Checking in with Queen Nefertari Productions' Cynthia Stafford (Lottery Winner Turned Film Producer)

Interviews
by Jai Tiggett
March 26, 2013 1:23 PM
15 Comments
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It's been nearly two years since Cynthia Stafford and her producing partner Lanre Idewu were interviewed on the Shadow & Act podcast about their work with Queen Nefertari Productions.

You may recall that Stafford won a state lottery jackpot of $112 million back in 2007 and used part of her winnings to found the company. We've covered her dealings a few times since then as she's backed a number of projects, including two recently released independent films – the gritty Chicago drama Polish Bar, which is now on VOD, and magical comedy The Brass Teapot, which is on VOD and will have a limited theatrical run starting April 5.

As Stafford and Idewu work to publicize their new films, they made time to check in with S&A and gave some insights into what they're working on now and in the future, including an update on that studio project we heard about some time ago.

JT: Congratulations on the film releases. Tell me about what attracted you to these two projects.   

CS: For me, it was the opportunity to become involved with the business and to learn about producing at the same time. That's what I appreciated about Polish Bar, which was the first feature that I invested in. It was an opportunity to do something more besides just putting money into it.

LI: She's been involved one way or another in every step of the process. She reads production reports, gives her opinion on cuts, on screenings. So it truly is an equal mix of the creative and the business aspects.

JT: Tell me about the stories in these two films. What stood out to you?

LI: With Polish Bar, it's about a young Jewish man who is dealing with the pressures of his parents and society, but also trying to find his identity, and in the process he ends up realizing how important family is. So that resonated with us. It's a multicultural cast, but also something that touches everyone.

With The Brass Teapot, it was another simple thing. With Cynthia's lottery win we've experienced firsthand both the blessings and the trappings of sudden wealth. So to be able to participate in a really well done cautionary tale about sudden wealth and the impact of greed, but also the benefit of having money and being able to do things for other people, was a no-brainer for us. It was a great story. Frank Wuliger at Gersh introduced us to it, the director was top-notch, and the package just came together.

JT: Now that you've worked on a few projects, has it changed your vision for Queen Nefertari at all?

LI: One of the things we've done strictly for the business model is approach the financial aspect of producing films first. We keep our minds on the business, and then add in the show. We first started out doing straight equity and development, and that’s a long, tedious process. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors and projects that never see the light of day. So we make sure that we know where we're going with a project, who our audience is, and who's going to be on the purchase side before we get involved in a project. That's one of our huge shifts from when we first started.

JT: What kinds of stories would you like to tell going forward?

LI: Simply put, commercially viable movies with a message. We want to always have some type of social commentary, and we want to focus on bringing together people of different backgrounds, different life experiences.

JT: Are you interested in black films specifically, or is your goal to focus on the mainstream?

LI: It's definitely both. No matter what the movie is, we want to show universal themes. Our opinion is that there are no such things as black movies or white movies. Society makes it so, but it's our goal to break through some of those barriers.

JT: But of course there's a desire for those who have the power and financing, to push more black projects to the forefront. Is that a consideration?

LI: Always. We're champions of people of color, and what we're trying to do as champions, is get us to open our minds. If we constantly say there are no jobs for black actors, we'll create less opportunities for black actors. We're big believers in, "What you dwell on comes about."

CS: I agree. I would like to see more [diversity] and in order to see it, we have to be that vision that we speak to. We don't just sit around and talk about it, we actually do it. We're working towards what we want to see on the screen and hope that by doing that, it'll encourage others.

JT: You've been active in philanthropy as well. Have any of those efforts been focused on developing new talent of color - directors, writers, actors, etc?

CS: Yes, many times we jump aboard projects, like we did recently with an independent film a friend of ours had developed.

LI: Holla II. It's like an urban remake of Scream. Some people scream, other people holla. It's a fun pet project with a majority African American cast.

CS: We do what we can. I'm definitely one of those people who will advocate for anyone who's going for their dream.

JT: When you spoke with Shadow & Act a couple years ago, there was mention of opening your own film studio. Is that still in the works?

LI: It is. We're in the midst of partnering up with a couple of other entities. We're growing Queen Nefertari from all sides. So we're in talks, and we've looked at some spaces as well, so we're thinking that very soon we'll be able to make another big announcement.

JT: It's a pretty amazing story - from winning the lottery to starting your production company and other ventures. Any nuggets of wisdom you've picked up from this experience that you'd want to share?

CS: To keep your own eyes on your business. It's important to employ others and have people who are experienced working with you, but it's also important to take classes like I did, and learn as much as you can. Keep an eye on your own projects.

What I've also learned is to diversify your portfolio. I'm not only involved in entertainment, I'm involved in other companies. And do something that you're passionate about. Make sure it's something that will keep your interest long after you've invested.

LI: I'd just like to add onto that - Do what you can, with what you have, from where you are. A lot of times we run into filmmakers who just have a dollar and a dream, but they haven't explored all of their options. It's almost like they want somebody to do it for them. Facebook is free. Instagram is free. Twitter is free. If you're a filmmaker, go out there and start making films with your iPhone. Put clips on the internet. Get an audience, build fans. There's a quote that says, "When you move, Providence moves too." So if you do as much as you possibly can with what you have, you can only continue to create more opportunities.

JT: What are you working on next?

