Blog

Spartan Insights: Entertainment/Film Industry Professional, Award winning Producer, Line Producer and Copy Writer Michael DeMeritt

This week’s Featured Spartan was Michael DeMeritt, Entertainment/Film Industry Professional, Award winning Producer, Line Producer and Copy Writer (See his LI profile to view some of the projects he has worked on.) Michael agreed to answer questions about his industry, career background, and projects. This discussion was be open from 03/03/2015 until 03/16/2015. Spartan Insights is a regularly scheduled Linkedin discussion thread inside of the MSUALUMNI Linkedin group. Each discussion is meant to give you the opportunity to ask questions regarding one Spartan’s experience within a specific company, industry, or occupation. Answers will be given at the convenience and discretion of the featured Spartan and will be answered from the Spartan’s own personal experiences and opinions which are not meant to be representative of his/her company’s official position. Questions regarding a person’s applicant status at the featured Spartan’s place of business will not be answered in this forum. Interested in being a helpful Spartan? Contact me at isbelld@msu.edu.

STEVE – Michael, Thank you for agreeing to be a part of these discussions! I have a two part question: What was your path into the film Industry? How have you kept yourself moving forward in what can be a very volatile industry?

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

Hi Everyone – Steve got onboard with a Q before I got on myself – first my long winded prepared intro – which answers Steve’s First Q: Hi fellow Spartans – My name is Michael DeMeritt (Class of ’85). After graduating from the Green and White I worked in Rochester, Michigan, as a Studio Coordinator for United Artists cable. I created shows of my own choosing, shot commercials with almost no budgets, and even worked on a few super cheap “movies”. As long as I met my quota, content was my own domain. I had trouble accepting this slap-dash, point-and-shoot method of production was how it was done on a truly well budgeted projects. I stumbled upon the book “The Film Director’s Team”, found an application for the Directors Guild of America Producer Training Plan and filled it out and several tests later, after a harrowing interview, found myself in the ADTP – Assistant Director’s Training Program (west). I moved with my wife to LA and was thrown into the high end world of television and film production. I was trained on weekends at the DGA by people who were masters of their craft while working 90+ hour weeks on shows. I graduated in 1992 and began a freelance career as a DGA AD. I managed to secure a few long running shows, Star Trek Voyager and Star Trek Enterprise represent 11 of my 22 years in the DGA, while Close to Home and Make It or Break It worked me for longer than usual stretches of time. But most of the work for most ADs is grabbing a few days or weeks, lucky to find anything of more than a few months of work. I began Producing during the Writer’s Strike and have managed to keep a roof over my head and my kids in college by working on whatever I can. Freelance work is a trying endeavor, not for those who prefer stability and reliable wages. I have seen production done at its very best and at its very worst too. I’ve watched outstanding actors turn mediocre scripts to something enjoyable, horrible actors saved by wonderful scripts, and – with great joy – outstanding actors with wonderful scripts lead by talented Directors and DP’s creating stuff that will outlive me. I’ve also seen a person fired for the color of his eyes, and have been “let go” twice myself – once because I didn’t get sides to the set before call, once because I used the word “guys” in reference to both men and women. It’s a wild ride and the very first thing I would do is discourage you from taking the trip – because if my saying “DON’T DO IT” will stop you, you won’t make it anyway! But for those unbidden by such a thing as logic – ask away. I can advise you on the value of the production team, answer query’s about surviving in a freelance world, inform you on how’s and why’s of a good script, a well composed production team, and the roles of all those positions you see in the closing credits. But I just can’t get you a job (you’ll get used to hearing that from people in “the biz” – because, on occasion I actually can get you a job, but I dare not admit it). I’m looking forward to your questions. GO GREEN.

