Black EPs say, ‘we’re not just a production company, we’re a creative movement.’
Posted on August 9, 2022
Since the murder of George Floyd brought the #BLM movement into sharp focus, the industry’s push to give greater opportunities to BIPOC directors, along with other production and post production artists and creatives, has gotten considerable attention. Industry trade groups like AICP and AMP have created robust DE&I initiatives, as have agency networks, advertisers, awards competitions and media companies.
But for all the attention that’s been paid to Black directors, editors, colorists, etc., what about the industry’s Black EPs and company owners? While they’ve been busy taking part in various agency and brand ‘diversity fairs’ and other events designed to raise their awareness, how much has this actually benefited their companies or their rosters of talent?
To get a better insight into the Black EP experience, Simian reached out to five leading EPs and company owners for this Q&A feature, examining the pressures and challenges they face on a daily basis. Collectively, their companies represent a growing trend in the industry, as more minorities are launching or building their own production brands.
We’re turning the focus on Black owners and EPs for a good reason: The director – or editor or artist, on the post side of the equation – represents one part of the food chain. Executive producers can impact a project across numerous avenues, from hiring crew and various suppliers to shaping budgets, schedules, deliverables and more. Says Jay Sherrard, CEO and EP at the L.A.-based Mass Media Films, “When an agency hires a Black or minority-owned production company, this means that the EP has the power to hire a diverse workforce. This workforce can include the director, but more so the diversity of the production support crew and team is what’s important.”
In addition to Sherrard (second from right in the photo above), others taking part are (from left) Qadree Holmes, Founder and EP at the Chicago and L.A.-based Quriosity Productions; Taj Critchlow, Co-Founder and EP at the Toronto and L.A.-based FELA; Adiclere Evans, Co-Founder and EP at Atlanta and L.A.-based The Funnel Creative; and Antonio “Tronic” McDonald, Founder, EP and Director at the New York-based KUAMP.
Tell us a bit about your company. What are some of your major accomplishments over the past two years?
Antonio “Tronic” McDonald, KUAMP: We thankfully managed to thrive during these unprecedented times. Our client list has grown to feature several fortune 50 tech companies, as well as blue chip global agencies. We’ve even managed to bring home an award. We've truly been blessed, and don’t take that lightly. It's amazing to see our hard work and talent being noticed by top partners all over the world.
Adiclere Evans, The Funnel Creative: We launched in the pandemic and since then, we have a lot of successes that we’re very proud of. A spot we produced for a Leo Burnett campaign for Wingstop called “Thighstop” recently won Best of Show at the AICP Next Awards Campaign award and also won the Grand Prix for Creative Commerce at Cannes Lions. Additionally, we proudly have been aligned with content that tells stories from an underrepresented perspective. We’re expanding our directors roster and are excited to offer a great home to six talented directors and many more non-roster directors who we continue to work with. Some of our recent clients include Viacom, BET, The Carol H Williams Advertising Agency, the ACLU, Warner Music, Sony Music, North Carolina Department of Tourism, WHTWRKS, AP Studios and more.
Jay Sherrard, Mass Media Films: Mass Media Films won a Bronze Addy for our COVID-19 vaccination awareness campaign we produced in 2021. We also shot and produced a season-long campaign for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. We’re currently working on a post-Super Bowl promotional campaign with the City and Mayor of Inglewood, California, home to SoFi Stadium. And Mass Media Films has recently signed some new directing talents: Jonny Zeller, Mexico-based director Gustavo Garzon and dynamic director/DP Francis Dreis.
Qadree Holmes, Quriosity Productions: Ironically, I feel the first major success during the pandemic was Quriosity’s ability to survive a pandemic and grow as a company. We’ve been very fortunate that many of our clients still wanted to create content and tell authentic stories. We all know after the tragic events of George Floyd there was a heightened sense of wanting to make amends with the Black community. Many brands doubled down on their efforts. Some of our recent highlights include adding Mark Conley as our L.A.-based Executive Producer and picking up Silver and Bronze Clios and a Bronze Telly. We’ve been on fire.
Taj Critchlow, FELA: One of the major highlights for us was starting up a new Black-owned production company with my co-founding partner and best friend Director X in the summer of 2020 during the peak of the pandemic and George Floyd protests. It was uncertain times, but we bet on ourselves and our amazing team. And we signed award-winning directors Jackson Tisi and Kajal to the roster. In addition, we won three Bronze Clios for our Toyota “Featuring You." And more recently, we won a Wood Pencil at the 2022 D&AD Awards for Lego’s "Rebuild The World." I am very proud of this award because of the subject matter that highlights a Black artist's journey and purpose – because we’re not just a production company, we’re a creative movement.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you as a Black-owned production company in gaining traction with agencies and brands?
