With the film festival, Prince George’s makes an offer for the big screen

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

By the time of its debut, a once small local community of directors and performers had grown significantly, supported by the County Film Office, which opened in 2013. The documentary film dubbed Prince George’s a “Basketball county”. Now these artists believe that Prince George’s can also be a county for filmmakers.

They will make this pitch at Prince George Film Festival, the first county-sponsored film festival taking place this week from Thursday to Sunday. For County filmmakers, it’s a Hollywood-worthy underdog story. Alongside the neighborhood’s iconic scenes, Prince George’s has traditionally attracted little attention from major film and television productions.

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“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 Foster-Dotson, consultant for the Prince George’s Film Office. “We are a well-kept secret.”

Foster-Dotson said the county film office instead tapped into a community of local, low-budget creators in the county, providing grants and facilitating filming on location in Prince George. Tressa Smallwood shot her first film from her Oak Creek home in 2015 with support from the Film Office. She has produced 12 films in total at Prince George’s now, shooting in public locations across the county she said she would struggle to access elsewhere.

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

Director Harold Jackson, who grew up in Los Angeles but spent his career in DC and Prince George, said the county has unique advantages for filmmakers looking to shoot there.

“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 becomes a big part of my cinema because it has pretty much everything within a very small radius.

The film office’s work paid off, Foster-Dotson said. They’ve supported 156 film and TV productions in Prince George 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 currently filming in the county. This year, the Film Bureau launched a new grant program with county funding specifically aimed at supporting film projects.

The weekend film festival will be another opportunity to help Prince George’s film scene grow. In addition to 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, president of fine and performing arts for Bowie State. “There are exciting panels that are not only of interest to filmmakers across the county, but also to students…to empower them as they enter the industry.”

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The creators of Prince George 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 pre-production. Jackson’s latest film, a murder mystery set in the district and Maryland, will screen at the festival. With a grant from the Film Office, he has started shooting his next film in Brandywine, a lighthearted comedy which he hopes will show the county in a positive light amid the summer cover headlines. -fires and crime.

“Normal ordinary people, showing a lot of love and respect for each other and having fun in the process – it’s very important to take this and put it in Prince George’s County,” he said. he declares. “Using that in a way to help change the narrative is definitely part of my mantra.”

Ayodeji, on a lunch break filming a corporate video project near Baltimore, will return this weekend to attend the festival. It means the world to her, she says, 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 here who are excellent and hungry,” Ayodeji said. “We are happy to work.”