Producer Jesse Collins Is Ready for the 2020 BET Awards — and Beyond

Still relatively under the radar, despite a prolific career filled with TV hits, Collins reflects on his 20 years in Hollywood.
Jesse Collins
Jesse Collins
Jesse Collins Entertainment

Over a career that spans 20 years, Jesse Collins has produced a wide range of hit television series and big awards shows via his eponymous production company, Jesse Collins Entertainment (JCE). But despite his many successes, including “Real Husbands of Hollywood” and “The Bobby Brown Story,” Collins continues to mostly fly under the radar — not that he minds, given his mantra: Don’t focus on popularity and accolades. Instead work to be great at one thing, and everything else will come by default.

That “one thing” for the prolific producer? Creating great content.

“We’ve been at this for a long time, and we may not be as well-known as some of the other big producers out there, but we’re growing,” Collins said. “And there’s a lot of content that we’ve been attached to, that some people don’t even know we produced, but one day they will. The most important thing right now is to keep building and creating excellent content and then everything else will follow.”

In May, the company signed a multi-year overall agreement with ViacomCBS Cable Networks, which will see Collins’ company provide production services for the ViacomCBS cable networks segment — including BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Paramount Network, TV Land, and VH1. The deal will also expand Collins’ orbit, making him a producer of theatrical films for the first time.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity, because it’s just great to be able to produce content for so many different networks across the Viacom spectrum,” Collins said. “And then, to get a chance to have the opportunity to get into the feature world and make a movie. It’s what we’ve always wanted. And Viacom was kind enough to give it to us, and we were able to make this deal, which we’ve got a couple of years to take advantage of.”

Collins got his start in television as a writer for Robert Townsend’s WB series “The Parent ‘Hood,” which was on air from 1995 to 1999. Writing eventually led to producing, starting with The BET 20th Anniversary Celebration special in 2000, marking the beginning of a multi-decade relationship with the network. Highlights include “Real Husbands of Hollywood” starring Kevin Hart, which ran for five seasons (2013-2016), and critically-acclaimed limited series like 2017’s “The New Edition Story,” and 2018’s “The Bobby Brown Story,” both posting strong ratings for the network.

He also produces unscripted programming, including the BET Awards (the network’s flagship awards show, now in its 20th year), BET Honors, UNCF’s “An Evening of Stars,” ABFF Honors, Soul Train Awards, Black Girls Rock!, and the BET Hip Hop Awards.

Additionally, he is a producer for the Grammy Awards and executive producer of VH1 shows, “Dear Mama” and “Hip Hop Squares” with Ice Cube, HBO’s “Amanda Seales: I Be Knowin’,” as well as Netflix’s “Leslie Jones: Time Machine” and “Rhythm & Flow.”

The company’s current TV series is “American Soul,” the story about the struggle to make the dream of “Soul Train” come true. The series ended its first season as the No. 1 new cable scripted drama for African Americans 18-49, and is now in its second season.

Collins is in pre-production on “Uptown,” a three-part original scripted limited series for BET that will chronicle the story of producer Andre Harrell’s iconic record label, Uptown Records. And even more immediate are the 2020 BET Awards, set to air on June 28th.

For the first time ever, the awards show will be simulcast on BET and CBS. But with COVID-19 still keeping Americans quarantined, this year’s event will greatly differ from previous award shows: There’s no live audience, and the broadcast will comprise of a mix of live and pre-taped footage.

“This has been the most challenging year of putting this together, obviously, because we’re just reinventing how to do an award show in this environment,” Collins said. “But I think we are continuing to push the creative envelope, so that when everybody sits down to watch it, first and foremost, they’re going to be entertained. We’re going to hold everybody for three hours and do what we do, make our culture look great and feel great. It’s going to reflect our feelings about what’s going on in the world in this moment. And I’m hoping that it will give everybody a feeling of hope that we can get this country where it needs to be.”

Maybe oddly, despite all his experience and success — including an Outstanding Variety Special (Live) Emmy nomination for co-producing The 61st Annual Grammy Awards — Collins is still having to chase projects, especially the ones he’s passionate about.

“We haven’t had too much walk through the door because I haven’t reached a point where you can sit back and someone just happens to drop that amazing idea in your email and off you go,” he said. “So we’re still constantly pursuing ideas and meetings for projects that are a good fit for us.”

That “good fit” translates broadly to premium scripted and unscripted content that tell stories about the Black experience in America. Although, if there is a Jesse Collins brand, it’s not one that’s readily discerned, which is just fine with the producer.

“Each one of our projects is very unique and different, but it’s still one company that’s producing it all,” he said. “I never wanted to be put in a box and be known mainly as ‘the award show company’ or ‘the biopic company.’ We’re just a company that can create any kind of content. Imagine is an amazing production company because the span of content that they create is so broad. From ‘The PJs’ to ‘Undercover Brother’ to ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ it just seems like whatever excites them is what they create. And that is definitely something I’ve always wanted this company to be.”

He’s a success story that’s distinct at a time when issues around inclusivity and diversity remain cause célèbre in Hollywood, even amid what some are describing as a resurgence of Black art. Collins’ hopes are that this “renaissance” isn’t yet another moment in the wind.

“I believe it’s going to sustain because it needs to sustain,” he said. “This is not some affirmative action type of situation because at the end of the day, we are great storytellers, great actors, actresses, directors. And we’re creating content that’s reaching audiences previously ignored, and a lot of it is crossing over. So, from a business standpoint, it’s going to make sense, and I think that we might look back at this 20 years from now and say, ‘This was a pivotal moment.'”

The busy producer certainly isn’t resting on his laurels; arguably working harder than ever in an increasingly competitive environment. Looking further out, with so much attention still being given to superhero comic book movies and TV series, Collins definitely expects to play in that space sometime in the future.

“The guy that runs our scripted department, Andy Horne, he’s a comic book expert, and was a big part of ‘Spawn’ going to HBO some years ago, and, with his knowledge, we’re definitely looking for that comic book IP that can propel us into that world,” he said. “So, yes, it’s on the agenda, because I would like to make a billion dollars, too.”

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