AJ Winslow (Alumni Class of 2008) Lands Theatrical Release for Freedom’s Path
Writer-director Brett Smith brings Freedom’s Path, a Civil War drama starring Gerran Howell (1917), RJ Cyler (The Harder They Fall) and Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting), to the silver screen. The film tells the story of two young men: a wounded Union soldier and a free Black man who strike up an unlikely friendship. The pair navigate the dangers of helping runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad while escaping a ruthless slave catcher who tries to bring everything to a devastating end.
L.A. Film School alum AJ Winslow produced the independent film and worked closely with Smith to get Freedom’s Path in AMC and Regal theatres this month. We caught up with Winslow to talk about the feature and how his team secured distribution in major U.S. markets.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Freedom’s Path is currently running in select SoCal theatres with potential extensions depending on ticket demands. Additionally, the team partnered with Byron Allen’s HBCU GO to give back 100% of opening weekend box office sales and 10% thereafter to underfunded Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Going to Film School
AJ Winslow realized his love for creative producing by going to film school. His natural interest in movies as a kid stuck with him and led Winslow to enroll in the film immersion program at The L.A. Film School. He became interested in the film production and directing side of moviemaking but his astute instructors and peers recognized his talent for producing.
“It’s fun to juggle the logistics of producing a big project and also offering creative input,” said Winslow. “Looking at a project holistically is something you get to do as a producer.”
After graduation, Winslow worked and lived in Los Angeles for six years before moving to Bellingham, Washington. In Bellingham, he found a close-knit group of filmmakers who all shared similar ideas and interests for the creative filmmaking process. He met the writer/director for Freedom’s Path through a producing partner and joined the project about five years ago.
Filming a Freedom’s Path with AJ Winslow
“This was a passion project that took 12 years to complete,” said Winslow. “We chose to shoot in a state [Arkansas] we hadn’t really seen done before as it relates to the Civil War and the Underground Railroad.”
The actual film production only took 27 days to complete in October/November of 2019, right before the pandemic hit. Although production was unaffected by COVID restrictions, it did come with its set of obstacles with bad weather conditions and budget restraints. They mostly shot outside in rural Arkansas, which exposed the production to unexpected elements such as tornadoes and cold conditions. The film’s budget came up short two days before production was set to begin, and they had an investor step in to save the film at the right time. Even with certain setbacks, the team’s dedication never waivered, explained Winslow.
“It was probably my greatest learning experience. This project was the biggest project anyone [on the crew] had ever done,” said Winslow. I learned that producing/production is a lot of personal management. You are sort of the captain of the ship as far as morale goes, and when the weather is bad or things go wrong, you really just have to know how to manage departments and people well.”
Lessons from Freedom’s Path: How to Market a Film
Once Freedom’s Path was complete, Winslow and the crew had limited marketing resources to distribute the film but they relied on industry connections to get it into the right places. They played in several mid-tier film festivals including, Cinequest in San Jose, Julien Dubuque in Iowa, and Gig Harbor in Washington State, which allowed them to build their network of film connections. The festival circuit helped Winslow and Smith find a connection to screen Freedom’s Path in AMC Theatres. They pitched to the right people at the right time, and both AMC and Regal Cinemas were interested in screening the movie during Black History Month.
“I think going to any festival has the potential to be fruitful.”AJ Winslow
A big takeaway Winslow learned from the experience is to try different avenues and not be afraid to take things on yourself. People are more willing to help out fellow filmmakers when they see the passion behind the project. This was the case for Freedom’s Path since it was the first big feature many of the team had worked on. Once Winslow and Smith got in the room with AMC and Regal, they realized that the hard part was almost over. All that was left for them to do was share the story of Freedom’s Path and why this film would have an impact on audiences.