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Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Film & TV Producer Jamies P Axiotis of JPA Productions Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

Having travelled to and filmed in refugee camps, most recently to Jordan with my daughters Sophia and Georgia, I know first-hand the impact of war, famine and genocide. But I have also seen how my films have brought about awareness and support from a greater audience for the charities I help, and this is where my commitment lies.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing James P Axiotis.

James P Axiotis is a film and television producer with more than 30 years of experience in the industry and CEO at JPA Productions. A philanthropist with a focus on the empowerment of minority and disadvantaged individuals, his new film Georgia tells the story of his own birth mother who was forced to give him up for adoption at birth as part of a cruel scheme run by the Greek authorities in the 1960s.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

Hi, and yes, sure! I’m a self-taught film producer, having worked in the industry for more than 30 years. But my backstory may not be what you expect!

I was born in Athens, Greece, to a 19-year-old single mother who was then forced to put me up for adoption due to unknown circumstances. What I know about my birth mother comes from what my adopted mother, Sophia, had told me about her, but the specifics of my genealogy are still unknown in spite of my best efforts. At the moment, I do know for certain that by the time of adoption, I was one year old. In fact, I didn’t know that I was adopted until I was ten and did not learn the full truth about the situation until I was 18. Throughout this time, I developed an understanding of the world through storytelling which prevails through my efforts at the moment to make a short film addressing a story about my mother. I don’t have enough information to address her alone, so I have worked to incorporate similar stories (of which there are many, unfortunately) from the adoption scandals in Greece where mothers and their children were separated. And it wasn’t my own upbringing alone that drove me into film, although I certainly trace my roots in storytelling to my background.

Specifically, my passion for drama and film began at the age of 13 when my hometown’s little league football team was asked to be in an ABC Afternoon special TV show — Mighty Moose and the Quarterback Kid. I took a whole month off school, was on location, and I just knew that a film set was where I was supposed to be. I had never felt truly at home anywhere until I first stepped onto set.

When I was 18 I was a Greek-Folk dancer in the Jack Nicholson film The Postman Always Rings Twice. The cast and crew took me into their circle, and my mind was made up that film was the career for me. So, with no formal or further education I started work as a production assistant on television shows, before rising to the position of post-production supervisor at NBC. By age 23, I was one of the network’s youngest producers.

Having established myself in Hollywood, a stint in the MidWest followed, where I oversaw casting for Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County. I then returned to LA where I have been working for various channels, shows and charities ever since.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

In 1987, I was up-and-coming with my career and had been working on a pilot for a TV series at NBC surrounded by a lot of people who were about 50 or older. Between the hours and my own commitment to prove that I was at their level, I was very out of touch with the rest of the world. When I was driving with a friend, I saw someone dressed as a clown and a bunch of people in other costumes on the street and exclaimed to a friend that Los Angeles was going down the drain. I had a good laugh as soon as my friend told me that it was in fact Hallowe’en. I learned not to get so wrapped up in my work that I forgot what days it was!

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

In my career at NBC, I got to interact a lot with the president, Brandon Tartekof who was a very kind man. Clint Eastwood was also enjoyable to be around.

One theme I’ve learned about people like them is that they are very normal people who don’t want to be treated differently and do not indulge themselves with, and nor do they seek, praise. They give so much respect and kindness for your transparency with them and certainly don’t let fame go to their heads.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Understanding his history in totality and not glorifying him, Winston Churchill. I respect his ability to handle the pressure of leadership during the Second World War and have honed to people that are able to manage things under adversity. Roosevelt as well — I have his speech about “the man in the arena” on my office wall, which is encouraging because it endorses pushing through difficulties and doing the best you can with what you can. In many ways, being a producer, you have to function in that sort of capacity; being readily available and reliable for whatever comes your way.

Bob Iger at Disney, though more contemporary, is someone else I look up to. His transformation of Disney and what he contributed to that brand as a leader is inspiring.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

My work with the Children of War foundation is one of my proudest career achievements. But first let me give you a little background, and explanation as to how and why I can address and contribute to solutions on broader world issues.

I know how to create films in a way that inspires people and drives them to action. Many non-profits don’t know how to utilize storytelling through film, so if I see a way that I can use media to help their cause, I will offer my expertise free of charge.

One recent example is when I created a video for Med Geo — a healthcare start-up that will revolutionize healthcare, saving the current costs and making it more accessible around the globe. I spent $120k of my own money on the production as I believe the product can do a lot of good, and I knew that the video would help communicate its impact to healthcare professionals. I took it as an opportunity as a producer to bring an amazing project in front of people who needed to see it.

And now to the Children of War Foundation. I have traveled to regions spanning from Jordan to Navajo Nation to document their work so that they can promote it on their website, in the media, and on their social media platforms. Our next stop, sadly but inevitably, will be the Ukrainian border.

Having travelled to and filmed in refugee camps, most recently to Jordan with my daughters Sophia and Georgia, I know first-hand the impact of war, famine and genocide. But I have also seen how my films have brought about awareness and support from a greater audience for the charities I help, and this is where my commitment lies.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Because of what I went through, being disconnected from my birth mother, I knew that I would always be working towards amplifying her voice and the voice of other women. Knowing what she had deprived from her and realizing, at 18, the true story of my beginning led me to want to change it. While there wasn’t anything I could do to help her, I understood that I could spend my life ensuring that I would give my platform to other women. The fact that she and so many other women did not get any sort of help led me to want to make sure that, as long as I am here, I am going to be the kind of person who does listen and help where I can.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

My mother Georgia has been the inspiration for everything. Though I may not remember her, the impact her story has had on my life has driven me to this point. At just 19, illiterate and alone, she gave birth to a son who was then cruelly ripped away from her. Our story is one of the thousands, as a result of a heartless regime imposed by the Greek authorities on unwed mothers during the 1960s. Learning about my history has ingrained in me a determination to support children who are displaced through war or circumstance, and ensure they are offered a future regardless of background.

