Jarnell Stokes of Stoked Film Group On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Entertainment Industry

--

The importance of distribution, which is the #1 resource when it comes to getting your film or series produced. Many creators focus on writing and how they want their film to look, I switched that focus to bringing value to the marketplace first, then creating the film you want. In a sense, we came up with the strategy to give the market what it wants and now, then began working on content that is a bit closer to our hearts. Once you’re established, you have more creative freedom.

As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jarnell Stokes.

Born and raised in Memphis, two-time Olympic Gold medalist and former NBA player Jarnell Stokes is an athlete, filmmaker, actor, author, entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist, who looks to entertain, elevate and inspire in all his endeavors. After a short hiatus with the Chinese Basketball Association’s Xinjiang Flying Tigers, Stokes is currently training to rejoin the NBA next season. Off the court, Stokes is the founder of Stoked Film Group, launched in October 2021, with a busy slate of feature film and television projects currently in production. Working with Vassal Benford, Stokes is also a partner in The Benford Company, a full-service, multi-media entertainment company for music and film, parent company of Pac Sports Entertainment and TBC Group Corporate management. TBC provides 4D technologies, concert event production services — including some of the biggest shows in Las Vegas — and estate and sports management. As an entrepreneur Stokes was an early investor in high-profile tech and in real estate. As a philanthropist and activist, Stokes has taken a stand to raise awareness about important political and environmental issues of the day.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in the ’90s in Memphis, which a lot of people compare to Harlem in the ’20s. We speak in an entirely different language than the rest of the world. It was a hotbed of talent in music, food (particularly BBQ), sports and Black activism. I grew up in White Haven — which they now call Black Haven — near where rapper Young Dolph was shot and killed. There were 15 shootings in two or three days. At White Haven High School, I wanted to be in the band … ’til you learn, wow, you don’t get paid. I’m proud to have been part of a movement for up-and-coming basketball stars and became a top-10 ranked player nationally. Basketball’s popularity was revitalized in Memphis and football took a backseat. Although I could have attended any college in the nation, I played for the University of Tennessee and was later drafted 35th overall in the NBA by The Memphis Grizzlies. I love Memphis and Tennessee so much.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

In 2018, while I was playing for the Denver Nuggets, I broke my foot and they cut me immediately. For the first time in my life, I was unemployed and couldn’t go to a gym the next morning. That same week, I also broke up with my girlfriend and my parents got divorced. I didn’t know what to do and had a self-identity crisis. I began reading, writing and meditating and got into nature. I was surprised to find happiness in small, simple things, more than I had ever experienced in my entire life. A lot of my NBA buddies are curious about how I became an entrepreneur and filmmaker. I have to credit a lot of my success to that injury and taking the time to get to know myself. I also invested into cryptocurrency, which was a huge blessing. I made more money than I did in the NBA, which allowed me the freedom to become an entrepreneur.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

So many things have taken place, but I am particularly proud of using my platform to be an activist and to effect change in Black communities, particularly in Memphis. I work with the Hip Hop Caucus, which shines a spotlight on such key political issues as climate change, civil/human rights and turning out the vote, as well as raising disaster relief funds. I’ve been a board member for the Environmental Media Association, which promotes environmental action and innovation through storytelling.

I am most proud of my accomplishments with Memphis Community Against Pollution, which works to erase local environmental racism, classism and injustice. In 2021, we were able to halt construction of the $1 billion Byhalia Connection Pipeline, which was planned to cut across predominantly Black neighborhoods in South Memphis.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I learned that writing the script for a television series with pen and paper versus on a computer utilizing the technology that screenwriters have today wasn’t a good choice. Although I eventually learned the ropes and that series, Break the Cycle, has been picked up. I made it a lot harder for myself and won’t make that mistake again. The bigger lesson was to research the proper tools and protocols before diving in.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I have a sports-themed children’s book, Wings to Fly (Mascot Books) coming out in October, with the important themes of sharing, cooperation, teamwork and never being afraid to take chances to succeed in any endeavor. It’s also being adapted by my company Stoked Film Group into an animated feature film with Film Roman legend Jay Fukuto (Simpsons, King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-Head, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Family Ties, Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Kim Possible), with whom I am co-writing the script.

Currently, The Benford Company is in pre-production on another project near and dear to my heart, Memphis on the Mountain Top, a docuseries showcasing the intersection of iconic civil rights leaders, sports icons and music artists during the city’s struggle in the late ’60s as the epicenter of the social justice movement. I’m working in partnership with 10-time Emmy-winning producer/director Daniel H. Forer, and my partner, music and film producer Vassal Benford.

I’m also excited about my entrepreneurial investments in lifestyle and wellness, cryptocurrency and real estate investments with the Landspire Group. Stoked Superfoods is a high-quality CBD company that looks to help achieve awareness, battle pain and grow spiritual connection. I was an early investor of ChargeFUZE; Bolt; Sundae; Trypto Technologies and Baby Food Diet, the only American diet products and related book marketed in China over the past two years.

