Creating Voices for the Black LGBTQ Community: The Philip Johnson Story

Producer Philip Johnson and I touch on the state of our country and how his production company, Philaye Films, is tackling race, homophobia, and inequality in Hollywood.

With all that’s going on in the country and the world right now, I knew it was important to reach out to my community and hear their voices. Philip Johnson and I went to elementary and middle school together and through the power of social media, I’ve witnessed him grow in his life and career. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in business but was quickly led into the world of TV and movies.

In this interview, Philip shares with us how he ended up creating, producing, and even editing TV shows and how he went from making a web series to starting an empire. 

LYRIC: Tell us how it all started. How did you know that this is what you wanted to do?

PHILIP: I honestly think it was divine intervention and God speaking to me through my subconscious. When I was graduating from (University of Michigan) with my business degree in 2017, at the same time I was going through this really tough break-up. I started to write in this notebook and all the sudden I was writing about how I felt passionate about TV and that form of art. For some reason, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. And I had no experience–I hadn’t done anything. It just came to me right then.

I didn’t get started right away, though. That next year, I spontaneously started a web series and I would write, then produce that episode. Then came casting and figuring out locations. We would shoot, I would edit, and by the time I was releasing and marketing on social media (for that episode), I would start writing the next one. I was doing that for nine months and that web series really got me my start. It helped me create my fan base and gave me what I needed to move out here to LA and take it to the next level.

L: How was your college experience in terms of how it’s helped you get to where you are today?

P: One of the things we focused on was entrepreneurship. We had a whole semester on knowing all the different sides of what really goes into (owning your own business). I also had some internships with corporate companies doing accounting so I think those experiences helped me think about my art in a way that had enough business side to it to give it enough traction and to grow and be sustainable over time. I definitely am grateful for that.

Also, I was the finance chair of a runway charity organization on campus. Seeing all the different sides behind creative production and having a hand in that on the finance side ignited my passion for creativity and being involved in creative projects. So I’d say the combination of those two things help me a lot in what I’m doing now. Even though I don’t have a film school background, the background I have has really helped me in a unique way to progress my career.

L: Completely unique because I know a lot of creatives struggle to understand and incorporate that business side. To them, that’s somebody else’s job so to be able to do and enjoy both is pretty cool.

Creating Voices for the Black LGBTQ Community: The Philip Johnson Story

L: How important is it to you that black voices be heard and what are you doing to ensure that? I saw on the website for Philaye Films that it was a part of your mission statement.

P: That’s very important for me just being from Detroit (MI). The way my family was raised, we just always had an authentic blackness in us. Everything I do has to reflect me and the voices of people who I love and are around me. So all the stories that I’ll ever write will have a black voice at the center. I write where other races are involved but those voices will always, in some way, help tell the black story. Their outsider perspective will be there to help emphasize our story because as media and entertainment evolve over time, the black voice has been getting more amplified. 

Also, the Black LGBTQ voice is starting to get there as well so I’m excited to be able to contribute to that and be involved in experiencing that. I can’t wait to see how things continue to grow in the industry over time. I think with the current Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen that there are different writers and people in the industry that say, “We’re willing to hear black voices and read black work.” I think that’s really important. I’m excited to see how things progress.

L: What do you think is the most important thing to learn for someone who says, “I wanna be like Phillip: make my own production company and create my own content!”?

P: One of the most important things is doing it. Just being consistent because, at a lot of the stages, I’ve been, in some ways, winging it. I focus on action and not letting things delay my creative vision too much because I know that that’s one of the hardest things that can hinder people. If you wait too long, you can lose all motivation, and then the timing isn’t right anymore. You might get discouraged and stop overall. But I think that when you stay consistent in doing it, you take the time to learn and grow every day, every week, you will progress in your career and be able to make bigger strides than you even expected.

When I first started off, I definitely was wondering how I was going to go from this idea of wanting to do this to actually being able to do it, in the city I want to do it in which is LA. I had no idea how it was going to happen but waking up every day energized by the passion, I focused on figuring it out day by day. That’s how you have to approach it. Learning and growing every day and not stopping at any point. 

