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How Two Sundance-Winning Films Forecast the Future for Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Production Company

Variety logo Variety 2/3/2023 Angelique Jackson
© Provided by Variety

Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad has much to celebrate in just the first few months of the new year: with two films, “A Thousand and One” and “Kokomo City” winning big at Sundance; the family film “Chang Can Dunk” launching March 10 on Disney+ ; a documentary about Mary Tyler Moore premiering at SXSW; and a sixth season of “The Chi” on the way.

The company, founded by the actor, producer and Emmy-winning writer in 2015, is at a pinnacle moment, but it’s also just getting started.

“Here’s the really interesting part about the next three months, it’s not like we snapped our fingers and got here,” Hillman Grad CEO Rishi Rajani says, as he and Waithe joined Variety for a discussion over Zoom following the announcement of their Sundance wins. “This next three months is the culmination of the last few years of what Hillman Grad has built.”

He continues: “If you trace back the filmmakers, whether it’s A.V. [Rockwell, director of ‘A Thousand and One’] or Jingyi [Shao, director of “Chang Can Dunk”], we built a system that we thought was missing in Hollywood, which is the idea of providing real mentorship to filmmakers and giving them that first opportunity.”

That’s what has set Hillman Grad apart from other companies in Hollywood — instead of getting on board for a director’s second feature or getting a young filmmaker staffed before considering developing an original project with them, Waithe and Rajani preferred to take that “risk” and jump in headfirst with a filmmaker. In order to shift the culture, he explains, “We need to take that first shot.”

For example, Waithe and Rajani first booked Rockwell to work on their BET show “Boomerang” based on her short film “Feathers” and then it was on to developing her feature. With Shao, the key was giving him his first writing job (also on “Boomerang”) before producing “Chang Can Dunk.”

“It’s all about incubation, it’s all about giving people an opportunity, but also creating a space around them for them to grow, for them to learn, for them to make mistakes, to find out what they’re good at, what their weaknesses are,” Waithe adds. “We really want to be like a teachable production company, and we’re learning as we go as well.”

Over the last five years, Hillman Grad has grown from a two-person operation (with Waithe and Rajani at the helm) working in coffee shops or scrounging space in the writers room of BET’s “Twenties.” Now, the company boasts a staff of 18, with Naomi Funabashi as president of film and television; Justin Riley as vice president of operations and business development; Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright as executive director of the Hillman Grad Foundation; and Marquis Phifér as head of cultural marketing.

“It’s all the things that Lena first pitched to me: wanting to bring people through the door with us and doing that in a real community fashion; having a real mentorship program, and ushering new voices in,” Rajani says. “It’s happening and it’s the most gratifying thing in the world, because we’re actually seeing the fruits of that labor emerge into the culture.”

“A Thousand and One” is a perfect example of how that formula has paid off. Rockwell’s feature directorial debut was acquired by Focus Features before it got into production and set for a March 31 theatrical release. Its debut at Sundance was met with rapturous reviews — particularly for Rockwell’s vision and star Teyana Taylor’s commanding performance.

The story behind “Kokomo City” is a little different. Rajani got a viewing link to the documentary in order to prepare for a Cinema Café conversation he was set to moderate with the project’s director D. Smith, as well as Alison O’Daniel (“The Tuba Thieves”) and Walé Oyéjidé (“Bravo, Burkina!”) Blown away by what he saw, Rajani slipped the link to Waithe, who watched it and was equally moved.

“I immediately said, ‘Do you think they want us to be helpful? How can we be supportive to make sure that this movie gets distribution?’ And he said, ‘I can ask,’” Waithe recalls.

From there, the process moved very quickly. By the time the film premiered, Hillman Grad had officially come on board as executive producers.

“Myself, D. Smith and Elegance Bratton [the filmmaker behind awards season breakthrough ‘The Inspection’] sat down and celebrated on the evening of the premiere,” Waithe adds. “The three of us, sitting in a basement, dancing, talking, sharing and communing. The awards were the icing on the cake, but what was really great was that we were building community.”

