As part of this year’s Jxn Film Festival, TV industry executive Ashley McFarlin will host the BEE Pitch Camp from July 25-27. McFarlin currently serves as Vice President of Development for WE TV and AllBlk.TV, and “BEE” is short for her independent production company, Bird’s Eye Entertainment, that she founded in 2006. The Pitch Camp can be attended both in-person and virtually. For information on other Jxn Film Festival events, visit jxnfilmfestival.com.
What’s your background in the industry and how did you start hosting the pitch camp?
I’m originally from Atlanta and I grew up sort of working with my mom. My mom is a producer, and I was always on set a lot as a kid, exposed to the industry, and I really gravitated toward it. I’ve always loved storytelling and I was an avid reader as a kid. So, as I grew up and then I went on to determine what I wanted to do in my career, I knew it would be in film and television. I wasn’t quite sure exactly the role, but I knew it would be in that space.
As I continued to work in both film and television as well as radio and theater, I homed in on the work that allowed me to be a leader in this space. I was very fortunate to be given opportunities to work as a producer, executive producer, supervising producer, stage manager, production manager, those types of team leadership positions that not only gave me an opportunity to develop as a creator, but also as a manager. And ultimately, as a network executive, I see the need for more young people who have the ambition and have the talent and the skills and the gifts to just be given the opportunity and the tools to enter the space and succeed. Since I’ve had experience in managing and grooming and building teams, I figured why not build a team of dynamic, next-generation producers, writers and directors to really take our industry to the next level?
What can pitch camp attendees expect this year?
This year is a little different. I took a lot of feedback from last year. I think last year I was so excited about it and I knew that the Jackson community hadn’t really had that much intimate exposure to the intricacies of the television and film industry. So, I really inundated the group last year with tons and tons of information and introduced them to lots of people in the industry who are colleagues and friends of mine to really just give them as much knowledge as possible.
This year, I want to streamline it a bit. I want to be a bit more focused on a few specific areas that feedback from last year suggested that people would be really interested in. One, being the baseline information of how to tell a good story. Because that’s something I mentioned last year that ultimately that’s what really propels projects to the next level.
If it’s a solid story, if you have great characters, no matter who you are, who you have attached to it, what experience you have in the space, that project will find its space in the world of television and film. So, I want to spend quite a bit of time this year teaching bare bones storytelling 101, how to create a strong storyline for a solid television series or film.
Secondly, a lot of feedback I got is that people just wanted to hear from me. (laughs) Last year I had a lot of colleagues and friends jump in on the Zoom or pop up to do 20- to 30-minute workshops. So, I have fewer guest speakers this year and I’ll be taking up a lot more of that time to talk directly with the campers about my personal experience in the industry and my specific advice on how they can navigate the space successfully.
And then lastly, a huge takeaway from last year was people really just wanted to be ready to pitch when they leave the boot camp. Last year I had two or three of the campers actually go on to pitch solid projects to WE TV and ALLblk, but I want to dial that up a bit this year, and I’d love for at least 50 percent of the participants to pitch me something solid and cohesive and interesting at the end of the boot camp. So, I’ve tailored the curriculum this year to really aim for by day three, everyone standing up tall and proud in front of all the other campers and myself and pitching a solid project.
You said you’d have fewer guests this year, but you do have a special featured guest in TV industry vet Robyn Lattaker-Johnson. What will she bring to the camp?
Yes, Robyn is a former executive of Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). She has a myriad of tremendous accomplishments. She currently serves as one of the few black female agents in the unscripted space. I wanted to be sure she was given an opportunity to speak with the participants at the boot camp because she has such an impressive career track, and she has lots of really solid advice to give up-and-comers with regards to how to find their own lane and a very crowded space right now of content creators.
I’m really blessed in that I work in both unscripted and scripted. With the strike happening now, I’m pivoting that a bit. We’re still preparing scripted projects with the hopes of being ready to go back into production. But we’re also at work focused on making sure we have some strong unscripted shows that could quickly go into production.
And Robin should be able to offer up some solid advice for people who are interested in going into the unscripted space. She represents really great producers and directors and writers in that space so she can give some advice of how people can really push their projects there.
How did you connect with the Jxn Film Festival and how do your own sensibilities align with their mission?
(Festival founder) Maximus Wright and I met a couple of years ago at an industry event. There was an immediate chemistry between both of our desire and passion to serve in the space of television and film, to really use whatever experience, relationships and connections we have to help others get their foot in the door. We connected on that like-minded level and he started talking to me about things that he was working on, like the Jxn Film Festival. I started talking to him about things I had brewing on my side, like the producers’ boot camp, and it just seemed obvious to figure out how to marry them and cultivate that synergy.
What potential do you think Mississippi has in the film and TV industry?
I think it’s tremendous. Visiting Jackson last year during the boot camp I was really floored at the awesome talent that exists in the city. And I was pleasantly surprised to see how eager everyone was to present themselves, show up and offer up who they are and their creativity so that I can them lend a helping hand so they could get some real exposure. I do think there’s a strong pool of talent there. I think it’s virtually untapped, and I am happy to put my resources, talent and experience in the pot to help stir this up and bubble up some really successful projects from the city.