Toronto: 'Hotline Bling' Director X Launches Content Studio FELA to Promote Diversity North of the Border

Courtesy of Jonathan Walker

Taj Critchlow, Karena Evans and Julien Christian Lutz are launching FELA to support marginalized Black, Indigenous and People of Color storytellers.

Julien Christian Lutz — better known as Director X and his signature music videos for Drake, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, Usher and Justin Bieber — has his own name for Canada's annual advertising award shows: The Whities.

"The room is unreasonably White. Not like the majority. No, Taj and I are the only people who are Black. And these are our allies," Toronto-based Lutz tells The Hollywood Reporter about he and business partner Taj Critchlow attending Canadian commercial industry kudosfests.

But the video of George Floyd's death is also reshaping the Canadian entertainment industry — and Lutz and Critchlow's business plans — as a reckoning on race transforms cross-border film and TV production.

Ahead of the Toronto Film Festival, Lutz and Critchlow shuttered Popp Rok, the producer of Drake’s "God’s Plan" music video, and launched FELA, a production banner with a mandate to lift Black voices as they create music videos, commercials, branded content, documentaries and films.

"It's time to step out with FELA and have full control of the creative and have a stake in our culture and control of our culture and have a say in that," Critchlow explains. He argues that more ownership will bring about the creative and financial equality craved by Black artists and executives long sidelined by industry gatekeepers.

"We don't own our masters," Critchlow says as he recalls the late Prince protesting his contract at Warner Music by writing “Slave” on his face, or NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick being ostracized by team owners for kneeling during the national anthem. "If he (Kaepernick) had a Black owner of a team, he would still be playing on a team," he adds.

Popp Rok had financial backers that never allowed the creative control Lutz and Critchlow sought. Their newfound independence with FELA comes as their Toronto base grows as a production hub for U.S. studios and streamers eyeing more diversity and international creators to stand out in a cluttered online space.

Critchlow name-checks Black artists and content creators like Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay and Jordan Peele as influencing their own quest to be more in control of their creative and commercial destiny. "We're pretty much following after that model, understanding the importance of having ownership, because you have control of your final destination," he says.

FELA is aiming at original Canadian content that sparks global conversation. An example is director Stacy Lee's feature documentary Underplayed, an indie documentary to screen at TIFF that explores the lack of diversity and inclusion in the Electronic Music industry.

"It was important for us as Black executives to be allies to these women, and to give a platform to tell their stories and to educate the public about how long women in entertainment have been tuned into the music industry. If you don't understand the history of this industry, then we're going to continue making mistakes," Critchlow says.

For Lutz, who made his feature directorial debut with the 2018 Superfly remake, the Canadian media industry is at an inflection point as longstanding barriers to entry for diverse talent begin to come down. "We've had at times some out-of-line straight racist stuff. People treat you differently when you're a Black executive, or a Black director. This weird stuff comes through. The people who are supposed to back you up should back you up, it shouldn't just be a (pay) check," he recalls.

FELA will have Canadian director and actress Karena Evans as creative executive producer. And Rihanna's 2016 "Work" music video that featured Drake and was shot in Toronto by Lutz offers a window into the authentic Canadian diversity and inclusion stories to come out of the indie diversity studio.

"This is Canada. We're neighbors to America, our industry has been conditioned around American media and American stories. That's great. But (David) Cronenberg is Canadian. There's a lot of Black stories, cultural stories, indigenous stories that need to be put on the silver screen and the TV screen. We're going to make a concentrated effort to tell our Canadian stories," Critchlow explains.

Evans recently directed the pilot of the highly acclaimed Starz series P-Valley as well as an episode of FX’s Snowfall. Now she's at work on a historical drama set in Canada and likely to be structured as a co-production with UK or U.S. partners.

"Drake and The Weeknd are American success stories. Our goal as Black executives is to build an industry, even though we love America and the UK, that speaks to Canada," Critchlow adds.