Kahmeela Adams: Pittsburgh’s Pop Culture Guru

Filmmaker Kahmeela Adams talks with Film Pittsburgh’s Candace Opper about time management, Pittsburgh’s indie film scene, and the joys of immersing your life in pop culture.

Kahmeela Adams is a woman of many talents. On top of being a filmmaker, photographer, and podcaster, she spent the last nine years producing Pittsburgh’s 48 Hour Film Project. Read on to see what that adventure taught her about filmmaking and Pittsburgh, and what projects she’s working on now.


C: How did you originally get involved with 48 Hour Film Project?

K: It was ages upon ages ago. When the 48HFP initially started, it was nationwide and all happened online. That was the first year I competed. The next year it came to Pittsburgh and I competed here, and then the year after that the guys who were running it said they couldn’t do it anymore. At that point, the crew I had been working with kind of broke up, and I didn’t want to find anybody else to compete with, but I also realized it was a really great opportunity. So I was like, well, shoot, let me just go ahead and submit my resume. I had been no stranger to producing events because that’s what my family did growing up.

C: What kind of events?

K: Talent competitions. My mom started an entertainment company and we did annual talent competitions, probably for about 15 or 20 years.

C: So you did 48HFP for nine years?

K: Yup, nine years and probably 14 or 15 competitions because there were years when we did additional music video and horror competitions.

C: And you were essentially running the whole show, right?

K: It was basically just me, my husband, and any friends I could con into helping. But yeah, securing sponsorships and venues and recruiting filmmakers and advertising and tickets sales and everything.

C: That is a hustle!

K: Yeah, when I was just doing the summer event, I wrapped in August or September and didn’t have to think about anything again until February. But then I started doing the horror competition and at that point December-January became my only time off. It just became too much and there were other things I wanted to concentrate on. It was a great run, though. I enjoyed my time and always kind of likened it to summer camp because every year I’d get to that point that I’m like, why am I doing this? And then, you know, I’d start seeing the familiar faces and hearing what everyone was doing all year. I got to meet a lot of really great people.

C: Did a lot of the same people compete every year?

K: Yeah, I’d say 40 percent were vets, but we’d get newbies every year. It was always cool to see how they reacted to the process. You’d see them at kick off and they’re all very excited, and then at dropoff you can see the visual strain of what they’d just done. I mean, you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you do it.

C: So, as a filmmaker who switched gears and ended up on the event production side of the festival, what do you feel like you learned about filmmaking by watching that process from a different angle? And it sounds like participants had a range of skill levels, too—people with a lot of experience and people just starting out.

K: Exactly. We’d get people who do filmmaking for a living down to families who just want something fun to do with the kids. I’ve learned a lot more about film critique. I started to learn how to predict certain things. Like sometimes a couple minutes into a short film I could already tell, this isn’t gonna work, or this is going to be the darling. I started to pay a lot more attention to little things that make a difference. Like audio: If you have terrible audio, that’ll just kill your film all together. Lighting is also a really important part of it. A lot of people paid a lot of attention to the wrong technical aspects. You don’t need to drop a bunch of money to make a good film. More than likely, people who dropped a lot of money would end up not turning in a film because they ran out of time.

C: How many people participate and don’t turn in their films?

K: I’d say every year there were between one and four. I mean, even if your film was late it was still shown, so we encouraged people to just turn something in. There were a couple times people would do that and then mull over it and ask us to pull it because they didn’t want it to be shown. Other people just couldn’t get it together. One year there was a guy you just didn’t understand the competition because he came in by himself at kickoff. We were like, where’s the rest of your team, and he was like, oh it’s just me. And then he realized it just wasn’t gonna happen. But on the flip side, I did have a team one year that was just two people and they did a really nice film that won awards. You know, time management is a big part of it. That’s another thing that I learned—time management is key. There’s a lot of people who want to do things by themselves, but you can’t really do that. You need folks to help. With the 48, we would always stress that. A lot of people write on Friday, shoot on Saturday, edit on Sunday. That seemed to work the best because you manage your time.

C: Right, and then people start to lose sleep and things get intense.

K: Yeah, things get loopy.

C: So, now that you’ve stepped away from that job, you’re working on a lot of different projects. You have five podcasts now?

K: Yup.

C: And you also have a full-time job and you’re a filmmaker out there doing creative things. I feel like this has become the norm for people who are creative. Pittsburgh is a fairly affordable city, but this existence of juggling multiple jobs and projects and digital media ventures is pretty standard for artists. How do you deal with that as an artist? Is it crazy-making, or do you like the bustle of it, or is it just necessary?

