*Tressa “Azarel” Smallwood is a pioneering and notable publishing leader, and well-known within the industry after self-publishing her premier novel in 2003 titled “Life to Remember.” The book raked in over $40k in sales within the first two weeks.
Smallwood is CEO of Life Changing Books, and co-founder of MegaMind Media. ”I utilize the content from my production catalogue and I license it to my media company and now I can produce films,” she told EUR/Electronic Urban Report.
Tressa serves as the executive producer of “Secrets” the movie. The film premiered at a private screening in Miami during the 20th Annual American Black Film Festival, and stars VH1’s “Single Ladies” Harold “House” Moore, Denise Boutte (Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married?”), Dennis White (“Notorius”) and Denyce Lawton (Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne”).
“Secrets” the movie is adapted from the best-selling book, “Secrets of A Housewife” by J. Tremble, and has sold over 300K. At the time of our conversation, Smallwood and her team were shopping for theatrical distribution and had four potential buyers.
”Secrets of A Housewife” was a literary success, and the book’s themes of sex and secrets confirmed that readers still love to get lost in the genre. Tressa acknowledged that for this reason, she sought to further capitalize off the title by producing it for the big screen.
“I’m a publisher of a lot of books. 141 to be exact under my label Life Changing Books. I have been approached for years, different people saying, ‘Hey you should think about turning some of your books into movies. You have this amazing catalogue.’ So when I decided to actually take the plunge, I had to really sit back and look at all of the books and say, ‘What book would be my first and why?’ And so the movie ‘Secrets’ was a good choice because of the sexual content [and] the relationship concept. Ultimately, everybody has relationship issues, so I did this one first because it’s very relatable, and it’s been a huge success already.”
Are the characters in the book based on real people?
Tressa: The author Jay Tremble, he’s been one of my writers for seven years, and I always say to him, ‘This is some truth. I know we’re saying it’s fiction but just tell me the truth.’ And he just laughs. So I don’t know. I know that as writer myself, we can come up with these concepts and we can create something that really seems like it’s real life, but he won’t tell. That’s his secret.
Did any of the challenges that you faced while making this film allow you to learn anything insightful about the business of producing films?
Tressa: Absolutely! I went into this like I’m Superwoman. I do a lot of motivational speaking. I empower women often, so I went into it going, ‘Oh, I got this. This is going to be easy.’ When I tell you that I had to pray daily on set and in the car, in the shower, like ‘Okay, Lord. I’m in this now. You gotta get me out of this.’ And so I made it, and I’m so glad that I did it. But it took a lot of praying and a lot of going back to the drawing board. I made a lot of mistakes but I came out strong.
Smallwood said the finished product, “exceeded my expectations.”
“I knew quality wise that it was going to look good but it looks fantastic. I’m super excited about it,” she added.
What message are you hoping viewers walk away with and talk about over dinner?
Tressa: I said from the beginning that our whole goal was: what does it take to save the black family? And the reason why I said that is because obviously it’s a black story, and in society we have so many children who live in one-parent households, and a lot of times it’s because the parents can’t get along. A lot of times that comes from infidelity and the monotony of being married, and that’s what you’ll find in ‘Secrets.’
The main character talks about it often, like ‘I’m looking for the perfect person because this woman I married I thought was the perfect one.’ So he’s looking for the grass to be greener on the other side when it’s not, and in the end he realizes, ‘I need to save my family.’ I think those messages come through strongly.
What do you look for when you take on new titles to publish? What types of voices are you looking to produce?
Tressa: I look for unique stories, stories that really get out there to change the perception of black folks. I think a lot of times you have to see something on a larger scale for you to get it. Not everyone is out twerking on the weekends and watching the Kardashians. So we have to put something out there to make people see that there is something different. ‘Secrets’ definitely does that. At the film festival, we didn’t attract only African-Americans. We had a variety of folks in the room, and they were amazed that this was our first film. The response was just amazing.
You resigned from your teaching tenure in to fulfill your dream of becoming an entrepreneur. What from your background in education have you carried over into the world of entertainment which you use to help build your brand?
Tressa: No matter what I do in publishing and media, I teach classes every month. I have never given up my love for teaching. At the film festival, I was on a webinar teaching a class about writing and publishing. I do a lot of speaking engagements. That is my first love, teaching. So of course now people are like, ‘Teach me how to write a script. Teach me the process of turning books to film.’ I’ll teach to the day I die.
Tressa also offers advice and courses to aspiring writers via her TressaAzarel VIP Club, which you can access at tressaazarealvipclub.com. It’s a great resource for non-published writers who are considering self-publishing but have many reservations and fears about doing so.
“What I do with my VIP members, I offer many courses throughout the month where they can hop on and take courses related to writing, publishing, and branding themselves. And then I teach 4-week bootcamps,” Smallwood explained. “My next one starts July 17, where people can work with me four months and by the end of that fourth month, they would have actually finished their book or almost finish because it’s all about consistency. Most people procrastinate, and so my biggest piece of advice: if it’s somewhat that you really want to do, you have to stick with. You can’t write on Monday and then don’t go back and touch the project until Sunday. You have to love it, live it and breathe it every single day.
Tressa Smallwood will follow-up “Secrets” with a title based on social welfare reform, a theme she says, “Is very different from what one would expect from a publishing house.”
“The project puts you in the mind of ‘Precious’ [and] ‘The Wire.’ It’s raw, it’s gritty, but it’s so emotional. It’s about a family that is going through a generational curse of thinking that you can just live off the system. It takes the youngest member of the family — her name is Treasure, she’s 10 — it takes Treasure to open the eyes of everyone else that there’s a better life out there for us. This one is adapted from a book called ‘Welfare Grind,’ but the movie title is going to be different. Right now it’s titled ‘Born In The Game.’
Smallwood’s brand mission is to write, acquire and produce content that changes the perception of African-Americans not only socially but narratively.