The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fresh off a trip from Tinseltown, Brianna J. Cox said she disagrees with the notion that those working in television cannot be successful if they aren’t based in Los Angeles. Instead, she points to Rhode Island, where she works as a writer and director.
“There’s not much of a barrier to entry here,” said Cox, who is also a communication and media professor at the Community College of Rhode Island. “You don’t need a multimillion dollar budget to make a film. Look around you, explore the local film festivals, and do the work.”
Late last month, Cox was selected as a recipient of the Alex Trebek Legacy Fellowship for the Television Academy Foundation’s 2023 Media Educators Conference in Hollywood. An actress who went on to direct leading productions like “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Dreamgirls,” Cox was just one of just 12 professors nationwide who was selected to attend a conference on how college instructors could better connect a classroom with the television industry.
Q: How did you break into the television industry?
A: Since I was a child, I was interested in storytelling of any kind. I was writing poems, and filming tiny shows on my flip phone cameras. When I discovered theater, I found it fascinating I would be able to act and be creative in a different way. I took a lot of acting classes, and voice lessons [Cox is a classically trained singer]. Acting and singing were my main forms up until college. Then I went to Brown University where I was a double major in Africana Studies and Theater Arts/Performance Studies.
I did a lot of acting in plays, and storytelling out loud was very fulfilling to me. But I wanted to direct to make sure my voice was being heard. And I wanted to give voices of those who are not usually represented in that role.
How did you transition from theater to film?
I just started answering my own questions of “I wonder what this would be like” by doing it. My first show was “Sidewalks,” which I wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. It made it to the Detroit Black Film Festival and the Boston Women’s Film Festival in 2021, and was an Official Selection at the Charlotte Black Film Festival in 2022. The show uses narrative storytelling to artistically examine themes like gender roles, coming-of-age, mental health, memory, identity, and experiences linked to Blackness and race. That’s where I knew I found my niche.
I’m currently writing and developing an Afrofuturistic series called “Onyx and The Chronicle of the Seers.” I don’t have a multimillion dollar budget to really produce this the way I want to yet, so I produced a proof-of-concept film called “18 Years: A Letter to Zora.” It was featured at Boston’s Roxbury International Film Festival in 2021, and the finished film debuted on the festival circuit in 2022.
How do you get noticed enough in order to attract a studio that might have that hefty budget?
I’m still trying to figure that out myself. But you have to be active in the community around you, and enter the film festivals because then you can collect their logos on your show or film’s posters. People notice that. It’s obviously hard to break through.
What did you do on this three-day fellowship in Hollywood?
I really had the opportunity to learn by hearing from people all over the industry. There were panels, such as the role television could take in shaping masculinity on screen, with people in various pockets of the business — particularly executives who are making the decisions about what gets put on your TV screen.
How has streaming changed the nature of television for writers?
There’s a lot of pressure to have shorter seasons. Nowadays, there’s only about eight to 10 episodes in a television series. Before, it was more like 20 episodes in a single series. From my perspective, it’s totally changed how storytellers are even able to tell their story and each character’s development. Sometimes, it forces creatives to change the nature of the story altogether where they have to add more problems and situations in a more compressed time so the audience can see some sort of growth.
Streaming platforms are a completely different delivery method, and it changes the art itself.
Where is the pressure coming from to make shorter seasons?
I’m not entirely always sure. I think it’s a mix of budgetary considerations and competition. Everyone is vying for more eyeballs. It’s almost like you have to prove yourself faster.
Do you think the industry has an ability to flourish in Rhode Island?
I think there is space. So much of the television business exists in Los Angeles. However, when I look at Rhode Island, I see a lot of artists who are photographers, models, actors, poets, and academics who have many different talents who have various ways of expression. We’re close enough to Boston, which has more of these resources and people.
Generation Z really tapped into something with content creation. People are going to TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, and you can do produce that anywhere.