Andrew Coles AB '09 is the founder of The Mission Entertainment, a management and production company representing storytellers with unique and distinct voices. He first began his career at CAA in the Motion Picture literary department, before moving to Overbrook Entertainment, where he started off as Franklin Leonard’s assistant (founder of The Black List) before becoming his junior executive. From there, Andrew moved to New York to run development for Scott Rudin, where he worked on Top Five and Ex Machina, among other film, TV, and theatre projects. (Photo credit: Dania Graibe)
Q. You originally wanted to pursue a career in law! What inspired your move to entertainment, and did Harvard play a role in that decision?
A. My original plan was to be a civil rights criminal defense attorney. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 7th grade English class and it changed the way I look at the world. At a young age I was forced to confront, through the power of storytelling, our country’s history of systematic and institutional inequality—and was made very much aware of the privilege I was born into by virtue of the access and opportunities my parents were able to provide. It set the course for my life—I decided that I had to live a life in service to amplifying the voices and protecting the rights of those who the system was not designed to advantage. I wanted to be an advocate for those who came from traditionally underrepresented and undervalued communities.
Harvard definitely played a role in my career transition, haha!—after a semester of Gov 30, I clearly understood that law school was not in my future. It was too dry, too academic—what I loved about the law was its utility as a tool or a weapon—in the right hands, it could be used for liberation and justice, in the wrong hands, a bludgeon of oppression. I realized through my critical cultural theory studies (a lot of AfAm and VES courses), that storytelling and image making could similarly be used as a tool or a weapon, and that people who looked like me were too often staring down the barrel of weaponized imagery.
Q. Your senior thesis was entitled "The Business Model of Interracial Relationships in Contemporary Film." Can you give us a little snapshot of your thesis and what it was about?
A. My thesis looks at the history of interracial relationships in Hollywood films, particularly those between Black men and white women, and how Hollywood has sought to protect its political, social, and financial interests by carefully policing what images it allows to be created and disseminated around the world.
My freshman year, I wrote a paper centering on the casting process for the Will Smith movie Hitch. While promoting the film abroad, Smith suggested that Eva Mendes (who is of Cuban descent) was cast because the studio was worried about investing $50 million in a romantic comedy that would risk alienating either domestic or international audiences. Hollywood’s long-accepted myth was that a Black movie would not be lucrative overseas and that a film featuring an interracial couple would be unpopular in America. That always stuck with me: the idea that the stories that we see in film and television were shaped by some of the same fears and beliefs that placed Tom Robinson on trial in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Throughout my college career, as I continued to study the intersection of race, politics, and culture, the lack of representation and inclusivity Hollywood had exhibited throughout its history troubled me. I began to question why it was that such a narrow view of the American experience has been filmically represented—and why people of color, women, members of the queer community, among others, have for so long been rendered invisible and voiceless.
If we accept the premise that these stories and images can shape our worldview in profound ways, then we must be mindful of how they are made and who gets to participate in their creation.
What are the long-term effects of a continuing cycle of imagery that reinforces and bolsters institutional inequality in this country? Entire cottage industries of pseudoscience were constructed as propaganda to justify the dehumanization of enslaved Africans and African-Americans—the shame of our nation. The Birth of a Nation helped usher in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the domestic terror organization that murdered countless American citizens in the past century. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will helped pave the bloody path of The Third Reich. It would be ahistorical to argue that the images that Hollywood creates have no consequence or impact. (below: Colour Assistants Men’s Grill & Chill – 6/24/18)
I was very interested in unpacking and exploring the ways in which race, culture, and capitalism intersect to shape the stories we tell and the images we see, especially those created by Hollywood. So I sought to explore how the business behind making movies and telling stories—the commercialization of storytelling—intersected with the American fear of miscegenation, interracial relationships. I particularly wanted to focus on the depiction of those relationships between Black men and white women, given the history of racialized violence against Black men accused of crossing that “boundary”—Emmett Till as one of the most notable examples.
I believe that Hollywood and the entertainment industry are, at their core, businesses. They profit the most by creating a product that can appeal to as many consumers as possible; it’s too often a question of bottom line, a quest to move units. What is most dangerous is that this relentless pursuit of profit runs the very real risk of continuing a cycle of dehumanization and destructive imagery that allows atrocities and injustices to be perpetrated against underrepresented communities. If you traffic in tropes of patriarchal white supremacy to sell movie tickets, you contribute to the overall problem. Period. Full stop.
