Anatomy of a Masterpiece Hit – Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Season 4 - Signature Image (2)

Why would anyone want to watch a series about a British aristocratic family and their servants living at the end of the 19th century? HBO execs pondered that question four years ago and are allegedly still kicking themselves for turning down airing “Downton Abbey”.

The cable network’s loss has been a phenomenal gain for PBS. Millions of viewers tune in every year to watch “Downton Abbey”. Many of the show’s admirers include celebrities and prominent figures. Count FirstLady Michelle Obama, the Rolling Stones and Salma Hayek among the faithful watchers.

The show was recently nominated for several Emmys again and over the years has racked up Emmys wins, Golden Globes and SAG awards.

Which begs an answer to HBO’s original question – why would audiences adore this U.K. drama? Scrutinize “Downton” a bit further and the answer surfaces.

Here is a brief anatomy of the Masterpiece hit.

Stellar Writing from a Passionate Scribe

“Downton Abbey” is the brainchild of Sir Julian Fellowes, the Oscar winning writer of the similar period film “Gosford Park”. Already passionate about the turn of the century time period, Fellowes drew stories from his own family history as well as the book “To Marry an English Lord” as the basis of “Downton Abbey”. The bestseller chronicled how American heiresses crossed the Atlantic to find English aristocratic husbands.

Characters Cora Crawley, an American rich woman and Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham are based on real people referenced in “To Marry an English Lord”.

Brilliant Ensemble Cast

“Downton Abbey” is about the tribulations of the upper crust Crawley clan and the sordid lives of their loyal domestics. The beauty of the show is the upstairs and downstairs characters receive equal billing. Class issues, gender politics and the response to encroaching modernity are spread throughout each group. While the cast is large, the actors play their counterparts so well that they are all memorable.  Of course there are standouts.

There is the zinger prone matriarch, Violet, the Dowager Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith. There is the loving servant duo, the valet John Bates and ladies maid Anna Bates who met on the job and got married. There is the well-played villain Thomas Barrow, a valet trying to climb the ladder at the expense of others. He also happens to be gay.

Jaw Dropping Plots and Popular Character Deaths

“Downton Abbey” quickly showed it was not your “mother’s” Masterpiece theatre program with many of its jaw dropping plots. Early in the first season, a Turkish diplomat dies in the bed of Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter of the family. They were at the start of their throes of passion at the time. The show continued to buck conventional television rules by killing off main characters.

The middle daughter, Lady Sybil, succumbs in childbirth. In the finale episode of season 3, Matthew Crawley, a popular romantic lead and husband of Lady Mary, dies in a sudden car crash.

Viewers all over the world were outraged and incensed by the plot twist. Some American viewers were so upset that they petitioned the White House to force Dan Stevens who played Crawley to return to the show – or otherwise face deportation.  Fellowes regularly receives letters on how the character can be resurrected.

Stevens, meanwhile, continues to apologize for leaving the show, even though he has moved on to focus on his movie career.

A Majestic Setting

“Downton Abbey” is filmed on a real working British estate: Highclere Castle. Tourism to the castle and its sprawling grounds have skyrocketed as viewers clamor to catch filming or tread in the footsteps of their beloved characters.

Appreciating the simplicity and refinement of the times, those who can’t make the overseas trip stage their own “Downton Abbey” themed parties, decked in costumes and all. (Georgia Public Broadcasting hosts a gala to screen the first episode of the new season for costumed revelers every December.)

Viewers can also get a personal glimpse of the real clothing worn on the show by visiting traveling exhibits at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware and next year at the Biltmore House in Ashville, NC.


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CASTING A NET with George Pierre

Imagine having a job where you make people’s dreams come true.  That’s basically the role of casting directors. In part two of our casting series, we get perspective from casting director George Pierre.

“The main job of a good casting director is to find the best person, the right person for the role. As a casting director that’s your signature on any project,” Pierre explains. “You’re only as good as the last project that you cast.”  With a box office gross of more than $ 134 million for Ride Along, it looks like Pierre knows his stuff.  It was only fitting he was tapped to cast the sequel, Ride Along 2.

A lot of variables come into play when casting a part. Those variables could change depending on whether the project being cast is a TV show or a film. “With TV you want to make sure there’s great chemistry there because actors are going to be together for a while, as opposed to shooting a film which they’ll probably work a couple of days together.”

