Bishop T.D. Jakes is a master marketer. It’s the reason why Hollywood – very smartly – came knocking at his door and he (through his company TDJ Enterprises) inked a multi-year production and distribution deal for theatrical releases and DVD exclusives with Sony back in 2006.
And the bestselling author and influential clergyman doesn’t just put his name (ahem, and brand) on and behind just any old project.
Last year, Jumping the Broom – the film he executive produced along with successful producer Tracey Edmonds—shocked much of Hollywood when they opened at a healthy $15.2 million opening weekend, trumping—insert dramatic gasp here—a Kate Hudson film.
It wasn’t a shock to Jakes. He employed what he already knows works: take it to the church. He helped to create a film that families can go see, a film that portrays Black folks in varying degrees of light and a film that has a strong message.
He’s about to do it again.
Up next for the Dallas-based Bishop is the highly-anticipated Sparkle; he also is executive producing the forthcoming Winnie Mandela biopic.
EBONY.com chats with Bishop Jakes about Hollywood, the 2012 presidential election and why the Black church is still relevant.
EBONY: This renewed version of Sparkle is a message movie. Can you talk a little bit about the message of this movie and why that was a message that you wanted to get behind?
Bishop T.D Jakes: I think it’s a very inspiring message, first of all, encouraging people to believe in their dreams and to fight for those dreams against all adversity. I love the inspiration in it. The other message in it, I think it shows the resilience of family, the diversity that exists within families, the resilience of our families and what it really takes to hold a family together through the vicissitudes of life.
EBONY: You really have the ear of Hollywood in a way that people who have been working in film for a long time don’t have that ear. What do you bring to the table that makes executives at powerhouses like Sony stop, look at listen?
TDJ: First of all, I was blessed with the fact that the current president of Sony Pictures, Michael Lynton comes from the publishing world and had a point of reference based on my vast array of literary works and influence. I think that helped to demystify my presence in Hollywood. Secondly, I think that movies that preceded me helped to inform Hollywood, dating all the way back to The Passion of the Christ to the Tyler Perry films and others and there is another audience of people that will support positive messages if they are projected correctly. And it is an audience to which Hollywood does not have a lot of experience with amassing and marketing to that audience. And so I think I bring that constituency. But I think that the largest thing is that having done pastoral counseling for over 30 years, I have a wide array of stories that are inspired from the lives of people I touched and a good understanding of my audience, of my core base and a good teacher of areas of interest to that particular audience.
EBONY: And the thing that is interesting about you, Bishop Jakes, is that you really don’t stay in your lane. You touch projects that we wouldn’t necessarily think a Bishop would touch, like the Winnie Mandela biopic …
TDJ: Well, you know, the thing about the Winnie movie is it’s a love story painted on the canvass of national chaos and I think that it was inspirational. I have, for a long time, wanted for Americans, and African Americans in particular, to be more astute of understanding the plight that goes on in South Africa. Though it is not a faith film, it certainly is an opportunity to close the divide in the African Diaspora, and to add further information to the arsenal that Americans have as it relates to a deeper and richer understanding of the similarities between the conditions that existed during apartheid and the Civil Rights Movement and some of the consequences of that. Even though it wasn’t a faith film, I thought it was a film well worth doing. The story of Winnie Mandela brings to the screen the story of a strong woman who stood in her own right and fought for what she believed in, in a way that I think is a good picture of what African American women often have had to do—though not in apartheid—in their own lives and in the cultural conundrums that we’ve lived in they’ve had to be very tough and resilient. I think that people will be inspired by it, even as Dr. King was inspired by the fight that went on during the apartheid, and there was such a relationships that existed between the Civil Rights Movement and the apartheid in the ‘60s.
EBONY: Does that mean that we’re not to put you in a box? Will we be seeing you doing other stories that aren’t necessarily faith films in the future as well?
TDJ: Absolutely. I don’t hesitate to answer that because I’m not one-dimensional. I’m not at all a one-dimensional person. I listen to different types of music, I read different types of books, and I think one of the great mistakes that we make with people is to categorize them by how we met them rather than allowing them the elasticity to be as diverse as all human beings are. Just because we are people of faith doesn’t mean that we are no less people, not interested in culture, politics, art, music. I’m interested in everything, and what I have come to learn is that though I may be out of the box for a traditional clergymen, the constant line that exists in everything I do is communication. Whether it is books, movies, preaching, speaking, motivation, it’s just communicating with my generation and I enjoy doing that in every mode that is available in this era, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, I’m a communicator and I love to communicate with people. I love people and I love to communicate and learn from them and talk to them.
