On the morning of April 18, 2017, five young filmmakers gathered in front of seven actors, directors, and executives to pitch their movies. Two hours later, one filmmaker received $1 million. This was the first edition of “AT&T Presents: Untold Stories,” a new partnership between the mobile provider and Tribeca Film Festival, designed to fill a gap in the marketplace by not only financing a project but also providing it with an audience.
The winner, NYU film school graduate Faraday Okoro, received a giant check at a lunch following the pitch session broadcast on Facebook Live (see the full 92-minute pitch session below). In addition to the cash prize (all projects required budgets under $1 million), Okoro’s work is guaranteed a slot at the 2018 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival (assuming he meets that deadline) and will run across several AT&T video platforms, including DIRECTV. The filmmaker will also receive mentorship from industry professionals over the next year. The other four filmmakers received $10,000 for their projects.
Panelists were Jeffrey Wright (“Westworld”), Anthony Mackie (“Captain America: Civil War”), HBO Films president Len Amato, Downtown Records CEO Josh Deutsch, producer Frida Torresblanco and AT&T chief brand officer Fiona Carter.
The pitch sessions were reminiscent of “Project Greenlight” (and not only because HBO’s Amato produced the last season of that show). Over the course of a few minutes, each filmmaker presented their film to the panel, explaining the plot and the narrative’s appeal. Okro’s project, “Nigerian Prince,” was described as the story of a stubborn Nigerian-American teenager forced to go to Nigeria against his will and joins forces with his cousin, an internet scammer, in order to return to the United States.
Okro opened his presentation by describing his project as a “coming-of-age heist-thriller” about the author of Nigerian scam emails. The filmmaker said that, like his protagonist, he was sent to Nigeria for school, “but I did not have any nefarious cousins to help me with an escape attempt. I was forced to stay put.” But he used his experience “to make this story more accessible to an international audience.” He noted that internet scam artists convince their targets to give up their money, rather than forcing them to give it up. “This psychological ploy is at the heart of all con artist films, and I’m excited to explore it in my own film,” he said. He added that he hoped to shoot the film on location in Nigeria with “a minimalist, cinema-verite style.” He also listed set of actors he hoped to cast in the project, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, to whom he pitched the project last month.
The filmmaker then fielded questions from the panelists. Wright asked Okro about his research process, which led the director to single out his co-writer in the audience. “We went to Nigeria, we did interview scammers,” he said. “I told my uncle, ‘I’m coming to Nigeria. If you know any scammers, let me know. I can’t do the script without it. The moment I landed, there one was.”
The outcome marks the latest phase in an evolving partnership between Tribeca and AT&T, which has sponsored the festival for several years. “I felt we could do more to make a real difference,” AT&T’s Carter said an interview after announcing the award. “We’re trying to make sure we represent the true diversity of our customers. As we move into content, we want to apply the same values.”
The award arrives one year after AT&T acquired DIRECTV, signaling its push to increase its stature as an entertainment company. (Another aspect of that push is AT&T’s planned merger with Time Warner, which is currently under review by the FCC.) “On our mobile phones, most of what’s being consumed is video,” Carter said. “We know we need to put our brand into the right kind of video and entertainment, supporting a diversity of voices. A lot of it is homogenous. It’s our responsibility to truly represent America.”