How Tubi is opening doors for independent Black filmmakers
Tubi isn’t just a streaming service for fans to enjoy—it has become an outlet for independent Black filmmakers to showcase their art.
There’s one scene from the 2022 horror film “Tiffany the Doll” that has garnered over 3 million views and hundreds of thousands of likes on TikTok.
In the viral clip, a man holding a gun is seen shooting at a sentient, murderous sex doll chasing after him down the stairs with a knife, and she hilariously dodges the bullets by simply moving side-to-side—with no edits or special effects in sight.
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The person filming the TikTok can be heard laughing in the video and wrote in the caption, “Tubi can’t be fr bro.”
If you’re active on social media, chances are you’ve seen this clip or another from Tubi’s seemingly limitless library of Black films. The streaming service, which launched in 2014, has become the go-to platform for fans of “low-budget” Black films, some of which have gained online notoriety for questionable acting, sparse editing, and curious lacefronts.
“In many ways, Tubi has replaced the Blockbuster Video experience of the ’90s,” said Maya Cade, creator of the Black Film Archive and a scholar in residence at the Library of Congress.
“What used to be that Friday night, Saturday night, ‘let's go see what we're watching for the weekend,’” Cade said. “Physically going into Blockbuster has been replaced with logging on Tubi and seeing what was formally called a straight-to-DVD film or straight-to-video film.”
If you grew up buying from the DVD man, you know there’s nothing wrong with a good low-budget movie. The reality is that independent Black filmmakers don’t always have access to the same resources as their white counterparts. Sixteen years of research shows that white men have directed a staggering 80.4% of the biggest box office hits, while the number of Black directors has dropped precipitously. Having access to those resources can be a game-changer for independent filmmakers.
“A lot of us ain't go to school for this. A lot of us ain't have people to mentor us,” said Dennis Reed II, a Detroit-area director and producer with several films on Tubi. “I mentor a lot of people, but now, if you just pay attention, our movies are really catching up.”
But Tubi isn’t just a streaming service for fans to enjoy—it has become an outlet for independent Black filmmakers to showcase their art.
Demystifying the “low-budget” film
When it comes to Black filmmaking and creative work more broadly, low-budget productions aren't for lack of talent; often, there's a distinct lack of resources. Bobby Ashley, an independent director and writer from Brooklyn, said his mother’s house was one of his main spots for shooting both seasons of his crime TV series “The Ave.”
“People lent us offices, we rented Airbnbs, and actors and crew donated their time and energy. Why? Because we all were determined to tell this story and contribute to our craft’s growth,” Ashley explained. Placing “The Ave” on Tubi allowed Ashley to maintain a steady income while still working on other projects. “I’m delighted that Tubi has become an outlet for Black indie filmmakers like myself to monetize our work.”
It’s worth remembering some now classic Black films were once considered low-budget as well. In Dennis Reed’s eyes, low-budget films are projects that are made for under $5 million. Spike Lee’s debut feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” was shot on a budget of $175,000 over two weeks. The 1995 hit “Friday,” starring Chris Tucker and Ice Cube, cost around $2 million and was shot in 20 days. These films were not big-name blockbusters when they dropped; it was the earnestness of their storytellers that resonated with Black audiences.
“Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay’s first films weren’t million-dollar budgeted projects. Issa Rae shot the first few episodes of her web series ‘The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl’ on her iPhone with friends,” Ashley continued. “They pooled their resources and made it happen.”
In recent months, fans have called Tubi “the DVD man. but with a store. a website & a app,” the “Black Lifetime,” and “live-action Zane novels.” Someone even called for Tubi to host “a festival of their films like Cannes.” For some, the quality of Black films on Tubi is the draw—especially for those fans who aren’t looking to spend $30 at a movie theater for a big blockbuster. Where else can you find films like “Amityville in the Hood,” “Secret Society,” or “Cuzzo” for free?
Black independent films have a long and proud tradition, from arthouse to blaxploitation. Maya Cade sees some parallels between the independent Black films on Tubi and 1970s-era blaxploitation movies; they all are meant to appeal to Black urban viewers—unflinchingly so. “One of the markers of blaxploitation films was that they were cheaply made and highly effective, and that’s exactly Tubi’s strategy,” Cade explained. “They’re aiming for that sweet spot of cheaply made and well received.”
Independent films allow directors to experiment without the constraints and expectations that sometimes come with larger-budget productions.
“I’ve seen some trash Tubi movies, don’t get it fucked up. But we are honestly putting out some good projects,” Reed said, pointing to the success of series like “McGraw Avenue” and the “First Lady” franchise, the latter he claimed is worth about $12 million.
The quality of the films hosted on the streaming service can range from solid productions to several stops past camp—but even the movies with two stars on IMDb can be a highly entertaining watch. One thing is undoubtedly true—the platform has built a strong fan base of Black viewers who enjoy watching the movies.
Some object to the content in Tubi’s Black cinema section, but does every Black story told onscreen have to be a project of racial uplift and respectability? Reed doesn’t think so.
