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

This is an insightful perspective!


The needle hasn’t moved much. It’s a continual struggle.

~ Nina Yang Bongiovi

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 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. 

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