June 16, 2024

It might officially be fall, but Netflix had a “Strong Black Summer.”

At least, that was the name of the streamer’s warm-weather months campaign promoting a string of TV, film and documentary projects fronted by Black talent.

Among the hot titles were Gabrielle Union’s rom-com “The Perfect Find,” the John Boyega-starring conspiratorial caper “They Cloned Tyrone,” a fourth season of the Emmy-nominated comedy “The Upshaws,” comedian Michelle Buteau’s semi-autobiographical series “Survival of the Thickest,” the “Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop” documentary, and a first look at awards contenders “Stamped from the Beginning” and “Rustin.”

“The goal of ‘Strong Black Summer’ was to generate conversation and create community with Black consumers and partners,” says Netflix’s Shelly Gillyard, vice president of marketing in the U.S. and Canada.

The campaign was led by Netflix’s “Strong Black Lead,” which has been a crucial department at the streamer since it launched in 2018, as well as the company’s marketing, PR, social and creative teams.

“We were very intentional about how to highlight the upcoming slate — making sure that we were featuring the incredible talent, who are also our ‘Strong Black Leads.’” Gillyard adds. “The team has done an incredible job this summer of bringing all that together and showing up where our Black members are in a very authentic way.”

When the goal is to meet Black audiences where they are, during the summer, they’re outside — colloquially meaning making moves. (And if you’d like that phrase used in a sentence, cue up Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul.”) But, more specifically, Black celebrities, influencers and consumers spend the season crisscrossing the country attending film festivals and other cultural events.

Over the last decade or so, a quartet of events held between June and August have emerged as pinnacles for Black Hollywood to revel in culture and community. First up is the American Black Film Festival on Miami Beach in June, then the BET Awards weekend experience in L.A. and Essence Festival in New Orleans on back-to-back weekends in late June and early July, and, finally, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival in August.

Much like an awards film’s trajectory across Cannes, Venice, Telluride and Toronto, this circuit can be markedly significant for building an awareness campaign for a title — but this one is specifically targeted toward Black audiences. And while studios like Warner Bros. Discovery (who previewed “The Color Purple” and “Young Love” at both ABFF and MVAAFF) or Disney (who exclusively sponsors Essence Fest) also participate in significant ways, Netflix officially put the puzzle pieces together — and branded them with the tagline: “We outside (and inside too).”

Gillyard says the Netflix team began developing this campaign about a year in advance. They evaluated the lineup of titles first — aiming to address the breadth of Black audiences since the programs span across many genres — and then decided the best location to activate for each.

“We think about each of these events uniquely,” Gillyard explains. “ABFF is a place where aspiring filmmakers and creators who are becoming powerhouses in the industry show up, and that’s why we felt like opening that festival with ‘They Cloned Tyrone’ was the right audience.”

Netflix formally announced the campaign on June 12 with a stylized social media clip laying out the run of show. Two days later, Boyega and his “They Cloned Tyrone” co-star Teyonah Parris strutted onto the red carpet in sun-soaked Miami Beach for the film’s opening night premiere at ABFF. Fans crowded the sidewalk and angled for a glimpse of the stars posing in front of a fresh donk — a tricked-out old-school car, in this case a 1973 Chevrolet Caprice built specifically for the “Tyrone” campaign by Sage “Donkmaster” Thomas.

“The summer promotion is the best time to build anticipation around upcoming, Black-centered projects,” says Nicole Friday, president of Nice Crowd (formerly ABFF Ventures), which presents the annual festival.

Tickets for “They Cloned Tyrone” and “The Perfect Find” — which played on June 16 following its audience award-winning debut at the Tribeca Festival — sold out in hours, with more than 1,500 attending collectively.

With ABFF heading into its 28th year, Friday notes: “Our programming strategy is to showcase diverse content that embraces a wide range of genres, from drama and comedy to documentary and sci-fi. We want the audiences to experience the full spectrum of Black storytelling. ‘They Cloned Tyrone’ was from first-time director Juel Taylor — which has always been the mission of ABFF. ‘The Perfect Find’ was another great choice because director Numa Perrier is an ABFF alum.”

In addition to the screenings, Strong Black Lead teamed up with Trell Thomas’ Black Excellence Brunch to spotlight the filmmakers in an intimate conversation about their artistic journeys and what it took to get their films onto the big screen.

Black Excellence Brunch founder Trell Thomas interviews Numa Perrier and Juel Taylor at Byblos Miami on June 16.
Jason Koerner/Getty Images for Netflix

Next on the calendar is the BET Awards experience, where the ceremony and weekend-long celebration around it “really does transform L.A. to be the Mecca of hip-hop,” Gillyard says. So, Netflix partnered with Culture Creators for the org’s annual Innovators and Leaders Awards brunch, which honors individuals who push Black culture forward in business, technology, film, arts, fashion, music and more. “And with the 50th anniversary of hip-hop happening, it felt like the right place to partner with them and award MC Lyte the first ever Strong Black Lead Icon Award,” she adds.