In fact, by the time the Sundance awards were announced on Jan. 27, the producers were on opposite ends of the world — with Waithe in London and Rajani back in Los Angeles — so they celebrated the happy news via their text thread.

“I will admit that I was sitting there refreshing the news page in between meetings and phone calls. And the second that it popped up, I texted Lena and was like ‘Holy shit!’” Rajani says, adding, “I’m very grateful to Sundance for seeing us and everything that Hillman Grad is building, but it’s just so cool to trace that that legacy Lena has.”

Waithe has had a great deal of success at the film festival over the years. First, she produced Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” which won the U.S. dramatic special jury award for breakthrough talent in 2014. Then, Hillman Grad boarded Radha Blank’s “The Forty Year Old Version,” which won the U.S. dramatic competition directing award in 2020. Then, this year, “Kokomo City” won both the NEXT Audience and Innovator awards (and picked up distribution from Magnolia Pictures), while “A Thousand and One” won the U.S. dramatic competition grand jury prize. In addition to being award-worthy productions from emerging filmmakers, the films stand apart because of their subject matter: as stories of people from different backgrounds and from disenfranchised voices that don’t often get prime placement.

Assessing the impact of winning the festival’s top prize, Waithe says, “What it means for A.V. is that she’s arrived. She wasn’t looking for anyone’s validation, but the fact that it came, I think she actually felt an embrace. The festival, the Sundance family they really were saying well done and welcome.”

She continues: “It’s always nice to win awards; it’s very exciting and you feel really humbled by it. But for us, it was them embracing us and saying that ‘You guys are keeping you eye on filmmakers that the industry might not see of pay attention to right away.’ And we’re really excited to be making the introduction.”

As far as talented filmmakers go, up next is Tiffany Johnson. Waithe’s longtime friend and former assistant on “The Chi” is primed for her breakout moment.

“She was really passionate about being a director and I knew that she had all the things that she needed to be that because she had such a great vision,” Waithe says, adding that after “The Chi,” Johnson directed on “Twenties,” “Boomerang” and “Dear White People” and “Black Monday,” for which she was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. “She has a movie with us and we’re so excited to be producing her first feature.”

Meanwhile, Rajani shouts out Haley Elizabeth Anderson, who Hillman Grad is working with on a top-secret, but “very cool, punk rock project.”

“It’s such a privilege to be in a place — because now, people understand our brand — of being the place that actually mentors filmmakers,” he says. “Our submissions have gone up, the reach out to us has gone up and we’re able to really engage with people and find that next crop of talent.”

Rishi Rajani and Lena Waithe pose with Kokomo City filmmaker D. Smith (third from right) and producers (L to R) Bill Butler, Stacy Barthe and Harris Doran at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Kokomo City” in Sundance. © Provided by Variety Rishi Rajani and Lena Waithe pose with Kokomo City filmmaker D. Smith (third from right) and producers (L to R) Bill Butler, Stacy Barthe and Harris Doran at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Kokomo City” in Sundance.

Hillman Grad’s Mentorship Lab, which is in its second cycle, and the company’s partnership with Indeed on the Rising Voices program have also reaped dividends, with filmmakers like Johnson Cheng creating impressive work. “The avenues and the systems that we’ve built are all about true talent development,” Rajani says.

And while Hillman Grad’s mission is to amplify stories about people of color and other marginalized communities, the company is truly a home for all stories. The company is next headed to SXSW with “Kokomo City” and the world premiere of “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” a documentary about the trailblazing TV icon. Waithe first became interested in Moore’s story while studying “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” at Columbia College.

“I was really fascinated by the fact that Mary Tyler Moore was the wife and mother model for everyone [on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”] and then became the eternal single woman who became the model,” Waithe explains.

And as a student of television, she began to see the parallels between Moore’s on-screen story and the shows she grew up loving, like “Girlfriends,” where Tracee Ellis Ross’ Joan Clayton tread a similar path. That’s why Hillman Grad signed on to support the vision of Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker James Adolphus, who’ll explore Moore’s impact with the film and has also teamed up with the company for the upcoming documentary “Gifted & Black.” The film is also produced by Debra Martin Chase, another hero of Waithe’s.