“Tronic” McDonald: For us, it’s been getting that initial meeting. As you know, people are creatures of habit. They work with who they know. Getting in the door, and building those relationships, has been the biggest challenge. KUAMP has been fortunate enough to have been given some opportunities to “show and prove,” which we love. Our partners have been pleasantly surprised with how we’ve been able, with little time and sometimes challenged budgets, to still deliver great work. We’re a full-service shop, so they love that they can collaborate with us through every phase of a concept, from development to delivery. We're involved in it all, if asked.
Adiclere Evans: In certain instances we may feel like we have traction with an agency or brand - and then, if we don’t win the bid, we’re left very uncertain as to how to improve, due to lack of feedback. And that’s critical for our future approach and growth. Additionally, a lack of capital makes it difficult to grow and gain traction. Lastly, due to a limited amount of Black mentors available in this space, it’s difficult to gain advice on how to navigate corporate relationships.
Qadree Holmes: The biggest challenge I see is performative behavior from some potential agency partners and brands. As the owner of Quriosity, I am very quick to point this out to an agency when we get a sense of tokenism happening in the bid process. I often find myself reminding potential partners that as a company, we can say no. It is also our choice to engage or pass. I want to be hired because you truly believe in our work and our process. The fact that we are a minority-owned business should be the cherry on top.
Jay Sherrard: This is a big question! The challenges black/minority-owned production companies face are multi-faceted. Getting the proper representation and exposure is very challenging. Finding a rep that has experience in selling the services of a black/minority run production company is very difficult. I'm not aware of many reps of color, which could be helpful in selling our services, especially to those agencies looking to work with more diverse talent. On the direct-to-brand side, this is quite different because most brands have a DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) outreach component or division, which helps get the conversation started. Mass Media Films has received high marks and compliments about our work, talent, and capabilities, which I'm very proud of but more proactive action is needed.
Taj Critchlow: The biggest challenge we have is the fact we are a new company, so sometimes agencies tend to want to work with the production companies they have a history with. In addition, much of our roster is emerging talent, so the same applies to them as well. People generally like to go with the safe bet, so they lean towards what's tried and proven, versus going with something fresh and new. However, there are some agencies that have embraced the fact we are new and bring a fresh perspective to the game, and I applaud them for trusting in us to execute their campaigns.
There’s been a lot of interest in agencies and brands working with more BIPOC talent. Has that translated into actually awarding jobs to Black-owned companies?
Qadree Holmes: Unfortunately, not always. Many times we’ve seen requests for women and diverse artists go to white males. It can be discouraging, but this shows the community which clients are performative versus those that are actively trying to get on the right side of advertising history. If we’re doing the right thing, do we need to tell the world we’re doing the right thing? Let the work speak for itself. The project that Quriosity recently won several Clios for was the result of an agency pushing to work with a minority-owned production company. It works! We can help you win awards too.
“Tronic” McDonald: We haven't seen that. #FreeTheWork is a great organization, and we love what they stand for. They've truly been amazingly supportive of KUAMP. Agencies, however, seem to be the last ones to the party. We've seen the most lack of interest to "build" from them. Again, we're not looking for performative talk, we want real opportunities. Some agencies hide behind the ‘well, the director just doesn't have what we’re looking for on their reel’ excuse. And in some cases that makes sense, but in order for us to move forward in an innovative way, they'll have to find other ways to assess talent. Just like they've done in the past with my Non-BIPOC counterparts. A lot of times, those decisions are made on potential or the “buddy system.” So we’re just asking to be considered through a similar lens.
Taj Critchlow: Honestly, it's more talk than action. A lot of agencies and brands claim they’re pushing for more diversity and inclusion as a sound bite, but they still tend to resort to their old ways. It's bizarre that we’re still talking about this – diversity should be normalized, not a mandate or initiative. But unfortunately, the advertising world is stuck in its ways, so we have a lot of work to do in terms of representation on all fronts.
Jay Sherrard: Agencies showing more interest in working with BIPOC talent is great, but this doesn’t always translate to Black or minority-owned production companies getting the job. If this interest were more focused on the executive producer side, I believe the positive impact would be greater on all levels of the production.
Adiclere Evans: In our experience no, we have yet to see a significant increase. Until incentives are put in place, I believe companies won’t follow through with their pledges. Fortunately, we’ve been able to secure most of our business through existing relationships.
Do you feel at times you’re being asked to bid on a job just to satisfy an agency or brand’s diversity directives or specs? If so, do you embrace that opportunity, or do you feel it in any way diminishes you as a resource?
Adiclere Evans: Without a doubt there are instances where we’re only being selected to meet a diversity quota. However, it’s up to us to take advantage of these situations and create relationships that will give us meaningful opportunities in the future.
Taj Critchlow: That's a tough question, because if there wasn't a push for diversity directives in the advertising world, I would have fewer pitch opportunities. But it feels weird that it has to resort to that ‘ticking off-the-box’ mandate versus normalizing diversity, period. Race and gender shouldn't be a factor, the creative work should be the focal point, but unfortunately, Black and BIPOC creatives tend to be overlooked, hence why we’re having this discussion. And we need more diversity on the executive levels at the agencies and brands, because that will change the ‘Mad Men’ culture of white male dominance.
