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United Skates' co-directors Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler. Courtesy of United Skates.

United Skates’ Co-Directors on Making the Documentary

We at California Humanities are big fans of the new film by co-Directors Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler United Skates and are proud to have been one of the project’s earliest funders. The film focused on African American skate culture through the decades including two much-loved rinks in Los Angeles that figure heavily in the storyline. It premiered at the 2018 Tribeca film festival and is currently streaming on HBO. We talked to filmmakers Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown and LA-based skater Phelicia Wright, who appears in the film, about their experiences making the film, the incredible reception it’s gotten, and how they hope it’ll change the landscape of skating in the US.

Below is part two of the interview with Dyana and Tina, where they talk about the success they’ve achieved with the film, the harsh reality of funding independent documentaries, and how they supported the project with the help of a broad network of funders and advisors. Stay tuned for further installments.

California Humanities: You’ve had a pretty remarkable trajectory for first-time film directors. What has it been like for you since the United Skates premiered?

Dyana Winkler: People keep saying, “Can you believe it? You won the audience award at Tribeca; You were the New York Times critic’s pick; You’re on HBO!” Honestly, we can’t even feel it because the workload has only gotten more intense, which we didn’t think was possible because we were already working seven days a week making the film.

Tina Brown: We have to remember that this is incredible that this is happening. So many other filmmakers bust their butts like us and they don’t have this kind of success and impact on communities that they wish to have, so we’re very fortunate that the film has been so well received.

You’ve been invited into and become a part of the skate community. There’s also this community that has formed around the film: funders, celebrities, other skaters and now audiences. What do you think it’s important for people to know about the collaboration that it takes to make a film like yours?

Tina: You definitely need allies on all fronts. A huge network of supporters has helped us get further funding. Somebody connected us to somebody who connected us to somebody else who got us to John Legend. It’s been a ripple effect for sure.

If you’re making a documentary, it’s not going to happen in a couple of months or even a year. It’s going to take a long time and you will need people on your side for the long haul. Cultivate those relationships because you never know what someone will be able to bring to the table. We’ve been very fortunate to have an incredible network around us to help support us and our film.

A lot of the funders and investors became integral sounding boards as well for us. It wasn’t just about the money and the connections. As first-time feature filmmakers, there were a lot of questions that we had and advice that we sought. We turned to our village to get those answers.

Dyana: When you are a documentary filmmaker trying to put together the funds required to make a daunting project, these types of grants are the only things that get us by. Everyone had told us the first grant is the hardest. Once you have one, it gives you credibility. That helps you to get the next one, which gives more credibility, and the next and the next. They have a bit of a ripple effect.

From the funding perspective, you have to take a leap of faith. Here we were, two first-time filmmakers, not necessarily from the community, but with this access and awareness. We were early in the process with our footage and story and research. Having California Humanities’ stamp of approval before anyone else, and the funding to keep us going, was a godsend. We’re very grateful.

What is next for the two of you?

Tina: People say to us, you’re that rare .001% film that got all the grants, swept the film festival circuit, won all the audience awards and got on HBO. Time after time we beat the odds and yet even in our situation, there’s no financial stability for the filmmakers. We always had two to three side jobs while making this film and continue to do so.

Dyana: Tina and I say that this is a one-time experience for us. We would love to continue to make documentaries, but we put everything on the line for so long. That’s a harsh reality, that there’s not a lot of those opportunities out there. We’re still struggling to figure out how to survive. That’s something we need to examine as a community.

With that in mind, how can people watch the film?

Tina: We are officially on HBO as of Feb 28, 2019! We’re very excited about that. In terms of supporting the film, you can go to UnitedSkatesfilm.com. We have a donate page for our impact campaign which will go towards helping us try to reopen rinks.

Dyana: Just watching the film on HBO has power. If enough people watch it, it shows that female filmmakers, independent films and documentaries, particularly documentaries about African-American experiences, are valued and are worthy of being supported. Show HBO that the numbers are high and that there’s a demand.

Read Part One of the interview with Dyana and Tina, and stay tuned for part three of this blog post, with Phelicia Wright, an L.A.-based skater who appears in the film.

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