Bishop TD Jakes Marks 20 Years of Heavenly Content

T.D. Jakes is a man with friends in high places. So high, in fact, that President Obama told Variety, “I am fortunate to count myself among the countless Americans whose lives have been touched by the ministry of Bishop T.D. Jakes.” The president said Jakes has made us “better as individuals” and “more compassionate, and more loving as a country.”

It is those kind of key relationships with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Will Smith and Kerry Washington that have turned this preacher from Dallas into a $400 million media juggernaut. When he isn’t wearing his “bishop” hat, Jakes makes time to serve in a completely separate capacity as CEO of TDJ Enterprises, a for-profit company in its 20th year. “Our company has actually existed longer than the Potter’s House (his church),” Jakes says. “Before I was nationally known, I was leading an enterprise.”

During its two decades TDJ has quietly succeeded in publishing, music and film. Jakes is the bestselling author of 40 books, has created nearly 20 albums under his Dexterity Sounds label — even winning a Grammy — and has eight film credits, with the ninth movie due out in March.

Like the parables he references on Sundays, Jakes’ focus on entertainment flows out of a passion for storytelling. A playwright, Jakes got started by touring his Gospel plays around the country. During that era, he met Perry and proposed they work together on a new play. “I was so honored, because the man is a legend where I come from,” Perry says.

“What makes Bishop Jakes special is that no matter your station in life, he’s there to speak with you, to pray with you, and to see you as an equal in the eyes of God.”
President Obama

The pair co-wrote “Woman Thou Art Loosed.” Shortly thereafter, Jakes met producer Reuben Cannon. “After seeing a performance of the play at the Wilshire (Ebell) in Los Angeles, Reuben said he thought it could be a film,” Jakes remembers fondly. “That served as our bridge.”

That bridge project started as a direct-to-DVD title. But then, it won the American Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the 2004 Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, and they decided to take a run at the box office. Magnolia Pictures picked up the title — grossing nearly $7 million in a 521-screen limited release — and Jakes was off to the races.

Like so many producers, he experienced ups and downs as TDJ Enterprises dove into subsequent projects. “My films grew with my relationships and understanding of the business.” But they were determined to succeed, approaching challenges with a signature scrappy innovation. “We had to work twice as hard with half as much to creatively compete,” he says.

Not every project is successful, though. The 2013 musical film “Black Nativity” boasted high-powered talent like Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige. It was made on a $17.5 million production budget yet pulled in only $7.3 million worldwide. “Naturally, it’s disappointing when things don’t go as envisioned,” Jakes says, “however my mother used to say, the world is your university, every day that you wake up is the chance to get an education. I make sure that I learn the valuable lesson hidden in each experience and apply it to the next project. I don’t let it get me down. I see each set back is a set up for a comeback.”

Producer DeVon Franklin, who has worked with Jakes on five projects, says, “He’s an out-of-the box thinker and he likes to win. He’s very competitive. Blend that all together and you get his recipe for success.”

TJ Jakes Film and TV Production Chart
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To wit, they hosted screenings for beauticians and barbers, placing movie posters in their shops, to get the word out in the community. TDJ works with sororities, fraternities and churches, developing partnerships to generate awareness, even applying innovation to attract talent.

TDJ films featured such stars as Angela Bassett, Greg Kinnear, Kevin Hart, Julie Bowen, Morris Chestnut and even Whitney Houston in her final performance. “We learned to cast and access people we couldn’t normally afford by building relationships,” Jakes says.

Shawn Robbins, senior analyst with BoxOffice.com, sees this as pivotal. “The fact that he’s able to frequently cast such talent, who are often used to receiving bigger salaries on other projects, speaks to Jakes’ personal and spiritual appeal being just as — or more — important than his business savvy,” Robbins says.
Jakes has also engaged the Hollywood establishment by enjoying a 10-year relationship with Sony Pictures. CEO Michael Lynton became acquainted with Jakes’ potential during Lynton’s stint in publishing, and it is a belief that has paid off.

“Most of Jakes’ films,” said analyst Robbins, “have historically performed in what’s considered a ‘low-tier’ box office range, but hidden in those modest numbers is the fact that he makes films on very low budgets. You don’t have to make $100 million at the box office to be considered profitable or successful.”

