Dominique Telson's career path has tracked a number of development stages — from short films to telepics and now series.
And she's glad it has.
"The development side is amazing. With other jobs, after a while, you kind of get it down," said Telson, Showtime Networks Inc. vice president of original programming. "But I'm lucky because each new project is like a new job where I get to work with different filmmakers, directors and talent. And with each one you become like a little family."
Raised in New York, Telson began her career at WABC-TV before joining Showtime in 1982 in operations with responsibilities "for getting movies on-air." The next stop was the satellite division, where she was involved in sales and marketing. In 1990 she moved to Los Angeles and the acquisitions department, where one of her jobs was to secure shorts for the net's Black History Month presentations.
Short film showcase
Over time, Telson's involvement grew and ultimately led her down the development path.
In 1996, Telson and other members of the net's Black Filmmaker committee asked Showtime chairman Matt Blank if some leftover funds could be given to Bobby Mardis to complete a short film called Circle of Pain
starring former Different Strokes
star Todd Bridges, who was just out of rehab.
With Blank giving the go-ahead, Telson received "a trial by fire" in the world of development, working closely with Mardis and mentored by Showtime executive John Vasey.
"I enjoyed the process very much," said Telson. "We made the film and it turned out okay. The following year [now president of programming] Jerry Offsay came to Showtime, which increased its original production. He hired me for the development job for the Black Filmmaker Showcase."
For that franchise, Telson and colleagues narrow down the list of entrants from a choice of 100 shorts. On Feb. 4, Showtime will air six shorts, including this year's winner, Unjust Cause
from Edford Banuel, who will receive a $30,000 grant toward the production of a 15- to 30-minute film that will later run exclusively on the premium network.
"We work with this group in terms of script and production, making notes. It's filmmaking 101," she said. "We're honest with them about what is right, what's wrong. They learn how to pitch."
One finalist who didn't win the grand prize — and who constantly teases Telson about it —is Malcolm D. Lee, Spike's cousin, who directed the features The Best Man
and Undercover Brother. "He was connected, you know, so he didn't have a chance," she laughed. "He's very nice and we're pretty good friends. We talk about projects and he says when he's available he'll do something with us."
Telson's talents have led her to an array of Showtime Original Pictures For All Ages and other telepics. The Tiger Woods Story, The Devil's Arithmetic, In A Class of His Own, and Mermaid
are among the critically acclaimed or award-winning projects that have been under her supervision.
She also has credits on 2002's Bobbie Girls, the story of a young boy who comes to live with his lesbian aunt and her eccentric partner, following the death of his parents in a car crash.
"We're very pleased with Dominique, who is very versatile. She's long been a mainstay on our Original Pictures for All Ages franchises that have won numerous Emmy nominations," said Offsay. "This past year, she did very good work with first-time director Danny Glover on Just a Dream
and on Bobbie's Girl
with Jeremy Kagan who is anything but" a first-timer.
One project that Telson is particularly proud of is What Girls Learn, which focused on the relationship of two daughters and their dying mother. It bowed on the network in 2001 and received an Emmy nomination for writing last year. "My three girls were very helpful here. I drew from my own life. I was very big in the notes process," Telson explained. "It was a very personal, a really sad film."
Currently, Telson has quite a few things on her plate. She is working with prominent American-Indian director Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) on the Lady Warriors
(working title), focusing on an African-American who goes to a reservation to teach English and with his coaching acumen leads a girls team to a national basketball championship.
With Showtime recently ramping up its commitment to series, Telson is right in step. She's engaged with Laffapalooza, a 10-episode search for comedians hosted by Jamie Foxx. The program not only showcases up-and-coming talent, but features Foxx and such notables as Steve Harvey and Eddie Murphy providing criticism and commentary.
She's also involved with two other series—one that is close to shooting a pilot, the other much earlier on in the development process.
"We're like independent producers here, getting pitched on various ideas. I'm telling people we're more interested in series now," said Telson, noting that Laffapalooza
was originally being touted as a two-hour special. "I talked to Jerry and we figured with the behind-the-scenes activities it might work well in a series format."
Living in Sherman Oaks, Telson and her husband spend time with their three daughters, traveling and skiing. Her husband's trade as a chiropractor has come in handy—but she has to choose her "adjustment" moments judiciously. "He said early on it would be like me coming home every day and asking you about pitches," said Telson. "I only ask when I have special need—like the night before a screening when I have to introduce Jerry, the talent and the producers."