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Profile: Filmmaker Alex P. Michaels is Just Getting Started

Cleveland filmmaker Alex P. Michaels
Back before the turn of the last century, Cleveland filmmaker Alex P. Michaels was on the verge of seeing his name on the small screen, credited as the writer and creator of a made-for-television movie titled What Angels Fear.

He was 32 years old at the time, working temp jobs so he could make time to screenwrite. One of those stories was Angels. Michaels entered the script into Procter& Gamble’s Dreambuilder competition for African-American playwrights. He won.

The Dreambuilder program was created in 1997 to give African-American voices and points of view a place on mainstream television in a production that would appeal to all viewers.

“Jim Friedman, a white producer in Cincinnati, created the program for black writers to get their scripts produced,” says Michaels. Friedman is an Emmy-winning director. “In addition to buying the scripts, Jim and his company produced the stories and aired them on television. What Angels Fear won four Emmys. Jim won as director, both lead actors, Greg Lauren and Adam Lazarre-White, won, and I won as the writer.”

The experience lit a fire in Michaels' belly. He began pursuing filmmaking full-time.

“With the prize money and some backing from family, I decided to study how Hollywood was formed and build my own production company,” he says.

The production company, Prelude2Cinema, is still going strong today.

“All I wanted to do was be a writer,” says Michaels. “But I needed to form Prelude2Cinema to help all people, especially little boys and girls from the ghetto, learn you can be from the ghetto, but not be ghetto. You can follow your dreams and help others do the same as well.”

We recently chatted with Michaels about his filmmaking career and Prelude2Cinema.

Alex P. Michaels
Midwest Movie Maker (MM): Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where you grew up, went to school and how and when the filmmaking bug bit you?

Alex P. Michaels (AM): I often describe myself as a poor little black boy from the ghetto of Cleveland, Ohio. Some people have laughed at this, because I do not act a certain way, and I am not uneducated. The reality is, you can be from the “ghetto” and not be “ghetto.” My mother was and is very religious and instilled in me a sense of morals. My dad was a Marine and taught me about loyalty and leadership.

I was always a writer, but never intended to make movies. My plan was to be a doctor and writer and sell novels or scripts. I was working in patient care at a hospital and showed a story I wrote to a friend. He introduced me to a local filmmaker named Robert Banks.

Spike Lee had just released She’s Gotta Have It and black people discovered they could make their own movies. My friend wanted to produce a movie based on my story. The story was named "The Romance of Being Razor Sharp." It was an interracial love story based on some personal experiences of mine. The friend drew up storyboards and planned the shoot.

My friend dropped out of directing (the film); it got to be too much for him. Yet I didn’t want to abandon the movie. So, Robert Banks and I decided to make the movie on our own in 16mm.

Unlike Spike Lee, I didn’t have money, so we only ended up shooting part of the movie. Since I was an actor and into theater, I rewrote the script into a play, now named “The Hot Rain.” It ran as a stage reading at the Karamu House and the Cleveland Public Theater.

I also did a full version at Cleveland State University. I played one of the leads and actor and fellow playwright Eric Coble played my best friend. Newcomer Ali Anderson played my girlfriend. So while that was my beginning, it was not the end.

MM: What was your first professional job in film?

AM: I have to say my first professional job was when I won a writing contest called Dreambuilders. Jim Friedman, a white producer in Cincinnati, created a program for black writers to get their scripts produced. Friedman is an Emmy-winning director.

In addition to buying the scripts, Jim and his company produced the stories and aired them on television. My TV movie, What Angels Fear, won four Emmys. Jim won as director, both lead actors Greg Lauren and Adam Lazarre-White won, and I won as the writer.

With prize money and some backing from family, I decided to study how Hollywood was formed and build my own production company. I formed a corporation and called it Prelude Productions, Inc. “Prelude” meant I was just beginning. I chose both a knight and yin and yang symbol for my logo instead of a film camera because I loved knights and the movie Excalibur.

Sundance had just accepted their first digital movie. So, instead of buying a 16mm film camera, I bought a Canon XL1, the same camera used by the filmmaker.

