When you have a 13-page resume like Dr. Tyrha M. Lindsey-Warren does, it’s hard to narrow down the accomplishments to a succinct summary. Or get away from superlatives. There are the titles she’s held across her impressive career: Baylor professor; marketing strategist and consultant; author and speaker; film festival founder and producer; professional jazz singer. And between the lines, the adjectives that fuel those titles: Driven. Tenacious. Passionate. Engaged. Connected.
Throughout her interwoven career threads of teaching, marketing — particularly to client bases of women and people of color — working behind the scenes and performing in the entertainment industry, and founding and producing a film festival, she has brought her passion of “empowered storytelling”: encouraging positive and transformative behavior in consumers. And it’s thanks to her passion for empowered storytelling that we are celebrating the fifth anniversary the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival that many thought would never even get off the ground.
Backtrack to tenacious, and you have Dr. Tyrha Lindsey-Warren.
WACOAN: You have a number of titles across various career and life facets, in addition to the newest one being ‘mother’ this year with the birth of your first child, daughter Kennedy. Today, our spotlight is on your role as the founder and lead producer of the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival, coming up in February 2024. How did that all come about the first year?
Dr. Tyrha Lindsey-Warren: When my husband, Sidney, and I first moved to Waco from New York City to begin my role as a marketing professor at Baylor University in the fall of 2017, we often found ourselves the only African Americans in attendance at many events like fundraisers and receptions. I also observed that the community was very “siloed” — that is to say that African Americans appeared to not cross the Brazos River, the LatinX community resided in South Waco and Caucasians were everywhere else. It appeared that outside of football, people were not really coming together and interacting with each other.
Since I had been producing international film festivals for the likes of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ [International Faith and Family Film Festival] in Dallas and the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival in Cincinnati since 2013, as well as having an extensive background working in Hollywood for the likes of NBC, Creative Artists Agency, Quincy Jones-David Salzman Entertainment and in New York City as a marketing executive, I understood the power of film festivals and storytelling in movies that could bring people together from all walks of life. So I started doing my marketing research to see if I could bring a film festival to Waco, especially given the city’s backdrop of Magnolia and on the eve of them starting their network as well as all of the film and TV production that has been increasing in the state of Texas.
WACOAN: How did that start-up period go?
Lindsey-Warren: During my start-up period in 2019, I had many doors close on me, especially in my journey to seek funding and sponsorship for the film festival. Many people did not understand the concept of a film festival. I even had one meeting where the person I was meeting with thought that it was a wonderful idea, but told me ‘I am not Black, so I am not sure if I can help you.’ I responded to her by saying, ‘Where did I mention that this was a Black film festival? All I presented to you was that this film festival leverages the power of storytelling to open hearts and minds, as well as it will be an event that celebrates our shared humanity.’
It was really frustrating and hard to get this event off the ground [in 2020] until I met David Littlewood at TFNB Your Bank for Life. We accidentally met and I shared with him my vision for the film festival. After continued meetings he and TNFB eventually came on board as our founding partner. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for someone to believe in your vision. So often, many put down one’s dreams, and don’t support big ideas or visions that people have. Finding anyone that will take a risk and support someone’s vision can be a true game changer. With the seed money from TFNB, we were able to get the first festival successfully produced in February of 2020 to sold-out audiences.
WACOAN: How did the rest of that start-up year go?
Lindsey-Warren: The Waco [Family & Faith] Film Festival is strategically planned and produced every year with the aim to bring the beauty and diversity of the people in Waco together. Everyone will see themselves being represented in this effort. The event also works to strengthen the cultural activity downtown, from people who live in Waco to visitors. The film festival also supports creative entrepreneurship as well as empowers creative artists in Waco and gives them a platform to showcase their art. Film festivals can make a positive economic impact in the communities they serve. We thought we would see the impact of the Waco festival in year five or so. However, we saw it in year one!
WACOAN: Can you give concrete examples of that impact on Waco?
Lindsey-Warren: Our 2020 winners for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film, Vision Vehicle Studios, had such a wonderful experience at our first film festival that they moved their production offices to Waco in August of 2020! Since then, they have shot three feature films in Waco. The filmmakers also hired local crew members, actors and vendors. There are so many other great stories like this that have resulted from the film festival. Most recently, our winner for the 2020 Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film, film director Nicole L. Thompson, just finished filming her second film for Lifetime. It has been truly amazing to see our filmmakers do great things in Waco and beyond, beginning to positively impact the local economy as well as our budding film and TV community and the industry overall.
WACOAN: 2024 will mark the festival’s fifth year. How has it changed and grown over the past four years? What particular significance does this year hold?
Lindsey-Warren: Film festivals are becoming powerful community tools working to authentically bring people together of all walks of life. They present talented and diverse storytellers as well as illuminate storytelling that can impact lives in a way that no pastor, counselor, teacher or parent can. Our first year in 2020, we screened 75 films out of 1,688 submissions from 109 countries. In 2021, 65 films and in 2022, 55 films. Now we’re presenting, on average, 35 to 40 films every year from around the world — from the Czech Republic, the UK and Canada to Japan, Italy and France. I’ve modeled our film festival after the great international film festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Tribeca, Toronto and the like. At these major film festivals, film-goers experience more than just movies. They can attend concerts, networking sessions, educational workshops and more.