The famed MC also executive produced the docuseries “Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop,” so event attendees and honorees like Busta Rhymes, Chloe and Halle Bailey and Laure Ann Gibson were treated to an exclusive preview as they sipped cocktails in the Beverly Hilton ballroom.

“Hip-hop is made up of artists, producers, videographers, dancers, DJs who break records; who have pushed the limits to get the genre where they stands today. Thanks to those unwilling to stop and continue to break the glass and shatter the ceiling,” Lyte said, accepting her honor and touting the importance of the documentary, for which she served as an executive producer. “It means a lot to us female MCs to be heard and to be seen.”

Then, when Black Hollywood (and especially Black women) flocked to the dirty South for fourth of July weekend festivities in New Orleans, Netflix went too. “It’s a trip mothers and daughters and girlfriends take, so we leaned into that,” Gillyard explains. (Remember the 2017 hit “Girls Trip”?)

“Bevelations” host Bevy Smith (second from left) poses with Michelle Buteau, Tasha Smith and Kim Fields at The Chicory on June 30 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Peter Forest/Getty Images for Netflix

On June 30, Netflix hosted two events. First, Bevy Smith recorded an episode of her popular Sirius XM show “Bevelations,” with Buteau and Tasha Smith from “Survival of the Thickest” and “The Upshaw’s” Kim Fields in front of a live audience of about 60 guests. Then, Netflix partnered with Black-owned southern event brand Lemon Pepper Wet to throw a party featuring “They Cloned Tyrone” soundrack artists like Big K.R.I.T, which Gillyard says “got a ton of play on social.” Credit that in part to more than 350 people hearing the opening notes of “Back That Azz Up” and getting surprised with a performance by Juvenile and Mannie Fresh.

“We’re trying to be incredibly authentic to the culture,” Gillyard reiterates.

The majority of the Summer ’23 road show fit in between the WGA’s call for a strike on May 2 and SAG-AFTRA actors joining writers on the picket lines on July 14. But the final stop on the tour, at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, was impacted — like all publicity campaigns – by the historic double strike.

“With the strikes happening, we were still able to pivot and activate,” Gillyard says, acknowledging that the work stoppage posed “challenges, but we found ways to soldier on.”

MVAAFF holds a particular importance as the festival celebrates Martha’s Vineyard’s rich history as a Black summertime haven where families could safely vacation. Over time, the island and its beaches have also become a symbol of Black affluence.

“Those that have experienced August on the Vineyard know that it is truly a special place,” says MVAAFF co-founder Stephanie Rance. “Our festival attendees are intellectuals, lovers of film and activists in their own right and we love that fact that Netflix is so intentional in opening the festival with stellar content that speaks to the Vineyard.”

In 2022, MVAAFF programmed the Netflix documentary “Descendant” for opening night, with a special introduction by former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. The former first couple executive produced the film under their Higher Ground banner and are among the high-profile families who summer on the Vineyard.

Continuing to zero in on films of historical importance, Netflix’s 2023 lineup included two documentaries: “Ladies First,” which opened the festival on Aug. 4 with a screening and conversation featuring MC Lyte and director Dream Hampton, and a sneak preview of “Stamped for the Beginning,” which brings to life Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling book. The clips and conversations event featured Kendi, producer Mara Brock Akil and director Roger Ross Williams. Plus, Higher Ground was back (sans Obamas) to preview “Rustin.”

Star Colman Domingo was originally set to attend the Aug. 7 event, but skipped in solidarity with his fellow actors. Instead, director George C. Wolfe sat in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Capehart to discuss the film, in anticipation of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington.

“Rustin” filmmaker George C. Wolfe and Jonathan Capehart onstage at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on Aug. 7, 2023 in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for MVAAFF

“The unique things about Martha’s Vineyard is it’s a celebration of both Black culture and the community,” Gillyard says of the strike-imposed pivot. “It’s always nice to have talent, but we were still able to do [an event] without that because people were there championing the fact that we had a presence, and the festival exists.”

Rance concurs: “We were able to highlight the behind-the-scenes talent and crafts like never before and it really spoke to the audience. It provided some food for thought as we learn new programming strategies for 2024.”

Now that the temperature has cooled and the leaves have begun to change color (and the WGA strike is over, with SAG-AFTRA heading back to the negotiating table), the Netflix team is thinking ahead to 2024, with Gillyard declaring the campaign a resounding success.

“They Cloned Tyrone,” “The Perfect Find,” “The Upshaws” and “Survival of the Thickest” all debuted in Netflix’s global top 10, with “Tyrone” peaking at No. 1 in the U.S. Meanwhile, “Rustin” and “Stamped from the Beginning” made their world premieres at Telluride and TIFF, where they bowed to strong reviews, boding well for the future.

“The response from members and fans was really incredible,” she says. “We’re always trying to iterate on the next idea and make things bigger, so we will definitely continue to show up for this audience and find great partners like we did this year, next year and beyond.”

[Pictured above (clockwise): Teyonah Parris and John Boyega; MC Lyte; George C. Wolfe; Gabrielle Union and Numa Perrier]

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