Kerith Lemon, Director, on Working for the Oprah Winfrey Network, MTV, Marketing, & Striking Out On Her Own.
October 24, 2015
I grew up in Santa Cruz, California and spent the first 25 years of my life as a competitive athlete in the sport of equestrian vaulting (gymnastics on horses). I spent the bulk of my teens and young 20’s abroad, training and going to competitions, Hollywood wasn’t even on my mind.
After completing my BA at UC Berkeley in Communications, it was only then that I thought about what I wanted to do as a career.
I have always loved movies and music, they had a huge influence on me, but I had no idea how to pursue a career in that.
I instead headed the way of advertising and PR and got a job at one of the top ad firms in the world, Publicis, working for a woman CEO who is still influential in my life today.
The thing I loved about my first job was the storytelling we got to do about brands and the ability to engage a mass audience.
I wasn’t passionate about the products that we were working with and I really wanted to live in New York, so it was at that time that I first thought about trying to get into entertainment.
I am lucky to have parents that are very supportive in following your passion and pursing your dreams, and so I decided to move to New York City to see if I could make it happen.
First Job in Entertainment
When I moved to New York City in 2002, I didn’t have a job or know anyone, I learned really quickly how to network, hustle and use an informational interview to your advantage.
I went on over 70 interviews and asked a lot of questions about day-to-day tasks, highlights of people careers and how they got to where they were.
Each of these interviews brought me closer to what I really wanted to do.
I took a job as a special events coordinator at L’Oreal working with Kiehl’s and Shu Uemura. I loved the principals of the brands and the creative team that I got to work with.
Meanwhile, I was moonlighting as a publicist for a small start up hip-hop label. It was this extra-curricular work that ultimately led me to my first paid entertainment job at CBS Radio (then Infinity Broadcasting).
While I was pitching the hip-hop artists to a radio executive they asked if I would be interested in joining a new division of the radio group dedicated to working with Fortune 500 companies across all of their stations nationwide.
They were a small creative agency inside the radio group and I loved it.
New and forward thinking, the executives were visionary and were pushing multi-platform programs from very early on.
Because of the small group structure I got to be very hands on with all aspects of our work, I was certified in creative brainstorming, led ideation sessions, created custom programs for our clients, learned to pitch and even handled production on some large scale promotions and concerts that we produced internally.
It was there that I discovered my love of production
Everyday people and life inspires me creatively, travel too. The stories that I’m most attracted to are about people and their approach to life.
Nothing is easy and human nature is complex, it’s a wealth of story ideas.
For day-to-day inspiration I love going on walks and photographing details of everyday objects. That’s what my instagram is for, pretty pictures.
I’ve never taken a straight path in life, ever.
I really believe in hard work and perseverance, "no," isn’t an answer that I’m willing to accept.
I’m a huge believer in “if you can see it you can be it,” and I know that in each job that I’ve had, I saw something that really struck a chord in me and my next job was one step closer to that element.
My earliest jobs in PR and Advertising provided me with a very important base knowledge of marketing, strategy and understanding your audience, there isn’t a day that I don’t use these tools to help shape creative no mater if there are brands involved or not.
The Impact of Techology
Technology allows us so much today!
You can tell stories in so many different ways and it’s amazing to be able to connect easier with communities and fans, anyone can be a storyteller now on so many different platforms.
Produced By Kerith: Maya Angelou's Harlem Hopscotch - Music Video
Of course it creates more competition and it’s not as easy to get noticed but that just means you have to keep at it, find the niche that’s best suited to your creative and stay fresh and on your toes.
Working as an Independent Contractor
After my time in New York in Integrated Marketing and Branded Content, I knew I wanted to move to the creative side of the business. I went out on my own to afford me the time to work on several projects at once and try to leap into the film business.
As an independent contractor I got my first taste of being my own boss and I was able to network within the film community.
Right off, I produced on two feature films, which then lead to music videos and commercials as well as using my marketing background to consult for a digital film distributor. And, eventually these independent projects led me to the work I did at OWN.
Working at the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)
I was the Vice President of Digital Video Strategy, at the Oprah Winfrey Network.
My job entailed coming up with the business model and distribution strategy for original video, as well as directing and producing creative content day-to-day.
Directed By Kerith: Who Am I - Digital Series
OWN was a tremendous experience, to work with such a powerful brand and help transition it into the digital space required me to draw on all my skills for this one unique project.