Over the past five years, we’ve added to the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival in the same manner. I’ve worked hard to leverage my relationships in Hollywood and New York to bring a dynamic and multifaceted event to Waco. We now have a celebrity golf classic sponsored by Greg May Honda, a theater festival, workshops led by Hollywood executives, a New York-styled fashion show and music concert. We hope to be a ‘one stop shop’ for filmmakers who are looking for distribution and financing for their films. In 2020, we successfully hosted an investor meeting for Kevin Sorbo [actor and director best known for playing ‘Hercules’ in the TV series ‘Legends of Hercules’] and his wife, Sam, who were seeking $80 million dollars to build their Sorbo Studios. In 2024, when we hit the five-year mark, we can apply to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be Oscar-qualified as a film festival that can submit its winners to be considered for Academy Awards.
WACOAN: The Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that honors the memory of Gloria J. Lindsey. Who is she?
Lindsey-Warren: My mother, Gloria J. Lindsey, was an elementary school educator for over 40 years. She loved to empower her students to be their best in life as well as having an enormous passion for education and the arts. In 2017, my father, William Lindsey, created the G.B. Lindsey Family Charitable Fund in her memory and to celebrate her life. It is in her honor and her spirit that the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival passionately supports educational and artistic programs for children and young adults. The film festival is just one program that we do. We also produce our Community Barbecue & Back-to-School Picnic every July where we give away free backpacks and school supplies to children and families in Waco and at my mother’s school in Cincinnati, which is where I am originally from and was raised. Other programs of the fund include educational workshops and our annual Holiday Toy Drive.
WACOAN: Do you have your own mission statement?
Lindsey-Warren: My personal and professional mission is ‘to creatively communicate so that I may touch lives.’ I do that every day. If I don’t, something is off inside of me. I do this in my ‘edutaining’ courses that I teach at Baylor. I say that the practitioner in me makes me a better professor, and the researcher in me makes me a better a better practitioner and professor. I am also living my mission every day with my film festival work.
WACOAN: Let’s backtrack for a minute back to your childhood and growing up with performing as a goal. Tell me about that and your education in a magnet school for the performing arts.
Lindsey-Warren: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and started at the School for Creative and Performing Arts when I was eight, graduating from there at the age of 18. The school was similar to the hit TV show ‘Fame.’ At SCPA, I studied and performed ballet (and all types of dance genres), piano, drama and musical theatre — they called me a ‘triple threat’ because I excelled at singing, dancing and acting. The school has a lot of notable alumni who include Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees (and who was my partner in Musical Theatre), Rocky Carroll of the famed NCIS TV show on CBS and Broadway stars like Sarah Jessica Parker (‘Sex in the City’), Carter Calvert (‘Ain’t Nothing But the Blues’), Alton Fitzgerald White (‘The Lion King’ and ‘Miss Saigon’). All of our training was preparing us to graduate and go on to Broadway or Hollywood.
The school was very ahead of its time in promoting nontraditional casting — meaning casting African Americans and people of color as well as Caucasians in lead roles. I was the first African American to play Peter Pan in the musical ‘Peter Pan.’ I played Liesel in ‘The Sound of Music’ as well as the title role of Reno Sweeney in the musical ‘Anything Goes’. My vocal range goes from alto to mezzo soprano to soprano, and I still sing jazz professionally to this day. My mother was a classically trained pianist and opera singer; I come from a family that believed in exposing my brother Rusdyn and I early on to culture. But my childhood wasn’t all about performing; I played T-ball and was a Brownie Scout too.
WACOAN: You had a career early on in Hollywood; tell me about that.
Lindsey-Warren: My bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, was in radio, TV and film, preparing me to be a film and television producer. I was the first African American woman to graduate from their Musical Theater program. After graduation, I started my career in Hollywood by way of the prestigious internship program of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences [the entity that produces the Emmy Awards] that placed me in Children’s Programming and Development at NBC. In Los Angeles, I was being trained to be a Hollywood studio executive and gained experience working for the Creative Artists Agency [a top talent agency], Edmonds Entertainment and Quincy Jones-David Salzman Entertainment. Those experiences shaped my insights and TV and film producing acumen before making a career pivot to business and marketing; I have an MBA degree in marketing from the Peter. F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate School.
WACOAN: And your Ph.D. in Consumer Behavior from Rutgers Business School?
Lindsey-Warren: With my Ph.D. in marketing, I am a consumer behavior scholar who studies marketing strategy as well. For me, researching consumers came naturally after working as a marketing executive in New York City for the likes of the United States Tennis Association, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and UniWorld Group, the longest standing multicultural advertising agency in the country. I enjoy researching consumer phenomena in my research areas of media and advertising, health marketing, women, the business of Hollywood and what I coined as ‘empowered storytelling’ in advertising.
WACOAN: Your career has included a number of years of professional teaching. Can you expound on that?
