From Script to Screen – The Producing Adventures of Ty Johnston
Ty Johnston – Producer
As the founder and CEO of T.Y. Entertainment, Ty Johnston creates, develops, acquires, sells and produces scripted and unscripted television and new media projects. Her network collaborations include Style-E, VH1, BET, UPTV, AIBTV, The SPEED Channel, ESPN, AXS-TV and the Bahamas’ ZNS-TV. In addition, she leverages new markets by partnering with Netflix, Amazon and Best Buy. Johnston has worked closely with TV and film veterans such as Mark Koops, Tracey Edmonds, Mona Scott-Young and Robert Townsend.
In 2011, Johnston launched The Atlanta Pitch Summit, an annual marketplace where screenwriters and producers pitch film and TV projects to key entertainment executives.
How do you describe yourself professionally?
I’m a TV and film producer, and I also make magic happen.
So tell us about your producing magic and the new film you have on BET.
The film is What Love Will Make You Do and it premiered this February on BET’s Centric network. It’s a family-friendly, faith-based love story about a couple - he is an attorney and she is a law student. Ironically, his father was the defense attorney for her father, but the case went wrong and her father is now in prison. As they’re dating and making a commitment, she discovers who his father is and things get awkward.
How did you get involved in this film?
I hosted a webinar on pitching in January 2013, and one of the attendees was a novel writer, Lisa Haynes. She wanted to know all about adaptations and pitching and she asked a lot of good questions. Nine months later she called me and said, “You know I took that webinar with you and now my husband and I have money to produce an indie project and we don’t want to do the production without you. We think that you would be the most fabulous producer.”
What did you do to make sure this project succeeded?
This was Lisa’s first feature film, and she was the writer and the director and the EP. So I recruited the talent and cast the film. I scouted and locked in our locations. I put together the crew and I made sure everything went smoothly in all the other areas – from catering to scheduling.
We had a great AD, Justin Bones, and every time there was a bump we’d find a solution. Lisa was really smart to hire very experienced people since this was her first time doing anything of this magnitude.
What made you decide to be a producer?
After I graduated from college, I was working in entertainment in Miami. I was acting and I was working with celebrities and celebrity events. I auditioned for roles and the passion inside me knew that I had every bit of capability to fill those roles, but the people on the other side of the audition table didn’t think so. I realized I wanted to be making more of the decisions.
How did you get invited to ‘the other side’ of the audition table?
One morning, I went to a casting call and I was the very first person scheduled to audition. Sitting behind the table were the producer, the director and the production coordinator – and they were all from out of town. So after I did my audition, they started asking me questions about how to get things done in Miami. I had an answer for everything - and they loved my answers.
So the producer said, “You seem like you’re on the wrong side of the line.” And I said, “What do you mean?” “Everything that I ask you, you know and you really should be back here with us, on this side of the table.” I said, “You know, I can be.” And he said, “So why don’t you?” I said, “Okay.” and I became the fourth person on that producing team.
The film was A Miami Tail featuring rap star Trina and a whole host of other celebrity guests, and it was a hip-hop version of the classic Greek comedy Lysistrata. In the film, Alicia (Trina) leads the women of Liberty City in a protest against gang violence and disrespect by refusing sex to their gangbanging boyfriends.
We prepped in 2001 and went into production in 2002 and just like that, I was the assistant to the producer of a Lionsgate Films. The producer was a banker, so much of the time he was not on set and I definitely had to handle the producing responsibilities. And I was like, “Holy cow! Everyone’s coming to me and I have to have the answers,” so I did.
What prepared you to do A Miami Tail?
It was 1998. I was on a plane and a gentleman sat down next to me. I dropped my handbag and pictures fell out. He picked them up for me and said, “What are you - a model?” “No, I’m an actress. I minor in theater at FAMU.” “Really – acting? I just got budgeted for my new script.” Bam. He pulled out the script, “You think you can act?” “I know I can.” “Why don’t you call my office on Monday?”
He was hip-hop entrepreneur Luther Campbell; I called his office for two months. Then finally, they actually flew me from Tallahassee to Miami to audition and I got a principal role in his only spring break movie, a comedy released by Ventura Distribution. I thought it was amazing. I was in Miami for four weeks to shoot the movie . . . and . . . sorry, Mom . . . for 30 days I had to make up all these excuses for why I was missing my classes.
I began to watch the first AD. He was telling people where to go and people were running up to him with questions and he noticed how interested I was in what he was doing. Between takes, he began to show me everything – what dailies meant; he let me see all of the script notes; he revealed the schedule. Basically, he was teaching me what goes on behind the scenes.
So when I went to audition for A Miami Tail, I knew all those answers because I’d already been involved.
When did you get started in the “world of entertainment?”
I grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, and we had a raised ranch house so everything happened in the basement – parties, re-enacting TV shows, everything. The show Solid Gold would come on and I’d run upstairs to the hall closet and get a towel and wrap it around my head and put a rubber band around it - and that towel was my long ponytail. And I’d swing my shoulders and I’d swing my ‘hair’ and I knew I was one of the Solid Gold dancers.