Pierre, who prefers to meet actors face-to-face, says there’s a lot of talent in Atlanta.  “When it comes to casting, the casting director has to remember people. When you get a script and you’re holding your auditions, you’re basically visualizing what this role should look like when those people come in they bring it to life.”

With so much competition out there, he shares advice for actors to make themselves stand out. “The way you stand out is all in your approach.  It’s all in the individuality.” He adds, “Your impression on the casting team needs to be memorable. If we can’t remember you, that’s probably not a good thing.”

Most importantly, he stresses actors must earn the part. This ensures that he and his team pick the right person.

Pierre offers some audition advice:

Actors should know all the casting directors in town

  1. Come to auditions prepared
  2. Don’t pull out your phone and start reading lines from it during auditions.
  3. Don’t stop the audition in the middle of the process and ask to start over.

His advice for an aspiring casting director:

  1. Intern.  Casting agencies are always looking for fresh people who want to learn the business.
  2. Watch a lot of different television and movies.  Think about how you’d cast that project.
  3. Do your homework.  Know the shows that are out there and the talent pool that’s out there.

“If I go to my assistant right now with a script and say give me five names, they should be able to do that automatically.”

Pierre casting is currently involved in: Ride Along 2, and No Good Deed. Past projects include: the first Ride Along, The Rickey SmileyTVShow (TV ONE), Teen Wolf (NBC).

Go to his website at or follow George on Facebook at pierrecasting.


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Entertainment News: Focused on the Reel

Disney-ABC Did That!

Four out of 10 – pretty good Disney – ABC! The Creative Development team announced the Disney – ABC DGA Directing Program directors! Of the 10 directors, four of them are women. Many studios like ABC are tailoring programs that give women opportunities behind the camera.

Top Row (L-R): Eli Gonda, Angela Gomes, Benjamin DeJesus, Tessa Blake
Top Row (L-R): Eli Gonda, Angela Gomes, Benjamin DeJesus, Tessa Blake

Bottom Row (L-R): Amin Matalqa, David Rodriguez, Paula Hunziker, Devon Gummersall, Xuan Jiang, Kevin Sweeney

We still have a ways to go!

Each year the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences sends out invitations and this year less than 30% were women. Only one woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood, was invited to join as a director. There is one category that is made up of all women…makeup artists and hairstylists.

The Academy’s CEO since 2011, Dawn Hudson, has made a point to diversify the membership. The invitation process happens annually to replace retiring and deceased members.

To see the full list and get more details, visit: Indiewire and The Hollywood Reporter.

Female Film Critics…where are you?

This article takes an interesting look at the lack of female film critics, the reasons why the numbers are low, and some grassroots efforts to change the perception of a women’s opinion about film.

One such effort is the Women’s Film Critic Circle (WFCC). The group has fewer than 100 members who are critics and scholars engaged in various forms of media.

The article notes: The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film released its annual Celluloid Ceiling report in January, showing that this is indeed the case – women were less likely to have a hand in writing, producing and directing films in 2014 than they were in 1998. Meanwhile, a demographics report published by the Motion Picture Association of America in March showed women bought 50 percent of movie tickets in 2013.

To get all the details, statistics and see charts, read Gone Girls:The Lost Art of Feminine Critique.


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CASTING A NET with Marinella-Hume Casting

It’s early Saturday morning and the church parking lot is filled with cars, and people rushing to get their spot in line.  They’re not there for worship service. It’s one of many open calls in Atlanta.

At the helm of today’s open call frenzy is Andrea Hume and her staff from Marinella-Hume Casting. Hume says her passion for the film industry got her into casting.  The job is filled with long days and having to please production companies while juggling the needs of actors, isn’t for the faint at heart. “It takes skill to successfully cast a movie or a show,” she said. “The production is trying to paint a picture and they give me the palette and I help to paint that picture.” She books for both featured and background roles (extras).  With extras, it’s all about at the look. “If we have a crowd scene, it’s my job to make sure the crowd looks real, and has diversity.” A diverse crowd has a little bit of everyone in it.

Hume says she looks forward to interacting with each and every person, and putting a face to the name. They love their talent pool in Atlanta. With teams also in Miami and Chicago, Hume feels Atlanta is a great market to find good talent. In addition, she says Atlanta offers the best of both worlds for productions and is as diverse as the people who live here.  “It’s a real plus to shoot somewhere that’s big city, and then 20 minutes away you can shoot out in the middle of nowhere in the country.”

