Stephanie Jeter, filmmaker and co-founder of OTV Studio, joins the 2020 edition of Reel Chicago Black List, an annual celebration of African-American creativity published during Black History Month.
The Reel Chicago Black List includes ‘The Chi’ cast member LaDonna Tittle, house music pioneer Vince Lawrence, and filmmaker Rhyan LaMarr. To view the archives, click here.
Stephanie Jeter is an award-winning filmmaker from Chicago, Illinois. She spent more than ten years working in production management on various network TV shows, blockbuster feature films, and commercials. She has worked with companies such as HBO, Showtime, Fox Television Studios, and BET.
In recent years, Stephanie has made a return to her creative roots as a writer and director. Her award-winning 2018 film Searching for Isabelle has screened at the American Black Film Festival, Bluestocking Film Series, and the Montreal International Black Film Festival, and can be viewed on Amazon Prime, Xfinity Streampix and various streaming channels through Gravitas Ventures.
Her latest film, Viktory, hits festivals in 2020.
In 2014, Stephanie joined Aymar Jean Christian and Elijah McKinnon in the launch of OTV | Open Television, where she served as the Head of Production for four years before co-founding OTV Studio. In 2019, she joined the Advisory Board of Sisters in Cinema, lead a TV development initiative with Pop Culture Collaborative, and joined the Independent Film Alliance’s first creative cabinet.
SEARCHING FOR ISABELLE
Meet Stephanie Jeter
What are you working on right now?
I wrapped principal photography for the pilot episode of my sci-fi series HIVE in January. The episode, titled Trace, is about four artists locked away at a residency under the close surveillance of an AI program. It was a fun episode to direct! My second film, Viktory, hits festivals this year. It’s a heart- warming tale about a little girl who is holding tight to her dreams in the wake of her mother’s death. I’m currently writing a feature-length film examining the alternate reality of a destroyed Chicago neighborhood, and a television series centering a black woman detective from the south side of Chicago. Alongside my creative work, I freelance as a short-form content producer, and I’m also starting a television studio.
What did you originally want to be when you grow up?
I was raised by a multi-disciplinary artist. In her youth, my mother was an actor and a theater instructor, she even joined a (very short-lived) girl band in the 60s. Today, she maintains an artistic practice around visual arts, mainly acrylic painting. So artistry is in my blood! As a young child I wanted to be a dancer, a singer, and an actress – yes, all three! I started writing at an early age as well. The first time I worked on set as an extra, around the age of 10, I decided that filmmaking was most fascinating and I haven’t looked back.
How did you get into film and the intersectional television industry?
I attended film school (I’m a graduate of DePaul University). After college, I began working as a production assistant, primarily in the production office because I aspired to be a creative producer at one point. The office is a great place to learn the anatomy of a production. I worked as a production coordinator on feature films and television series in Chicago, and then pivoted to short-form content producing to make room for my artistic practice.
In 2014, my friend Dr. Aymar Jean Christian presented me with an idea of starting a platform for intersectional television called Open TV (beta) (now OTV | Open Television), and asked that I join as Head of Production. I was immediately on board as the platform gave me an opportunity to help other marginalized artists get a footing in a tough industry. We’ve always been artist-centered and community driven and I think that’s the key to leveraging the platform for systemic change.
Who were your mentors?
Certainly along the way some of my friends and colleagues have been instrumental in my professional development, but I’ve never had a constant mentor, especially not for my artistic practice. I’m still open to one! I think this is one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about my artist development practice. It helps me to be the mentor, the sounding board, and the resource I wish I had as a burgeoning professional. Many people just don’t know where to start, or they don’t see a template of themselves in someone else.
What is your greatest achievement?
My first professional film, Searching for Isabelle. It was a tough one to make! There were many obstacles along the way (especially with funding). Being met with constant failure can be revelatory. You confront and reorient yourself a lot. And, on the other end of it, when you push through because you believe in the project and your vision, it’s really the most rewarding feeling. Once you’ve laid that foundation of believing in yourself, you’re unstoppable. The film had a great festival tour and landed on Amazon Prime and Xfinity Streampix, alongside a few international streaming networks. I had a lot of help to get there and I’m eternally grateful for everyone who took a chance on a somewhat weird film.
What is your greatest disappointment?
I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t experienced professional disappointment. But I think what’s kept me centered is understanding myself, being kind to myself, and understanding that not everything is right for me. When something is right for you, it feels easy, even if it requires lots of work.
What are your predictions for online TV networks over the next decade?
They will become much more prevalent. There are already so many! I’m always amazed when I get notification that my film has been delivered to another streaming network. It’s very rewarding for independent filmmakers to have access to wide distribution with relative ease and at a low cost. I think we’ll start to see more consolidation and conglomeration as well, for better or worse. Ultimately, and this is the good news, content will become much more intersectional because consumers demand it.
Name a job you had that would surprise people.
During the summer before I headed off to college, I was a costume character at Brookfield Zoo. I had a ton of fun and still regard this as one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had. 10/10 would do it again.
What do you wish you had more time to do?
Create. Always. I’m balancing so much, and always wish I could just make more time to write and develop my personal slate of projects. I’d also like to have more time to travel for leisure.
What motivates you to create?
I’m developing a feature film about my family, about their lives in Chicago in the period around the Great Migration. I wrote and directed a short play based on sketches of this material in 2016. This film, for me, is the ultimate project. A deep passion for every project I work on drives me to the finish line, always, but I consider every project a preparation to tell my family’s story with great craftmanship. So, in short, I’m motivated by the idea of making my ancestors proud and to leave the imprint of their legacy on American cinema.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you share with your younger self?
You’re on the right track. There are no wrong answers. Keep driving forward with ambition and integrity. Lean into what feels easy, and everything will work out just the way it should.