Construction is underway for what owners say is the first Black-owned television and movie studio in Michigan.
Standup comedian and director turned entrepreneur, Amaru, who only goes by one name, said it was a combination of events with the death of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic that inspired him to open Greenwood District Studios, MLive.com reports.
“How can I bring back my job and others some jobs?” Amaru said. “Hope was the number one thing that came up and doing away with the despair that’s happening around, especially with our youth.”
Racial equity and community demand, self motivation and support spurred an increase of many Black-owned businesses over the course of the pandemic, according to Millie Chu, a business consultant of DEI programs for the Michigan Small Business Center.
“Some were laid off and pursued entrepreneurship out of necessity and some chose to quit their jobs to pursue their dreams,” Chu said. “In all, the pandemic has caused us to take another look at options or what truly matters. Often that option or dream is owning a business.”
Located in the old Lansing Mall Cinema, the lot sat vacant since the cinema’s closing in 2014. As a professional entertainer, Amaru knew the 27,000-square-foot lot would perfectly house what’s needed for the film and audio production process, from pre-production to post-production and everything in between.
“We lucked up and got one building to do everything we want to do,” Amaru said.
While the project has been making steady progress, reutilizing abandoned buildings doesn’t come without challenges.
Entering inside what was once the cinema’s theaters are now tattered and cut screens, along with shattered glass and broken bottles in the second story of the building.
The studio’s small staff and a handful of volunteers have been working, mostly by hand, to remove the debris from the building and restore it with new screens, stages and technical equipment.
Michael Nathan is a producer and director who is part of the team working to turn Greenwood District Studios a reality.
“Good things take time and if you’re willing to sacrifice and work for it, it’ll happen no matter what,” Nathan said.
Once reconstruction is complete, the building will feature six studios, a state of the art editing bay and office space.
A Kalamazoo native, Amaru, 47, has been in the entertainment industry for 25 years. He said his first time getting a taste of the Hollywood experience was working as an aspiring writer in Los Angeles for rapper and actor Master P.
He said he was able to make plenty of great connections while out on the west coast, but he was also met with many broken promises.
“As you’re in the business, you begin to get tired of waiting,” Amaru said. “Waiting for people to follow through is not what I like to do.”
Although the production space is still being constructed, it’s the studio’s Funny is Funny comedy club that will give local talent a shot at the spotlight in a way that he wasn’t given before.
The comedy club had its grand opening in September. It has open mic nights on Tuesdays, with professional standup comedians performing on the weekends.
“It may not be about me, it may be about somebody that comes along that I give him an opportunity to blow up,” Amaru said. “It might be somebody that has yet to come that might be that spark.”
Similar to what Black entertainers have done, such as Tyler Perry with his Atlanta production studio, Amaru wants to “buy the block” for Black creatives to be able to explore their craft within their own community.
“To be able to greenlight and say yes to projects and tell our stories when we want to tell our stories without having to wait for someone… we can change the narrative,” Amaru said.
Although he is reaching out to Black entertainers, he has made it clear that Black-owned doesn’t mean Black only. He said the studio’s TikTok account, which has over 96,000 followers, has garnered a much welcomed international support for the business.
The studio may also be helpful in spreading awareness about Black culture to other communities.
The studio is named after the Greenwood District, or “Black Wall Street,” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The district was home to an abundance of Black-owned businesses, but was burned down by a mob of angry white residents in 1921 in what’s now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Amaru plans to have images of the Greenwood District displayed throughout the studios and each one of the studios will be named after something that was destroyed in the massacre.
“We wanted to combine the old with the new so that the old would never be forgotten,” Amaru said.
Construction is expected to be fully complete by the end of next year.