The best part of her job is when she can make someone’s dream come true. “When people scream into the phone and say ‘Praise God’. They really wanted this and they got it. To be a part of that is really something special.” On the flip side, she says the challenge is the delicate balancing act she does trying to please both sides especially with constantly changing production needs. “You can’t book everyone for everything. I wish I could. Sometimes a scene gets dropped and it’s my job to call the actor. You almost feel like you’re wrecking somebody’s day.”

Her advice for aspiring actors is to be prepared. That picture is very important, because directors may ask to see pictures first.  “It is so important that these pictures are well lit.” Also, she encourages actors to read the casting notices and know what the requirements are for that particular casting call.

Among the projects Marinella-Hume has cast are Tyler Perry produced, “Love thy Neighbor”, “The Haves and Have Nots.” They have also cast for “Devious Maids,” “Drop Dead Divas,” and the upcoming “Ride Along 2”.  Hume credits her success with an amazing hard-working staff.

For more information about Marinella-Hume Casting, you can find them on Facebook.


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The 2014 Dubai Film Festival and The 2020 Expo

Dubai Film Fest Flyer

Dubai is drawing attention for its jaw-dropping architecture that is the envy of the modern world.  But this is not the only thing that is bringing attention to this region.  Dubai is also making waves in the world of film.  For those who are up-and-coming in the filmmaking industry, this nation has some phenomenal opportunities in store for you. For this blog, I am collaborating with – Alison Wilcox, Head of Communications for the Dubai Film Festival – to tell us more about this year’s film festival and the 2020 expo in Dubai.



Thank you for this wonderful experience.  Dubai is certainly on the world’s stage for so many reasons.  But what is drawing interest in film-making in Dubai?

Strategically located between the East and the West, Dubai is developing as a global production destination thanks to its world-class infrastructure, state-of-the-art facilities, diverse locations and rich pool of talent. The Emirate also offers a simplified filming approval process and incentives that reduce costs through arrangements with industry partners, fee rebates, and negotiations with service providers.Filmmakers are becoming increasingly aware that Dubai has the capabilities to support major productions, with blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Happy New Year having been filmed in the Emirate in recent years.



Being a woman myself, I must ask about the success of women in film in this region.

The visibility of Arab female directors on the world stage has grown over the past few years. The results speak for themselves: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now was the highest grossing Arab film ever, and Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s feature Wadjda was the Kingdom’s first entry for the foreign language Oscar and was also nominated for a BAFTA.

We have been observing a similar dynamic at DIFF. There were a total of 56 of films directed by women in DIFF’s 10th edition, which is over double the number of films by women that participated in 2012. DIFF’s annual Muhr awards, which honour Arab, Emirati and Asian and African filmmakers, have also witnessed a surge in female winners. In 2011, Habibi, directed by Susan Youssef, won Best Film in the Muhr Arab Feature category, whilst in 2012, Wadjda, which was supported by DIFF’s post-production programme, Enjaaz, scooped the Best Feature Film prize.


Tell me more about what to expect at this year’s film festival.

The 11th edition will roll out the red carpet to showcase the best of cinema from around the world, celebrate the richness of Arab cinema and further introduce audiences to fresh new talent and original, intelligent and distinctive filmmaking.


Tell me more about this 2020 Expo and why film professionals from around the world need to be at this expo.

Expo 2010, which transformed Shanghai into a global commercial center, is a great example of the impact the exposition can have on the host city. Similar to what the Expo has helped achieve in Shanghai, we are certain that Expo 2020 will act as a powerful catalyst for Dubai’s economic, social and cultural growth.

Expected to attract millions of visitors, the Expo will also play a crucial role in strengthening Dubai’s role as a worldwide tourism and trade hub and create international exposure for the Emirate.


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Reel Focus Comedy Showcase 2014 – Marshelle Woodland

In the previous showcase, I featured a top-notch comedy venue here in Atlanta, Georgia.  With this blog, I have decided to feature a homegrown comedienne who will tell us about what she has faced starting a career as a comedienne.  I have teamed up with Marshelle Woodland who is currently a promoter but began her career as a stand-up comic.  She is now collaborating with promoters nationwide to create one of the largest comedy festivals in the United States.  Marshelle is no stranger to difficulty but in spite of this, she manages to balance her budding career as a comedienne, a promoter and a mom.

