April 20, 2024

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TT The Artist On A Directing Debut Dream Dashed By SXSW Cancellation

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With full acknowledgment of the big picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Coping With COVID-19 Crisis is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.

An up and coming Baltimore-based music artist whose directorial debut documentary about the rhythms, dance and challenges facing her city was set to premiere at South By Southwest, TT The Artist shares the disappointment of seeing her dream temporarily dashed when Austin abruptly ordered the festival canceled.

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Since 1987, SXSW has been a premier media platform that can launch the careers of thousands of budding creatives and startup companies awaiting their big break. As an independent music artist and filmmaker, I was excited to find out that my first feature documentary, Dark City Beneath The Beat, was accepted as an official SXSW world premiere selection.

With much enthusiasm, my team and I hurried to book flights and hotels thinking… “Finally! This is our moment!” On March 6, 2020, I received a text from my manager stating “SXSW just announced they are canceling.” This year for the first time, SXSW would come to an abrupt cancellation due to the coronavirus global pandemic.

When I received that news, I was on Melrose Ave in Los Angeles shopping for looks I would flaunt at my directorial debut SXSW screenings. As a SXSW attendee in previous years, I was very familiar with spending a lot of money on self-investment in exchange for a big return from connecting within some of the industry’s top influencers and brands. Coming from Baltimore, a city left without media and press, I was excited about the potential of my first year being a part of the “official” SXSW lineups. For those who are not familiar “official” versus “unofficial” SXSW lineups give artists complimentary, coveted SXSW all-access badges. These badges on average range in the price range from discounted rates in the hundreds, to thousands of dollars. These official badges open artists to an industry network that the average person would normally not have access to.

The aftershock from what has taken place would prove to be more impactful than the SXSW cancellation itself. Many of the top partnering brands such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Spotify, Tik Tok and more slowly pulled out of the festival prior to its announcement. Although SXSW organizers seemed determined to proceed with the festival, that last bit of hope was short lived. After major partners and sponsors dropped out, the city of Austin ordered the festival’s cancellation when the mayor of Austin declared a local state of emergency.

Leading up to the cancellation, I caught the wave of the news and I had been monitoring coronavirus developments. In the back of my mind, I was hoping this was just a bad dream. It wasn’t. I started to receive texts asking if I was okay and how was I taking the news? After all, I spent about a decade and many failed attempts to get my first feature film funded and completed, with hopes of premiering it at a reputable festival such as SXSW.

In Baltimore, there are limited opportunities for artists and their work to get exposure. It was important for me to have the opportunity to share this audiovisual film about Baltimore’s creative community and club music culture with a larger global community like SXSW, where I knew the audience would engage in conversation around its message.

For me, Dark City Beneath the Beat is more than a film. It is a passion project that involved collaborating with over 100 Baltimore based creatives. Working with a micro-budget and dealing with setbacks including equipment being stolen, hard drives crashing, and multiple rejections by local grants for funding, there were moments where I was not sure if we would ever get to the finish line. After a few more attempts at applying for local grants, I finally reached a level where my film’s production would now have a budget. Thanks to John’s Hopkins Saul Zaentz Fund and The Rubys Artists Grants, Dark City Beneath the Beat would go from an outline on paper to finally being shot and completed.

Once I had a screener of the film, I relocated to Los Angeles with hopes of finding more support. We were in the last phase of post-production and needed a major co-sign to really help with the final stretch. Within a year and a half of being in LA and going to just about every Hollywood party, and many meetings to try to get my film the legs it needed to move to the next level, I met with Prentice Penny. He is the showrunner of HBO’s hit comedy series Insecure, starring Issa Rae. Prior to relocating, my music had been featured on the show’s soundtracks.

Prentice offered me a chance to shadow a Director for Insecure season four and the rest was herstory. Shortly, after shadowing, I met with the show’s Supervising Producer, Deniese Davis. Deniese asked to see the documentary. She immediately shared with me that she and Issa Rae wanted to support my film through their company ColorCreative, an organization that champions and provides support for underrepresented, diverse writers and directors.

Now, I am part of a group of artists, creators, filmmakers, booking agents, party promoters, SXSW staff, business owners and many others, who are all feeling the financial sting from this unimaginable occurrence. Within a matter of one week left before the festival, an overflow of exciting emails from SXSW staff members organizing this amazing, interactive experience turned into an unfortunate circumstance.

My film, Dark City Beneath the Beat, was created to be experienced by a universal audience. The all-original soundtrack and visuals are heightened when viewed in an audience setting. I was wistful for a moment, replaying all the joyous imagery I’d imagined my world premiere would have been. Through it all, I remain determined to showcase a film that shines a positive light on Baltimore, a city overshadowed by trauma, drugs, and violence. For years, the Baltimore creative scene has flown under the radar, in comparison to other major music and arts city hubs. It is important for me to share this film to uplift the narrative of Baltimore City by highlighting the culture that inspired me as an artist.

These days, I do not know if I am being unreal by saying we must maintain a state of positive thinking when so many people are left in a place of confusion, with questions of what’s next and, how do we recover from the losses? How will future festivals and gatherings for creatives be affected? Most of us make our livings off of bookings and events. With all the new travel restrictions and postponed events, it has forced us to find other ways to operate our businesses. If you believe in God, perhaps this is a moment where God is saying everyone take a break and make your health a priority. I know for myself, the media has painted a very scary image of the coronavirus pandemic, yet offered minimal information on how to maintain day to day operations for businesses being affected by this. Will washing our hands and social distancing really stop the spread of this virus?

The truth is we do not know the answers, but we can all work together to figure out how to help each other through education and safe practices that can reduce and eventually stop this pandemic. This is a moment in our generation, where we have to slow down, adapt to change and take care of each other.

Many of my peers asked, do I feel like my moment was taken away from me? The optimist in me can’t help but look at this as an opportunity to engage in dialogue and conversations now taking place on how we present media in the future. This is something no one was prepared for so it feels like a big slap out of nowhere. We simply didn’t see it coming and are now forced to recover from the emotional and financial hardships. Creatively, many of us are using the internet daily as an outlet for our media and content. It seems, at the least, we may see an increase in online streaming which is great for online business revenue.

My belief is the coronavirus will come and it will go. More people will be engaging with media as we adjust to this new normal. I encourage everyone to get proactive in their communities and online to spread more uplifting messaging on how to adapt and maintain. I may not have had a chance to physically attend SXSW this year and premiere my film, but I am hopeful for what the future presents!

Editors note: Here is the trailer for her film:

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