First, a full-disclosure author’s note: I am contributing to the campaign I’m about to describe in the story below.
Second, if you read nothing else, know that Ayana Stafford — Newark native, Arts High School graduate, William Paterson alumnae, film entrepreneur, and film teacher — has been accepted into a prestigious film program taking place this May during the Cannes Film Festival, and that if we join forces with the sixty-plus people who have already contributed to her GoFundMe campaign (as of this writing), we can all help her get there.
Here is the link to her GoFundMe campaign: gofundme.com/ayanafrance.
Video about the “Creative Minds” program
Now for Ayana’s story. Ayana initially studied theater while a student at Arts High School, but a teacher there introduced her to television and film, opening up an entirely new world to the young performer.
“Our teacher was new, he was young, he was fresh out of school, and had a lot of energy and passion,” Ayana said. With his help, Ayana and her classmates launched “Jaguar Journal,” a student-produced television show that Arts High School students still produce today.
The experience made it clear to Ayana that she was more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, so when she matriculated at William Paterson University for college, she decided to study film.
Since then, Ayana has made television and filmmaking her world, including working for News12 New Jersey and VH1, helping out with a few independent films in New York City, and even working on the set of hit television show Gossip Girl.
But a life change caused Ayana to rethink the balance between her career aspirations and her personal life: just as her television and film career started gearing up, Ayana became a mom. “Working 13-hour shifts would not be possible for a new mom,” Ayana said. She knew she would continue working in film, but decided to localize her career. “I wanted something here in Newark, to be on my own schedule,” she said.
So Ayana took all she’d learned and started Leopard Stripes Productions here in town. Eager to add business management to her skillset, she took a local entrepreneurship course offered by Brick City Development Corporation (now the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation). BCDC also awarded Ayana a $5,000 startup grant, with which she purchased the cameras, audio equipment, and lights she still uses today.
Under the banner of her new film production company, Ayana has launched a number of television and film projects, including TTYL, a youth-focused talk show featuring local college students, and a documentary entitled The Race to Save Brick City, about the 2014 election between Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries, which she screened at CityPlex12 just prior to the mayoral election.
Trailer for The Race to Save Brick City
Ayana also trains recent high school graduates in film production.
All that experience made Ayana feel ready when the “Creative Minds” film program at Cannes opened up the application for its internship program earlier this year. The program, according to its website, enables early-career film professionals to “make key contacts that will help them establish a career in the film industry.” (The Cannes Film Festival is one of the most esteemed film festivals in the world.) A mere two weeks after Ayana submitted her application, she was accepted into the competitive program.
But her journey to France doesn’t end there. Before she can jet to Cannes to work on a short film, network with peers from around the world, hobnob with some of the top executives and creatives in the film industry, and tout Newark’s potential as a film hub in a high-powered international setting, she needs one more important resource.
“Money!” she said when I asked how the community can assist her. The program granted Ayana a $500 scholarship, but the lion’s share of the $5,000 in program and travel costs are up to her.
And that brings us back to her GoFundMe campaign, which has already raised a little bit over half of the money Ayana needs to fund the program. In order to lock down her place in Creative Minds, she needs to see a surge in contributions to the effort by Friday, April 17.
If Ayana has her way, potential supporters will get back more than just the warm and fuzzy feeling of helping a deserving Newarker reserve her spot in a coveted program. “I want people in the film industry to know about Newark and to bring [the industry] here,” she said. “We have a great urban landscape, and were so close to [New York] City.” She sees serious potential to bring crews here to shoot city scenes (just like the makers of The Dark Knight Rises did back in 2011), and to employ Newarkers in film production.