Marshelle, this showcase is dear to me, not only because of your touching story but also because you are from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.  I really am touched by what you are trying to accomplish with developing the largest comedy festival in the United States.  Tell us more about your ambition.

Before doing what I do now, I was laid off from the United States Postal Service.  Even though I am still suffering mentally from my forced retirement from the United States Postal Service, this forced retirement is what led me to start as a comedienne and eventually progress my career into promoting shows. I had to learn the hard way how to promote shows – and, I’m still learning. Humor has definitely helped me get through this ordeal and help to heal others who are also suffering from mental illness.

After many years of doing competitions, doing market research, and hearing from other comedians about how they would run a competition/festival, I came up with some ways that I can do similar events. I am currently planning a Guinness World Records attempt. The plan is to form the largest comedy festival in the United States. The goal is to collaborate with 100 promoters across the USA. Each promoter is to find their own organization to give a portion of their proceeds to. I came up with this idea for the largest comedy festival some time ago and I tried to pull it off in 2010. I approached some of my closest friends in comedy to help me out. It wasn’t a financial success; however, it gave me the platform that I needed to get me where I am now.

Most people refer to me as an activist and I have been called a humanitarian. I support causes that fight against homelessness and mental illness. I feel strongly about these topics because I am homeless and I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. Because of my background and my experiences, I have decided to give back to these types of organizations once I have achieved my career goal.


This is a very sad thing to hear regarding your homelessness but your resilience in this struggle is very inspiring.  How do you manage to find humor in the midst of such hopelessness?

I meet so many people who are in my position or worse. I think about how much worse it could be for me and my family if I wasn’t educated. One thing about being a comedian, we can make a joke out of almost anything. As long as I can remember I’ve had the ability to make people laugh at their worst moments. I am that person that will get up at a funeral and make you smile and laugh at the memory of the one who has passed. I just thank God for blessing me with the ability to make people laugh, especially during trying times. My sense of humor and creativity is also inspiring me to develop a movie about my life. I’m constantly told by those who know me well that I should walk around with a camera recording my life for a reality show. I’m strongly considering this, too.


It is very hard for women to make it in certain aspects of entertainment and with WIFTA one of goals is to push for greater, positive representation and inclusion of women in entertainment, especially in those underrepresented areas.  As you know comedy is one of those underrepresented areas for us as women.  Tell us why it is important for more women to be involved in comedy and tell us about the obstacles you have faced as a woman trying to put this initiative together.

I fell in love with comedy by watching Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson on television. I was impressed with how Carol Burnett would talk to her audience after the show. Getting up in front of people to talk is hard enough; now, add telling jokes and that is a challenge within itself.

It’s extremely hard for women in comedy, especially if they have children. For myself, being a mother of 9 – that’s right I said 9 – I knew with the lack of family support I would never be the next well-known female comedian. Comedians have to travel a lot in order become well-known – at least that’s if you’re planning to make a career out of it. You have to spend many hours hitting stages in your own city first and countless other cities thereafter. Traveling outside of your own city to help your career in this industry is an absolute must. This means hours and hours of stage time in order to be considered for booking with pay.

I was criticized by my own family for just doing local shows because they wanted me to do more outside of my hometown. But I knew that since I had problems finding a babysitter just for local shows, traveling to other cities was definitely going to be out of the question. So, I knew from the very beginning that this challenge had to be accomplished another way. I moved from doing comedy shows exclusively to doing more promoting because I saw it as another way that I could put smiles on peoples’ faces. Just as with being a comedian, I knew this new role was also going to be challenging. However, the advantage that I have as a promoter is that I have the choice of who I want to book and the type of shows I want to put on. Besides this, I could make much more money as a promoter. Female comedians experience many problems getting stage time more often than males. The way I see it, as a promoter I can always put myself on stage.

Even with so many well-known female comedians today, most people will say their favorite comedian is a male comedian. Because I love comedy so much I don’t really have a favorite. I consider myself a prop comic. I like making creative props or using some type of item to enhance my jokes. I have been told by many comedians, that I’m not even considered a comedian anymore. This is because they don’t see me hitting the stage like I used to. That’s crazy thinking; once a comedian – always comedian.