LI: Our next project is called Seedless. The writer/director is Temi Ojo. It's a story about power, perception and choices, set in the background of child sex trafficking here in America. So again, for us it's about taking a universal theme and bringing it to different audiences.  We now have the opportunity to read different stories from around the world, so it absolutely makes the most sense to bring the audiences of the world together. I don't think we can any longer focus on a microcosm when we're a global community.

I'm Nigerian, and we're working on some projects with Nollywood as well. And I really think it's time for us all to open our minds to bring different audiences together.

You can find both Polish Bar and The Brass Teapot on demand now.


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15 Comments

  • Mortimer | February 14, 2014 5:13 PMReply

    How long are you allowed to use the computer at the mental institution? I would say too long. They must have taken away your tv privileges.

  • Mortimer | February 14, 2014 5:21 PM

    Say! Shadow & Act deleted the offensive person I was commenting about (and rightfully so). So, beautiful ladies who won the lottery and opened a movie business, and writer of this piece, I was not talking to you.

    *pause*

    But I am talking to you when I say y'all really got to start making some better movies. That is all.

  • Johana Montes de Oca | August 31, 2013 2:20 PMReply

    Ms. Cynthia Stafford, I saw you on T.V and can say that your mind power to put that number under your pillow and then win it is really amazing I wish I could do that every-time I think in my mind I wish I saw 120 pounds as oppose to my 149 pounds. Cynthia let me cut to the chase I don't know how else to write to you so I do hope in time this will be read by you. I know you have become an entrepreneur and often see there are so many shows and ways that singers can get their dream happen but here is an idea for you, what if you created one for example "American Idol" or something but for actors. My long life dream has been to become an actress (as a minority this is just 4 times as hard) and it just seems like there is not as many opportunities out there as for singers. Thus, there's a multi-million comment/suggestion/idea for you! It was worth the shot thank you for your time.

  • Bridget Turner | April 1, 2013 2:10 PMReply

    We need this on screen! Need some fresh new and totally exciting material with new exciting faces on screen to tell a jaw dropping mind blowing story? Then you should read the new book titled "The Season" by Hilda Bridget Turner, a true story based on facts surrounding a black family's move to Florida from South Carolina in 1949. The struggles, the anguish and all that they endured. Check it out it's Color Purple, Antwone Fisher and Precious all rolled into one, it will make you laugh and it will make you cry! Check it out it's worth the read.

  • Micah | March 29, 2013 12:30 AMReply

    She's attaching respected and name talent to her projects. Are they biggest names no but they are names that get some attention in. The type of movies she's starting with fit other small film makers trajectory to bigger things. While I do hope she brings more black talent in front and behind the camera, I actually respect the way she is approaching things overall.

  • vdub0408 | March 28, 2013 10:31 PMReply

    I had to re-read this interview because I thought it was a spoof. Seriously. Hmmmm I wonder what the ancient Queen Nefertari would think of this.

  • sandra | March 27, 2013 11:47 AMReply

    I am truly inspired by what Cynthia has accomplished and how she got started.

  • LegenDeri | March 27, 2013 2:46 AMReply

    Wack!!!! Sound advice GO MAINSTREAM!!!! In other words, Sell Your Soul!!! Hey if they wanna make movies that depict white/jewish people as the diverse crowd, but the "...fun pet project of mostly an African American cast"... they do that.

    Ava, Dee, Matthew, Issa, and all the others can continue to create a blueprint for what works, and what doesn't, and they will have followers too, that will eventually go mainstream. Spike went mainstream, but he continued to push the envelope within a genre that was Pro-Black, Social Commentary filled, and influenced with integrity. He isn't the only one... all I know is keep making films, because films make money!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Shameful | March 26, 2013 11:56 PMReply

    They should be out supporting our greatest newer black producers and dircetors like Nekiss aOpper and Dees Rees and Matthew Cherry and Ava DuVerney and Rashaa Ernesto Green and Vixtoria Mahoney and Rodeny Evans and Dennis Dortth and only climax and on and on. Holla Part Two. C'mon people. You can't expect to be taken seriously. Their answe for black film support was pathetic. This is a joke.

  • truth | March 27, 2013 12:15 AM

    First, most you named suck and are overrated. Second, use SPELL CHECK!

  • other song | March 26, 2013 11:30 PMReply

    I hope they funded the Agbaje's (Central City Towers) "Spider Stories". That's probably the most interesting and daring Black project I've heard of in a WHILE. I'm tired of these true-story/documentary-style stories. Bring on the SF/Fantasy! Just something new and bold for crying out loud!

  • BigBlacK | March 26, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    Black folks with money not interested in making black movies. Whack! No wonder black Filmmakers have it so hard.

  • NO BRAINER | March 26, 2013 11:18 PM

    You can say it again, CARL. Six years ago I sounded like this BIGBLACK fellow. Now, I say go mainstream. If you rely on the black community to support your endeavors as an up-and-comer, you will be an up-and-comer for until the day you quit or die. Not to mention, creating a reliable, well-oiled machine behind the scenes from our community is also almost impossible. We're just not about this film thing.

  • Carl | March 26, 2013 2:45 PM

    LOL Almost gave them credit, DO NOT support them is what I meant.

    Now act like that's not true if you want but FACTS state otherwise. So how you mad at this sista? She's trying to run a damn business not start your own damn magical movie civil rights movement! lol

  • Carl | March 26, 2013 2:43 PM

    I don't blame them! All most black folk do is complain and the ones that do make good movies (like "The Great Debaters") do support them.

    So fuck em, go mainstream. Ain't mad at them at all.

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