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.