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

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

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

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

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

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
and The Brass Teapot on
demand now.

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