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

Steve – the answer to your first Q is pretty much in the bio above, but there was a few details of my early career – fresh from MSU – that might be clarifying. I worked at WELM and also interned on “Michigan Outdoors” when I was a student at MSU. I did two single camera “films”, actually shot on video, and my Sr. Project, “Ninja Master: a parody” won a few awards. I also worked as a field camera assistant on MSU football games for WFSL, and I directed and acted in a few plays at MSU. So I had done everything I could to develop a reel and a resume and it helped me land a terrible little feature film (an actual FILM) shot in Michigan called “The Carrier”. That was a rare thing in the mid 80’s, a film shooting in Michigan, and I was hired as the boom operator mainly because I had done it before. While shooting the film, United Artists cable was building its fourth satellite studio from its Royal Oak HQ in Rochester MI and need someone to run it who would work for peanuts. My references and resume landed me the job and I spent half my time there teaching Public Access courses and the other half making LO for the local channel on the system. I want to put all due emphasis the value of the REFERENCES. My skill set was explained by my resume, but I have yet to get a long running gig because of my skill set. The person who will say to a friend or a stranger “you have to hire this guy” is the best value. My superiors backed me up when called by UA, that’s how I got my first real job there, which I held for five years. Even as an AD here on Hollyweird, References trump skill. One voice was the sole reason I landed the pilot for Star Trek Voyager. THEN I got the chance to show my skills, which led to 11 years of work. As for moving forward in a volatile industry – well, I have to keep up with the latest tools of my trade, but the craft remains the same. If you master scheduling, planning, story construction, shot design, chaos management, conflict resolution, and detailed reporting, you’ll be a good First AD. If you can schedule by hand, you can learn MM6. If you can design in Excel, you can customize any Call Sheet or Production Report whether it is delivered by print, email, text, the cloud, or some proprietary program -you’ll be a solid Key 2nd AD paperwork wise, the craft remains communication and people managing. That skill remains critical no matter what new tech comes along. The tools change, usually for the better – when I started I had a roll of quarters to call cast and crew from the nearest pay phone while on location because those mobile phones where too expensive for an AD to have – but your craft remains the same. This holds true if you are a grip, electrician or DP — anything. The bigger problem in the industry as a whole is blatant ageism, When you cross 50 you can be perceived as being “too old for the job”, even though your resume says otherwise. So, I would give you two pieces of learned advice if you venture into this realm. 1) Bank the bucks when it rains – you’ll need it for a dry spell, and 95% of the peeps in this business hit whopper dry spells, 2) Have an exit plan that could happen in your early 50’s if you need it – either outstanding retirement investing that will give you the option to retire around 55, a network of contacts that moves you into a system and out of freelance work, a secondary skill set that can float you if work becomes too rare to sustain you, or a plan that makes YOU the producer, essentially creating your own work. If you get a little luck, you’ll become affiliated with younger EPs who love you and you won’t have to deal with it. But, that’s the exception, not the rule.

Dave Isbell – Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

Thanks for such honest and in-depth insight so far Michael! I’m sure you’ve already managed to scare away the people who should not be in your industry and have lit a match under the ones who are probably saying something like “I’ll show that guy!” I’m wondering if you were to say what has been the highlight of your career, what might be a stand out experience that you would not have had if you were to have taken the “safe” road? (“Safe” implying something with a regularly scheduled paycheck, a regular schedule, and most likely a cubicle.) My second question, in response to your answer to Steve’s questions: The world of work has pretty much shifted away from “safe” work environments. In this new world, it is not uncommon that people will be changing jobs (and maybe even companies) every 3-5 years, and will likely have 3-5 CAREERS before they are done working full time. People are going to need to learn how to deal with things like project work, which is basically what your entire career (and everyone else in the film industry) has been built on. Can you speak a little bit on the concept of adapting to change, even to the point of having to reinvent him/herself? What have you found that makes a person more able to quickly adapt? What doesn’t work so well?

