Director of the web series “Leimert Park,” Jones discusses how digital media is the most useful tool for up and coming content creators.
By Terry Hart
The importance of storytelling was impressed upon Mel Jones early in life. Raised in Richmond, Virginia, with a preacher for a father and a teacher for a mother, she grew up in a household full of stories, and using story as a powerful tool to captivate and educate audiences was an important concept she was able to grasp early.
“Storytelling has always been a part of my life,” she said, and she has used her love for and understanding of storytelling to become a successful person in Hollywood.
Jones is a producer/director/writer, who graduated from Howard University with a major in Film, and a minor in African American Studies and Photography. She got her first Hollywood job as a media specialist working for the Discovery Channel.
“Basically a glorified tape librarian,” she remembers with a laugh, as her job consisted of pulling various tapes from the archives to fulfill requests. Not creatively fulfilled by the position, she decided to take on the challenge of producing a short film for a friend and really liked it. That experience led Jones to enrolling at The American Film Institute, where she received an MFA in producing. She went on to work at Participant Media, and through their Project Involve initiative she was able to secure a mentorship with Stephanie Allain, veteran producer and then-LA Film Festival director. Allain was a producer for “Hustle & Flow.”
Having been mentored by a prominent Hollywood producer, Jones has become a force of her own, working with such acclaimed directors and producers such as Justin Simien of “Dear White People,” and Gerard McMurray of “Fruitvale Station.” While continuing to produce, she showcased her directing talent with “Leimert Park,” a six episode web series, which made a resounding splash when screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.
The web series is a comedic look at the lives three millennial women sharing a house in the historic South Los Angeles district. It’s a love letter to the place she resided in when first making her way in Los Angeles.
Jones reflected on why when conceiving this project she decided to release it on the web.
“At the time, digital was popular,” she said, pointing out how shows like “High Maintenance” and “Broad City,” and creators like Issa Rae started out on the web and now have successful deals with various big budget studios. Although their successes on mainstream platforms are significant, there’s another side to that equation.
“About six years ago, television and film started snatching up all these talented people,” Jones said. “There’s no longer a need to look outside. It’s cool to be Black again; cool to be different, diverse, lesbian, trans.”
Until recently these people were sitting on the outside. They had very unique voices but no access. Going digital allowed them to create audiences and demonstrate there was a market for their stories.
“Once these creators are discovered, they go off into tv/film land,” Jones said. “This devalues the digital platforms.”
While there’s an ebb and flow in the success of digital media, it’s still the most useful tool for up and coming content creators. The web has “become almost like an incubator,” Jones said. “A creator can get their stuff out there and then use that to travel to other spaces.”
This was one of the biggest influences for Jones to release her directorial debut to the web.
“It’s still democratic,” she said. “If it’s good it will be seen. The best content will get watched by people. It will rise to the top by word of mouth. It’s the truest way of finding your audience and it’s low risk.”
The best thing a new creator can do is produce content anyway possible, using whatever’s at hand and post to the web for all to see.
“As a medium for sustaining content, (it’s) not great, but for creators to get buzz so they can create content elsewhere, it’s very powerful,” states Jones emphatically.
Jones recognizes that there are many issues that still need to be figured out when it comes to digital platforms, not the least of which is getting paid. With more of the mainstream recognizing the power of the space, an increasing number of A-list players, like Will Smith, are getting involved. This pulls eyes from indie creators, decreasing their chances to get viewed. Questions like who has the ownership, how to calculate residuals, and mechanisms of payment for producers still need to be figured out, and with the impact of changes to net neutrality yet to be felt, digital is a medium in flux. All this needs to be addressed before the web can be truly seen as a viable place monetarily for indie content creators to maintain a presence and thrive.
But there’s promise. Jones relates the story about how when they shopped the idea at Sundance for Gerard McMurray’s 2017 “Burning Sands,” a story about hazing in a Black fraternity, she remembers people asking, “Why would you want to make that?” Questioning the relevancy of such a show, yet the year before the story of a White fraternity went through. Netflix eventually gave the project a chance, and told her that it has been one of their best reviewed films.
“Film festivals are traditional gate keepers,” she said. “When a studio wants to discover someone, they go to the festivals.”
But if the festivals are being run by all White men, there most likely won’t be a good minority presence.
“Goes to show how you’re dealing with cultural biases and prejudices that people are hardly aware of but have deep consequences,” Jones said.
Digital disruption has created a demand for more content than ever before, and being able to use a digital platform to release your content and build an audience, gives you legitimacy and power that you can use to get your voice heard.
Look for Jones’ upcoming producing effort, “Juanita,” a Netflix Original, in 2019. Directed by Clark Johnson and starring Alfre Woodard, “Juanita” tells the story of a mother fed up with her marginal urban existence who decides to leave it all behind and reinvent herself.
TEC Leimert is a non-profit community organization dedicated to bringing urban professionals, business owners, and students together with entertainment industry experts and technology entrepreneurs to bridge the digital divide, close the wealth gap, and create social capital. Learn more at www.tecleimert.com.