AFI Alum Deniese Davis Discusses Producing and the Inaugural AFI Alumni Council – American Film Institute

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AFI Alum Deniese Davis Discusses Producing and the Inaugural AFI Alumni Council

After graduating from the AFI Conservatory, Deniese Davis (AFI Class of 2012) launched her career producing music videos, short films and digital content, including Issa Rae’s award-winning web series THE MIS-ADVENTURES OF AWKWARD BLACK GIRL. In 2014, she teamed up with Rae to form ColorCreative, a management company which provides access and opportunities for diverse and emerging writers. She is currently a Co-Executive Producer on the Emmy®-nominated comedy series INSECURE and a Producer on the Emmy®-nominated A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW, which was recently renewed for a third season.

This year, Davis is embarking on her next chapter by creating her own production company, Reform Media Group. The move marks “a lifelong dream of [hers] to further help bring to life stories from all different cultures, but always with an emphasis on social and cultural relevance.” In addition to her stellar producing work, she also sits on the board of Black Public Media and is a founding member of AFI’s inaugural Alumni Council for the Lawrence Herbert Alumni Center.

AFI spoke with Davis about what she loves about producing, starting her own production company this year and what she hopes the new Alumni Council will accomplish for AFI alumni and Fellows.

AFI: Thank you so much for taking time to share your story with the AFI community. First, congratulations on all your success and recent Emmy® nominations for INSECURE and A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW. How did you first become interested in producing and what do you love about your work?

Davis: Thank you so much! I first became interested in producing my freshman year at CUNY Brooklyn College. I was a film major and had previously dabbled in video production in high school, so I had a general understanding of what being an editor or director looked like. When I finally came across a definition of a producer, I knew immediately that it was the path that I was most interested in. I just never had a clue of what the work consisted of before, but I think I loved the fact that it was a mix between creative, production and business. And that’s what I still love most about it. In many ways, I’m just an entrepreneur who focuses on storytelling as their business.

AFI: In February, you launched the production company Reform Media Group. What inspired you to form your own company, and what kinds of stories do you hope to bring to the screen?

Davis: Launching my own production company was always the goal coming out of AFI, but I knew that it would take some time as I needed to build up my experience and credibility as a producer in the real world. After eight years of working with Issa Rae and many others, I was inspired to finally take my own leap of faith after coming out of this pandemic. Life felt very vulnerable all of a sudden, and I didn’t want to wake up in 20 years and feel that I never took a shot at building something of my own.

I keep calling this chapter my “discovery of voice” as a producer. That has meant several conversations with myself about the types of stories I want to discover, champion and ultimately help execute. What I found is that I genuinely love all types of stories, so why not attempt to build a company that touches on a little bit of everything instead of going niche by focusing on one genre or audience. The only stipulation is that any project on the slate is committed to multiculturalism because as a Queer Black woman, it’s how I naturally see the world.

AFI: As a founding member of the AFI Alumni Council, what are you looking forward to most about the newly established group, and what impact do you hope the Council will have on the alumni community?

Davis: I am most looking forward to finding ways to continue to build our own community for AFI Alumni whether it’s via online connections or through in-person events. AFI is such a prestigious program where talent undoubtedly thrives from the relationships made you make in those two years, and once we all graduate, it’s rare for that to be ever replicated again. I hope that the impact of the Council will not only help strengthen these ties for recent graduates but also bring back older alums who have been missing that community, especially when they could use the support, advice or network for their own careers.

AFI: You are also involved in the Bridge to the Future initiative. For those who may not know, what are the goals of the initiative, and how will it help recently graduated Fellows? What are some ways the initiative plans on achieving those goals?

Davis: The #1 goal of the Bridge to the Future initiative is to help create more opportunities for graduating Fellows to get entry level jobs and find paid work that will help build their portfolios and credits respectively. The best way to do this is to lean into our AFI alumni community and build an infrastructure that, quite frankly, never existed before in a real way.

One way we are planning to achieve this goal is by getting to know more about each graduating Fellow’s ambitions and goals post AFI. For Bridge to the Future to be successful, it needs to be tailored to their wants and needs – not just what we think they should be doing. Everyone’s journey is not the same and we all start at different places when we come out of the program, so we want to make sure that our alumni network supporting the initiative is as far-reaching as possible so that all disciplines feel included.

AFI:  Mentorship, especially when starting out, is such an important element of having a successful career in any profession. What is the best piece of advice that you have received over the years from your mentors? What advice do you have for Fellows and recent graduates who are starting their journey?   

Davis: One of the best pieces of advice that I received many years ago was to always make sure that I speak up. I think this industry abuses power in the worst ways and no one coming up in their career wants to bruise an ego, so you tend to stay quiet even when you feel that you have something valuable to add. My mentor reminded me that these are just narcissistic rules that have been carried over from old Hollywood and you don’t have to play by them. I quickly realized she was right. There are no rules. We are all working together towards a collective vision of a project, so everyone’s opinion should matter and a safe space should always be allowed.

My advice for Fellows and recent graduates is to imagine your journey as a marathon. The first few work experiences that you will have coming out of AFI will be more meaningful and valuable than you think. Relationships will begin to bear fruit and opportunities will lead to more opportunities. You are about to lay the foundation for a life-long career and that takes time. Just remember to trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to take risks!

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