Finally, I just want to end by saying that I think there are couple of reasons why every woman should take an opportunity to try out stand-up comedy. First, it will help them in their relationships. A woman with a sense of humor in a relationship goes a long way. Second, if you deal with kids or have children of your own it will help you to cope with that tough job.



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Reel Focus Comedy Showcase 2014 – The Punchline



Just how do you get your start on shows like Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Kimmel Live? Precisely – I don’t know either.  But I imagine that it may have something to do with starting out at a comedy club.

Being in the entertainment industry is hard enough, but you want to tell jokes; better still, you want to be a female who tells jokes.  Well, breaking in is no crystal staircase but rest assured that there is somewhere in the metro Atlanta area that can help you get your start on the yellow brick road to stardom.  The Punchline comedy club is one of Atlanta’s premier comedy clubs located in the heart of Sandy Springs, Georgia.  I am collaborating on this blog with the comedy club’s Managing Partner – James ‘Jamie’ Bendall – who will inform readers on how they can get their start in film and television by starting on stage right here in Georgia.


Is Punchline a good place to start for women who want to get into the entertainment industry?

I think the Punchline is as good a place as any for a woman who is interested in getting in to the entertainment industry.  Certainly from a stand-up perspective, Pam Stone started out as a server at the club and went on to become a sitcom star.  We’ve had women who started here move on to manage other comedy clubs or become tour managers for well-known concert acts.


What sets this comedy club apart from the competition here in Atlanta?

This is always a bit of tricky question.   From my perspective, we don’t have any competition here in Atlanta.  What I mean by that is there are other places that do comedy, but they offer a different product in a different kind of setting.  We are one of the few survivors who are still in their original location and are still considered to be one of the best comedy clubs in the country.  Look at our physical space.  We are only a comedy room.  We don’t have a holding room.  We aren’t inside another business.  The art, the performers, and the audience come first and only in our room.  The acts we book are the most diverse in terms of style, than any other room in town, and I’d put the acts that we book among the most successful touring comedy clubs.  In fact, last year we had one run where we had three female headliners in a row on back to back to back weekends – something I doubt took place at any other legitimate comedy club that is our size last year.


What are the requirements for getting into this club and performing?  Is being funny enough?

Being funny is always enough.  Beyond that it depends on what capacity the person is looking to get on stage.  If you are looking to be a host, then it’s important to be funny, but you’ve also got to understand what your other jobs are in terms of making sure the show runs well.  In that respect, funny plus a little business savvy is a good combination.  The closer you get to being a headliner, the more it’s important to be funny but also to really understand how your business works as a comedian and learn how to get people interested in buying tickets to see you.  We prefer to, and candidly have the luxury to be able to, book funny comedians every week.  First and foremost, I want our customers to be happy and entertained.  My personal sense of humor rarely enters the equation.  The thing that people forget is that careers move in cycles.  The acts that are hot now may cool, and someone who struggles to fill seats now can get hot in the future.  Carrying around personal grudges because of who plays where or who gets booked and who doesn’t is a completely wasted exercise in my view.


Are there classes or coaching sessions that can help develop skills at Punchline?

There is any number of classes that people can take to help them shorten the time it might take them to become a beginner comedian.  We’ve had Jeff Justice associated with the club for a long time now, and he’s probably the most well-known of comedy teachers in Atlanta.  Jeff teaches here at the club and I also speak on the topic of humor in general.  I think that comedy is one of those skills that you ultimately need to work on from the stage.  Getting up and doing it will help a person transition from what they learned in class to trying to put it in to practice.

Are there other comedians besides Pam that started here that are now doing television or film?

We are the only club in Atlanta that has had all of the who’s who of comedy on their stage.  Everyone from Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and David Chappelle, right on through Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams.  Modern superstars like Louis C.K., Bill Burr, and Amy Schumer also call the Punchline home. Even alternative legends like Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Bill Hicks, and Doug Stanhope have also headlined The Punchline.  Among the more notable comedians who were associated with The Punchline early in their careers are Jeff Foxworthy, Tim Wilson, J. Anthony Brown, and Reno Collier.  The Punchline has a history and a legacy that will never be matched in Atlanta.