L: Full steam ahead, 100%. So, what is your day to day like now as far as working on Philaye Films? I know it’s probably been difficult with the virus going around and LA being shut down for months.

P: I have my To-Do list with all my different projects that I’m working on developing or producing. I look at that like, “Ok, what needs to be done?” For my show, Flip Flop, which has been in development for over a year, we’re at the pitching stage. One of the things that needs to get done is emails, reaching out, networking. As a producer, that is one of the biggest things. It’s not a very finite or concrete thing to do, either, knowing a lot of times you’ll receive nothing back. 

In addition to that, I have a few projects that are in earlier stages. A lot of that To-Do list is brainstorming sessions. I turn my phone off, take my notebook out, and take the set amount of time (to work on that). There’s also writing. I know that I have a set amount of time where this or that script has to be done. Then there’s scheduled meetings with the writers and producers so we can move forward and everyone is on the same page.

Also, there’s marketing. I run all my social media accounts and there are almost ten across all my projects with my production company and podcast, too. I have to focus on marketing every day because running a social media account is very necessary. With no market, I have no one to show the art to so that’s something I’m doing daily. There’s a lot of different sides to it. 

Creating Voices for the Black LGBTQ Community: The Philip Johnson Story

L: Tell us about your show Flip Flop and how that vision became reality for you. 

P: Flip Flop is about a professional track runner who’s Techno Conversion Therapy goes wrong. He’s dealing with flip-flopping sexuality where sometimes he likes women and sometimes he likes men. When he (the main character) was a kid and an athlete, his parents got him this sci-fi conversion therapy to make him straight. In the pilot, it malfunctions so he’s dealing with this identity crisis. 

One day, I just turned off my phone and I wanted to create a compelling story that was entertaining but also would create change. It would help people feel like they’re being seen on screen. In my experience running track for 12 years, I didn’t actually come out for another year and a half after running track. But I wanted to capture the difficulty of being black and in the LGBTQ community with the juxtaposition of the sports world. I wanted to do it in a modern way. I like shows with a sci-fi, futuristic element to them. Also, I wanted to bring light to it because it’s a comedy. That’s all how it came together.

L: What is next for you after Flip Flop? Do you have a next project you’re working on?

P: The pandemic has given me a lot of time to develop and write new projects so there’s a comedy that I’m very passionate about. I’m also working on my first drama script and I’m really passionate about that one, too. I started it right before George Floyd’s death but it really, in some ways, ties into some of the things that are going on. It’s an interesting reimagining of what our society can look like. 

My friend, who passed away last year–he and I were working on a short film. While he was alive, he talked about doing a comic book, an animation, all of that. So I just brought on a writer who is going to be helping me turn that into an animated show. I’ve also been running a blog that focuses on highlighting black, especially black LGBTQ, creatives in the entertainment industry. Just giving them a platform and bringing visibility to them. In addition, I have a Philaye Films podcast that involves a lot of positive talk on topics such as “Being Your Own Boss”. Our next episode is about combating racism in 2020. We had one about finding purpose in your struggle. I get to bring on guests like my mom and sister and one of my friends so I’m excited by the opportunity to broaden what Philaye Films is working on. 

L: We always like to ask: Is there anything you wish you would have known when you first said, “Okay, I’m gonna make TV shows and movies.”? Any words of wisdom to depart on?

P: I wish I would have known to be okay with every little imperfection that’s going to come along the way. Don’t stress any of it. I started when I was 22. I’ve always been a person who is really tough on myself and focusing on constructively criticizing myself so that I can improve. But, at some point, it can almost take away from the enjoyment a bit. 

Being almost 25 now, I wish I would have–not taken it less seriously but just been a little less hard on myself earlier on. Whenever I look back on the things I’ve done now, I’m like, “Oh, wow!” Like I can’t even believe I was that age and doing that. These things were so fun and cool. I would just say be easy on yourself. It’s a marathon and you’re going to look back on yourself with kinder eyes. Just enjoy it instead of always thinking of what I would do differently. 

L: That’s important! Well, Philip, I’d like to thank you for doing this interview with me over the phone. I know you’re a busy man even in quarantine. Keep going on your success journey and stay safe!

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