I have forged an intentional path in entertainment to serve as an advocate for those who have not had a chance to sit at the table and tell their own story. I do this work because I know the stakes, and I am constantly reminded, in our increasingly polarized world, of the fundamental power of reaffirming our shared humanity through storytelling.
Q. During college, you interned at Madhouse Entertainment, Underground Films, and Miramax. Did you know then that you would want to found your own management company? How did those internships shape your entertainment career goals?
A. I did not know then! It’s funny, even though my first two internships (Madhouse & Underground) were at management companies, after I graduated, I gravitated towards a production/development track and wasn’t actively planning to become a representative. I’m glad I came back around full circle!
Those internships were absolutely formative in terms of shaping the path that I wanted to pursue. The internships at Madhouse and Underground, the summer after my sophomore year, gave me an amazing introduction to management and production. I gained a real understanding of the importance of creative support and career guidance in developing artists and producing projects. Miramax was a great lesson in how a studio works, from evaluating incoming material to reviewing marketing plans. In all of my internships, I learned the importance of building relationships and putting in the work—but also in having a point of view and being able to back it up. I’m grateful to all of my mentors who encouraged me to voice my opinion and contribute creatively.
Q. You've worked in the biz in Los Angeles and New York (running development for Scott Rudin). Any big distinctions in work culture between the two cities?
A. Critical mass of people. That’s the biggest difference between working in New York and Los Angeles that I’ve noticed. I started my career in LA—I was taught early on to network and meet as many people as possible. For the first three years I was in LA, I was incredibly proactive about meeting and connecting with people. I would do lunch 3-4 times a week and drinks at least as many, if not double-booking some nights (one at 7, another at 9). There were constantly people to meet and connections to be made.
In New York, it’s a smaller game. There are fewer people working in film and television, and so it’s a tighter-knit community. Everyone knows each other, which is nice, but I found it to be a culture shock coming from the vastness of the community in LA.
When counseling friends, collaborators, and mentees, I often suggest that people start their careers in LA. That’s the blueprint that I know and can best speak to, but for me, it’s a calculation about connections. In the early years of your career, the more people that you can be exposed to and can start to build transformational relationships with, the better. All of the jobs that I have had, have come through friends and colleagues who I met over lunch, drinks, or coffee.
Q. What made you decide to found The Mission Entertainment, and—broadly speaking—how did you get it off the ground in Fall 2013?
A. I came to Hollywood for a very specific reason—to advocate for underrepresented artists and to help change the perception of marginalized people as a tool for socio-political change. I had the great fortune of working for a number of very prestigious and well-established companies, but none were founded on that premise. None were specifically created to do what I wanted to do... which makes sense, haha!
After my time running development for Scott Rudin Productions, I wanted to take a more hands-on approach to talent advocacy. I looked at the ways in which artists from marginalized communities have struggled in the traditional Hollywood pipeline. I recognized that by virtue of my relationships, academic background, skill set, and personal passion, I could help advise and counsel artists maneuvering through the political and social complexities of the entertainment industry.
Broadly speaking, I put together a business plan that was based on what I understood of how a management/production company worked (?!), and presented it, full of fiery passion, to an investor I had a relationship with. I talked about how there was a niche in the market, that no one was truly understanding the value of diverse artists—both in the financial upside, but also in terms of cultural impact. Remember, this was before Black Panther, before Moonlight, before Get Out, before Lena Waithe won the Emmy. This was a business plan and a proposition that flew in the face of accepted Hollywood myth about whose stories were worth telling!
Lena Waithe Jordan Brand Promo Shoot – 10/17/18
I raised the money to get the company off the ground and booked a trip to LA for two weeks (I was still living in NY at the time, I crashed on my friend Elijah’s couch). I called and emailed my contacts, friends, and mentors in LA—booked a full schedule—and told everyone that would listen about how I wanted to change the face of the entertainment industry. Out of that initial trip, I just started running and I haven’t stopped since. It has been the most fulfilling and most difficult project I’ve ever attempted. I am so glad to be celebrating our five-year anniversary this year, and I'm excited for the future growth and expansion of the company as we continue to demonstrate the value of investing in the humanity of others.
Q. How do you source new clients, and what are you looking for in that first general meeting?
A. EVERYWHERE. Honestly. I’m constantly consuming culture—film, television, music, photography, dance, advertising—looking to be inspired and emotionally affected by a piece of work.