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

Dave Answer PART ONE OF TWO: I LOVE people who get a fire in their belly and want to prove themselves – but the Entertainment industry requires another component, an extra thick skin. So you have to be able to handle rejection more than other industries, and live in a world where those who are more accomplished may not be the most employed. You can be the best props guy in town, but if no one watches the show you work on, it will be cancelled. Not your fault, the props were great, but you’re the one job hunting. For my personal journey, I worked in a factory part-time for three years while in HS trying to save up for MSU. It was the BEST experience for me, because it forged me – made me understand the easy path just wasn’t going to be in my nature. Everyone should spend a solid year working in a factory or on a farm. It will not only tell you who you are, but you’ll truly appreciate and respect the laborer and what they bring to the world. Even when I was with UA, where I could create anything I could think of as long as I didn’t spend any money on it, I wanted to be involved with something greater. I wanted to be on something artistic that would still be around when I was long gone. Star Trek did that for me on a grand scale. I worked with the most talented people at their crafts in the world. masters of VFX, MU, Wardrobe, Set Design, Construction, Acting, Writing and Directing and more! I mention names from those days on other sets and get smiles of recognition and admiration. I’ve spoken at conventions about my life on Star Trek – people are hungry for any connection to the show, even the later run series. It will outlive me. But even outside Trek, I’ve been places and seen things I would never have seen if I had stayed in a more reliable field. I once told one man to light another man on fire, then asked him to push that burning man off a one story drop, then told two other people on the ground below me to go ahead and put the fire on the burning man out. The guy I had set on fire ran up the steps to me after the flames were snuffed and said “Great Job – Thanks”. Where else will you ever get to do that? And be thanked for it! As for change – there is a system of management called Chaos Management which essentially means planning a plan you know is likely to fail and being ready with contingency ideas when the inevitable failure happens. Some people thrive in entropic work places, others detest it. Find out who you are in this arena early in life and choose a field that plays to you core beliefs. Many people don’t really care as long as everyone plays by the same rules – they can work in strict guidelines or in minute to minute fluidity without much concern. But if you really favor one over the other, don’t take a career path that will inevitably make you miserable.

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

Dave Answer PART TWO OF TWO I think the term “reinvent” is overused. Its rare someone does this, studies law, becomes a lawyer, makes a living at it then decides to become an IT tech and reinvent themselves. I like the concept of “refocus” over an idea of rebuilding. For example, my work has placed me in many situations where I have had to deal with Conflict Resolution. I have a solid understanding of entertainment law and Union regulations and agreements. I would not have to reinvent myself to become and Arbiter. I would need to strengthen some skills, learn some more, but mostly I would refocus my energies on my Conflict Resolution skills and put them to the forefront. I find it daunting, maybe frightening, to be put in a position of restructuring everything you have known and done. But everyone I know in my business has developed true assets that could be utilized in different roles than they have traditionally been doing. Refocusing seems “doable” to me. When you think this way, you see it as achievable. You become adaptable, refocusing to suit the needs of each project, never losing a skill, but building on the ones you have. In the entertainment world you have to be able to adjust to the needs of each project, embrace the idea that there is more than one way to accomplish the same end goal. The worst thing you can ever show is rigidness, unless you are a department head. You will likely be asked to do things differently than you had done them under someone else. Try out the new way first, adapt. If you think the way it was done on a prior project was better, ASK if you could try it with your superior, get approval. Explain and compare. Be ready to be told no, and don’t take it personal. I have told many trainees and PAs, this is how they want us to do this task – when you master doing it their way, I’ll teach you a better way – but we SHOW we can do it their way before we suggest another way. Once you’ve earned their trust, you can present new ideas. Not before.

Dave Isbell – Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

Thanks! You went straight for what I had intended: the concept of “reinvention” is daunting and also improbable for most people. (Despite what all of the marketing campaigns for everything from soap to cell phones tell us.) Especially, what you did was highlight the need to be able to transfer one set of skills in one context to another (“refocusing.”) I think every person is capable of doing this, yet it can be difficult for some people to see how to do it, especially when facing a crisis (such as unemployment.) I love your example of taking your conflict resolution skills and using those in a completely different capacity than what your past contexts may have dictated. I know that one of the hardest things about doing this is helping the OTHER person understand that about yourself when trying to make a career transition. To use a Star Trek example, I think it’s probably hard for people to understand that the guy who played “Spock” also did other things; to some people he was even just, “Leonard.” Yet, I think for the average person, they’d be hard-pressed to have believed Leonard Nimoy in any acting role as anything other than “Spock” (playing Romeo, or whatever role he’d be in.) If he decided he wanted to be a bank teller or something he probably would have a heck of a time getting a job! The average Joe on the street has a similar unfortunate problem, though not quite as “public” as Mr. Nimoy would’ve had. In your case, if I can use you for a hypothetical example, if you wanted to transition out of film and into something else you wouldn’t have the trouble of being typecast in the same way as a person who became an icon. Yet, you’d still have the same basic issue- if people see your past first, they are going to say “film-guy!” (And probably, “Star Trek guy!” if you are in the right crowd.) They usually won’t be able to translate you into another context without some help. But, here, to your point earlier, is where I think your network would pay off. Some people know you as “great boss,” or, maybe, “excellent project manager,” etc. With a little bit of coaching your network to get a different introduction regarding yourself, you could begin to “translate” yourself into the worlds of your friend’s extended network (outside of film) to make inroads into other industries. But also to another one of your points, this doesn’t come without SELF-AWARENESS and something to offer – EVIDENCE of your TALENTS- before you start talking about it! (You simply can’t fake being a “good boss,” for example, and then get your friends to introduce you as that. That’s a surefire way to lose friends and opportunities!) These are great thoughts Michael, I look forward to seeing what else this discussion brings for us. I don’t really have a question here for you, but I did intentionally open up a nice little window for you if you’d like to talk about something other than the film industry. (Like, maybe for one example, what a producer actually does, translated to the world outside of film. That could be interesting for some people. But, I’ll let you roll with it in whatever direction you want to go!)