EBONY: You mentioned a really important word earlier in our conversation: “marketing.“ Every four years the Black church becomes an important place for politicians to pay attention to, and market to, if you will. Do you sense that that will be even more so this go-round?
TDJ: It’s very unpredictable and it’s anybody’s guess who is going to be our next president. What I have really tried to do, though, is encourage our parishioners to get out and vote and let their voice be heard. I think it’s very, very important that every American and particularly African Americans, exercise their right to get out and vote and to express in their vote how they see the candidates lining up against the calamities that exist in our society and who they think is best to lead us for the next four years.
EBONY: Part of your success in Hollywood is that you embrace this grass-roots strategy. Do you do the same with regards to politics in your community?
TDJ: We’ve done several things right at our church in terms of get out the vote and we’ve historically done several things like that and we’re looking at doing it again to really encourage people to get out and vote and reminding them from the pulpit how important it is so their voices continue to be heard. And we have a lot of ways when we do things like that, to market that. Whether it’s Facebook, twitter or an e-blast … as well as just announcing over the pulpit when we are going to do a get out the vote initiative. I know that the NAACP is currently heading one. But we have done them in the past and I’ve found them to be very effective at getting people out to vote. My big fear for this coming election is that I’m concerned that there might be some apathy in some sections of our community about getting out to vote because at times so many people are preoccupied with their own problems, or are disillusioned by the process we go through. I think it’s very, very important that we overcome that disillusion and get out and let our voice be heard and understand that our voice does count.
EBONY: Those of us who aren’t clergymen, we have a reaction when all of a sudden our churches get flooded with political speakers. But that has to say to you guys that the Black church still has some importance in the political process, right?
TDJ: I think that it does, and evidently the politicians do too, because they often frequent the churches and invite the various pastors to various events, including the White House. I think that the church is still relevant, but one of the things that we have to…when we have these conversations about the political relevance of the church, we have to realize that comparing the church in the ‘60s to the church in the 21st century is like comparing a cell phone to a party line that we had in the ‘60s. It’s a different day and it’s a different day because we have strong institutions, strong Black political figures in Congress in a way that we did not have before. We have various entities through which to communicate with the Black audience beyond the church, including the development of the media that we did not have at that time. I think that the church continues to stand by the community and to be relevant wherever it is needed, but to reduplicate services that are provided through other idioms may not be as necessary today as it was in the ‘60s, when it was so difficult to amass our communities and to disperse information.
EBONY: You’re already behind two big films, what else are you eyeballing?
TDJ: Well, we’re working on Heaven is for Real. I’ve been asked to be the producer on Heaven is for Real and it is a very popular book that was on the New York Times list—it sold about 3 million copies—and is about a young boy who, while he was on the surgical table, said he went to heaven and describes it vividly and wrote a book about it. We’re planning to do a film about that. That is yet in process. And the other thing that might help people understand that it’s not my church that does the films, it’s TD Jakes Enterprises that does the films and I’m under TDJ Enterprises. We’re also doing independent films, apart from Sony Pictures to the extent that we’re able to amass investors and do projects that may not be a good match for Sony, but are still films that I think have an audience out there for and we want to continue to do those as well.
EBONY: Are you developing new filmmakers under that arm?
TDJ: Well, not necessarily new filmmakers as much as it is telling our stories and taking control of how those stories are told. I find that if you want real purity of stories, sometimes you have to work within and other times without the Hollywood system in order to produce films. Had Mel Gibson tried to run The Passion of the Christ through the traditional Hollywood machine it would have never gotten made. And that’s just an example of a faith-based film that wouldn’t have gotten the nod from Hollywood because it did not really believe that there was the kind of audience out there that existed. So the reason that we do independent film is so that we are not totally controlled by the Hollywood system when it comes to stories of interest that we think would find a welcome audience throughout our constituency that may not be a good match for the traditional Hollywood model.