black Lead” effort, which highlights the work of black creators and talent, including Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe.

Okoro, who shot on location, originally budgeted $250,000 for the movie. At first, when he heard about AT&T’s program, he thought it was a scam -- not unlike the plot of his movie.

Financial Challenge

“For every filmmaker it’s about the financial challenge,” said Okoro, 31. “A lot of people are hesitant to make such a film, especially for their first-time film, but considering my culture, my family and this story, I knew I had to be the first person to the market with it.”

AT&T has a five-year license over “Nigerian Prince.” The company also runs the Hello Sunshine project with Reese Witherspoon, which produces female-driven series. It was launched in 2016 in partnership with the Chernin Group -- also a backer of the decidedly less woke Barstool Sports properties -- and AT&T’s Otter Media portfolio.

Audiences want to see something new in their programming, said AT&T Chief Brand Officer Fiona Carter. “As a woman, I feel that. There are other stories that should be told on screen and just multiple stories out there that we just don’t get the chance to see.”

Growing Initiative

AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner Inc. will mean a wider push for more diverse showrunners, directors and programming. Carter said consumers can expect to see more such content from WarnerMedia, which includes Warner Bros., Turner and HBO.

In September, WarnerMedia announced a companywide policy calling for more diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. The company is already beginning to make movies that align with that commitment, Carter said.

“That’s exciting when you get the scale of a company like AT&T and WarnerMedia really actively working to make a difference in diversity and storytelling,” Carter said. “I think you’re going to see quantum leaps of improvement.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.