Up next for Waithe creatively is the sixth season of “The Chi,” the hit series which is part of the Paramount+ with Showtime integration announced on Monday. “It’s going to be a season unlike any other season before,” Waithe teases, sharing that the writers room is under Jewel Coronel and showrunner Justin Hillian.

Looking back on the ride of “The Chi” is a bit of a trip, given that the series was her first born under Hillman Grad. Asked what she’s learned throughout her run with the show, Waithe says, “There’s too many lessons to name. I’ve grown up on that show. I really was wet behind the ears and trying to figure it out as that show took place and as these characters were introduced to people. My relationship with my audience began in a different way. Like any relationship, it ebbs and flows, you grow and we’re still together.”

While not getting too specific, Waithe confirms that she “definitely has an idea” in terms of when to wrap up the show, but the most important thing is to “not overstay its welcome.”

“I want to make sure we go out while people when people can still miss us,” she says. “We’ve had such a wonderful run and the audiences have been so loving and loyal — the ratings go up every season and I don’t take that for granted. We really work super hard to deliver this show for the audience because we know they’re worthy of it.”

Asked how they plan to maintain momentum on a new platform given the merger, Waithe replied: “We don’t see ourselves changing our strategy for ‘The Chi’ or any of our other projects. The platform has never mattered to us as much as the quality of our content. We firmly believe that if we make great shows, they will find an audience.”

In film, Waithe’s focus is on their upcoming Sammy Davis Jr. biopic, which is in development at MGM, based on his daughter Tracey Davis’ book “Sammy Davis Jr.: My Father.”

“That is my passion,” Waithe says of the project. “I really can’t wait to tell his story.”

Waithe and Rajani are producing the project alongside Sight Unseen’s Julia Lebedev and Eddie Vaisman. “We have a script and that is in such a wonderful place,” Waithe adds, going on to reveal that two major elements of the production are also locked in: Tony-nominee Daniel Watts (who Waithe praises for his “phenomenal” turn as Ike Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” on Broadway) will play Sammy Davis Jr. and Anthony Hemingway (“Genius: Aretha,” the “Power” franchise,” “Red Tails,” “Underground”) signed on to direct from a script by David Matthews.

Following that film – or perhaps in conjunction with it — Waithe has a new TV project bubbling up as well as some potential collaborations with the legendary likes of Debbie Allen and a reunion with Angela Bassett, but she’s keeping mum on details for now.

Meanwhile, Rajani notes that Hillman Grad is in the process of growing and considering the prospect of outside investors. “We are starting to have conversations on that front,” he says.

After Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine sold a majority stake to Candle Media for $900 million in 2021 and Brad Pitt’s Plan B, with a reported $300 million valuation, closed a deal with Mediawan earlier this year, the marketplace is primed for partnerships with media conglomerates. With Hillman Grad’s myriad successes, the time to begin having these conversations is nigh.

“People are really taking an interest in us and the work that we’re doing and it means that the work is working,” Rajani explains. “We built a really scalable business that is not just Lena-written and produced projects; it’s really looking at that next generation and giving them support. That’s really gonna allow our business to grow because it presents so much opportunity to keep introducing people to the culture and making more projects with them.”

The perfect investor would be interested in forming a “true partnership,” focused on communication and aligned with the brand’s philosophy of support. “It’s having someone that can bring sources to the table and access to the financial world — which is a very different world than the world we’re living in — but also allow us to continue to have the freedom to support the filmmakers,” he says.

Rajani also notes that because the company’s goal is to “impact culture,” one must understand the symbiotic relationship between all elements of culture, which is why the company has expanded into music, podcasts, publishing and theater.

“Not every story is right for film or TV; sometimes the story is better as a book. Sometimes the story is better as a podcast. And we’re excited about that,” he explains. “[If] our ethos and philosophy is allowing individuals from disenfranchised backgrounds and emerging voices to tell their stories, we need to be in these other divisions as well.”

“We’re still evolving,” Waithe adds.” And I think that’s what’s so exciting about it: we’re always willing to grow, willing to learn and figure out what we can do better. We want to continue to evolve every year.”

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