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

As a Producer I take on more responsibility for the creative process and the staff. Right now I am advising a low budget film that wants me to come on as a Producer, in this case pulling the Line (Line Producer). So I will advise hiring of department heads (but not actually hire them) and will be closely involved with budgeting and suggesting alterations to keep the project on budget. I will be involved with three phases, Pre-Production, Production and Post Production. I will be looking at the big picture, and likely have to “pull the line” when some department heads want more than we have to invest. For Third Point Productions, The Agency, and Schlesinger Films I have been a Producer having all the duties above, but adding in creative responsibility – writing pitches, scripts, marketing plans and one sheets. Having direct involvement in casting, location selection, and scheduling. I have also served a few times as a script doctor for feature films that feel their scripts are lacking something and have consulted on script development. In the latter role I am typically asked not to bring an artistic element to a script, but a realistic one – asking if a project that has 15 trucks, SFX explosions, gun fire, and long chases in a dessert can be shot on $250,000 (NO) and what would have to change to bring it into scope. As a DGA First AD I get to focus in on production. I work closely with the director, break the script down into shootable pieces, and design and oversee the plan of production itself. I run scouts, production meetings, Department meetings and oversee shooting. In TV there are typically two First ADs, one is prepping the show coming up while another shoots, then they switch, the shooting First going into prep with a new Director while the prepping First comes to set and shoots. In television the First AD assists the Director by keeping them in good light with the Show Runner and Producers. Directors count on the First AD to tell them if something they are planning would be disliked by the Producers, or if the costs would be too high. In essence, the Director is there for a short time (one episode) while the ADs are there full time and the Director wants to be brought back, and trusts the AD to help them be desirable. In feature films, the relationship is different, but the work is the same. Now the first AD has been hired by the Director and not the Producer (though the Producer and Studios sure have a veto power). The AD serves the Director’s desires directly, and it is up to Producers to decide if a directorial decision is out of line (bring in that Line Producer to argue that 300 extras are too many on this budget). Of course the process is usually collaborative, but when a Director on a TV shows says “I need another 35 extras right now, this scene sucks without them”, the 1st AD will turn to the LP and explain the situation and ask what they can do for the Director, and likely be told to make it work with what we got. On a film, the 1st AD will tell the Key 2nd AD to start bringing people in and to inform the Producers this is happening. I should note, Low Budget Features have to be more like TV. In either case, who your First AD is really effects operations on the set and planning in prep. One of the biggest problems when a person who works in production has a desire to move from Freelance to Staff in a corporate world is the fact that the titles we have have not changed in over 100 years. If you are an executive who needs a department head to coordinate your advertising/marketing team it is unlikely you perceive a person who has First AD work as someone to consider. The idea of a Director’s Assistant (gets coffee, organizes the Director’s personal life) is confused with an Assistant Director (works with all department heads to get projects delivered on time and on budget with direct oversight of production itself). In modern parlance, the First AD is more like a Project Manager.

LISA – Thank you for doing this, Michael. In a town of ‘have your people call my people’, how do you build authentic networking relationships in LA?

