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So What Do You Do, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Film Producer and Bestselling Author?

'We have to tell our own stories and tell them in the way that we want to see them"

By Jeff Rivera - July 12, 2012
While Spike Lee was preaching purity and Tyler Perry was telling Spike to go to hell, there was another black filmmaker quietly making waves. T.D. Jakes, the man Time dubbed "America's Best Preacher" turned his influence as senior pastor of Dallas' 30,000-member megachurch The Potter's House into serious box office clout with films like Jumping The Broom, which surprised Hollywood insiders by landing at No. 3 during its first week of release.

Yet, even with his success in and out of the pulpit, the preacher and philanthropist says he still has much work to do. With his highly-anticipated films Winnie and Sparkle on the way, Jakes spoke with Mediabistro about bringing diversity and spirituality to Hollywood, how to sell your first script, and what it was really like working with the late Whitney Houston.

Name: Bishop TD Jakes
Position: Pastor, author and film producer
Resume: Began his ministry in a small church in West Virginia in 1979 before relocating to Dallas, Tx. and founding The Potter's House. Author of over 30 books, including two New York Times bestsellers and Woman Thou Art Loosed, which was made into a film in 2004. Launched a line of greeting cards with American Greetings in 2007. Producer of the films Not Easily Broken (2009), Jumping The Broom (2011), Woman Thou Art Loosed on the 7th Day (2012), and the upcoming Sparkle and Winnie Mandela biopic, Winnie. Named "America's Best Preacher" by Time in 2001, called "perhaps the most influential black leader in America today" by The Atlantic in 2006, and included on Ebony's "Power 150" list in 2009.
Birthday: June 9, 1957
Hometown: South Charleston, W.Va.
Education: B.A., M.A. and doctorate in religious studies from Friends International Christian University
Marital status: Married
Media idol: Sidney Poitier
Favorite TV show: Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien
Guilty pleasure: Twitter
Last book read: The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey
Twitter handle: @BishopJakes

You produced Whitney Houston's last film, Sparkle. What was your experience working with her, and if you could say something to her today what would you tell her?
My experiences with her were very positive; I can say that. I did not know her prior to her involvement with Sparkle. I certainly knew who she was and I loved her music. I was a great fan of some of the movies that she had done in the past. Both Debra Martin Chase and myself, who worked together as producers on Sparkle, were just thrilled that she had come on board. She performed professionally and effectively and delivered, I think, a very believable role playing the mother character in Sparkle, so that was all wonderful.

As it relates to what I would say to her today, wow, that's a really hard question because there's so much that I do not know about her personal life. I don't know anything other than what I've read. I've never been in a personal setting with her. I have learned to read with some skepticism information that is filtered about a person through media, because sometimes it gives us a warped perception of who they really are. We all make mistakes and choices.

"The impression [Whitney Houston] left with me is that she was swinging upward, regaining her sense of who she was."

I can say that the impression she left with me is that she was swinging upward, regaining her sense of who she was, that she was trying to really get her life back together and I, like many Americans, was rooting for her, that she would be able to do that. My personal thought was that Sparkle would be the beginning of many more films and opportunities for her to come, because I thought she was really rebounding, and I was shocked and hurt and disappointed that her life was cut away so soon.

How did you first get involved in film production, and what were your goals when you first started?
I kind of stumbled into it. I started out doing gospel musical plays that toured a circuit throughout the U.S. [Casting director] Reuben Cannon saw a production that we had done and wanted to do a movie that was inspired from the play, and I thought, "Wow! That's exciting." So, we did what we thought was going to be a made-for-television production of Woman Thou Art Loosed that we entered into the Santa Barbara Film Festival and won the film festival's award. We ended up going on limited screens for an independent film, and it did very well for a week; it was only on 400 screens. So, that kind of stirred a meeting between me and Sony Pictures, and Michael Lynton, who is the CEO of Sony Corporation of America and chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, offered me a first-look deal that Sony would be willing to fund the movies that I wanted to produce, and a relationship was born.

As a pastor, is it a requirement for you that your films have a spiritual component?
Not necessarily. I mean, Sony is a business, and they want me to do films that are true to who I am, and they want to be able to benefit from my following. And my following knows that, though I am a pastor, I like to talk about a lot of diverse issues. Now, many of the films will have a faith component to them because that's who I am, and other films will just have a good message that is universal, that anybody could use. I like to do both things because good wisdom and good truth is something that transcends our spiritual beliefs and background.