Logo courtesy of Jamie Bendall



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Hometown Television – Georgia Public Broadcasting



Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) is Georgia’s “free” television. Most of us know of public broadcasting for our favorite childhood shows like Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Aside from these great classics, most of us find other great shows on this channel. One of my favorite shows that helps me to escape from reality all in the comfort of my own home is Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door. For those not familiar with this show, Steve tells a tale about various places in Europe and goes to mainstream places in Europe with small tour groups visiting small, not-so-commercial places in Europe. It allows for a much more intimate exploration of fantastic places in Europe. Aside from kids shows and travel shows, GPB also has many unique documentaries covering wars, social issues, and historical topics. They also have one of my favorite news shows – Frontline – which covers so many provocative news topics that you probably wouldn’t see on mainstream news stations.

I can go on and on about how much enthusiasm I have for this television station but I’m going to digress and allow someone from the station tell us more about it. For this blog, I have collaborated with Mandy Wilson, Communications Manager at GPB and Pamela Roberts, Executive Producer at GPB – to tell us more about how awesome this television station is.


MC: I enjoy GPB! It is the home of some of my childhood favorites, travel shows, food shows, and great documentaries. If it weren’t for this station, I wouldn’t know about some of the exciting things in history or current events that aren’t discussed on primetime TV. Enough about my enthusiasm for GPB – tell our readers why GPB is important to Atlanta.

MW: GPB’s mission is to educate, inform and entertain, and we carry out our mission by delivering thought-provoking, insightful programs like Frontline, Morning Edition, American Experience and All Things Considered. We also develop educational resources and original programs such as Georgia Outdoors, Georgia Traveler and 37 Weeks: Sherman on the March, while working with statewide and regional partners on multi-platform initiatives that enable us to enhance the relevance of our programming and better serve the needs of our communities.

In addition to our national footprint from PBS and NPR, GPB also brings a Georgia perspective to the world with the national airings of GPB Original documentaries like Augusta’s Master Plan and Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel, which swept the 2012 Southeast Regional EMMY® Awards with wins in five categories, including historical documentary.

GPB Original programs like Georgia Traveler and Georgia Outdoors capture our state’s people, heritage and natural beauty and also offer supplemental education materials correlated to Georgia Performance Standards. GPB highlights community life with weekly coverage of high school football games on television and on the web, along with coverage of the annual GHSA Football, Basketball and Cheerleading Championships.

The annual broadcast of over 3,000 hours of trusted, commercial-free PBS Kids programs such as Sesame Street, Super Why!, and Dinosaur Train assure parents and caregivers that GPB is a safe haven for children. And while this has been a cornerstone of content offered for our young learners, GPB also offers original content at that includes the games “Dinoventures” and “Salsa!.”

Additional educational multimedia content delivered though includes digital assets for use in the classroom, such as video clips, curriculum, writing prompts and lesson plans, all aligned to Georgia Performance Standards. Over 80,000 Georgia educators regularly use GPB assets.

How does GPB determine what is in the television lineup? Is educational programming the only types of shows that can be on this network?

GPB receives much of its programming from PBS, but it also has access to programming from American Public Television, the BBC, and others. GPB produces a significant amount of original series like “Georgia Outdoors,” and “Georgia Traveler,” as well as original documentaries. We also work from time to time with Georgia-based independent producers for content. What goes into the schedule and where is based on careful analysis of audience response ranging from Nielsen ratings, to phone calls, letters, and emails received, as well as public financial response during membership campaigns, and of course what – in GPB’s best judgment – is important for audiences across the state to have exposure to. And though there is certainly an educational component of some degree to most of what GPB broadcasts, it’s not all an educational mold, but represent a true alternative to what is available on commercial television.

 If I am not mistaken, this network has a lot of British programs that air. We have a sister organization of Women in Film and Television in London. Inform us and them of how you choose shows for your British segment of GPB.

Just to piggyback off of the last point I made about shows not all fitting the educational mold, we have the British segments which are comedies that air on Saturday nights. Decision making for the purchase of British shows is no different than that of American shows. It’s all based on quality production and content and also based on what viewers have responded well to in the past. Hence, we expect good response for these shows in the future.


Many of us have different interests in film and television. Tell our audiences how a career in public television could be something that could be worthwhile as an alternative to Hollywood.

Before I answer this question, Melisha, let me give you a little bit of my background in documentary making on GPB. One of my latest projects is “Dean Rusk: At the Heartbeat of History” about Georgian and former Secretary of State Dean Rusk. It premiered on GPB on May 27. Also, my GPB original documentary “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel,” was released in 2011 in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the book “Gone With the Wind” and won five Southeast Regional Emmys and was featured as an episode of the national PBS program “American Masters.”

