Sidra Smith is on a mission to find the next Ryan Coogler or Ava DuVernay—a.k.a. the next Black storyteller. And through the creation of the inaugural ESSENCE Film Festival, she’s set to do just that. “This is another dope thing that ESSENCE is bringing to Black culture,” says Smith, executive producer, Essence Studios. “We’re excited to continue to serve Black women deeply.”
The vision for Essence Studios, when it was launched in 2020, was to build a streaming platform packed with original programming to support emerging artists on a global scale. But just as the team got to work on creating this robust digital hub, COVID-19 hit.
However, there was a silver lining. Smith and her crew were able to transform the events that were supposed to happen in person into virtual offerings that could live on the platform. First up was a Wellness House chat, with experts conversing about everything from meal prep to mental health.
The success of that event set off a domino effect of booming content on the platform. Show Me Your Walk: HBCU Edition, a commencement celebration, was launched next, followed by the women-led Entrepreneur Summit: Bossed-Up Edition and the male-focused Dear Black Men. Then the studio was tasked with bottling the intoxicating energy of the ESSENCE Festival of Culture Presented by Coca-Cola (EFOC) into a virtual event, which it did successfully for two years.
This summer, EFOC is back in person for the first time since 2019—and with a new element: a film festival giving Black creators the opportunity to showcase their talent in front of the community for whom their art was created.
“The joy for me is all of these emerging filmmakers who are going to be able to say they premiered their movie at the ESSENCE Festival of Culture in New Orleans,” Smith says. “That’s the audience for the stories that we’re trying to tell.”
Another exciting aspect for Smith is the opportunity to educate festivalgoers about the ways in which Black people can contribute behind the scenes. “A lot of people of color aren’t seen in costume design, catering, craft services, cinematography and transportation,” she says, “We’re using a large part of the film festival to inspire people of color to go after some of those jobs.”
After the film festival’s coming-out party in the Big Easy, the goal is for it to exist annually outside of EFOC. Smith adds that she also wants the event to become a destination for distributors to buy content from our community.
“Essence Studios is here for emerging storytellers,” she says. “We want to nurture and support creators of color. Our goal is to support people who would never otherwise have an opportunity to really be seen.”