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

Anytime, Lisa – I still bleed green (like a Vulcan, I guess). What you are asking is the trickiest part of working in production (or development for that matter). Within a craft, relationships are built and sustained by skill set. A good grip is always a good grip and other grips will want to work with him/her. They are also employed in larger number, a Dolly Grip can take construction grip work for a while if his show is cancelled. So your network is created by your demonstrated skills – getting in and building the skills becomes the bigger problem for Craft positions. When you get into small departments, you have a very sticky situation. Script, Sound, AD, Props – these are departments with very segmented roles and small sizes. Contacts become vitally important, but may also outright lie to you. I know many solid First ADs – a position there is only one or two of on each show (maybe one more brought in for a few days on 2nd unit on occasion). I have close friends who are First ADs who are looking for work, like me. Do I share my leads with my friends, like a grip or electrician would with others of their craft? No…. I can’t. They might get the job I want. And I may be unemployed for 6 months because of it. Combine that with Producer’s who never want to come off as weaker than another producer within a project and the problem grows exponentially. I recently sent an email to a Exec I worked with (and who often told me how great I was) when I found out her newest show was looking for a First AD. She politely emailed me back saying the position was already filled. Then I found out, days later, a friend of mine is interviewing tomorrow for that position. The Exec does not want to say the truth, “I’m not powerful enough on this show to make suggestions for production staff”, or (worse for me) “I know I always said I liked your work, but actually I have completely forgotten about you”. So they lie. If that Exec really does like my work, and really does NOT have power to hire, they want me to think they do so I stay in touch for the time when they really do! Convoluted? You bet! Now I’m in a position where I want my friend to get a job I know I would have been a better choice for. It’s weird. I have a term for how ADs (and other small department roles) help each other – the ricochet effect. This concept is that you always go for a job you know you won’t get and maintain contact with people you are competing with for that moment when they are asked their availability or for a recommendation while they are safely employed. If my friend gets the job I would have been better for, and he gets a call for another job in a few weeks or months, he can now safely recommend me because he doesn’t need the other job – ricochet. If the Exec hears from another Exec about a show about to get greenlighted, they know I am looking and will send my email or resume to a show few even know about – ricochet. In a nutshell, the answer to your question about building authentic networking relationships in an insular business is that — you can’t. You can build connections while accepting the concept that your close friends and contacts will not always be supportive or tell you of authentic leads because it is not in their best interest. But when they are not in competition with you, that connection will suddenly be a solid one again.

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

I’m sort of surprised I have not received any production questions, either about specific Star Trek work, or integration of opticals in general. Or about the transition from film to digital, the differences between Mew Media and Traditional big network series production. Has the next generation of creators moved past any relationship with content development and execution methods of the last 50 years? Have we experienced that big a change in development dynamics, a complete paradigm shift? Are new projects like 12 Monkeys, Helix, The Walking Dead, and Empire simply collecting older eyes while You-Tube and other original content streaming sites has massive possession of the youth? I would like to know what the central focus of future Producers and Directors is now. What techniques have become favored.

Dave Isbell – Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

I’m sorry I don’t have any legitimate production questions for you. But I do have geeky-fan questions for you if you want to indulge me! One of my favorite shows, ever, is Firefly. (I’d be pretty shocked if you have never heard of it. If you don’t like the show, that’s ok. We can agree to disagree. But I’m right!) Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk have started an Indigogo campaign to raise funds for a new web-show they are calling Con Man. It looks their crowdfunding is going to be a success (and the show looks like it will be a ton of fun!) So, here are my questions: What are your thoughts about bypassing the traditional studio to make direct-to-internet-content, such as Con Man, or with Fan-led initiatives, such as what led up to the making of the Serenity movie? Second, you have traveled the Con-circuit. What are your thoughts on navigating that crowd successfully as an artist? Or, how would you prefer to be approached at a Con? Third, do you have any fun (and/or) horror stories about being featured in a Con? Third, and I promise I’ll go away after this, was there a favorite moment for you on Star Trek, or a favorite character that you really loved to push or pull one way another to move the story forward? Is there anything you would have liked to have done with either of the shows that you just were never able to get to? And just one more, for my wife, then I promise to go away – what was it like for you on the Wonder Years? (We both love that show, but she is a HUGE fan of that show!) Thanks for all of your candid responses. This has been a fun and informative discussion for me!