Now to answer your question, I will begin by saying I am truly fortunate to have had a career as a documentary filmmaker in public broadcasting, but I didn’t set out to do that. After graduating from college I moved to L.A. to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California and worked on both student and feature films, doing everything from script writing to schlepping cables as a production assistant. I had begun the laborious process of working one’s way up in the film industry which would hopefully pay off in becoming a Hollywood writer or director one day. After a while, however, I realized that my interests lay in the real world around me rather than in the world of fiction. Working with film school friends on the side, I made little nonfiction pieces and showed them to people who encouraged me to change directions.

Finding public broadcasting was like coming home. I have been at GPB for 17 years and have never had a day when I didn’t learn something. I have never been bored. I feel deeply privileged to be part of PBS which has the highest standards in terms of content, production values and original programming. I have lived in the world of American Masters, NOVA, Frontline, and Masterpiece Theatre. I have produced programs for Georgia and for national PBS and I have met and worked with extraordinary people both in front of and behind the camera.

Perhaps I could have had a successful career in Hollywood, but I am so glad I chose public broadcasting. Documentary filmmaking gave me an excuse to enter worlds I would otherwise never see, to meet people with extraordinary ideas and experiences and to learn about the roots of our life today from the richness of our history. Thanks to public broadcasting, I remain continuously fascinated by the world around me.

Logo courtesy of Mandy Wilson.


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Close On – A Look at AMFAM’s Through a Black Lens Program

through a black lens

African Americans have always been a part of the Hollywood tapestry.  Since Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award win for her role in Gone with the Wind, African Americans have been an integral part of helping Hollywood’s make magic.  Many have recognized this fact and are doing something to support the growth and continuance of African Americans in film.  One such program that is doing this is American Family Insurance’s, Through a Black Lens Program.  I have collaborated with Aaron Richardson, Creative Development Administrator at AMFAM, to tell us more about this program.

I first found out about this program when I was on the subway in Atlanta.  I did a double take when I saw the billboard.  I thought – insurance and film – how does this go together?  It’s intrigued me so much that I had to showcase you in this blog.  So, I guess the very first question that I must ask is ‘how did this company – an insurance firm – get involved with a film initiative such as this?’


Great question, Melisha.  It’s simple really. Our company’s role as an insurance provider is to protect what’s important. As ambassadors of our company we make it very personal and we take “what’s important” to include the people we love, the homes we live in, the businesses we run.  And especially, the dreams we have.

Protecting dreams also means cultivating them. In sponsoring Through a Black Lens, we’re able to help cultivate a dream for the winner Tone Williams, and our partner, Morris Chestnut, who’s been dreaming of directing a film.

Tell our readers what this program is and what your objectives are with this program.

At the core, Through a Black Lens provides us a platform to connect with our community by way of a passion point for many people: film. People are always willing to discuss film. Big screen, small screen, or online, filmed content always stokes conversations at work, school, home – everywhere. We thought we could use our sponsorship as a way into those conversations with a chance for us to present ourselves in a positive light by giving our communities the vehicle to express their dreams.



There is a contest involved with this, correct?  Tell us more about this contest and who can be involved.

Yes. The contest was open to everyone willing to share their dream online. The contest winner, Tone Williams, was kind enough to share his dream online and then rallied people to like his entry enough times to get him into the finals. Out of the five finalists his entry was selected by a group of panelists, including our partner for the program, Morris Chestnut. Tone’s entry inspired a short film that is currently in production and will debut at the American Black Film Festival in New York City this June. Tone will be our guest in attendance when the film is debuted.

The contest was only part of the program though. Our primary purpose is to spark a conversation.  And with our industry experts we’ve partnered with over the last two years, there is a lot to talk about. This year we have Morris providing his point of view on how to pursue a dream successfully; his thoughts about the film industry; and his career. You can view this series of vignettes at



Is this a nationwide initiative and do you plan to do more concentrated efforts here in Atlanta, Georgia which is growing its film industry?

AR:  Because of its online nature it was national. We promoted it throughout our business footprint with the help of our agents. And we do love Atlanta. It served as the host city for our Stand Up For Family series hosted by Bill Bellamy and will no doubt factor into our future branded content plans.

