Few entertainment professionals will reach the pinnacle of their careers, but film attorney, Michele Clark-Jenkins, has. Having represented television networks like HBO and iconic figures like the estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Michele’s resume reads like a Who’s Who in American culture. Here, we learn her story.
Can you please tell us where you’re from and what’s it like reaching the top of your profession as a film attorney?
I’m from Pennington, New Jersey. I’ll just start by saying that I met God, for real, at the pinnacle of my career. There was a dividing line in my life; on one side of that line was the world’s view, and to them I was a huge success. By the time I was 35, I was President of a Los Angeles based television and motion picture company called, United Image Entertainment, which was jointly owned by BET and Bob Johnson (Founder of BET). I was moving into a house that was right off the ocean and I didn’t have to balance my checkbook. I put the company where I wanted to put it. I fell in love and got married and everyone around me thought that my life was good.
Ideally, my life was what most people desire. The only tragic moment in my life was when I was 16 years old and my mother died. I have always had loving parents and siblings (5 brothers and sisters), and I grew up in church but didn’t get saved until I was 28. My father would say that he never met anyone who seemed to get whatever they tried for, except me. It wasn’t that everything I asked for I got, but everything I worked for I got.
I always had good examples and I grew up in a primarily caucasian community. My oldest sister was the first black cheerleader at our school, and I was the second. I was President of everything. I went on a humbug to be a foreign exchange student and they picked me. I got accepted into every college I applied for. I’m not going to say I didn’t work but I can say that I didn’t have to work hard because it just came to me.
So what was the other side of that divide in your life?
On the other side was my spiritual life. I remember asking God, “Is this all there is?” About that same time
I said to Him, “Use me, I’ve got to have a purpose.” Prior to getting married, none of my life had any meaning to me because there was no eternal purpose in there. But after I asked Him to use me, it literally felt like someone took a plane off of autopilot and my life took a hard nose dive.
God showed me that my life had been like a house of cards, similar to those movie sets. It had this nice façade in the front, but behind it there was nothing there. So when the house of cards blew up, what God was doing was taking me down to the basics and then rebuilding everything with purpose.
So, how did you even end up in the entertainment business?
After graduating from Princeton, I decided to go to New York to sing and my father was like I paid for 4 years of college and you want to sing. When I got to New York I was met a producer who worked for Time, Inc. and he suggested that I apply for a secretarial position there. When I got to Time, the guy was like, “Why are you applying for a secretarial position? You should apply for our training position.” I had actually known about Time, Inc.’s training position but when they came to campus they had already filled up their interview slots so I didn’t even think to apply. They had 5,000 applicants for 3 positions at the training and I got one of the positions.
“…my life had been like a house of cards, similar to those movie sets. It had this nice façade in the front, but behind it there was nothing there.”
Wow! There are people out there who struggle to get opportunities like that. So how did you end up at HBO?
I didn’t understand that this kind of thing didn’t happen to everyone. So to me I was just rolling and it wasn’t that I thought highly of myself I would just sign up for everything and give it a try. The training position allowed you to go to any division within Time Warner for a year and half. It had to be in management and you had to understand what you were doing and be a part of the process; and you had to land a job at the end of that year and a half period.
My first position was at Time Sports Illustrated in the circulation department. They actually offered me a position at the end. Once I knew I had a position, I decided to spend some time roaming around the company. My next position was at HBO. At the time, HBO was still in the red, but I came in and took the position of Production Assistant. I was met with a lot of resistance from people who just did not want to hire me. So senior management executives in Time, Inc. gotinvolved and said we’ve got a place for you, and I wound up getting a job that nobody wanted me to have. I started as a Production Assistant, moved up to Production Coordinator, and then became a Writer/Producer. At the same time I went to Law School in the evenings and talked HBO into paying for it. [laughs]
So, here I am, during the day using one side of my brain to do writing for HBO, and at night I’m going to law school and using the other side of my brain to do legal writing; which I hated, by the way. Half way through I was already talking to the legal department and business affairs at HBO. The legal department wouldn’t take me because I didn’t have 2 years experience with a law firm, but business affairs hired me because they needed someone to do contract coordination. At the time, they were just signing contracts and sticking them in the drawer. Nobody looked at them and coordinated them, so I took that job, which is how I started in the Business Affairs department at HBO.
You were making some serious powerplays in your career. What exactly did your job in contract coordinations entail at HBO?
Well, Cinamax had just launched and nobody wanted to do their contracts, especially all the new technology contracts; this was when satellite was an experiment and people were asking us for contracts. So I would up handling all of those kinds of contracts. I got satellite experience and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. People would run buses from New York to Atlantic City and they wanted to show movies on the buses so I had to structure those deals.
So when the first home video deal came up my boss had me do the deal with RCA home video, who were the groundbreakers in home video. I said, “I don’t know how to do that,” and he said, “Neither does anybody else.” So for most of my career at HBO I had 12 different positions, none of which existed at HBO before I did it. The beauty of it all was the fact that everything I did there had never been done before. I even got to do union deals that no one had ever done.
At one point they would say that I had great potential, but turn around and purposely overlooked me for a promotion on a job I was already doing. So a boss of mine who loved me went over to Showtime and they knew he was going to offer me a job there, so HBO said, “We did overlook you for a promotion,” and they doubled my salary almost. So when my old boss offered me a job and I told him what I was making, he said Showtime couldn’t afford to take me on at that rate.
Finally, HBO allowed me to define what I had been doing, so I said told them I want to do sports because I loved boxing. That’s when I took over the boxing deal, the Wimbledon deal, and the ice skating deal; this included the Mike Tyson and Don King deal. I also took over the music publishing deal. I actually became the expert witness in the BMI lawsuit against HBO; a case we won. So, that was my job at HBO.
So how did the BET thing come about?
Bob Johnson came to me out of the blue. I knew Bob because he was the chairman of BET and there weren’t very many black people in the cable business. He came in town one time and wanted to have dinner with me to discuss business. So, I went to dinner with him and he said, “I want to step down as the President of BET and I want you to step in as the new President.” From there, we spent two months negotiating and over that period of time the terms began changing.
[End of Part 1 of this 2 Part feature.]