As a result, I am proud to be able to say that the impact of supporting specific causes is far-reaching.

This year, alongside the Children of War Foundation, I launched The Georgia Project — an initiative focusing on ensuring the safety, education, and freedom of young girls internationally. With many families worldwide facing economic difficulties, there are unfortunate circumstances where parents turn to arranged marriages for their young daughters, who as they get older become financial “burdens” to the family. This initiative will ensure that these girls have access to paying jobs instead so they can continue to grow and learn independently. We have already sponsored three girls whom I personally met while in Jordan, and we are looking to expand rapidly to support many more.

FixnFidos is another charity I work regularly with, but while their main area of impact is providing free spay and neuter clinics to underserved communities around LA, they adapted to the covid situation and the several requests they had by providing essential supplies for pets. My daughters and I went to deliver food to people who needed it, and we were so saddened when one woman told us that she had been having to decide between feeding herself and feeding her dog. She told us that there were several meals she skipped to make sure her dog ate. It was both heartbreaking and empowering — through FixnFidos, we were able to help a few of many families remedy their difficult situation.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

I believe filmmakers have a duty to report the real stories of war and displacement. If people saw the realities, and brutalities, of what is happening around the world, they would be more moved to act in support. Even the footage coming from Ukraine today — the honest, and impactful scenes are often coming from real people who document via social media, but you do still have the sanitized and sensationalized footage transmitted on news outlets in addition to social media.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Know who your friends are, who will align with your goals/and what you want to do. There will be people who have their own agendas, for example, a friend of mine from high school ended up recommending someone else for a job and excluding me out of nowhere — to this day, I don’t know what happened to cause this sort of rift. He knew I was after this job — as a producer — and I realized that I actually didn’t know where he was at with me.
  2. While working your way up, make personal contacts and get to know people. I used to take notes of people’s birthdays/ special events if they told me and kept it in mind. One of the women I did this for ended up recommending me for a promotion later on, and I was her only recommendation because she remembered me for what I did.
  3. Be ambitious and ask. Don’t be afraid of rejection and hearing no, because the ‘yeses’ come the more you reach out. When I first started my JPA Productions I heard a lot of no’s and it just took a few clients to get me started, and I had to reach out to them first. If I hadn’t started with something, I wouldn’t be anywhere now. When I was working with a production company, hired as a producer, for Mercy hospital in Iowa, I ended up going to their offices in the fall — when they had new ad campaigns — and asked if they’d consider my company, which was just me in my office at the time. They said yes, luckily, and it was my first big client.
  4. Be willing to pay it forward and help people. I remember that someone I hired when they didn’t have work, years later helped me get back into the business after a hiatus. He remembered that I had helped him get his break as a PA and helped me find work when I needed it in return. This business is built on connections, and the more you are kind to people, the better odds you have that someone will come back into your life and pay it back to you. But don’t be cynical about this — you can’t pay it forward while expecting something back — I certainly didn’t expect him to do anything about what I thought was a small favor.
  5. Know early on in your life your goals and passions, but keep in mind that it will take you time to find your way. If you know your ‘mission’, whether it’s promoting minorities or working towards diversifying the workplace, then whatever work you do will be more fulfilling and you will find ways to incorporate it into what you do. As a Greek American, I’ve found myself being able to change the paradigm of hiring so that I get to see the change I want in the world of production. It is fantastic to have a career and specific job you want to do, but if you have a concept of what you want to fight for, change, or help in the world, then you can go the extra mile in all the areas of your life. The fulfillment you feel from seeing those kinds of goals through is incredible.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Start anywhere and start small, following your passions. The first step is to recognize what from your background motivates you, and if you can’t think of or recognize anything that sits strongly with you, start volunteering and do community-based serving and you will find something that resonates with you. Once you find that one (or several) thing, it will just click, and you’ll be able to do incredible things with it. You can’t give up or be discouraged because even when you can’t see it, momentum will pick up and great things will happen. As long as you believe in something and it’s real, you can do a lot with it.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Someone who is behind something big and can bring resources, pick up storylines, and change the paradigm to get stories told that haven’t been. If I could partner with someone who could help provide sustainable change to the film industry and for that matter, shed a spotlight on key issues facing the world, I’d love that. For example, someone like Tim Cook — I’d love to partner with him to make films to broadcast stories showing narratives that haven’t been shown, reminding the world that no matter where you are from you are human, and we have unique and diverse experiences that add to the palate of life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Something my adopted mom said to me, Sophie. I wasn’t in a good place and was discouraged by how things weren’t panning out, and she told me about how she grew up poor in Wisconsin and they had their milk delivered. She said some bottles came in where cream was right on the top, while others took a while for the cream to come up. She told me to wait — that “cream always rises to the top ‘’ and I just had to be patient and trust that things would work out.

How can our readers follow you online?

Find me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/jamespaxiotis and I’m on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/james-p-axiotis/ and Twitter www.twitter.com/jpaproducer

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Specializing in acquiring, producing and distributing films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subjects

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