It’s an amazing workplace full of strong women and was an honor to work alongside them.
Working at Music Television (MTV)
I worked for several different brands within MTV Networks,The N (now Teen Nick) and MTV Games, each was a highly specialized brand and I loved them all.
I got to work with so many smart people and had especially talented women mentors.
The thing that impressed me year over year was that MTV Networks continued to push the edge on topics, technology and engagement with their viewers.
In addition, they really embraced brands, and gave me a lot of flexibility to be creative within the branded entertainment space.
How Has Your Previous Professional Experiences Shaped Your View of the Entertainment Industry?
I’m thankful that I’ve followed the path that I have. It’s given me the business skills needed to get projects done in my career as a director today.
I understand the overall media landscape in a really deep way. I can assess projects and help shape them by asking about audience and distribution plans up front.
In today’s market space you can’t go into a project blind.
Passion projects are what drive us creatively, but I like to remind people that knowing who your audience is and what you plan to do with it after it’s completed doesn’t take the passion out of it, just gives your project a higher chance of being seen and succeeding.
I’d say for college students looking to get into entertainment, plan on doing some time as an executive assistant or assistant, those years will be invaluable as they give you a front seat to the action.
You have plenty of time in your life to run the business but starting out you will learn more and meet more people this way.
And, you can work on your passion projects on the weekend.
I don’t think there are pitfalls, everything you do is an experience that will help you build your own personal story as long as you’re constantly learning and moving forward there are no wrong moves you can make.
Well, except burning bridges, reputation is everything in this industry.
Passion for Directing
It was during my time at OWN that I really discovered my passion for directing.
Until now I’ve always been satisfied with telling other peoples stories, I loved the creative development process, but it became clear recently that I was ready to tell my stories.
I decided to leave OWN to pursue directing and began by writing/directing a short film called A Social Life, which just premiered at a film festival in Canberra Australia and will show at the end of October at the Lady Filmmaker Festival in Beverly Hills.
Written & Directed By Kerith: A Social Life - Short Film
Probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career was transitioning from the marketing side to creative.
Though the skills are similar it wasn’t an easy transition, people see you a certain way and to change you have to rebrand yourself.
I ultimately decided to leave my position at MTV and move to Los Angeles to dive in as an independent producer. For me indecision is always the hardest, once you’ve made the choice and out there things do fall into place.
There is nothing that people respect more than going for it.
I’ve always been a user of social media to stay abreast of the trends and new distribution outlets.
It’s served me very well in promoting myself, promoting my projects, and now has provided a great concept for my short film.
I believe in social media, but feel we all need to find a balance and not get too sucked into being connected to our devices.
Top Memories in Entertainment
Directing my short film A Social Life – not only was it incredible to see the words that I wrote come to life on screen but the support that I got from friends in the Industry to get this project done was overwhelming.
Shooting my first Branded Series in Hawaii – one of the first productions that I really owned myself was a branded project we did at The N (now teen nick) for P&G, it was an extension of our surfing series Beyond the Break. We shot a 9 episode branded interstitial series on location in Hawaii. It was an incredible experience and my first hands on production.
Working at Sundance Film Festival – I got to work with all of the directors that were in the competition category of Sundance in 2012 and 2013. It was amazing to be a part of the launch of so many creative people’s careers.
Producing on Blaze You Out – working on location in New Mexico, the first feature I produced on was an experience I’ll never forget. I gained a whole new family in the cast and crew.
Meeting Oprah—when we presented the new webseries directly to her she had never heard my name before and asked me to spell it.
Something Else About Your Career You Would Like People to Know
That you can make a change in your career at any time, you just have to work hard and keep at it, this industry is all about reinvention, you can be a part of that too.
I believe in the school of life, I’ve learned almost all my skills on the job. I’ve taken a few courses, editing in Final Cut, business of film, story development, more as personal interest than job functions.
I’ve had so many mentors along the way, especially hard working women: my mother Karen Lemon, my first boss CEO Stacey Paynter, the fabulous Peggy Panosh, and film director Stacie Passon.
Anything Else You Would Like to Share With Our Readers?
As my Mom and Dad often told me, “If it was easy then anyone would do it and drink lots of water.”
Produced By Kerith: Puttin On The Ritz - Music Video for Herb Albert
Working in the entertainment industry, or really any industry, is not easy but if you love it then it’s worth it and it’s always important to stay hydrated.