Lindsey-Warren: I started teaching in 2000 as an adjunct professor in Ohio. In New York City, I was also an adjunct professor at Baruch College. During my doctoral program at Rutgers Business School, I was a marketing instructor at the undergraduate and MBA levels in their Business School for five years, and in 2017 I joined Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. Through the years, I’ve taught Principles of Marketing, Consumer Behavior, Introduction to Advertising, Marketing Research, Marketing for the Performing Arts, Digital Marketing, as well as Advertising and Promotions and Crisis Communications Management at MBA level.
WACOAN: At least two of your many research streams dovetail into distinct marketing strategies that you write about and speak about often. Can you talk about empowered storytelling and edutainment?
Lindsey-Warren: Storytelling is somewhat of a buzzword in marketing today; every product sold wants to have a story to go with it, whether it’s financial services or buying groceries. The market today is all about connecting with consumers emotionally, which strengthens brand loyalty, which also strengthens profitability. Storytelling needs to be authentic to be successful. Nike does a great job of authentic storytelling; so do Target, Amazon and Under Armour, to name a few. An authentic ad exudes equity in its storytelling in what the lead talents are doing and saying; it makes what’s going on in the commercial relatable. A great deal of commercials are not relatable, nor equitable in their storytelling.
WACOAN: What does the adjective of ‘empowered’ add to the descriptor of storytelling?
Lindsey-Warren: Empowered storytelling exudes the emotion of empowerment. Oftentimes, we see storytelling that is aspirational. Fashion does that a lot. Beauty does that a lot. That’s what we are trying to do in many different types of subject matters — to empower our audiences. I define empowerment in my research as a multilayered emotion that creates optimism, confidence and an inherent call to action. It encourages positive and transformative behavior in consumers. When you combine all of that with the power of storytelling, with those salient characteristics and components of relatable characters, conceivable plots and that aspect of verisimilitude, that’s a powerful punch that enables brands to connect with consumers in a meaningful way.
Once I realized that power, I got excited to research it more and came up with the construct of ‘empowered storytelling.’ For the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival and its sister festivals, ‘empowered storytelling’ is the secret sauce used in the producing the events.
WACOAN: What about another descriptor that peppers your resume, ‘edutainment?’
Lindsey-Warren: Through work with different clients as a marketing practitioner, I used a term I call ‘edutainment’ as a strategy to positively connect with consumers in a meaningful way. If you want marketing or advertising campaign to have a sustainable impact, I have found that you have to educate the consumer as well as entertain them. ‘Edutainment” can be a powerful combination to help get a challenging subject matter digested or understood by consumers. It can also be used to empower consumers in many ways.
That was the question that started me on my doctoral journey: Why is edutainment so impactful? That led me to narrative transportation theory, which is actually the process of consumers being absorbed in the telling of the story. When you look at that process, what are some of the salient components of that process? You have relatable characters, conceivable plot lines and then this wonderful aspect of verisimilitude, found in realism, truth and authenticity. It’s a process that involves the consumer mind, body and spirit.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about authentic and empowered storytelling, equity and representation. How can an independent film festival pull off what Hollywood apparently can’t — or won’t?
Lindsey-Warren: Once upon a time when I first thought about becoming a producer while in high school, I saw an episode of the TV show, the ‘Ebony/Jet Showcase’, that profiled TV and film producers and directors. At that time, I learned that in the Producers Guild of America, less than one percent of producers are African American, and only three percent in the Directors Guild. Fast forward 30 years later: I am working to do my part to increase those percentages with the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival. We wanted to portray people of color and women in every position of the industry in a positive light. Putting on this film festival is my small contribution to the industry.
With the Waco [Family & Faith] Film Festival, I’m also working to bring hope to the children and young people of Waco that they can be anything that they want to be in life. We’ve partnered with the Waco ISD, and hope to partner with other school districts as well, in an effort to expose young people to notable and accomplished individuals, especially those of color, so they can see that their dreams can become a reality. Like the Sundance Film Festival, we want to bring stars here to share their talents, knowledge and so much more to give that advantage to the young people of Waco and Central Texas.
We want to leverage the power of storytelling to open hearts and minds; movies can help provoke meaningful conversations to see people in a better light. My hope is that people can look at each other a little better and give each other the benefit of a doubt more by attending the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival. Film festivals are like modern-day freedom fighters, doing what Hollywood refuses to do: produce equitable and positive storytelling. We’re helping to shine a spotlight on cinematic work by greatly talented women and people of color and more!
WACOAN: Your mission statement is crystal clear about wanting to not just produce a film festival but one that is ‘dedicated to empowering the creative spirit, serving with heart & celebrating all!’ What are your biggest hopes for it?
Lindsey-Warren: The Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival works to make a global impact and change the face of storytelling and the storytellers in the film and entertainment industry. It’s also the work of this festival to bring people together from all walks of life and serve them with narratives, community performances, educational workshops and more that open hearts and minds as well as feed the soul. We are serving the Waco community with ‘heart’ every day and doing our best to serve, transform lives, and honor all in our community by leveraging the power of storytelling to celebrate our shared humanity.