Not one to rest on her laurels, Mel Jones (AFI Class of 2010) is not only developing a complex and diverse new television series, but also stepping into a challenging, central role as Confluential Films’ Executive Vice President of Production and Development. Fresh off five years as Head of Production at Homegrown Pictures, Jones has built a career that’s a testament to her inherent curiosity and drive to tell inclusive stories that amplify portrayals of the black experience across media and challenge dominant cultural narratives.
Since earning her MFA in Producing from AFI, she has broken new ground as an independent producer working on projects, including the critically-acclaimed satire DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. After graduating, Jones was selected for Film Independent’s Project Involve Fellowship where she met and developed a rewarding mentorship with independent producer Stephanie Allain (HUSTLE & FLOW, BLACK SNAKE MOAN) who hired Jones both when she became the Director of the Los Angeles Film Festival and later at Homegrown Pictures.
Embodying the mindset of a true Renaissance woman, Jones continually strives to expand her range and versatility as a filmmaker beyond producing. In keeping with this ambition, she recently co-created and directed the six-episode dramedy LEIMERT PARK — a web series which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is currently in development for television.
AFI spoke with Jones about her new work at Confluential Films, directing for the first time and how to encourage more diverse on-screen representation.
AFI: What drew you to your new role as Executive VP of Production and Development at Confluential Films?
MJ: I think right now it’s a really interesting time where people are able to explore all of their talents. I was drawn to the flexibility that Confluential would allow me to have. They were excited that I direct, produce and write. It was just a really good fit. There was also incentive for them, knowing all the people I come into contact with through the various roles I play in the industry as a producer and as a person who knows story, which can also benefit them.
AFI: What kinds of films and series are you hoping to develop and produce at Confluential?
MJ: Confluential’s mission is to make films and TV about diverse populations and to show the human experience of how we’re all connected by bringing to the forefront groups that have not necessarily had the opportunity to explore themselves on film.
With Homegrown, there was more of a focus on women and people of color. Confluential is a bit more broad in that it’s about our shared experience. We could make a sci-fi film with a white male lead, but it would have to be about our collective experience and look like the world we actually live in.
AFI: You’re coming off of five years as Head of Production at Homegrown Pictures under acclaimed producer Stephanie Allain. Can you talk about what you learned from her at Homegrown?
MJ: When I graduated from AFI, making films and TV about people of color was not in style. There weren’t a lot of people who were interested in telling the type of stories I wanted to tell. Stephanie was very instrumental in showing me that not only was it possible, but also that it was valuable and important to our culture at large to explore those stories and put them out in the world.
Over the course of eight years in total that that we worked together, she’s helped to shape who I am as a producer in terms of not shying away from first-time directors. She taught me to be open to giving people opportunities who would not normally have them because no one will take a chance on them, which happen to be women and people of color a lot of the time. Stephanie gave me a road map to follow, and also the confidence knowing that there’s another black woman who’s telling stories about women and people of color. A lot of times people just don’t have that point of reference.
AFI: You’ve worked between different formats, most recently developing your web series LEIMERT PARK into a television show. What do you think about this trend of boundaries blurring between film, TV and web that is becoming more commonplace?
MJ: I think it raises way more opportunities. The way in which we consume content is so different now. We’re watching more on our phones, TVs, computer screens, iPads and less often we are going to the movies. Because that’s happening, a 15 minute-digital series could be on Netflix just as well as a 45-minute piece of content.
I think it allows us to tell different types of stories. Not every story fits into the mold that it has to be 22 minutes if it’s a TV episode or an hour and a half if it’s long-form content. It gives us a little more leeway and flexibility to play and tell stories that maybe don’t fit into your typical box. It helped me because I could develop something like LEIMERT PARK into a TV show. And it ultimately allows you to reach people in different places — wherever they may be — and whatever they’re ready to view and take in.
AFI: Tell me more about what sparked the idea for LEIMERT PARK and how you ended up segueing into directing it?
MJ: I lived in Leimert Park for nine years, and, over the course of those nine years, I had 12 different roommates. I was in my 20s and living my best life. And I thought to myself, “there’s no show quite like this.” This was before INSECURE came out. We actually shot all of our episodes the same year INSECURE did, so it was clearly in the zeitgeist.
