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

February 19, 2018
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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.”

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