BET has been a home for black audiences and creators for decades, which is why the network decided to offer one filmmaker a $1 million movie studio budget to make their script with a contest that supports minority voices.
“We feel it’s our responsibility to create opportunities for people behind the camera, in front of the camera and in the editing bays. So this was just a perfect opportunity to really tap into the next generation of minority filmmakers,” says Connie Orlando, head of programming for BET.
Orlando thought a competition for filmmakers would be a perfect next step for the network, and through a partnership with Paramount Players, she was able to make it happen.
Project Cre8 Creative Executive Jamal Noisette and Contest Producer Alex Kocher were both approached by Orlando with the idea for a filmmaking competition with a $1 million prize provided by Paramount Players. Kocher researched examples of other incubators and competitions after Orlando’s suggestion, then the team quickly opened submissions on the BET website and social media platforms after the announcement was made at Sundance Film Festival in January. More than 650 people submitted screenplays for consideration, according to Kocher, and BET and Paramount Executives chose 10 finalists who were each given $2,500 to shoot a scene from their film.
BET and Paramount executives narrowed the field to five finalists, with the exception of one finalist who was voted on via social media. The ultimate winner will be chosen in a series of in-person panels during September and announced to the public on Oct. 1.
A scene from finalist Quincy Ledbetter’s film “Alieu The Dreamer.”
The contest was open to creatives from all races and backgrounds, but Noisette said they ultimately wanted to provide opportunities to minorities.
“Obviously, we would love to represent ourselves. It was open to any and everybody because great stories can come from anywhere,” he explains. “I think this is a great opportunity for us to find content creators, period. But yes, we were hoping to find someone of color.”
Not only will the winner of Project Cre8 have an opportunity to create their film with a $1 million budget, but all of the scripts that were submitted will be available for BET or Paramount to possibly tap into in the future, according to the team.
The Project Cre8 Creators
The five finalists include Calhoun Cornwell, Quincy Ledbetter, Alexandra Tran, William Anderson and Tayo Amos. Each story is unique and span genres. Cornwell’s Orangeburg 68 is based on real-life events in Orangeburg, S.C. in 1968 where 28 South Carolina State University students were shot (three were killed), while defending their rights to bowl at a bowling alley. Tran tells the story of a black Muslim girl, who rebels against her refugee parents and risks her own life in order to pursue her dream of swimming in Black Girls Don’t Swim, Ledbetter takes a more surrealist approach in the story, Alieu the Dreamer, about a black man who is the first person in three decades to have dreams.
Ledbetter, one of the five finalists, says that Project Cre8’s deliberate search for diverse voices is what attracted him to the competition.
“The industry seems like it’s trying to get better on that front, but it’s still too early to tell if that effort will result in a sustainable change in culture, so whenever I see an opportunity that seeks to lift people of color, I prioritize it as something I should definitely try to be involved in,” he says.
A scene from Cornwell’s film “Orangeburg 68.”
Cornwell, who wrote and directed Orangeburg 68, noted that the Orangeburg massacre happened nearly two years before the Kent State massacre, despite the misconception that Kent State was the first such tragedy. He adds that the was the first competition he’s entered where his film would be made.
“Who better to release a film about African-American college students being shot and killed while fighting for their rights than BET,” he says.“That’s why it’s a good opportunity.”
“It’s about these people out here that would never have an opportunity to walk in BET’s door and pitch an idea or have a film made. That’s the point in all of this.”
Tran, a Chicago native now living in Los Angeles, said she was about 10 years into her “trying-to-make-it phase” when she heard about Project Cre8 through a filmmaker group.
“A contest where the prize is a studio budget and the chance to direct the piece is, frankly, unheard of,” she says. “I just happened to have a brand-new script that fit the contest mandate, which was even more shocking because I wrote the script thinking ‘this story needs to be told, but no studio will want to make it.’ It just wouldn’t let go of me, so I had to write it.
Building a Future for Minorities in Media
Noisette, who has been in production for more than 10 years, said working on Project Cre8 had a much larger meaning to him and his career, noting it “altered his philosophy” about his job.
“I enjoy making content that pushes the needle and constantly pushing my creative boundaries, but it’s beginning to make me understand that it’s not about me. It’s really not. It’s about these people out here that would never have an opportunity to walk in BET’s door and pitch an idea or have a film made. That’s the point in all of this,” he explains.
Orlando echoes that sentiment, saying that the point of Project Cre8, and other smaller scale approaches the network is taking to provide the right set of circumstances and find great talent that they otherwise wouldn’t.
Orlando says she can’t take all the credit for Project Cre8 as the money from Paramount was already in the works, thanks to Paramount Players’ President Brian Robbins, before she took her permanent post at BET. However, she knew that she wanted to use the funds to enable the winner the chance to direct their own work—a big reason many contestants felt it would change their lives.
The network is also working on a partnership with Issa Rae’s ColorCreative initiative to do a “Script to Screen” contest in which BET will produce the winner’s pilot and then decide if it should become a network show.
“We’re popping up in these spaces and proving that this will forever be a part of who we are and what we continue to do in the future, and that’s not just finding new talent behind that camera,” Noisette explains.
A scene from Tran’s film “Black Girls Don’t Swim.”
Though the inaugural Project Cre8 is ending, Orlando, Noisette and Kocher are already churning out ideas on how to continue and expand it. Orlando is dedicated to bringing more music back to the network and says she hopes the next version of Project Cre8 can feature a music element where an artist’s work can be featured in the winning film.
“I would also like to create a casting option, so you see faces of talented folks that you wouldn’t necessarily see,” Orlando says. “So I think it has a lot of tentacles, right? That it could just grow and grow and just become this thing that is new and fresh and totally organic.”
BET already has a presence on the film festival circuit. The network’s Killer Creativity initiative holds panels at various festivals, like Sundance, Urbanworld and the American Black Film Festival, featuring young creatives presenting their latest ideas. Orlando explains that it’s a way to “see and test where things are going”
She adds that the approach Viacom is taking by making brands within the company work hand-in-hand with each other is also a positive for the company, the brands and the creators they are trying to amplify.
“I love that we’re working with our sister companies to create great projects,” she says. “Like Paramount Television, we’re doing Boomerang, we’re doing Dream Team with them. I just love that we’re all working together to create amazing content. We’re using IPs that we own. If you look at Soul Train and us kind of making that into American Soul, the series. I think we’re doing some cool things that really I hope resonate and really showcase our brand and who we are and where we want to be in this ecosystem.”