“Tubi is so dope because a lot of stuff is for urban America. We don’t like a lot of stuff that’s on Netflix. Just because it costs a lot doesn’t mean it relates to us all the time,” Reed, 47, said. “They watch Tubi because it relates to them. You're seeing your whole life; you're seeing your whole story on Tubi. That's why it's so relatable.”
And people are definitely watching. As people continue to cut cable and the cost of streaming services rises, ad-supported streaming services like Tubi are growing rapidly. In 2022, Tubi announced its most productive quarter ever and now boasts 51 million monthly active users. The success of “The Stepmother,” starring Marques Houston and Erica Mena, led to Tubi signing off on a sequel, “The Stepmother 2”—both original films on the streamer. The streamer also recently announced that several new original Black cinema thrillers are on the way.
Hoping to replicate that success, independent Black filmmakers have begun honing in on one city in particular.
How Detroit became the Tubi capital
“Detroit keeping Tubi’s lights on,” Twitter user Marlon23rd twote.
He, and many others, noticed that the Motor City has left an indelible mark on Tubi’s Black cinema section. A prominent amount of the independent Black films on Tubi are filmed in Detroit or made by Detroit-based creators, according to Travis Grant.
“Most of the movies on there are out of Detroit. Detroit is leading the industry right now. They are doing the best films, the best quality,” said Travis Grant, independent film critic and host of the “Big Trav & Hollywood Show.” The streamer “should just have a Detroit section because it's just so many Detroit movies, and they’re doing so good.”
The cost of living in Los Angeles or New York City can be pretty prohibitive for independent filmmakers and creatives, so some have transitioned to less expensive cities to pursue their craft. Tubi’s Black creators are challenging the notion that you have to be in one of those cities to be considered a “real” filmmaker—even if wider audiences consider their films to be low-budget.
“Now, people are starting to move to Detroit to be in the movies,” Reed said. ”Now, you see people say, I wanna make a Tubi movie. I wanna make movies like they’re doing in Detroit because we are doing really good shit.”
Reed mentioned one project he worked on that was self-funded, which cost around $2,000 to produce. The film made about $70,000, thanks partly to the communal environment they’ve fostered in Detroit. ”If you watch it, you wouldn’t think it costs $2,000, but these filmmakers have relationships with the film crew, so they save money in that way…we’re like a little family here.”
“We are putting out films for under $200,000 and we are making good money,” Reed said. “Instead of these people out here robbing people, stealing from people, we making household names, people are feeding their families, and it’s dope as fuck.”
But independent filmmaking struggles with many of the same challenges as the larger, studio-backed industry. There are plenty of Black women leads, but glaringly fewer indie projects from Black women directors and producers on the platform.
According to a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, women were only 39% of all directors, writers, and producers working on indie films that were shown at high-profile U.S. film fests from July 2021 to June 2022. There are no statistics immediately available for women directors with smaller budgets.
Alpha Nicky Mulowa, a French filmmaker based in Canada, was approached by a production company on behalf of Tubi. The streamer is looking to create more original content, and is looking for more diverse voices to lead those stories. But the company—and the industry—can always do better, she said.
“Viola Davis said something along the lines of ‘it's not about the talent; it's about the opportunities,’” explained Mulowa, who said her Tubi original film “Rush for Your Life” was a top-five watch on the platform for weeks. “So if you don't have any opportunities, you can never showcase your talent.”
When the films are primarily led by men, the scenes and storylines from Tubi’s Black cinema section tend to be one-note, revolving around drugs, sex, and money. Some films show very explicit scenes of sexual assault and, in some cases, rape. Filmmaker Nadia Calhoun is hoping to change that.
“I’m a little over the repetitive things, as far as sex, guns, and robbery,” Calhoun, who is preparing to release her own Tubi original film “I Loved You More,” said. “I want to create films that will give you hope. Sex does sell and I get it, but that’s not the only thing we can talk about, you know?”
Calhoun has yet to work with other women producers in the Detroit area. But she’s open to creating a space for other women in the industry to help one another. “We don’t have a platform where we can go to someone [for help],” she said. “Literally everybody that helped me in the film industry was a man.”
As an indie film reviewer, this isn’t Grant’s first time hearing that critique of Tubi’s Black cinema library. “A lot of independent films, sometimes they get, they get a rap for being dope boy movies, drug movies, hood movies. Sometimes, they get a bad rap,” Grant said. “But, if you really pay attention, there's a bigger variety than that.”
The independent Black movies on Tubi are attracting an often-ignored segment of movie watchers—those who enjoy the low-to-mid-budget television film that was ubiquitous years ago. But now, rather than spend money on a reboot or a blockbuster production, they can watch an indie movie on Tubi in the comfort of their home.
“To anyone that is not a fan of independent film, or anyone that wants to get involved in independent film—give it a try,” Grant insisted. “Tubi gives you an opportunity at no charge to give those films a try. And anyone that's interested in doing it, starting on the independent level is a great place to start.”
“You won’t be disappointed and you might be surprised.”
Tubi declined comment for this story.
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Tubi feels like the early days of Datpiff / LiveMixtapes. Some of these acts will eventually make it to the big screen.
I've been sidestepping Tubi because there's only so much streaming content I can watch. But I worked in indie film for a long time and this was such a thoughtful piece that...you win, Phil. You win. :)