In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
For so many creators, it's not a question of whether they have the talent or the drive. It all comes down to whether the right person at the right time believes in them so they can get their work out to the world.
A recent study from USC’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative found that in looking at 900 popular films from 2007 to 2016, out of 1,006 directors, 56 were black or African-American, 30 were Asian or Asian-American and 34 were women. As the study put it, “when Hollywood thinks director, they think white male.”
That is a vision of the industry that film producer Tilane Jones is working to change for one simple reason: “Every story deserves to be told.”
Jones is the executive director of ARRAY, an organization founded by Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th, Queen Sugar) that is dedicated to finding distribution for independent films made by women and people of color, especially first-timers.
The organization began in 2010 as AFFRM (The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) before relaunching as ARRAY and expanding its focus to bring attention to the work of a wider swath of underrepresented creators in 2016.
As executive director, Jones’s job is to juggle many moving parts from meeting with filmmakers, reviewing films, booking theaters for screenings and finding like-minded organizations to partner with.
In her first career, Jones worked in real estate. But the financial crisis and real estate crash in 2008 prompted her to rethink what was possible and what goals she had for herself. She says weathering that transition taught her to embrace uncertainty rather than run from it.
“You can't always change the world, but you can change yourself -- which is going to change your vision of the world,” Jones says. “I'm always trying to not be afraid of change and not be afraid of experiencing new things. [Whether an experience is] good or bad, I can always make my world better.”
Entrepreneur spoke with Jones for more insights about how to trust yourself when things get tough and why no job is ever too small on the way to understanding what path works for you.
What challenges do these these filmmakers face in getting their work seen and heard?
The challenge is a lot of times just having the film acquired. I think the most important thing is to really focus on the work, [and not] things like awards and accolades. Those kind of things that can't come as part of it. Of course [we] all want those things, but it's [really important] to focus on the work and to tell your story. And once you've done that, I think everything else kind of falls in line. Having companies like ARRAY that want to see this work be shown, I think that's very important. I feel like the studio systems are kind of changing and I hope that with the change comes more acceptance of different types of work by different types of people.
Can you talk about a moment in your career when you had to advocate for yourself? How did you approach it?
When I started working with Ava, I had actually been working in the real estate industry for over 12 years. There was the real estate crash and I found myself having to find another career, find another path. But I never doubted myself. I think that's a big thing as well, just being really confident in your capabilities and knowing that whatever road or path that you may take, whatever challenges you may have, that you know you're able to shift with those challenges.
You know, when I first started working with Ava I had no clue about the film industry. [You have to always] be open to learning, being flexible in your career, taking a different path and not being afraid to really step out and do those things.
What is your best advice for someone about to make a big career shift like you did from real estate to film?
I think you need to learn everything you can about that new career from the bottom up, from the mailroom to the top executives. Never feel like there's anything that you shouldn't be doing, because it's all a learning experience, it's all teaching you to get to that level where you want to be. And I think I was always open to that. On Ava's first film -- even though I was also associate producer, I was also doing craft service.
I've always tried to keep myself humble and I never felt like there was any job that was too small for me to do. And to do it at the best of my ability. By doing that, I also learned from all these talented people that you see on crews and on sets. That's amazing to me.
My favorite thing is to be on set and see the minds doing all these different tasks that really create this work, create this art. From the sound people to design and wardrobe, hair, makeup. I've literally sat in all those rooms and just listened and watched. Now could I do those things? No. But it's really motivational to see these brilliant people come up with these ideas and really create what you see on screen.
Over the course of your career, how have you grown and changed as a leader?
When you start out in a new career, you're not always as confident in your ability. I think that just through the work that I've done and the people that I've worked [with], my confidence level has definitely risen from that. I'm very confident in my vision, I think. But sometimes you don't know. You know, you see a film and you're like, "Will people like it? Will people actually come and see it?" And that's a view from not only a filmmaker, but also a distributor and a marketer. "I like this movie. Are other people really going to like it?" So it kind of takes a while for you to get that confidence and know that, "You know what? If I like it, somebody else is going to like it" -- even if it's just one person.