I wasn’t really thinking of myself as a director. A lot of times, women in general tend to be in the “help role.” We love to help people create content for themselves, and nurture projects and talent. Because I’d been doing that with producing, I picked up a lot. When we were looking for a black woman millennial to direct LEIMERT PARK, we struggled to find someone who was repped, available and would do such a small project. When they asked if I was interested in directing, I said “yes.” I brought Davita and Kady on board to co-create the series since I’d just given birth to my daughter. We discussed the idea and made a pitch deck to get Macro to produce it. Then I had to make another deck that was similar enough to what we’d created, but different enough as a director to prove that I had the vision for it. I went back, pitched and they agreed, which is what started my directing career.
When LEIMERT PART premiered at Sundance, I realized that all the time I was spending with first-time directors helping them with their projects, I was actually learning. I was learning how to talk to actors and how to figure out what coverage was needed, so when it came time to direct on my own, I was completely prepared. Now I have a whole other skill set that I’m really excited to delve into more.
AFI: How has the process been for developing LEIMERT PARK into a TV series?
MJ: There is a message that the market is completely saturated with “black-women-living-their-best-lives” stories, but I think you can’t ever have enough. It’s great that studios and networks are taking the time to develop more because just as there are female friendship stories about white women on television, I think there is now space for that for black women.
We’re developing LEIMERT PARK into an hour-long show starring and directed by black women, which is a real rarity in television. We’d like to be able to delve into who the characters are a bit more. It will still be a dramedy, but we want to make them full characters and have the time to get into their lives, which an hour-long series will allow us to do. We’re developing the project with Macro now, and we have an amazing partner there, Marta Fernandez, the former Starz Executive VP of Original Programming. We’re putting together our pitch now, and we’ll see what the future holds for it.
AFI: What have you learned from the experience so far?
MJ: I’ve learned through this process that, at some point in my life, I would love to be a showrunner. While people often think of non-writing producers, there are also producers who write as well. I actually snuck away from producing class and took a writing class at AFI because I wanted to be able to write. One of the things I’m learning now is that all the skills that producers have directly correlate with what a showrunner does. I would love to work on a TV show where I could use my producorial, directing and writing skills all together.
AFI: You’ve spoken about a “black tax” in terms of double standards of receiving less financing than white filmmakers. How can we get at the source of the problem so black stories, especially black women’s stories, make it on screen?
MJ: I think that it is systematic to the point where we need to have more of heads of studios who are black, or black women specifically. I think we also need more people who can greenlight who are people of color.
But change is needed not just on the storytelling side, but also on the marketing side. If you look at the numbers, black people spend so much money at the box office, but it’s being overlooked by people who have an idea of what will sell because they have this preconceived notion of who is valuable. They don’t get the audience and then if it doesn’t do well, they say it’s the movie’s fault. I think if there was more energy put into how different viewers consume content and how to reach them, we could really see the cost benefit. You have to have people of color in marketing roles to prove that there’s money to be made.
AFI: 2018 was a banner year for black directors. While we saw an increase in diversity, we also saw an increase in box office returns. Can you talk about if you see the two as having a correlation?
MJ: Absolutely. People keep talking about “event movies,” but any movie that has black people in it is that for us. So you want to have an event movie? Put your marketing dollars behind it, and you’ll get your money back times 10. But what it ultimately comes down to is that the value system has to change.
AFI: What other artists are you taking inspiration from as you transition into this next phase of your career? Whose work do you admire and maybe even seek to emulate?
MJ: Wow, I don’t even know where to start. One person whom I admire is James Schamus who does everything — he writes, directs, ran a studio. I also want to work in TV, so Shonda Rhimes is someone I look up to and think is great. Gale Anne Hurd and Kasi Lemmons are other incredible talents whose careers I’d like to emulate.
There are so many creative people I can think of who are inspiring. For me, it’s been a challenge wanting to do all of these things where you can name a lot of white men who have, whereas I’m still seen mostly as a producer. It’s hard because I do think we kind of get put in boxes, but hopefully I’ll be able to break out of that.
AFI: With the new school year starting, do you have any message you’d like to send to current Fellows or other AFI alumni?
MJ: I hope that for people who look like me, especially for any black women coming through, that they know that AFI alumni are available to them, and we’re just an email away. I’m here to help any and all AFI alums, but especially those who are going to face the same challenges that I did as well.