Executive Producer Tressa Azarel Smallwood On Her Unconventional Journey Into The Film Industry

February 19th 2018

Black women are done waiting for opportunites—we’ve learned to create lanes for ourselves. Fifteen years ago, Executive Producer Tressa Azarel Smallwood pulled the shade on her career as an educator and decided to take a massive leap of faith. Her tenacity and entrepreneurial skills led her to the book publishing industry with Life Changing Books and eventually to film and television as the co-founder of MegaMind Media. A few weeks after presenting her latest film Sinners Wanted at the Sundance Film Festival, Smallwood sat down to chat with me about her unconventional journey and trailblazing career.

“The doctor told me that I had to stay on bedrest for six months and I was like, ‘Now wait a minute now, that's like a death sentence!’, she recalled. “During that time I had a family member who said, 'Maybe you should write a book while you're on bedrest, you're really good with creative writing .’ I used to teach English Language Arts. I said, ‘Okay, you know what I'll give that a shot. It's better than flipping the remote all day.' I started working on this book project, and back then, self-publishing was not very popular, so there were a lot of challenges and setbacks with distribution. However, I was really good at business. I put all of my efforts into not only the writing of the book but the distribution and the marketing. When I got off bedrest, I published that book, and I made $40K within my first two months.”

Realizing what she was able to accomplish in a relatively short period of time was eye-opening for the North Carolina native. “I talked to my husband, and he was like, ‘Okay if you don't want to go back to work if this is what you're going to do—you've gotta really do it.’ I never went back to work," Smallwood explained. “I started publishing other authors, writing more books, and that just became an open mecca for me. It’s what led me to eventually create MegaMind Media. I said if I'm going to have a film company the main issue is having the content. What better way to start a movie company when you have 162 book projects to choose from?”

Smallwood was adamant that she didn’t want to just throw a movie together. A novice in the film world, it was vital for her to surround herself with people who knew the ins and outs of the business. “My first project, it was a little bit unorthodox,” she laughed. “In 2015 I was ready to start making my mark in film. I had researched like crazy, and I kept saying I don't want to step out and do this unless I do it the right way. I didn’t want my movie to look dark and fuzzy. I haven't been to film school; I didn't have that level of expertise, so I knew I had to hire the people who could do it the right way. For the first project, I went to filmmaker Jamal Hill. He had already worked with Queen Latifah on Brotherly Love, and he was in pre-production on Deuces. He said, ‘Give me the top five books that you want to work on, and let me tell you which one would work for me.’ So I let him read five of the books. He came back to me and said, ‘Secrets of a Housewife is it. It will speak to the masses. Everybody has been cheated on, or has been the cheater, or knows somebody who's been cheated on.’ I just wanted to make sure at the end of the day we're sending positive messages about Black people. He wrote the first draft of the script, and I loved it. We shot that film in November of 2015. Jamal moved to Washington, D.C. with me for six weeks; he brought in all of the people that he knew and had relationships with from the Director of Photography to producers. My first time out was a success because I chose the right people.”

By observing and learning, Smallwood was more than ready to take the reigns by the time the opportunity for a second film presented itself. “The second time around we shot All In, and that was based on a book as well,” she explained. “I actually wrote the script with my daughter, Iman. It almost killed her, she kept saying, ‘I don't want to do this mom, I don't want to do this.’ I'm like, ‘You have to learn this honey. We're building an empire and this is legacy. You have to learn.’ We wrote that script to shed light on the welfare system and how individuals get attached, but there is a way out with the right support system. We ended up casting Lil' Mama, Elise Neil, and Rob Riley. I was able to do that because I had something to show them. I could send them Secrets to say this is what I've been able to accomplish. I wouldn't have been able to do that the first time around if I had written the script and I was doing it all myself.”

Smallwood and her daughters Smallwood and her daughters

The success of Secrets and All In helped Smallwood shape her business model. "For 2018, I'm going to produce three new films," she explained. "For every project, you have to really take a look at it and say what am I doing with this, and know the game plan going in.” The beginning of the year also presented the opportunity for Smallwood to attend Sundance with her latest film, Sinners Wanted. “This is just how God works in your life, my faith is incredible," Smallwood reflected. "The project All In was shot six months before Sinners Wanted. Because All In had an incredible cast, I just knew I was getting into Sundance. I had a couple of issues with my editor and the project coming back not up to par at that time, and so I missed the submission deadline for Sundance, and I was devastated. I was like, ‘You know what? It's okay. I'm still going to go out there, support, learn, and network.’ Then I was contacted by African American Women in Cinema saying that they had partnered with the Utah Film Studios and they needed a project to present during Sundance that was either executive produced or produced by a woman. So I said, “Look at God. That was me." The only project that was ready was Sinners Wanted. We sent them the movie and they loved it, so I ended up at Sundance anyway.”

This year, the novelist is ready to venture into the realm of television -- joining the exploding scene of Black stories on the small screen. “It's really all about the relationships,” she explained regarding her next venture. “When Secrets came out, I remember being at American Black Film Festival meeting a lot of TV execs [and] a lot of people in the industry. Everybody is searching for content. When it comes to the African American market, there are not many people that either have content or that can deliver. They were very impressed with the fact that I not only had the content but I could deliver a quality product promptly. So the opportunities came. Eventually, my lawyer put together a team of people who could work on the development side of the different books that had a series behind them. We started looking at all of those projects to determine which ones would be the best for TV and development. I am in a unique situation because not only do I have the content, I'm able to go ahead and start production and actually film the pilots. That way we can really shop the pilot. I'm just blessed, I'm excited, I just love the relationships, loving the support, and resources that have been coming my way."

The opportunity to see her stories and various projects come to life is just one motivating factor for Smallwood – she also wants to encourage others. “I want to inspire the upcoming filmmakers," she reflected. "I realize that there are a lot of people out there who are fearful, who feel like they don't belong, who feel like they can't do it because you watch TV, you watch social media, and you're like, ‘Oh, there's no place for me there.’ Or, ‘I don't have the skill set. I'm the perfect person to look at and say, ‘Wow, she didn't go to film school, she was a school teacher and a book publisher.’ Those 14 and 16 hours days on the Secrets set, I was literally learning everything. I worked in craft services; I worked in the accounting department, I drove a U-haul on the set. I did it all. I am a mother of two young girls, and I just want them to know, they can do it. Don't second guess yourself. I've told Iman, I said, ‘You didn't want to write this script, you wrote it, you now watch this movie, and you are in awe."

Smallwood’s career is exploding at a very powerful moment in Hollywood as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements continue to unearth racist and sexist practices that have suffocated women since the evolution of film. Smallwood hopes there is an even playing field when the dust finally settles. “I really hope that what's going on it will shed light on the fact that we just want equal opportunities,” she explained. "For example, with the Mo'Nique situation, it goes back to pay. I want equal opportunity. I'm not going to whine; I'm not going to cry, give me the same chances that you would give my male counterparts. Let us do our thing. It's a great time for us to use this platform now to speak up more. I do believe that it is going to get better, but I believe it's going to take some time. I still think more dialogue is needed and we just have to really work hard. I already feel like I have to work harder than the next person because I don't have some of the film credentials that other people have. So for me, I'm ready just to take on the challenge. I'm going to do everything that I have to do to make sure that I represent women and that we're moving forward.”

Sinners Wanted will screen at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival Sunday, Feb. 18.

Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

by Aramide A. Tinubu on February 19th 2018

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