Run&Shoot Filmworks Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival celebrates 20 years of Black excellence in film
By Ruby Jones
Stephanie Rance has devoted 20 years of her life and career to orchestrating the Run&Shoot Filmworks Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival, an annual event celebrating cultural contributions made by African and African American filmmakers. As the Oscar-qualifying festival approaches its 20th anniversary, Rance reflects on the incredible journey from the festival’s inception to its status as one of the most prominent events honoring Black filmmakers. Impassioned by her love for Black arts and culture, Rance is a mentor and digital brand strategist who has created a legacy of empowerment and fellowship, while celebrating excellence in storytelling.
The film festival is a week-long event that takes place each summer in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. Throughout the year, digital festivals and content-driven “Color of Conversation” discussions support the festival’s mission to showcase African American talent, with opportunities to address important issues within the film industry and the Black community.
Submissions for this year’s festival, which runs from August 5 to 13, are being accepted until the end of April. Festivalgoers can expect to see between 60 to 80 feature, short and documentary film projects from independent and established filmmakers around the world, in addition to sponsored content from HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Warner Brothers. The festival, already accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as an Oscar-qualifying event in the short film category, is expected to receive accreditation for documentary films in the near future. Guests are invited to participate in beautiful receptions, networking events and live “Color of Conversation” events to hear from distinguished industry professionals.
Located on the northern tip of Martha’s Vineyard Island, Oak Bluffs is a residential and resort community that originated as a safe haven for people escaping indentured servitude, enslavement and racial persecution throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. Rising to fame during the Harlem Renaissance, the small community grew in size and stature, gaining popularity among Black vacationers, as a destination described by late poet Maya Angelou as, “A safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” The beachfront town was the setting for the 1994 romantic comedy, “The Inkwell,” starring Larenz Tate and a host of brilliant Black talent.
Oak Bluff’s pristine views and welcoming environment inspired the decision to hold the festival in Martha’s Vineyard, putting it back on the map and allowing filmmakers, Hollywood celebrities and movie lovers to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the island. “It’s like a family reunion,” Rance beamed. “It’s the happy place. It’s a great place for Black people to just be themselves and have a really, really great time.”
Rance, who attended the Pratt Institute for Fashion Merchandising, began a career in entertainment in 1990, while working in the A&R department at SBK/EMI Records. She excelled in her field – becoming the associate director of A&R and marketing, then working in artist management and magazine publishing, which ultimately led to an affinity for event planning. The native New Yorker co-founded the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival with her husband and CEO of Run&Shoot Filmworks, Floyd Rance. The young couple had spent time in Martha’s Vineyard, and identified it as the perfect location for the festival after initially considering Barbados as a possible location.
Rance invited filmmakers to submit projects through a Yahoo! group called “Black Filmmakers.”
“This was before social media. I did a little post and just said, ‘Black film festival in Barbados, submit your film, send your $10 money order and VHS tape’ to a mailbox in Brooklyn Heights,” she recalled. “We got all these films, and we got these $10 money orders. I thought to myself, ‘Wow! I think we have something here!’ There was definitely a need for representation on the big and small screen.”
In the festival’s early years, Rance’s fortitude was tested, but her resilience and the support of her loving husband helped her persevere through adversity.
“I picked the wrong month,” Rance admitted, remembering the devastation she felt in July 2002, when only 10 people sat in the 850-seat theater. The small audience brought Rance to tears, but her husband’s tough love and a well-intentioned ultimatum strengthened her willingness to move forward.
“He was like, ‘You have 10 minutes to cry. You have 10 minutes to get it out of your system, because we’re not going to sit here and have you mope.’ We were going to be there for a week, and he’s like, ‘You need to figure this out. Either you’re going to persevere and do this and also work in corporate, or you’re going to just stay in corporate America and let this go.’ I thought he was so mean,” she remembered. “When I look back on it now, I’m like ‘Yeah!’ Here we are 20 years later, and we did it!”
Today, every seat in that same 850-seat theater is filled, and the event space is alive with warmth and positive, creative energy. The new mother of two toddlers triumphed through the festival’s infancy, and two decades later, film submissions have soared into the thousands.
“It’s a huge endeavor; it really is. But when you do what you love, it doesn’t feel like work. And I have Floyd. I have a great team. We’re super happy with the team that works with us over the summer to bring our vision to life.”
The festival, nicknamed, “The Summer’s Finest Film Festival,” has gained national attention, stunning audiences with special guest appearances from Questlove of The Roots band, acclaimed actress and director Regina King and legendary filmmaker Spike Lee.
Reflecting on the festival’s growth throughout the years, Rance explained that a love for “The Culture” kept her motivated. “I do it for the love of supporting people who look like me from a visual perspective. While continuing to increase the representation of Black life and culture in media through storytelling, Rance has noticed interesting trends in diversity through the submission process.
“It’s morphing into a multicultural activation,” she said. “We’re getting even more [diversity] – even more female directors and more LGBTQ+ representation.” She noted an increase in project submissions from Asian Latino and white filmmakers with strong Black casts and Black people working “above the line” as cinematographers and producers.
“At its core, it will always be a film festival for African and African American filmmakers from around the world. But I’m loving this new elevation of what we’re doing.
Rance, her husband and their two children are Colorado residents who actively participate in community events where she continues to inspire greatness and celebrate Black excellence. In addition to screening wonderful feature films in Denver, the Color of Conversation Film Festival is a local event that invites residents from metropolitan Denver communities to engage in conversations about film as an art and its contributions to Black culture.
“If you have the vision, even if it’s not in film or the arts – like whatever you want to do as an entrepreneur – stick with it!” Rance urged. “Stick with it, stay focused on your vision, stay focused on your dream, and enjoy the journey that the universe is going to take you on.”
Editor’s Note: For submission and registration details, visit www.MVAAFF.com.