“Tronic” McDonald: Yes, it's counterproductive. Being asked to create a bid and treatment for a job you know you won't get is one of the biggest mistakes an agency or brand can make. You’re better off explaining to your client or shareholder that you're just not interested in working with BIPOC entities for whatever reason. By being upfront, you don’t waste our time or yours. Our work is certainly not diminished by this, and we'll continue onward. Clean competition is part of the game, you don't win them all, so we don’t expect to be awarded every job we bid on. But we find there’s always something special that happens when we do.
Qadree Holmes: I love these moments, and I fight extra hard to win these jobs. You must find the positives, even if the cards are stacked against you. If it doesn’t work out, you still have an opportunity to take someone through your process and teach them what you bring to agencies and brands besides the color of your skin or your sexual orientation.
Jay Sherrard: The majority of these bid requests are mostly focused on Black or minority directing talent and not the ownership of the production company. As an EP/Owner, I don't always view this as an opportunity for my company or my roster of directors. In my opinion, the focus should be shifted toward the ownership structure of these production companies, and the diversity of the labor force and production support team they hire.
How do you ensure that your Black directors can work on projects with strong representation of diverse faces among the crew? How are you making sure that opportunity extends to all departments, not just to the role of the director?
Taj Critchlow: As an Owner/EP, it’s always been a part of our company mandate that our crews are diverse. Especially in Canada, where the numbers are lacking heavily, due to the industry's history and population density. Like Spike Lee and John Singleton, we have to do our part to make the changes we seek.
Adiclere Evans: The Funnel Creative has a goal of hiring the most Black and brown crews in the industry. Since this is our mission, we don’t have a problem making sure there are diverse faces among our crews.
Jay Sherrard: As the EP and owner of a production company, I have a lot of say when it comes to the diverse makeup of the crew. On one of the last projects I produced, I made sure to hire as many qualified diverse crew members in the different departments as possible, especially in key positions, such as the gaffer and key grip. As for the director, he or she has the choice to bring on crew support he or she feels will get the job done in the way they've envisioned it.
“Tronic” McDonald: At KUAMP, ALL of our productions have diverse faces and representation. It's ingrained in everything we do. Supporting our Black directors, as well as other ethnicities, is paramount, and crucial to our work. Every department on and off set is diverse and includes BIPOC talent. We truly believe that we go further together, and the creative is always better for it.
Qadree Holmes: Not only have I made a conscious decision to only sit on the boards and advisory committees of organizations that promote change (AICP, Illinois Production Alliance, Chicago Ad Federation Diversity Thought Leadership Council, Shiny Awards, Chicago International Film Festival Black Perspectives Board, Free Spirit Media, Emeritus), but I’ve also tried to use this as a pipeline for new talented diverse faces. Anyone that has ever worked with Quriosity knows that we are interested in changing what production looks like as a whole. There are great careers created in other areas of the industry outside of being a director or producer. I feel the weight and cultural responsibility to utilize my platform to open doors to young women and minorities. We have to make these changes with purpose. Join us on set and you’ll see the difference.
Given what you’ve experienced, what’s your outlook for the coming year or so? How optimistic are you about future opportunities and the ability of your company to grow and flourish?
Adiclere Evans: We created The Funnel to provide jobs to Black filmmakers, so we see our company providing many jobs on a consistent basis over the next several years. More specifically, our aim is to help Black directors and filmmakers gain access and opportunities in the advertising space. We’ve pledged to do $100 million worth of payroll in the next 10 years, which will directly benefit our community. And we want to be an outlet for brands and agencies that are making commitments to utilize minority owned businesses.
“Tronic” McDonald: Ours is positive, and will be anchored by authentic, emotive work that truly resonates with audiences. KUAMP has been growing tremendously, and we don’t see that slowing down. Our partners’ creative needs are growing exponentially, and they look to us to be an ongoing collaborator in this new content-driven world. Flourishing is certainly in the plans!
Taj Critchlow: Our objective is to continue breaking down barriers and make great work and position ourselves in the marketplace as one of the most progressive production companies in the industry and a force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, we plan to expand into more long-form content in the near future. More blessings to come!
Qadree Holmes: I feel the outlook for Quriosity is extraordinary. I was at Cannes this year, and there were two topics you simply could not get around in every conversation: sustainability and diversity and inclusion. These topics go hand in hand. Because this is such a focus, I think it will present a unique opportunity for Black-owned businesses like Quriosity. Clients and brands want to make a commitment to make sure minority businesses survive. They’re beginning to understand that this is a full investment into the culture and the true sustainability of minority communities.
Jay Sherrard: Just like every business, we’re looking to grow and scale our operations over the next few years. We believe that going after B2B contracts and working direct to brand is the path forward. Forming a partnership with small to medium-sized agencies may also be very beneficial.