Clarence Avant was a fascinating enigma from the beginning. I mean right from the jump. I first heard about him through Andre Harrell back when I did music videos for Uptown Records. And the way everyone — Andre, Russell Simmons, all those guys — talked about Clarence, he wasn’t just an executive; he was somewhere on Mount Olympus! He was this celestial figure with incredible power and wisdom. They all deferred to him. They all respected him. They all got advice from him. Then I met the man, and I finally understood.
The first time I met him was at the airport. From there he took me off to his house. I remember sitting there, looking around, and he had the most amazing collection of art I had ever seen in a private home: paintings, sculptures, everything. I saw an Andy Warhol. I said, Whoa, seriously? An Andy Warhol? This black person owns an Andy Warhol! I was floored. I’ve been in celebrity homes, and their walls are bare. They don’t collect art, and the art they do have isn’t very impressive, to be honest. Clarence was the opposite. His walls were just brimming with beautiful artwork that spoke to a real peacefulness. Here’s this guy with this gruff demeanor and an incredible, tasteful aesthetic and completely unpretentious manner. At that point, I just went, I need to know everything I can about this man. And the more I learned about the man, the more I thought that the world needed to know about him. And in the process, I learned some unforgettable lessons.
Talking with Clarence confirmed the need to trust my gut. I knew that already, but he confirmed it. For my first Hollywood deal, I got hired to write a script. It was the most money I’d ever made in my life. You go, Wow, this is a lot of money. What are you going to spend it on? I could buy a car or buy a computer — back then they cost about the same. I decided I was going to buy that computer because if I had a computer, I could write another script and make that same amount of money again, maybe more. That was just me investing in myself and going with my gut feeling. It was the right decision.
This is a Clarence trait, too. He picked an eclectic range of artists, from Bill Withers to Cherrelle to all these different white rock acts he signed. Clarence did what he thought was right. That’s always been my belief: If you trust your gut, it’ll work out. The only times I have failed have been the times I did what someone “smart” said I should do instead of what I believed in. Not that I’m above selling out; it just never works out for me, so that gives me clarity that I’m just going to do what I believe in. Let the chips fall where they may.
Streaming has not only changed the way we produce and consume TV, but, to hear our Meet the Experts: Documentary panelists tell it, the entire documentary field in general. In the past decade, as more platforms emerged, more documentaries have been made, becoming addictive viewing for fans (see: “Tiger King”) and legitimizing the genre as a form of entertainment.
“I’ve seen a huge change. I’ve been making documentaries for 25 years [and] it was a struggle. There were very few outlets and it wasn’t because there wasn’t an audience — it was just a question of how to reach that audience,” “Hillary’s” Nanette Burstein told Gold Derby (watch above). “So streaming was the answer. And it was the unexpected answer and it really changed the marketplace. I think there is, as we’ve seen, a hunger from audiences to see real stories, amazing stories and amazing filmmakers out there that can bring it to them. It’s changed the game. People see it now as a real way — it’s a real commerce. And you can have an idea and not think, ‘Oh my God, how do I actually get this made or financed or sold and seen?’ I didn’t actually expect that to happen in my lifetime, but it has, so it’s wonderful.”
Reginald Hudlin, who helmed Netflix’s “The Black Godfather,” agrees, pointing to his kids who don’t see a difference between documentaries and narrative films. “I think streaming has revolutionized the relationship of the documentaries with the audience,” he said. “My kids don’t put documentaries in that medicine box. They are seen as now a legitimate part of entertainment, like, ‘What do you want to watch?’ ‘I heard about this good documentary.’ ‘Oh, tell me about it!’ ‘Oh!’ It’s great.”
What’s also changed is the documentary series format, as more and more networks are willing to commit more runway to a project versus just a film. “I know with myself and ‘McMillions,’ in the past, that would’ve been a 90-minute film,” James Hernandez stated. “It would’ve been great, but to be able to dive into the motivations behind why people do things, it just would not have been able to been shown on a broader scale. It would’ve been far more, almost sensationalized, where with this or any of our projects, you start to look at the depth of why people are doing the things they do, which inherently are some of the reasons why TV shows have been popular in the first place.”
More importantly, no matter the length, audiences are clearly showing up for documentaries and keeping the conversation going for what could be weeks. “I made a show called ‘The Keepers’ for Netflix in 2017 and I think it was my fifth or sixth documentary that I had made, but it was my first series, and the popularity of that show compared to some of the films that I had made before, which were for great distributors and by documentary standards had done well, blew it out of the water,” “Visible: Out on Television’s” Ryan Whiteshared. “And I think we’re seeing that every year. There’s a handful of series that take the country by storm, and it’s proving that audiences are willing to sit down for five, six, seven hours of documentary content.”
Click on each name below to be taken to individual chats with the documentarians:
We spotlight the legendary artist’s legacy in comics and entertainment. Read a handful of Cowan’s stories for free today.
For the past four decades, Denys Cowan has been a celebrated voice in comic books as a skilled artist, a force of innovation, and a tireless advocate for creatively pushing the envelope. This month on marvel.com, we celebrate the career of Denys Cowan with spotlights on some of his seminal Marvel work with a look back at his unparalleled journey!
“It was nerve-racking,” exclaims Cowan of his initial effort at the House of Ideas, an assignment he got only months into his fledgling run as a professional comic book artist. “I sweated out the whole thing.”
“I remember sitting on the desks of [the Milestone offices], hearing great stories, like the time when Clarence Thomas was a fan,” recalls Hudlin, at the time already a successful screenwriter, director, and producer. “And talking about [how] rival creators, none of which are in the business now, were hating on them for being successful. I told them don’t worry about the haters, time will tell the story. And it did.”
Later, Cowan joined Hudlin, then the President of Entertainment for BET—Black Entertainment Television—as the Senior Vice President of Animation for the channel. In this role, he created a full slate of animated projects, most prominently the critically-acclaimed and much-beloved series The Boondocks. In recent years Denys has remained active in animation as well as comics.
“Denys was always a pleasure to work with both as a writer and a colorist for me,” praises Gregory Wright of his time working with Cowan on DEATHLOK (1991). “[He] has a powerful sense of story and his characters have deep presence. The body language, the facial expressions and the compositions of Denys’ work help tell the story better than words can.”
With a catalogue of peerless work built up over 40 years and, undoubtedly, exciting initiatives still ahead of him, Cowan remains passionate for his mission to diversify the mediums to which he contributes.
“The entertainment industry as a whole has made some strides, comic books included,” he reflects. “However there’s so much more that has to be done. There has to be representation, not just creatively but also in editorial, marketing, sales, and at executive levels.”
Stay tuned to marvel.com for upcoming spotlights and deeper dives on Denys Cowan’s work, with the inside stories of how DEATHLOK (1991) and CAPTAIN AMERICA/BLACK PANTHER came to life!
Looking for more classic arcs and Marvel must-reads you can read for FREE? Read online here, or download or update the Marvel Unlimited app for iOS or Android at the Apple or Google Play app stores today.
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