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

Taking these one at a time as I have the opportunity: CROWDFUNDING I am a fan of Firefly – immediately bought the DVD with the unaired episodes which proved the show should have stayed on the air! As for Indigogo, Kickstarter and other crowd funding (i.e. donation based) sources making Fan Films, I see it developing into new and exciting areas. Right now I am working with the producers of Axanar and they have a multi-phase Kickstarter concept for the film. They started with a documentary style pitch funded by Kickstarter called Prelude to Axanar, then raised money for pre-production, building sets, renting a stage, etc. They will soon seek the Production Money (once we get this thing budgeted). What make’s them different from other fan films is a desire to create on a professional level. They wish to be unionized (IATSE/DGA/SAG-AFTRA). In effect, they would be a ULB New Media series. If they succeed and make a superior product, other Fan Films will want to raise the bar as well. We may find a whole new world to play in, unionized, professional, fan films. An idea that would have sounded impossible a decade ago. Fan Films face significant restrictions if they do not hold the Copyright because their material – though original – is based on a property owned by another (in Axanar’s case CBS/Paramount). Lucasfilms sort of created the template for modern fan films, an accepted tolerance, as long as the product never makes money in any way, does not insult or cause disruptive dispute about characters or situations owned by the copyright holder, and does not violate use of music and sound/effects rules — in other words, you pay a licensing fee for music use. So — you are making a product you can never sell. This switches the entire marketing approach. Instead of finding an audience for a completed project, you have to find an audience for one not made. The producers of Axanar take a particular care in creating a method for donors to be included in the entire creative process. Sharing designs, posting interviews, blogs and photos for the donor base on a weekly basis. They are very aware this is the only way they get this film made – keeping the faithful involved. They want to prove a professional product can be made in this arena. The donors in any Crowd Funded endeavor or any nature, however, have no guarantee beyond whatever premium was promised to them when donating. The legal waters have not been tested as to what a donor can or cannot do if they do not get what they thought they were “buying”. There are solid fraud rules for con-men who take the money and run, but what happens when on original idea (not a derivative Fan Film) takes off and becomes very profitable and a group of donors feel they were actually investors and deserve a piece of the action? Do they have legal standing? Do they care? What happens if any crowd funded anything pays more than half of the money raised as a salary to the person who launched the concept? There’s no agreement saying they cannot that I have seen. Some writers raise money to “live” to make a book – so almost all their donated funding is in effect salary. Is that income? Or because it was donated, is that a tax free gift? Waters to be tested for sure.

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

CON CIRCUIT I have spoken at a handful of Sci-Fi Conventions and a few Media Conventions, but want to do more. For those aimed at Star Trek I have two prebuilt presentations for te general fan, one class on scriptwriting vs Graphic Novel writing, and one on acting for the camera. The latter two are joined by a seminar on setting background players and basic production management I have conducted at Media Cons, where there is a more professional attendance. I love doing these, enjoy interacting with fans and meeting people from different geographies and getting their take on how a TV show had such an influence on their lives. I always learn something new from the younger film makers at organized gatherings – even work on AFI films from time to time. I pretty much engage anyone I meet at a Convention – and have had only a few really weird encounters. When in Australia I had a woman say to me , very publicly and loudly (we were on a Star Trek tour bus) “I want to have VD with you”. I starred back in disbelief and responded “I don’t want VD from anyone.” The bus laughed and the host of the event, who was sitting next to me, elbowed me in the ribs — “NO MATE — she said V B — It’s a beer.” All in all the people I have met at these Cons are really interesting, polite, and way too thankful — as if I was part of creative on the show. When Jerri Ryan was asked to appear at a CON for the first time she told me she wasn’t sure she wanted to do it. “If someone comes up to me dressed like a Klingon and starts talking IN Klingon, I’m going to freak out.” I told her to think back on her days at Northwestern, the football fans who painted their bodies in school colors and stood half naked in sub freezing temperatures. Those who worse funny head-wear, and dressed in their teams colors in mass. I told her it was no different than that, different focus, same passion. She went. A few years later she used a similar analogy in an interview when asked about appearing at Star Trek CONs – that really made me smile!

