A career behind the camera

February 25, 2020

Martin Jones ’86 has been a filmmaker since he was 10, when he picked up a movie camera at a family reunion and shot through four reels of film. He used his mom’s cutting shears and Scotch tape to put it together, taking the weekend to figure out the optics of the projector (Hint: the film goes in upside down).

Jones took to storytelling through images and — more than 30 years later — has never stopped.

In December 2019, he became the new director of Austin Studios, a nonprofit run by the Austin Film Society, where he leads a full-service film and television studio in the heart of Austin. (Fun fact, fellow Denison cinema major Heather Page ’85 recruited Jones for the national search.) AFS operates an entire ecosystem of filmmaker services and support, including an art house cinema, and public access channels.

“I can answer that question for you in four words—move to Los Angeles.”

The facility sits on 20 acres of former tarmacs and runways, part of the old city airport before it moved to the south side of Austin. The old hangars are now sound stages and production facilities for TV series and movies — scenes from Spy Kids and Alita: Battle Angel have been filmed there. When he first stepped onto the lot and saw all the trailers and activity, Jones knew this was his Shangri-La.

“The beautiful thing about cinema for me is I truly discovered the thing I love to do, and I get to do it on a regular basis. It never grows old,” he says. “As many times as I’ve been on a set, as many movies as I’ve made, there’s something really thrilling and exciting about the hustle and bustle of the creative process unfolding.”

Throughout his career, Jones has taken on just about every job there is in the film industry. He’s been a film producer and made music videos. In Virginia, he was a partner and GM for New Millennium Studios, and he produced commercials out of Dallas for global brands like Jeep and Chrysler. And before arriving at Austin Studios, he was CEO of MetroEast Community Media in Gresham, Oregon, a community media center in greater Portland.

“This is my life’s work,” Jones says. “Every aspect of my experience is really coming back to help me in this new opportunity at Austin Studios.”

Jones grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but he wasn’t interested in attending Denison, at first, because it was too close to home. It was Clifford Tyree, former Denison trustee and Jones’ godfather, who convinced him to go out and have a look. All he had to say was, “They have a cinema program.”

“My ears perked up,” Jones says. “I mean ‘cinema’ is a very specific word. So I went out there and it was a beautiful, idyllic October afternoon. And Granville is just like kryptonite, it’s so beautiful.”

During the visit, he was eager to show one of his latest films, called The Choice, to Professor R. Elliot Stout. Legendary for his plaid jacket, horn-rimmed glasses, and smoking cigars, Stout watched the film with interest. He nodded his head, took a drag off his stogie and said, “Okay, Mr. Jones. Good film. You managed to break the line every other scene.”

“I was like ‘What’s the line?’” Jones says. “He explained to me the invisible but very important element of cinema language where the camera and the action need to stay on one side, 180 degrees of this imaginary line. If you go on the other side of it inside of a frame of action, it’s very distracting.”

“If you’re a master filmmaker, you can do that to great effect and create tension with the audience,” he adds. “But it you’re a neophyte, like I was, you just create confusion. In that moment, I realized, okay, I could really learn something from this man.”

He soaked up all he could from Stout during his time at Denison, as he built connections that would span his career. He became student president of the Denison Film Society and volunteered with the National Black Programming Consortium.

And shortly after graduation, he went to Hollywood—all because of a conversation he had with former Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner ’64 in a Slayter Union elevator.

Eisner had been invited to campus to speak, when, flocked by students, he suddenly realized he had forgotten his speech in the rental car. Eisner started down a flight of side stairs when Jones asked, “Do you mind if I go with you?”

Eisner said, “Sure, come along.”

During his five minutes alone with the then president of Paramount Pictures, Jones asked for one piece of advice on launching a career in the movie business. As the two rode up in the elevator, Eisner replied, “I can answer that question for you in four words—move to Los Angeles.”

These professional and personal relationships have remained a potent part of Jones’ life. He’s had job offers from other Denison alumni, directors like David Irving ’71 who gave him a job on the spot simply because he was one of ‘Elliot’s boys.’

And when the 2008 crash happened, Jones’ prosperous production company in Dallas wasn’t so prosperous anymore. Greg Sharkey ’84 invited him to a Denison dinner where events went into motion that led to meeting a headhunter who told him that Oregon Episcopal School in Portland was looking for a marketing and communications director, so he reinvented himself and relocated to Portland to rebrand a 150-year-old school.

In return, he has hosted more than 40 Denison interns in various roles at his companies. And many of them have continued that tradition.

“Denison has been the gift that has kept on giving,” Jones says.

“That’s why I’m so passionate about giving time, talent, and treasure to the school, and serving however I can. It truly has given me some of the best years of my life as a young adult, some of my best friends, and some of my fundamental understanding of my passion.”

Jones is proud of his three children, and daughter Haley is a fellow alum. Jones asked her why she chose Denison. “She said, ‘Well everywhere we went on our college tour on the east coast and in California, you were seeing friends that you made back at Denison. And I thought, if my dad had these friends for 30 years, I want to go to a school at a place where I could have friends for 30 years.”

And those professional relationships are still part of the Denison experience. Denison parent Craig Berman opened internships at Amazon to Denison students. Haley interned at Amazon and went back to campus with two job offers.