I soon wrote a digital feature called Blood Kiss. I decided to act in it, but not play the lead. I included Police Lieutenant Foster, a character who was in What Angels Fear.

Around that same time, companies were using the Internet to promote themselves. It was time-consuming, but free to use. So I needed a website for Prelude Productions, Inc.

I had some skill in website design and my brother was a programmer, so he helped me build my site. I couldn’t use the name Prelude Productions because it was too long and the name didn’t say what the company did. I thought about using the word “movie” or “film,” but I moved from shooting 16mm to digital and film means only one thing.

I decided to use “cinema.” Cinema still involved film, but could also mean digital and any other new format of making a movie. And a lot of business people were using “2” instead of “to,” as in the phrase B2B (business to business). Since I still wanted to keep the name Prelude, I decided on PRELUDE2CINEMA. Thus was born.

My last 16mm film, which was edited on video, was Go, If You Must. It was about a filmmaker who puts his attractive, exotic, but utterly untalented girlfriend, in his movies. It was a satire, and also a commentary on those who said I only put cute girls in movies to date them. I can't say I haven't dated actresses, but casting one in a movie just to date her is not my style. Still, it did make for a good story.

I also learned that in order to make movies, I had to go back to old Hollywood. I did not have new Hollywood money, and I am always still learning. I study business and make contacts with business professionals more than local filmmakers. I feel you can always find talent in front of and behind the camera, but the challenge is in finding people who will write a check for the movie.

MM: Do you work in film full time now?

AM: Yes, I am the head of Prelude2Cinema with the title Cleveland Cinema Czar. We just established a partnership with a nonprofit organization so we can accept tax-deductible donations for our movies. This is an idea I got from being involved in theater. Theaters are nonprofits and they receive support from grants, individuals and corporations.

Alex P. Michaels at the Accelerate event
MM: Tell me a bit about Prelude2Cinema. When did it start, what's its mission and why did you decide to create the organization?

AM: Prelude2Cinema started out as a production company and was the online web name of the corporation Prelude Productions, Inc. Yet, over the years, I saw a need to help produce not just movies I write, but those of other filmmakers. There is a real need for independent and diverse voices. Officially, the website began December 1999, but just recently, in April 2016, Prelude2Cinema became an Ohio Corporation. In February 2018, we formed the "Prelude2Cinema Crusade," a nonprofit fund in partnership with AfricaHouse International, to fund movies and cinema.

Prelude2Cinema’s Mission: Strengthening communities economically by connecting artists, brands and fans worldwide through a sustainable cinema industry.

MM: Tell me about filmmaking in Northeast Ohio. What are the pros and cons?

AM: The best thing about being a filmmaker in Northeast Ohio is that you can express your unique voice. That is also the worst thing because you have to spend a lot of time searching out people who will support your voice.

I receive a lot of help from the business community. One thing that surprises a lot of people about me and Prelude2Cinema is that, after all these years, the ups and downs, we are still around. A lot of other “filmmakers” have abandoned the “calling” and returned to their day jobs or even left town to pursue their dreams. I don’t believe in leaving here, but making things here the way they should be. Although I do make connections with people all over the world, I believe Prelude2Cinema will always have its home in Northeast Ohio.

MM: What does the region need to create a true film industry in NEO?
AM: We need to stop belittling others who have a different voice than we do. I do not always like the movies other filmmakers do here, and they may not like my movies. That is fine. We don’t have to be each other’s audience, but we should support anyone who makes a movie here.

Also, personally, I feel the Cleveland Film Commission receives too much credit for bringing movies here. Hollywood comes here to save money. While they do add a slight bump to the economy, it is not enough if all we have to offer is a tax credit that pales in comparison to other states, no soundstage, and an attitude that all we can be is a location for Hollywood movies that offers background talent. We can be so much more with the right leadership and partnership with the city.

I, and Prelude2Cinema, can do our part, but we need corporations to step up and offer support to all the filmmakers here and find a financial method that benefits all.

MM: Final thoughts?

AM: As I have said, all I wanted to do was be a writer, but I believe I needed to form Prelude2Cinema to help all people, especially little boys and girls from the ghetto, learn you can be from the ghetto, but not be ghetto. You can follow your dreams and help others do the same as well.


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