You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Focus on the next step, do not think about the end goal — and be a collaborator with other creators. Quantity meets quality in many scenarios in Hollywood because you never know how one project will turn out. If you put too much energy into getting one done, you may never learn exactly what you could have accomplished by collaborating with other talent. I took a different approach and made it all about bringing value to other producers. I didn’t start a business for accolades, it was 100% about aligning myself with what they were doing and not be one of those creatives who only pitched their own projects. When I pitch my projects, I tell them about my partnerships and ask how I can help them. It’s the law of attraction … give to receive. It’s simple but that’s what collaboration is all about.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

As a Black man, the older I get, the more I realize that growing up in the ’90s, I was influenced by a lot of important African-American figures in entertainment like Monique, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Wesley Snypes and Brandy. They pretty much raised me alongside my parents. That’s something that’s not recognized enough, how TV shows, films and music help shape the next generation.

In the history of Hollywood, there were a lot of other ethnicities writing for our Black voice. It’s almost impossible to embody the experience of being African-American without having those roots and knowing how it feels to look in a mirror and see yourself … a person of color in a world that is predominantly White. There were historical happenings in Hollywood that promoted racism like Black Face and Jim Crow. Even as late as the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of TV shows were written by White writers and promoted Black stereotypes which was a form of Black exploitation. Even today, there are a minimum number of roles for Black actors. I’ve had to turn down numerous roles because they were too stereotypical. Although all that said, I have never felt that being black has been an impediment to me among my peers.

I think diversity in entertainment, across all ethnicities, shares the American experience from all perspectives and helps us to understand one another and ultimately is good for every culture. It’s important for kids to see people who look like them who are achievers.

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

In sports, what I wish I had learned was innovation and change. I grew up in an era that was about being physically tough and playing hard. Shooting and analytics took over the game of basketball more quickly than anyone expected. Being a shooter just wasn’t as popular. That was the direction I should have taken, working on dribbling and being nimble, perimeter skills and taking more shots. That would have helped my game. I remember watching Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors destroy the Grizzlies. We could not match their shooting/perimeter skills. Curry’s ball-handling and skills could not be matched. Hundreds of big men lost NBA positions due to the game of analytics.

As a celebrity coming from the sports industry, I figured it would be much easier to become a producer in entertainment and that doors would open. But there is protocol and a lot of hard work. I took acting lessons, learned techniques and made reels. I auditioned for about 30 roles and I only got three.

Another thing I wished I learned earlier is that it takes five times as much effort to produce a TV series than a film. I wrote three television shows before tackling feature film. But that said, I was able to build businesses and land deals for my company while working on TV series.

Also, the importance of distribution, which is the #1 resource when it comes to getting your film or series produced. Many creators focus on writing and how they want their film to look, I switched that focus to bringing value to the marketplace first, then creating the film you want. In a sense, we came up with the strategy to give the market what it wants and now, then began working on content that is a bit closer to our hearts. Once you’re established, you have more creative freedom.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Stay open-minded and versatile to the possibility of being talented in other ways. I came into this industry as a writer and an actor. But somehow, along the way, I met numerous producers and formed a company that propelled my career in a way that many first-year Hollywood creatives aren’t able to do.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It would be for more celebrities, rappers, athletes to align themselves with what underserved communities want and need. The only way to really learn that ideology and to identify with the landscape of America is to attend protests and to listen to debates to hear and consider different perspectives.

That’s what I want to portray in my creative endeavors, both sides of the spectrum. Today, it seems that the rich and the powerful are the only ones who are dominating the conversation. At protests, most of the people are White. The poor are God’s people and that goes for any ethnicity. Unification, wisdom and pain are expressed in different ways. You have to be there to understand.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mentor and now partner Vasal Benford has been extremely educational and open-minded to the projects and ideals that I bring to the table. He’s a freaking mogul in Hollywood generating more than $400 million for companies like Warner Bros., Universal, Sony and BMG. Having his versatile creative input on the things I do in Hollywood has truly helped me develop intuition and has propelled my success in various endeavors.

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

Denzel Washington said, “You will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. You can’t take money or your stuff with you when you die. The Egyptians tried. That helped me understand what life is all about, which is about influencing others. I could have stayed with the NBA and never come to Hollywood, but I realized that most basketball players don’t have an influence or voice in the community.

Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would like to meet up with Kendrick Lamar, whose heart and compassion are unmatched. His music brings wisdom and is on an entirely different energy plane. I want my TV shows and movies to embody that same passion. I would love to know how he stands up as a light in the darkness and shares happiness.

How can our readers follow you online?

www.JarnellStokes.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

--

--

Edward Sylvan CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group
Authority Magazine

Edward Sylvan is the Founder and CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc. He is committed to telling stories that speak to equity, diversity, and inclusion.