Thanks for wanting to know more about Through a Black Lens. Keep an eye on us Melisha, we hope to intrigue you even more in the future.

Photo courtesy of AMFam’s Through a Black Lens


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Fade In Fade Out – Screenwriting School in Atlanta with Michael Lucker

Mike Lucker

It’s no secret that Georgia is getting into the game when it comes to film.  When I started learning about what’s going on in film in Georgia over a year ago, I found that we were ranked at number four in the list of states for film making.  This year, I found out that we inched our way up to number two, right behind Louisiana.  The South is doing big things in film and this is so exciting!  But how can we Georgians distinguish ourselves truly as a film making town?  I believe it begins by having the educational facilities here that improve the skills of local talent to be able to meet the demands of this growing market.  This summer, Reel Focus will be showcasing educational blogs that relate to various facets of film and film making.  We are kicking off the season with a local opportunity for screenwriters and I have joined forces with a very prominent leader in the screenwriting community in Georgia – Michael Lucker – to tell us more about this unique form of writing.  For those who don’t always know the name behind screenplays for a film, Michael Lucker has brought to us films like “Vampire in Brooklyn,” “Mulan II,” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.”


Mr.  Lucker, I first learned about you from the Atlanta Film Festival website.  You were listed as one of the mentors for the screenwriter’s portion of the festival.  Aside from your involvement with the Atlanta Film Festival, tell us more about yourself and what you do in metro Atlanta.

ML:  Well, first and foremost, I am a screenwriter.  After ten years in Hollywood writing for DreamWorks, Disney, Paramount, Fox, Universal and anyone else who’d pay for my groceries, I happily returned home to the tall trees and green grass of Atlanta.  Here I have found a tremendous appetite for learning the craft of screenwriting and feel fortunate to pass along to the growing film community the lessons passed on to me by some of the best minds in the business.  The folks at the Atlanta Film Festival have been terrific and kindly offered to have me be part of the festival and to host my weekend workshops.  Atlanta has also served as a great home for me to write, direct and produce a good bit of television.

In your opinion, how critical is the screenwriter to Hollywood?

ML:  Of course, there wouldn’t be anything without the screenwriter.  It all starts with the idea.  However, the ability to bring that concept to life in an engaging, emotional and marketable 120 pages that will appeal to millions is where the real work takes place.  Mastering that craft takes a very talented, disciplined and passionate lot.  Once a student of mine asked “Does the screenwriter write what everyone says?”  I said yes.  “And what everyone does?”  Yes.  “And the story and all the scenes?”  Yes and yes.  To which he asked … “Then what does the director do?”   Everyone laughed, but it’s true.  We provide the roadmap.

Almost everyone’s advice regarding stardom in Hollywood involves going to LA or New York.  Is this always the case for screenwriters or can screenwriters get a start wherever they are and build from there?

ML:  You can write from anywhere.  But once it’s written, it is indeed important to have your boots on the ground in Los Angeles and New York to hock your wares to the commercial producers, networks and studios.  Agents are looking for writers to represent that haven’t just written one script, but are interested in writing script after script.  This requires them to be available to meet on a fairly regular basis with the buyers.  This is especially true for new writers building a reputation and a career.  That said, the Indy market affords writers the opportunity to base elsewhere, but then they’re faced with the task of pounding the pavement locally to find producers or financiers themselves.  Either way, you need a solid pair of kicks.

Why did you decide to develop your business here instead of LA?    

ML:  I love Atlanta – enjoy living here.  And, I like waking up to Lynyrd Skynyrd on the radio.  And frankly, there are a lot of incredible screenwriting instructors in LA — most of which I’ve learned from.  There are not a lot of great screenwriting instructors in Atlanta.  However, there is a wealth of creative talent here.  I’ve always dreamed Atlanta could serve as a home for telling great stories in cinema.  And with the incredible boom of production here now, hopefully that will be a reality someday soon.  If I can somehow play a small role in helping southerners tell their stories, better, faster and share them with the world, I can sleep better at night, knowing perhaps I made a small difference and done a bit of what I was sent here to do.

Tell fellow screenwriters how they can get more training through your school.

ML:  Right now we’re offering a weekend workshop that offers all the nuts and bolts one needs to know to write a great screenplay.  Our next workshop is May 24-25.  I’m also available for private consultation should anyone be interested.  Hope to see you soon.


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