K: I think it’s definitely necessary. I’d like to say that it’s crazy-making, but I also notice that when I have downtime I feel guilty for not doing anything. Like over holiday break our office was closed for a week and I was sitting around the day before Christmas Eve not doing anything and felt bad for wanting to catch up on Peaky Blinders (laughs). I do try to keep a balance to make sure that I have downtime. Even though a lot of what I do is fun it is still work.

C: And if you take it seriously, it is work.

K: Exactly. If you want it to be good, then yeah. Luckily, I’ve managed to intertwine a lot of what I’m really into, like pop culture and art and entertainment, with the extra stuff I’m doing.

C: So, I think we’re in the same age range, and I feel like we are the first generation that was completely entrenched in pop culture. I use pop culture metaphors to understand the entire narrative of my life. I think I reference Jurassic Park five or six times a week.

K: That’s like me with Friends.

C: It’s a way to navigate the world. Something goofy will happen and I’ll be like, that’s just like that scene in Three’s Company.

K: Another one of my favorites.

C: I was probably way too young to be watching that when it was on but had older brothers, which is my excuse for everything.

K: I don’t know why I was allowed to watch that show. I also saw Purple Rain in the theater. Shouldn’t have happened.

C: I had a similar experience with Sex, Lies and Videotape.

K: Exactly. Anchors of childhood.

C: So, let’s talk about Pittsburgh. I’ve only lived here for a few years, but already get the sense that Pittsburgh really embraces film. As a filmmaker, do you feel like this is a city where emerging filmmakers can thrive?

K: I think it’s possible, but I also think it’s difficult to get people out to see these films. I think independent musicians feel the same way. It’s tough to get a crowd in Pittsburgh. If people don’t know your name or aren’t your friends, they don’t feel like they have to support you other than liking your fan page. A lot of people don’t understand that we need butts in seats. And also there’s this thing in Pittsburgh where people don’t want to cross a bridge to go places.

C: I am familiar with this phenomenon.

K: So yeah, sometimes it is kind of difficult getting your work seen, but on the flip side it’s cool that we live in a digital age where we don’t necessarily have to have people at an actual brick-and-mortar spot to see our work. Pittsburgh is definitely a great place for creating. The talent here is limitless—on-screen and off-screen—the crew, the cast, everybody is here and willing and able to work. It’s the audiences we’re still trying to get out in full force.

C: What do you feel are the barriers to getting larger audiences?

K: Unfortunately, there’s this stigma around people going to see independent or locally-made films. Like people are afraid it’s not going to be good. There are a lot of filmmakers in Pittsburgh doing amazing things. There are two separate filmmakers who were participants in the 48HFP who now have series streaming on Amazon. I mean, they’re out there, we just need to do a better job at supporting their work. People who aren’t in the art world don’t necessarily understand that this is a livelihood for a lot of us.

C: I think a lot of people forget how valuable the communal experience of movie-going can be. I feel it more at smaller theaters but even when the new Star Wars came out my husband and I went to a 10am screening at a mall movie theater and it was packed. And everyone is gasping and laughing at the same time and it’s such a unique experience when you think about it. When I’m in the theater having that experience I always think: I need to do this more often.

K: It is definitely an experience.

C: So what are you working on right now?

K: Outside of all the podcasts, I just recently received the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation. So I’m working this project—and I’m still trying to formulate exactly how it’s going to turn out—either a series of short films or a digital magazine, but the topic I’m tackling is black identity. A lot of us were brought up to think that we’re not “black enough,” because of things that we like or how we talk or how we live our lives, so I’m interviewing a lot of different folks about their experiences with that concept.

C: Will it be short documentaries then?

K: Yeah, I think it’s going to be seven episodes, possibly with a podcast to go along with them, and definitely portraits of each person I interview.

C: Does it have a title yet?

K: It’s called “Black Enough.”

C: What an awesome opportunity.

K: Yeah, I’m excited. This is something that’s been rattling around in my brain for four or five years now and I’ve just never had the time or some other project pushed it to the back burner. Now I finally have the chance to do it.

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About Kahmeela:

I have been described as a “media maven” and a “reserved pop culture genius.” How did this happen? Well, my mother started a children’s performance group to spread positive messages in our community. After years performing on stage, as a child, I decided that I am better suited behind the scenes. Primarily, I am a producer. In Pittsburgh I have produced short films, art shows, film festivals and I co-ran a pop-up art gallery for four years. This year, I ended my 9 year run as the producer for The Pittsburgh 48 Hour Film Project.

As an artist, film and photography have always been twin passions of mine. Not only do these art forms suit my introverted nature, they empower me to compose and capture special moments. To challenge myself to be more extroverted, I produce and host several podcasts with the following titles (and descriptions): The RuggedAngel Cast (featuring women who live their lives out-loud and independently), Down to Watch (featuring random guests who review films or albums with me), ReVisiting Sunnydale (need Buffy the Vampire Slayer commentary and reviews? this is the spot).