Columbus Black International Film Festival prepares for relaunch

Following this year’s event, founder Cristyn Allen-Steward plans to pivot from the traditional festival model to a more mentorship-focused approach aimed at growing the city’s movie scene

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"Queen of Glory"

This could be the last year the Columbus Black International Film Festival (CBIFF) exists in its current form, with founder Cristyn Allen-Steward sharing how the ongoing pandemic caused her to reevaluate the ways her efforts could best be spent growing the local movie scene in the future.

“CBIFF is going to transition out of screening films and focusing more on individual filmmakers and really building up that filmmaker,” Allen-Steward said recently by phone. “I’ve had tremendous success inviting all types of films to Columbus, but I don’t think curation of films in the way that we’ve been doing it is going to be the way [forward]. … I still like partnering with filmmakers and helping them realize their dreams, and I think it’s important to focus on that, because that’s where we need to start. Instead of saying, ‘Come one come all,’ let’s start with one person and how we can see their dream through.”

Allen-Steward said this potential pivot was informed in part by the pandemic-era decrease in submissions for the “homegrown” portion of the film fest, which led her to brainstorm ways to reinvest in developing local talent. One result of these brainstorming sessions is this year’s inaugural pitch competition, in which four filmmakers will go head-to-head in designing and presenting a pitch to investors, with the idea being that seed money is essential to growing the Columbus movie industry from the roots up.

“Do people really know what it takes to make a film? Do they understand how important the pitch to investors is?” said Allen-Steward, who noted that investors can come from anywhere, including local shops or even friends and neighbors. “It’s always been a goal of CBIFF to educate filmmakers … on how the process works. And I think one way to increase the visibility of the film community here in Columbus is to have more people who have gone through that process. It’s not just grabbing a camera, but asking, ‘What do I do after a project is made? Who is my audience? How do I get into festivals?’ I think having a path for one filmmaker to go through a program, like an incubation or a fellowship, can help with that gap that we’re seeing with the films.”

Before potentially stripping things back, though, Allen-Steward is preparing for the full, in-person return of CBIFF, which will take place at the Wexner Center on Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22, featuring a mix of student films, shorts and full-length pictures highlighted by opening night feature “Queen of Glory,” which won the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Expression at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, and “BLACK AS U R,” a 2022 documentary from director Michael Rice, who screened his debut film at the inaugural CBIFF in 2017.

Allen-Steward founded CBIFF after returning to Columbus from San Francisco, where she studied film at the Academy of Art University, with the film fest initially rooted in concepts of celebrating Black representation and exploring the African diaspora. She also hoped to highlight Columbus’ developing connection with the film industry.

“I wanted to shout from the rooftops that Columbus has this, that we have our stake,” Allen-Steward said. “I was saying there are Black creatives in the city, and I wanted to advocate for them. And that was the drive. I wanted to put all of these Black filmmakers on blast. I wanted people to know about the work they’ve done. I wanted to celebrate Black art.”

Six years later, that drive remains undimmed, even as Allen-Steward weighs new ways to advance her vision in the future. 

“I think this transition is kind of me saying, ‘How can I change the trajectory of what CBIFF is? How can I be with the people?’” Allen-Steward said. “It’s revamping the mission of CBIFF so I can meet every single Black filmmaker in Columbus where they are. Instead of them coming to me, I want to go to them and see what I can do to help them get where they want to be. … It’s about changing the way we approach filmmakers, and, if they’re serious about their craft and making it a career, helping to better put them in that position.”