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Common, Lena Waithe Join AT&T Hello Lab’s Filmmaker-Mentoring Program in Second Year

Common, Lena Waithe
Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

AT&T Hello Lab’s filmmaker mentoring program — aimed at supporting the creative voices of those underrepresented by Hollywood — is back for a second year, with Common and Lena Waithe among the lineup of mentors for projects from six up-and-coming directors.

The filmmakers, comprising five women and one man, will debut their short films on the Hello Lab channel on AT&T’s DirecTV and DirecTV Now streaming service later this year. The 2017 films can currently be viewed there.

The seven 2018 mentors are: actor-writer-producer Lena Waithe (writer on “Master of None,” creator of Showtime’s “The Chi”); Oscar-winning hip-hop artist and actor Common; producer Shelby Stone “The Chi,” “Bessie”); Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective”); director Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok,” “Boy”); actor Tessa Thompson (“Westworld,” “Dear White People”); and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound,” “Black Panther”).

The mentors selected the filmmakers they wanted to support; two of the projects have ties to Showtime’s “The Chi” drama series set on Chicago’s South Side. AT&T Hello Lab enlisted Fullscreen (owned by AT&T and Chernin Group’s Otter Media) as the lead agency partner for the program, with Whalerock Industries as the production services partner.

“The only way change can happen is by helping to create it, and it’s exactly why I’ve invested in this mentorship program,” Waithe said in a statement.

Common — who also participated in the AT&T Hello Lab program last year — together with Shelby Stone are mentoring Melisa Resch. Resch is a creative executive at Common’s Freedom Road Productions (and his former exec assistant), where she worked on Waithe’s “The Chi,” a drama series set on Chicago’s South Side.

“I believe the seed of this whole mentorship program will get people who are often not heard to be out there with their art,” Common told Variety.

“We know in the world inequality exists,” Common continued. “We see Hollywood is making an effort, but we want to do our part to allow the people who don’t get the chance to be heard, really — women and people of color. For some of the these directors and writers, it’s their first work that will be seen.”

Resch’s script for “The Line,” described as a “punk rock love story,” would have been much more difficult to get backing from a major studio because she’s a first-time director, Common said. “We wouldn’t be able to get this made as quickly as we’re going to get it made,” he said. “I read her script and I was like, ‘Wow, OK.’ What impressed me was the simplicity in the concept but the complexity in the people. It felt like such an original, fresh voice.”

AT&T isn’t saying how much it’s investing in year two of the Hello Lab Mentorship Program. In 2017, the investment was “substantial” and will be on the same order this year, said Valerie Vargas, senior VP of advertising and creative services in AT&T’s Mobility and Entertainment Group.

For the telco — which last week completed its takeover of Time Warner — the program will bring a fresh batch of original content to its DirecTV platform. But more than that, it’s a brand-burnishing effort by AT&T to foster goodwill and demonstrate its backing of diverse creators.

“We have a broader investment in developing entertainment and talent that is underrepresented in the marketplace,” Vargas added, calling out programs like AT&T Presents: Untold Stories in association with Tribeca.

Aspiring filmmakers have asked AT&T if it will change the Hello Lab Mentorship Program to an open-submission process. Vargas said the company is considering that “but for now it’s working very well.”

In the second year of the program, “we are working harder to connect the dots for the filmmakers and dig deeper into these already diverse communities,” said Maureen Polo, senior VP of Fullscreen’s Brand Studio. Polo and her group at Fullscreen are managing the day-to day relationships as well as working as advisers to the talent.

AT&T will support each filmmaker along with industry advisers, including studio and production company executives, agents, and attorneys. Advisers and mentors will provide pre-production assistance to the filmmakers on pitching their work, managing budgets, making shots lists and storyboards, and directing character-driven narratives.

All the films will be 10-20 minutes in length. According to AT&T, all of the mentees have experience and connections in the entertainment industry but they’re still fairly new directors. On the back end, Fullscreen, AT&T and the filmmakers together will put together marketing plan based on genre of film and filmmakers background and social profile.

The AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program will be featured in a presentation at the 2018 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity on Thursday, June 21, at 3 p.m. CET (more at this link).

Here’s more info on the filmmakers and their projects, provided by AT&T:

“Further Away,” by Sean Frank Johnson and Casallina Kisakye (mentored by Lena Waithe): A black woman who is institutionalized in a psych ward meets God.

  • Sean Frank is a London-raised, New York-based filmmaker and creative director. His interest is rooted in real, relatable environments, situations and subcultures that combine cinematic compositions with inspirational stories. A graduate of both Goldsmiths and Central St. Martins, Frank’s films have been nominated and screened internationally. Some of Frank’s work to date includes his short film “H.E.R.: Every Kind of Way” inspired by the music of artist H.E.R and music documentary “Mas Fuerte.”
  • Casallina Kisakye was born in Kampala, Uganda, and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 10 years old. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s and the New Yorker. She is currently a writer on Showtime’s “The Chi.”

“The Line” by Melisa Resch (mentored by Common and Shelby Stone): A punk rock love story. Sparks fly between two women when they meet at a clinic defense demonstration.

  • Melisa Resch is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program, where she obtained an MS in film. She has written, directed and produced several short films and for the last two years has worked at Freedom Road Prods. as a creative executive, working on both film and TV projects for the company. During her tenure she’s worked on a variety of projects for Freedom Road including “The Chi” for Showtime and feature documentary “They Fight” by director Andrew Renzi. Resch previously served as executive assistant to Common.

“Your Name Isn’t English” by Tazbah Rose Chavez (mentored by Taika Waititi): Every time Tazbah steps into an Uber, she is repeatedly confronted with the reality that she doesn’t exist in the minds of the average American. The film explores the 10-minute car-ride history lessons she’s been giving for free.

  • Tazbah Rose Chavez is a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist working in the disciplines of film, music, performance poetry, and artistic direction. She is Nüümü (Paiute), Diné (Navajo), and San Carlos Apache, originally from the Bishop Paiute Reservation in Payahüünadü (Bishop, Calif.). She wrote and directed her first film at age 16, “Composure,” a short experimental documentary combining film, music, and spoken word that was showcased at film festivals internationally. Her most recent work as a writer and poet includes writing the script for Nike N7’s Dare to Rise for Equality campaign, and as the ongoing artistic director, writer, and producer for the B. Yellowtail fashion brand’s video marketing campaigns.

“Little King” by Chelsea Winstanley (mentored by mentored by Tessa Thompson and Rachel Morrison): When love is forbidden, we sometimes do the craziest things.

  • Chelsea Winstanley is a filmmaker and mother of three who hails from Aotearoa, New Zealand. She has been making films for over a decade as a producer and director. As a producer, she has screened short films in competition at Cannes, Berlin and Sundance. In 2014, she produced cult mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows,” written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. Last year she made her directorial debut with a film called “WARU,” one of eight shorts weaved together to make a feature film from female directors of Māori decent. “WARU” had its international premiere at TIFF. She is currently in post-production with a feature documentary about Māori filmmaker Merata Mita.

“October Lull” by Constance Tsang (mentored by Cary Fukunaga): An irreverent financial thriller where the thrill is in the company you eat.

  • Constance Tsang is an American filmmaker living in New York. She is a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School, where she obtained a BA in individualized studies, concentrating in film and critical theory. Her previous work includes “Third Party” (2017) and “First Snow” (2018). She is currently a screenwriting and directing MFA candidate at Columbia University, where she will also be Richard Peña’s teaching assistant in the fall of 2018.