Low budget by no means signals low quality. In fact, making high quality faith films has been a signature of Jakes, contributing to the recent explosion of the genre. Sony Motion Picture president Doug Belgrad told Variety that the TDJ vision to “demand the same focus on quality and storytelling for faith-based films that we bring to general-audience fare” has has a big impact. “His ability to attract quality directors and movie stars to tell the stories that come out of his faith has been an essential part of making our studio the leader in films for this audience.”

Derrick Williams, who runs the entertainment divison of TDJ Enterprises as exec VP of entertainment, agrees that the relationship has paid dividends, “Sony is one of the few studios that has really paid attention to the power of the faith-based audience and learned to respect and understand this particular demo.”
Over the years, TDJ worked with seven films driven by largely African-American casts — notables like “Not Easily Broken,” “Sparkle” and the hit romantic comedy “Jumping the Broom” that was made for $6.6 million and grossed $37.3 million. “Each film we have released has gratefully had success in various forms and fashions,” Williams says.

For his eighth project, Jakes joined producer Joe Roth to work on a different kind of project, the 2014 blockbuster “Heaven Is for Real,” which grossed over $100 million worldwide. In initially putting the deal together, pastor Todd Burpo — whose book served as the source material — felt comfortable that his story would be translated to film with integrity when he learned Jakes was on board. “He makes people feel safe and legitimate when he puts his stamp on a project,” Roth says.

In the promotion phase, his partners marveled at the TDJ marketing machine, “He really got out there and maximized and activated his audience,” remembers Franklin. “That was a big part of the success of that film.”

Roth agrees, “He’s a force of nature, he’s respected throughout the country, and when he endorses something that we are doing, it carries a lot of significance for a lot of people.”

The sequel, “Miracles From Heaven,” starring Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah, may actually outdo its predecessor. The recently released trailer, which went viral on Facebook, offers an early indicator. Racking up 70 million views in just a week, it stands as one of the most viewed in Sony studio history. Jakes, Roth and Franklin all believe something special is afoot. “I have the same feeling about ‘Miracles From Heaven’ that I did at Disney when we did ‘The Sixth Sense,’ ” Joe Roth recalls. “There’s something about it that feels awfully right.”

“Recent hit films like ‘War Room’ are showing that non-traditional methods to reach an audience that Hollywood has traditionally underserved are very effective. I think it will be successful both in purpose and profitability,” says Jakes.

With all this momentum, Jakes heartily laughs off the suggestion that he is on a path to be the next Winfrey. But the comparison is hardly a stretch. TDJ is based on a similar model, one in which a magnetic personality is able to attract the attention of many millions. And, as his growing company continues to build on an already diverse portfolio of interests, one wonders how vast the TDJ media empire can become.

Case in point, TDJ is working with Tegna on a Jakes-led daytime talk show, which is expected to launch next year. After frequent appearances on “Dr. Phil” and “Oprah,” and an attempt at a BET show in 2013 called “Mind, Body and Soul,” Jakes is determined to be as successful in TV as he has been elsewhere. The new show, which recently tested in limited markets, is moving forward.

“We were pleased with the overall results from this summer and continue to explore ways to bring his show to TV,” says Bob Sullivan, senior VP of Programming at Tegna Media. But when asked about his vision for the future, Jakes doesn’t talk about empire, but about growth — as a person, in entertainment, and as a company.

“He’s a man that has used every experience in his life to not only make himself better, but also everyone that hears him around the world,” Perry says. “You can’t help but be successful when your aim is for the betterment of others.”

Fascinated by the disruptive effect of technology, he eagerly continues to support his company’s efforts to remain relevant by considering new ideas and unorthodox concepts, not taking what he calls “traditional models” for granted, but remaining open to the fresh and non-traditional. Williams is bullish on that point, “From the early beginnings until today, TDJ Enterprises has always been doing things creatively and in a groundbreaking way.”

What the next 20 years of TDJ Enterprises looks like is an interesting thought to consider. “He continues to find ways to make an impact,” says DeVon Franklin. “What that means and where that will go, you can only anticipate it will grow.”

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