And my favorite show ever was Little House on the Prairie. I was in my house every day by 5 o’clock to watch that show. And Ty Johnston was part of the cast - I had my black slate and chalk, my bonnet and my apron and I’d reenact and mimic all day long.
And your parents noticed?
They noticed. And they enrolled me in Hanover Modeling and Acting School in East Hartford, Connecticut. When I graduated, my parents set up a professional photo shoot. They ordered a batch of 100 headshots, and I remember my name said “Johnson” so my parents hand-wrote the “t” on every print. And today, I always say, “Johnston with a T.” They sent my headshots to several agencies and I got quite a few callbacks. Then an agent in New York picked me up and the first job I landed was a Toys R Us commercial for Channel 61 in Connecticut.
I was She-Ra and we were in outer space and there was a black hollow shell behind us. They had these little stars and planets fading in and out behind us, and we pretended to watch the flying objects that they added later in post. I really liked acting in that commercial and I thought – I can do this every day. And I got paid for it.
Then we moved from Bristol to Savannah in 1987. I was 12 years old and it was culture shock. Everyone said, “You’ve got to go to Barbizon and take classes,” but I knew I was not a model; I was an actress. I already had the credentials. I’d been in commercials for Toys R Us and Lego Toys and Wilsons Leather, and I’d been a poster child. But Savannah didn’t have anything in 1987 that was equipped for "tweens" who were working actors.
So how did you keep acting?
I didn’t. I think I acted in my dreams – until I got to college at FAMU, where I majored in Journalism and minored in Theater.
I had a professor who was adamant that it was our responsibility to be creators. She’d say, “What are you going to do for the audience to be enlightened ... encouraged ... empowered? What are you going to do that’s different from the last show? What are you going to do differently for your own growth?”
And we made sure that our work was relatable and that the audience left very enthused.
If someone’s starting out, what do they need to do so their project will succeed?
First of all you need to get someone who is really interested in your project. I don’t care who it is because if they’re interested, they can figure out what their role will be. They may want to become talent, or help the project get financed, or distributed, or work below or above the line.
I’d rather find someone who is interested before I find funding because you want to make sure your project has legs – and that’s something many people fail at because they’re producing things that aren’t even worth doing, just to get their name out. If your name is on something, you want it to make an impact. You want to attract an audience that is going to want to watch all your work – and spread the word that it is good.
How do you decide what projects you’ll produce?
I have to be driven by the person. Show me that your project has legs and that you are doing the legwork. Then keep coming back to me every month or two and have new additions to your project. Maybe it’s talent or new buzz or something else that you’ve done to bring your project to the next level - that’s huge. So now, I’m like an indie, one-woman studio because I have something solid to work with.
Why do so many people not know that they must do that legwork and have that passion?
I think reality TV and the accessibility of smart phones and social media have made it completely bonkers for people. It’s easy to get an audience. Sitting on your couch and recording yourself, or recording somebody else, is fun. That doesn’t mean it’s good. That just means you have a form of expression and an opinion, and that’s fine, but let’s do the authentic legwork and put it into a story. Let’s put it into scenes that actually make sense.
This leads us to the Atlanta Pitch Summit and why you created it.
The Atlanta Pitch Summit™ is a weekend event for writers, producers, directors, actors and entertainment entrepreneurs to pitch ideas to TV and film execs. I started the Summit because I had a pocketful of people asking me, “ How do I pitch this project? Whom do I pitch it to?” And I had a pocketful of executives saying, “This is what we’re looking for. Do you have the content?”
I found myself going back and forth to LA a lot - pitching projects for people, listening to pitches, teaching how to pitch, being that middle person who can tell executives what is being done in the field and who can tell content creators what executives want creatively and what they expect that creator to deliver. At the Atlanta Pitch Summit, both sides of the party can get what they need.
How does the Atlanta Pitch Summit move Georgia content creators forward?
At the Pitch Summit, content creators pitch their projects directly to production companies, networks and executives who can push projects into the production phase, and who have access to distribution.
We hold the bar very high for the content-providers, whether it’s film or television. That executive is listening for what you have already done to give this project legs. They want to know who’s already attached. Talent? A director? A producer? If the script’s from a true event, are there artifacts or articles that will strengthen the story? It doesn’t matter what genre the content is, people are putting their experiences into a storytelling form and executives are willing to listen.
How do you help people deliver their best possible pitches?
We prep them. We have a bit of a one-day university that people come to the day before they do their pitches. It’s a diverse pool of seminars and classes and workshops - from scriptwriting to marketing to post.
Many people don’t get much sleep that first night! They’re like, “OMG! I was in the library all night,” or, “I spent the whole night at Kinko’s making copies,” or “I was in my hotel room and I was trying to make all these corrections to my treatment or sizzle reel.” They learn so much on the first day. And they're determined to apply this new knowledge to their pitches.
Not everybody is going to have a perfect pitch coming in. Should they come anyway?
Absolutely. You can learn so much. I have many people that have come for the weekend just to see what it’s all about. I’ve had parents with ideas for their children. People want to understand the pitch process, the production process and how projects are marketed and how they reach audiences
Editor’s Note: The next Atlanta Pitch Summit will be this Fall.