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

STAR TREK & WONDER YEARS. Working on Star Trek was very demanding. There were great moments throughout, and I couldn’t pinpoint just a few. The very best of those working years was what happened off-camera. The crew was wonderful and the actors were hilarious between shots. Robert Beltram (Chakotay) and John Ethan Phillips (Neelix) could riff off each other at a lightning pace — they had the crew in stitches. The Voyager cast would sometimes spontaneously do comic versions of scenes, every line an innuendo, while rehearsing (Director’s went nuts, but when they did this – it was hilarious). Jolene Blaylock (T’Pol) has an infectious smile and loved anything gory and grimy. I watched Robert Duncan McNeil (Lt. Paris) and Roxanne Dawson (Torres) become outstanding directors who work to this day. And Scott Bakula (Archer) had an incredible vision – tell him the lens size and he could adjust his body for the perfect shot without seeing a monitor. Of course I wish we had embraced arch story telling sooner, by the time we did, the numbers were falling. And, like most, I felt the final episode of ST:E was a mistake – would have been a great midseason episode, but not a good final one. Manny Coto had the right approach the ST:E, it shows in the fourth season, and I have had many tell me if the fourth had been the first, they would have stuck with us. As for The Wonder Years (finally available again after much wrangling over music), it was my second show as a DGA Trainee and I wrote an article on the experience for the DGA Magazine. It was a tough show for me because I was learning – total trial by fire. Fred Savage was a doll back then, though! I found out the owner of the house used for the exterior (In Burbank CA) paid his mortgage off on the location fees. I became a master on how to work with kids by the end of my 10 week rotation on the show. But, there is one tale I have always retold from those days: We were shooting in a hilly neighborhood in southwest LA. At the top of the hill a gardener showed up and started mowing. The sound was ruining our shot, so me and the location guy ran UP UP UP the hill to shut the guy down. The gardener was not happy with us – the lawn was in horrible shape, weeds growing up, dandelions everywhere. He yelled at the location guy “I’ve been sick, its been five weeks since I worked on this lawn – I HAVE to do it now – I have too many other places to get done today. No, I won’t stop, I’ll be fired.” The Locations guy offers him $50 (This in 1992 money). “No – I can’t. I can’t lose this house.” He offers $100. “No – no way.” $200. “Okay – but you have to tell the owners YOU stopped me.” Around 5pm a car pulls into the house, The Locations guy runs UP UP UP the hill. He talks to the owners – I watch from a distance. Then he comes back down the hill, winded and looking a little POed. “Did you tell them WE stopped the Gardener?” I ask, he nods. “Are they going to fire the gardener anyway?” “No.” The Locations guy replies in a huff. “They don’t even have a gardener.” And that, my friends, is The Business LA Style.

Dave Isbell – Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

Those stories about VD and the gardener had me laughing my head off! Thanks for sharing them. I’d love to sit in on those writing classes you give! I’m curious about your graphic novel writing experiences. I know you have written a comic for Star Trek. Is this a medium that you enjoy working in? Is there a fundamental difference between how you approach writing a comic from how you may draft for the screen? Obviously, comics are a hot item in Hollywood right now. Is there a comic property that hasn’t yet been made that you would like to see translated to the screen? If you could write (or work in film on) for any licensed property, what do you think would be your “dream” project?