My team often wakes up to multiple messages from me in the morning about something or someone I’ve discovered while they were sleeping. I’m a late-night worker, so I’m often on Instagram or YouTube or reading the news and will come across an artist who inspires me.
I’ve submitted a lot of material from clients, collaborators, friends, my mother (hi, Mom!)—I just always want to find something that makes me feel.
As a manager, producer, and advocate, I’m often a cheerleader, so the first step is to get me excited. If I get excited, you can bet that I’m going to be very vocal about sharing what I love. My goal is to help my clients and collaborators find the best in themselves and their work, and then convince the rest of the world of what I know to be true—that they are talented and gifted storytellers who have the ability to shine a special light on humanity in a way that can move and touch audiences.
If I can boil it down to five key traits that I look for, I might come up with a clever mnemonic like…
PIPPI (pronounced like Ms. Longstocking)*
Passion. Intention. Point of view. Persistence. Integrity.
- Passion – Why are you excited about doing this work? Why do you do it? What is your favorite thing about it?
- Intention – What impact do you hope your work will have on audiences? What do you hope to say with this piece?
- Point of view – How has your life experience shaped who you are as an artist? What do you hope to add to the conversation that we haven’t seen before? Why does the world need this story?
- Persistence – Are you ready to work at this, despite the low pay, despite that rejection, despite those people who want to sand the edges off of your humanity to make it easier for them to sell toys?
- Integrity – How do you treat people? How do you envision teamwork? What are the qualities that you look for in collaborators?
For me, those are the key traits in someone who I want to get in the trenches with. This work is not easy. We are fighting an uphill battle, but if you believe in the necessity of telling your story and are committed to putting in the work, I’m down to ride.
*version 1.0 / it’s a work in progress
Speaking Series with Dr. Willie Parker – 8/1/17
Q. Can you give any advice to writers, directors, producers, or actors who are hoping to be repped by your company?
A. Take the PIPPI checklist above and think about your answers to those questions. Think about what makes you unique in the landscape—what’s the thing that you do that no one else can do? I always love working with storytellers who can articulate who they are and what they hope to say with their storytelling.
Q. The Mission Entertainment's office space (a converted house) is really unique. What made you decide on this approach to your work environment?
A. I knew that as an unconventional company, we needed to have an unconventional space. Our approach to collaboration and partnership is intentionally different than most companies, and I wanted that energy to be felt as soon as someone comes into our office. Enter The Mission.
I designed and decorated the layout to be open and inclusive. When you come to The Mission, we want you to feel as if you have entered a place where you can let your guard down. That is the space that we strive to create for our clients and collaborators to achieve honesty and authenticity in their work, so it was important that the office is a reflection of our philosophy. We know it’s working, if only for the number of times we have sat with an artist who has said, “I didn’t know that there was a place like this in Hollywood where I could open up and have this conversation.”
In addition to housing the day-to-day operations of The Mission Entertainment, The Mission serves a number of other functions. There is a spare bedroom for clients and collaborators who come into town—sometimes, cooking dinner together is the best way to break a story or to build out a vision for a 10-year plan. I also have built an in-house recording studio for the mission radio, an exciting new storytelling project I’m launching next year. (below: Black Women in Entertainment Symposium – 2/6/18)
But one of the most important aspects of our space is that it serves as a community space for our creative cohort. We host table reads, gatherings, symposiums, talk backs, birthday parties, art exhibits, variety shows, fundraisers—we are here to serve the needs of the community. That aspect of our work has been one of the most gratifying accomplishments of building The Mission, the realization of that dream. The dream of creating and holding a space for those in the artistic community who have been told they don’t belong—a space where they can be themselves.
Q. What single piece of advice would you give to a recent Harvard alum aspiring to become a manager?
A. Be passionate about helping other people achieve their dreams. As a manager, you have the opportunity to be the advisor and sounding board to artists whom you deeply admire and respect. You have the opportunity to help them create something, create something from nothing—create something from an idea! an inspiration! a literal dream!—that could change the world. Or maybe just change the course of one person’s life, to help them imagine possibilities that they did not know existed.
So be careful with that passion. Be careful of the commitment to take someone on as a client, to say to someone, "Trust me with your livelihood and your life’s work. Trust me with your ambitions, hopes, and dreams, with your children’s future, with your legacy."
Seek to build a transformational relationship with those artists you are passionate about. Invest in people that you believe in, regardless of expected return. Those will be the most fruitful and exciting relationships.
Hillman Grad Mentee Mixer – 7/22/18