The Washington Post

A growing filmmaking community will star at Prince George’s festival

- BY DANIEL WU

Prince George’s County didn’t feel like a place to make movies when actress Kike Ayodeji grew up. She loved film festivals, but she had to drive to D.C. and Philadelph­ia or fly to Los Angeles to reach them. The first film to represent Prince George’s that came to mind for her was a 2020 documentar­y about the county’s long list of accomplish­ed basketball players.

By the time it debuted, a oncemodest local community of directors and performers had grown considerab­ly, backed by the county’s film office, which opened in 2013. The documentar­y film dubbed Prince George’s a “Basketball County.” Now, these artists think Prince George’s can be a county for filmmakers, too.

They will make that pitch at the Prince George’s Film Festival, the first county-sponsored film festival running this week from Thursday to Sunday.

To the county’s filmmakers, it’s an underdog story fit for Hollywood. Next to the iconic scenes of the District, Prince George’s traditiona­lly attracted little attention from large film and TV production­s.

“When people come to this area, they tend to come because they’re shooting something that needs the backdrop of the nation’s capital,” said Donna FosterDots­on, a consultant for the Prince George’s Film Office. “We’re a well-kept secret.”

Foster-dotson said the county film office instead tapped into a community of low-budget and local creators in the county, offering grants and making it easier to shoot on location in Prince

George’s. Tressa Smallwood shot her first film out of her Oak Creek home in 2015 with the film office’s support. She’s produced 12 films in Prince George’s altogether now, shooting at public locations across the county she said she’d struggle to access elsewhere.

“If I tried to go to New Orleans, Atlanta, nobody’s going to help me get a hospital,” Smallwood said. “They’ve been very helpful in the county, helping to lend resources. I think that’s major.”

Director Harold Jackson, who grew up in Los Angeles but spent his career in D.C. and Prince George’s, said the county has unique advantages for filmmakers who want to shoot on location.

“It has everything you need to film,” Jackson said. “You can go 10 minutes one way and get a suburb, you can go 15 minutes the other way and get a lake, a waterfront. … Hyattsvill­e is becoming a big component in my filmmaking because it has pretty much everything in a very small radius.”

The film office’s work has seen results, Foster-dotson said. They’ve supported 156 film and TV production­s in Prince George’s since 2016 — including “Basketball County” — and hosted 22 so far this year, she said. Bigger names are taking notice — a Paramount Plus-backed production is shooting in the county. This year, the film office launched a new grant program with county funding earmarked specifical­ly to support film projects.

The weekend’s film festival will be another chance to help Prince George’s filmmaking scene grow. Besides screenings at the MGM hotel in National Harbor, the four-day event will host networking receptions and workshops on film financing, distributi­on and marketing at Bowie State University.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Tewodross Williams, Bowie State’s chair of fine and performing arts. “There are some exciting panels that are not only great for filmmakers in the county but also students … to empower them as they get into the industry.”

Prince George’s creators have more stories to tell. Smallwood’s next project, a story about the Tulsa Race Riots that she hopes to shoot in Prince George’s, is in preproduct­ion. Jackson’s latest film, a murder mystery set across the District and Maryland, will screen at the festival. With grant funding from the film office, he’s begun shooting his next film in Brandywine, a lightheart­ed comedy that he hopes will show the county in a positive light amid the summer’s headlines about curfews and crime.

“Normal everyday people, showing a lot of love and respect for one another and having fun in the process — just taking that and putting that in Prince George’s County is very important,” he said. “To use that in a way to help change the narrative is definitely part of my mantra.”

Ayodeji, on lunch break on a shoot for a corporate video project near Baltimore, will be heading back this weekend to attend the festival. It means the world to her, she said, to see a festival in her home county. And she hopes it will lead to more projects closer to home.

“There are artists and creators out here that are excellent, and hungry,” Ayodeji said. “We’re excited to work.”

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