Dionne Harmon received two big Hollywood accolades in recent weeks: She took home an Emmy for her role as executive co-producer of the 2022 Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show hosted by Dr. Dre, and she was named president of Jesse Collins Entertainment (JCE), promoted from executive VP after a decade at the company.
It’s a long way from her first job with JCE, as assistant to Collins, now CEO of the company. Harmon, a Harvard graduate, was already working in the industry with gigs for MTV, Foxx-King Entertainment and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network when she got a call that Collins was looking for an assistant.
“So I meet him and tell him: ‘Look, I don’t want to be an assistant, I have bigger aspirations and I want to be somewhere that I can really grow.’ And he [said], ‘Look, I wanted to meet you because you are more than an assistant, I need a right hand — and I need the assistant stuff, too,” Harmon told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View.
Collins acted as a mentor, allowing Harmon to sit in on calls and jump in with opinions and feedback. And, 10 years later, Harmon said with a laugh that it was the best demotion she ever accepted, opening the door to helping expand JCE’s portfolio from mainly awards shows (including multiple BET Awards and Grammy Awards shows and the 2021 Oscars, executive-produced by Collins with Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh) into scripted and unscripted TV and film projects.
“The biggest takeaway that I would want people to know is that sometimes the step back is what you need to propel yourself forward,” Harmon said. “That I started as his assistant makes this moment even more special, to grow through so many roles at the company, from the beginning to where we are now.”
Read on to find out Harmon’s goals for her new role at JCE, how they produced a live event amid pandemic challenges and how her mom finally came around to appreciating Harmon’s Hollywood career.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity
What is your goal as president of JCE?
We want it to be a place where you could come for content of all genres. Over the last 10 years, it’s been really important for us to establish ourselves not in specials but also in unscripted and scripted, as well as television and films. We are building our teams in each of those areas.
Specials are a big deal for JCE, especially coming off your first-ever Emmy win for Outstanding Variety Special for The Super Bowl Halftime Show LVI. You were also nominated for the previous year’s halftime show.
For the Super Bowl in 2021, we weren’t allowed to be on the field because there could be no interaction between the production people and the football players. So that’s why we built [the performance space] on the concourse. Some people might have said, “Who wants to do a Super Bowl show that’s not on the football field, like, what is that?” But instead the creatives came together with this really cool concept that didn’t look like a COVID Super Bowl show. It just looked like this amazing musical opera thing.
At that point JCE had already faced pandemic challenges with live production, right?
I think a big turning point for the company was in 2020, when the pandemic hit and we got a call from BET that they were going to do the BET Awards but they didn’t want a Zoom show. By June, you had seen a ton of people in their living rooms, playing guitar, singing songs in the kitchen — we don’t want that. We were able to use technology and get super creative, for instance Megan Thee Stallion shooting in the middle of the desert, with her dancers six feet apart. That’s really our challenge, because we want people to keep watching [awards shows and specials]. You have to create those viral moments so that people don’t just look the next day at all of the clips on Instagram.
The Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium was a pretty mind-blowing 14 minutes, with so many personalities, not just one star.
I think the beauty of that is they really were a family. Dre was an integral part of all of their careers. Our production design team built an entire city block with buildings that meant something to the artists. The odds were against someone like Dre or Snoop, growing up in parts of L.A. where a lot of Black men don’t make it to be adults. They’ve achieved so much, and to come back to Inglewood and be on this world stage — and not only that for the show to win an Emmy, the first time in history that a Super Bowl Halftime Show has won — I’m honored to be part of that team.
How did you first get your foot in the door in Hollywood?
When I graduated and moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t come here for entertainment, I came here for the weather. The first time I ever came to L.A. was New Year’s 2000, and I think there were maybe five or six feet of snow in Cambridge. It was 82 degrees and there were palm trees and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to live here.” When I moved, I was interviewing with consulting firms and investment banking companies, I thought I was going to be on a business track.
What changed your mind?
I happened to be at an event, and someone came up to me who is now one of my best friends, a gentleman named Topher Lewis. He said, “Hey, do you want to be on this TV show? It’s called ‘Dismissed’ on MTV. You go on a date with two people and dismiss one of them at the end.” And I was like, absolutely not! But he called me on Monday and offered me a job. He said: “If you go out, maybe you can bring some diversity to the show.” I said all right, that sounds interesting. I went to MTV and interviewed and I got the job as a casting recruiter. They gave me a Polaroid camera and I went around to clubs and parties and the beach and the gym looking for people to be on the show…. So I started in casting, and then I worked for a lot of different companies as a freelancer.
JCE has been your most important career move, but it took a much earlier career coup to win over your mother.
I was a segment producer on “Designed to Sell” on Home and Garden Television [HGTV], which was the first time my mom saw my name in the credits. She was very proud because she hadn’t seen any of the MTV dating shows, and I think she thought I was throwing my life away at that point. But when she saw “Designed to Sell,” she was like, “My daughter is a producer!”