Celluloid Mission

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Matthew Earl Jones feels both energized and exhausted after leading a film production seminar attended by students from five Arizona colleges. “We expected 30 participants and close to 100 attended,” he says. “After eight hours, they were still so enthusiastic that we had to herd them out the building because we had to close the facility. Many of them were still talking… in the parking lot when I left.”

Jones is well-acquainted with that enthusiasm. As an actor, musician and producer, he’s worked with such notables as Queen Latifah, Ray Charles, Jodie Foster, Leonardo DiCaprio and Angela Lansbury. His latest career turn will involve marshalling those connections and experiences to coax Hollywood back into the embrace of a place it has all but ignored of late: Arizona.

“I enjoy being the Arizona film commissioner,” Jones says. “I get to be surrounded by wonderfully creative people and help bring work here so their talents can shine.”

Jones’ life has been a whirlwind since taking the position with the Arizona Office of Film and Media, which operates out of the Arizona Commerce Authority in Phoenix, in 2016. He is the first commissioner of the reconstituted office, which closed six years ago due to budget cuts. As commissioner, Jones is Arizona’s ambassador to Hollywood and the world of filmed entertainment.

He’s promoted the state as a film location in London and given seminars to enthusiastic Arizona-bred college talent. His office helps producers scout locations in Arizona and lines up incentives such as the free use of state roads and state parks, along with a dedicated Arizona Highway Patrol contact.

The work is less stressful than former jobs, including one in California that provided his craziest day in the biz: “Shutting down the Bay Bridge at rush hour for a Japanese Honda commercial with less than 24 hours’ notice,” says Jones, who produced it.

Jones’ grace under pressure may be the result of having relatives in the business. His father was Robert Earl Jones, the trailblazing African-American actor who started his career in all-black films in 1939 and two decades later broke through the Hollywood color barrier. His older half-brother is Star Wars legend James Earl Jones.

Patriarch Robert was discovered by poet Langston Hughes and drawn into the cultural milieu of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. His diverse résumé included working as a sparring partner for boxing champ Joe Louis and starring in the 1939 film Lying Lips. His first Hollywood role was in 1959 and he went on to appear in modern hits such as The Sting and Witness. “My father helped me understand how much of a business acting is and the dedication required,” Jones says. “A lot of people go to a movie and see an actor and think, ‘I guess he just walks on stage, gets paid millions of dollars and then shows up at the Oscars.’”

Matthew Earl Jones grew up in New Canaan, Conn., which he describes as a lovely, white-picket-fence suburb ripped straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. His mother, Jumelle Jones, was the first African-American teacher at the prestigious New Canaan Country School. Her position allowed Jones to attend on a tuition waiver.

Matthew Earl Jones, right, with brother James and daughter Sophi
Main photo by Rob Ballard

Though Jones was one of the few black kids in town, he never felt like an outsider, “probably because my mother was so loved and respected,” he says. He was the second African-American NCCS graduate; the first was baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson’s son. He excelled academically, prompted by his mother. “If I wanted to do sports and music, I had to get straight-A’s,” Jones says.

Jones accepted an academic scholarship to Dartmouth College, where he played hockey, football and lacrosse, and maintained close relationships with his parents, despite their divorce. “I was extremely close to my father,” he says. “As an actor living nearby in New York City, he had a flexible schedule that allowed him to see many of my theater plays and sporting events.”

After graduating in 1979, Jones worked for advertising titan BBDO in New York City. Jones remembers the orientation that featured a BBDO Pepsi ad called “New Baby.” It was the first national TV commercial targeting the black community and starred his dad. “They made a big deal that I was Robert Earl Jones’ son,” he says. “It was an embarrassing but proud moment.”

In New York, Jones experienced a memorable evening with his half-brother James, whom he jokingly calls the “coolest uncle in the world,” since he’s 26 years older. James performed on Broadway and then talked with fans for two hours. People continued to interrupt him at dinner afterward. Jones asked the actor if he was annoyed. “Those are the people I work for,” James replied. “Those people work jobs that they sometimes don’t even like so that I can make a living doing something I love enough that I used to do it for free.”

The bright lights of the Los Angeles entertainment industry beckoned in 1986, but Jones decided his talents were better suited behind the camera as a producer. He moved his production business, Blacktop Films, to the Valley in 2002. “I love everything about being here; you can’t beat the quality of life,” Jones says. What about the heat? “That’s why God blessed us with Flagstaff, Sedona, Prescott and Payson,” he says. In his free time he plays blues guitar and takes walks with his girlfriend and his 10-year-old daughter Sophia “Sophi” Gresham Jones.

Jones quickly became part of the state film community and served as a judge on Arizona Idol, a local version of American Idol. “It was an honor, and I was just blown away by the local talent,” he says.
Arizona needs his help. The state’s once-proud TV and film production industry has atrophied over the past decade (see chart), due in large part to the expiration of its tax-incentive program in 2010, which the Arizona Legislature has doggedly refused to renew. Still, Jones is upbeat.

“My goal is to make up for the lack of tax credits with 30 percent cost savings,” Jones says. “Cheaper gas and permits along with free use of the state highways and parks goes a long way.” His vision is twofold: “I hope to attract outside film production by focusing on the amazing natural resources and diverse topography of the state,” he says. “I also hope to rebuild the infrastructure so that local people in the film industry have an environment in which to flourish.”

He’s surprised by help from the local production community, especially Go Daddy founder and Sneaky Big Studios owner Bob Parsons, who helped fund the reopening of the office. “So many people in the business have called offering their support. It’s been a humbling and wonderful experience.”

Is there any downside to being the face of the state’s film industry? “I don’t honk my horn as much when I’m driving,” he says with a laugh. “I also tend to let people cut me off in traffic more than I used to.”

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