Louisville entrepreneur launches small business to create animated TV series

A drawing of the fictional city New Sanctum. | Courtesy of Next Guardian LLC

In New Sanctum, an enormous city controlled by an oppressive government-like entity called MetaGen, Taboo, a member of a superpowered minority awakens without knowledge of his past or capabilities. The city, plunged into darkness by a blackout, teems with a ferocious intensity as government agents scour the city’s many layers to determine whether the power failure was caused by a malfunction — or something more sinister.

That’s the setup of a series of stories co-created by Louisville resident Justin Jackson, who is envisioning the material as an animated series. Jackson and co-creator Ethan Kostouros launched Next Guardian LLC about 18 months ago and are trying to raise funds to pay for a pilot they hope to sell to a content provider such as Netflix.

Jackson said the story, set on a fictional earth-like planet, plays on some familiar themes that are explored in “Game of Thrones,” “X-Men” and “Black Panther.” But he said “Next Guardian” also features some interesting twists, including a quasi-scientific exploration of the characters’ superpowers and a lengthy history of events — wars, rebellion, failed revolutions — before the story begins.

Viewers of the series would learn about the world along with the amnesiac Taboo, who slowly rediscovers New Sanctum, its political machinations and his superpowers. Characters with superpowers are called aura users, or AUs, Jackson said, and their powers can vary, with some enhancing combat capabilities, while others serve to support surveillance endeavors.

Jackson said he and his co-creator envision the series as an in-depth exploration of a fictional world, featuring humor, betrayal, redemption, battles, a bit of romance and unlikely alliances among various factions in New Sanctum.

The entrepreneur said that he and Kostouros conceived of the idea when they were in high school. During a discussion in English class, they got bored and began to draw stick figures and assigned to them unique abilities before having them engage in “Dungeons & Dragons”-like combat. Jackson said the duo continued to create characters and stories around them, then connected their stories and created a shared history. As they developed their characters, they drew them in more detail.

“The more we dove into it, the more intense it got,” he said.

While the co-creators attended different universities, they have stayed in touch and continue to work on the series, Jackson said, frequently exchanging text messages with new ideas for stories or characters.

Now they’ve got a pilot written, and they’re attending conventions, learning about the industry, making connections and learning to pitch the project. Jackson said he estimates shooting a pilot could cost about $320,000.

Entrepreneurial challenges

Justin Jackson

Jackson said that while many of his fellow graduates from Savannah College of Art and Design moved to New York City and Los Angeles, he returned to Louisville to focus much of his energy on the series.

He said the advice and help he has received from his parents, Nikki Jackson, who works at the Federal Reserve Bank, and Vince Jackson, a health care executive, has been immensely helpful.

Jackson also has learned some lessons, including tough ones, from family friend and mentor Nat Irvin, assistant dean of thought leadership and civic engagement at the University of Louisville.

Irvin, an author, futurist, teacher, composer and commentator, told Insider that he advised Jackson, whom he has known for years, on typical entrepreneurial challenges, such as understanding his product and the market.

In addition, Irvin said he told Jackson to work on summarizing his series so that he can quickly share his vision to potential supporters and investors. Their time is valuable, and they have to be able to grasp the project in just a minute or two, he said.

Irvin said that he encouraged Jackson to follow his passion, but also gave him practical advice, by asking, for example, “Well, who’s going to pay for your passion?”

The point, Irvin said, was for Jackson to make sure that while he pursued his fantasy series, he had a way to pay his bills in the real world.

Jackson works for the Montessori School of Louisville, leading after-school activities. He also works as a waiter, at Flavour Restaurant. Jackson said it’s not lost on him that he shares restaurant duty with many of his actor friends who moved to the coasts.

The “Next Guardian” series takes up much of his spare time. Jackson said he works on it every night.

“There’s always something new to discover,” he said.

Irvin said that it’s clear that Jackson and his co-creator have put a lot of thought into the characters and the story.

“Justin’s very talented,” Irvin said. “The characters (feel) real.”

But he said that he also made it clear to the young entrepreneurs that they face high hurdles particularly because they lack deep connections in an industry dominated by the country’s coasts.

“There’s a lot of luck involved in this,” Irvin said.

Technological advancements, shifting audience preferences

Nat Irvin II

On the flip side, Irvin said, technological advancements, a shift in audience preferences and a proliferation of delivery platforms are providing more opportunities for content producers than perhaps at any time in entertainment history.

The shrinking size of camera equipment and rising sophistication of editing software means that people can shoot films with very little startup capital. And filmmakers today do not have to rely anymore on the old studio structure because of disrupters such as Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services that are constantly are looking for content.

“With imagination and persistence and a strategy, you can be found,” Irvin said.

What also plays into the entrepreneurs’ favor is a growing network of minority filmmakers who also are increasingly gaining recognition for their work, from Spike Lee, who on Sunday won his first Oscar for “BlacKkKlansman, to Berry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) and Jordan Peele (“Get Out,’) who, as producer, has been nominated for Best Picture in two consecutive years. In fact, the adapted screenplay Oscar has gone to African-Americans for two consecutive years, while the directing Oscar has gone to Latinos in two consecutive years.

Those artistic recognitions have coincided with a rising commercial success of films with nontraditional heroes, such as “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and “Black Panther,” which also have drawn to theaters more diverse audiences. The audience for “Panther,” for example, was 37 percent African-American, compared to 15 percent for the average movie, and 45 percent women, compared to 35 percent for the average superhero movie, according to Fortune.

Irvin said that America “is in the midst of a social hurricane” unlike any the nation has seen since the early 20th century.

“The stories that have previously not been told are about to be told,” he said.

And that’s potentially good for young minority entrepreneurs such as Jackson who are trying to bring a unique vision to a screen near you.