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What criteria do films or screenplays have to meet before you get involved as a producer?
I think it has to be something that has a message that I think it is important that would be of interest to my constituency, and then we'll take a look at it. We're looking at a film now about Winnie Mandela, and I thought it was interesting because it brings to screen some very interesting things about Nelson Mandela and about South Africa, a country that I'm very passionate about. I try to do diverse things. I don't like to be pigeonholed where it's all comedies, or it's all suspense or murder or what have you, but I just like to do a lot of diverse things that are entertaining and yet edifying...

I looked at [Winnie] and thought it was interesting, thought it was intriguing, have a great deal of love for South Africa, and I decided to be a part of it. The fact that Jennifer Hudson plays the lead role and Terrence Howard plays Nelson Mandela also helped in that decision, because I think they're both very good actors and performers, so we went with it.

Tyler Perry has gotten a lot of praise and flak for his work. What do you think about the controversy over his films and his TV shows?
You know, I don't think that there really should be any controversy. I think there is room in the industry for a lot of expressions. Every other type of director/producer produces a wide array of different types of products... For instance, Jackass might not be a film that I would want to go see, but people go to see it without causing controversy. And you don't see other producers like Steven Spielberg saying, "Well, that's not authentically a movie, because it's not something of the artistic quality of what I would do."

People are very diverse, and they go to films for different things. Some people go just to be entertained and to have a good time, and some people appreciate the artistic quality of the film. And I think serving the audience of people, the demands of the people, is what all businesses thrive on: supply and demand. Obviously, there is a demand for what [Tyler Perry] produces or he wouldn't stay in business.

"You don't see producers like Steven Spielberg saying, 'Well, Jackass is not authentically a movie, because it's not something of the artistic quality of what I would do.'"

George Lucas was very vocal about the resistance that he got trying to make Red Tails. How much truth do you think there is in the idea that Hollywood doesn't want to make films with an all-black cast anymore?
Well, I think the real issue is that Hollywood wants to make money, and they don't always know what they don't know. They think that, if it's only a certain type of film, that's the only thing that people will respond to. And every so often a movie will come along, like The Color Purple or other movies, that transcends all barriers and reaches all people, and people who live in glass offices with their heads stuck down in computers don't always have a good pulse beat on what's going on in the world today. I don't know whether it is so much about race -- that could be a factor in it -- but I think more times than not, it's the presupposition that profit only comes through doing certain stereotypical ideologies about people that are absurd, that really don't fit. No community is monolithic, and the more diversity we have in the marketplace, the better reflection of our society the art emanates.

Why do you think that people of color maybe don't get in a position to actually make the films or head their own studios?
Well, I think what we have to do is stop waiting on other people to catch the vision to tell our stories, and we have to tell our own stories, and tell them in the way that we want to see them, and then let others catch up with us. I think all people have to do that. If you have something that you want to put out there, you may have to do it yourself to get it out there, and a lot of times people don't have the funding to do that or the business acumen, more times than not. Really, if you have a good idea and a good script and a good cast, funding is not that hard to come by. There are people out there who will fund good films. That's something that I have experienced. Red Tails got done. You know, it didn't get done through a conventional way, but I think more and more films are being done in nonconventional ways, and that's exciting to me.

"Really, if you have a good idea and a good script and a good cast, funding is not that hard to come by."

What are your tips for breaking into Hollywood and selling that first project?
Patience. The old adage is it's not what you know but who you know. I think that's very, very important. There are a lot of people who know the "what" of it but don't know the "who" of it. Everything advances through relationships, and the better you build strong relationships, the more opportunity you're going to have. My second counsel is don't start the relationship with an ask, because people really don't gravitate toward people who only get to know you because they want something. So, get to know people because of who they are and what they've done and how you admire them, and then over time to be able to interject an idea or a thought. It's far more permissible to a friend than it is a stranger in a 10-minute meeting.

What do you wish someone had told you in terms of filmmaking when you first began?
Well, I'm still learning. I think the biggest thing that I've learned so far is not to be afraid to think outside of the box, not to always color within the lines as it relates to what Hollywood has seen before. For example, The Blair Witch Project was shot on a very small budget and made an incredible amount of money. It's not always the stereotypical ideas of what works; sometimes you can do something that's out of the box and very nontraditional and the public has a strong response to it. The thing that you cannot ignore is what the public has an appetite to consume. No matter how fantastic you think the script may be, if no one thinks that but you or a small modicum of people, then you're not going to be able to get the resources that you need to be successful.

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Jeff Rivera is a GalleyCat contributor and the author of Effortless Marketing.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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