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

I sold three scripts to DC for the Star Trek line, but they lost the rights that same year and the only one ever published was Pandora’s Prodigy. Comics tend to be a very risky venture, the number of indies who fail to profit are staggering. That said, graphic novels have become a way to pitch a film concept. I have read several that come off as storyboards for a film. I prefer the DC writing method over the Marvel method, and have enjoyed reading the scripts written by masters, like Neil Gaiman. When I wrote Pandora’s Prodigy, the artists hired for the project told my editor that he never had a clearer vision from the words as to what the character’s looked like. Likewise, when I got the blue lines, I was stunned at how perfectly the artist caught the characters. I literally had no notes, except one of FANTASTIC – don’t change a thing! Pandora was based on a script I wrote for TNG, which was rejected as being too expensive to make by Eric Stillwell. When I came to actually work on Star Trek I asked Eric after that submission and he said the real issue with my script was it caused the death of a main character, and that was an automatic rejection even if the death was temporary. Margaret Clark, from DC, was visiting the Voyager set and I told her about my script and she offered to look at it. She called me a few days later and said she would buy a comic book script if was willing to learn the format, and that I would have to ditch the idea of bringing harm to a main character – so the comic book was born. (you can see the cover here: http://www.wixiban.com/comics/dc-tng-specials.htm) Both Scripting and Graphic writing are visual medium writing, both rely on character dialogue and interaction, but that’s where the writing similarities end. Comic writing is FAR more visual and, though descriptive and structured, allows for more play within the format. Scripts have an even greater technical component to them, and most starting writers fail to understand that and write bad scripts. More than a story, more than a play, a script is a blueprint. It MUST track, it must have format, it shouldn’t direct (there’s someone who is going to be hired for that), it should have character above all else – but if it is not in conventional structure, fails to have a strong left brain design, it will not be easily accepted. If I had the power – Gaiman’s Sandman would be brought to screen – preferably as an HBO level series, with an investment similar to Game of Thrones. I pitched some original comic book line concepts, but they are hard for established companies to invest in without a vetted big name writer attached. I enjoyed IDW’s take on the failed Starlost TV Series from the 1970’s, Phoenix Without Ashes, and would love an opportunity to write that as a continuing line. But a dream project? That would have to be an original work I have wanted to do most of my life; Thierria. The tale of an Acolyte to a Slave Goddess of Love and her rise to godhood herself, through war – very sword and sorcery, heavy of political manipulation, sort of a cerebral female power tale – an anti-red Sonya, Thierria is wise not strong – a leader who other would die to protect. But, alas, I doubt anyone would take a risk on publishing it.

Dave Isbell – Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

A.) Yes! Sandman with the level of investment and quality that is put into GOT would be amazing! B.) I’m going to track down a copy of that Star Trek issue, because I’m a nerd and when you come up to visit East Lansing I’m going to have you sign it for me. C.) If you make Thierria, I’ll read it! In fact, you have my vote to start up an Indiegogo campaign. I’ll be your first backer! (On a geeky sidenote, did you ever read any of the Crossgen comics? That company wasn’t around long, but they put out some terrific work! I just think they overreached beyond their means for the business side to catch up with the artistic side of their business.)

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

In my conversations with Christian Gossett, who at first successfully self published the gorgeous “The Red Star” graphic novels, he told me he worked on his business plan and marketing more than the work itself. Of course, his success lead him to a publisher. And I always sign Pandora wherever I find it, once in a comic book store’s $1 bin. It is a fine example of something rather rare not being all that valuable! No — not familiar with Crossgen!

Dave Isbell – Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

That’s pretty common for every self-published work, I imagine. But, my opinion is that sometimes it’s ok to make art for its own sake because you want to see it live, and it’s ok to make a labor of love a “hobby” when you’d otherwise get paid for it. (I’m not suggesting that a professional should have to give away their talents, but I do know people who have gone this route and fallen in love again with their trade which had become just a “job” to them!) But, you are right. I think it’s got to be tough to try to make a living doing independent comics. Who can compete with Batman and the Avengers? (Other than Jeff Smith. Man, did that guy make his own “luck” when he published “Bone.” And then republished it. Then did it again. Tons of hard work creating content followed by tons of hard work for more years running the “Bone” business.) Disney acquired Crossgen when they folded. Probably their most popular book was Sojourn, which was a great book and would translate well to film (Lord of the Ringsish) but my favorite was Abadazad, written by J.M.DeMatteis and drawn by Mike Ploog. It was really unique (sort of a “Wizard of Oz kind of vibe) and it never got to end its first arch, but was nonetheless beautiful. Disney picked it up and tried to market it as a “Harry Potter-type” kids hardcover novel series, but I don’t think they found their audience because it ended too soon there too!

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

Yes – corporate thinking is very quarterly. TV Shows from the 1960’s to mid 1980’s that were smash hits would have died early deaths in the current environment. MASH, All In The Family, Murder She Wrote, Magnum PI, Night Court – and many others – took months and months to find their audience. Studio leadership and networks simply liked the shows and stuck by them. They eventually found their audience and took off. Now a show can be canned in three airings. A book has to be “Young Adult” to get more than 90 days shelf life or go to top of searches. Indie films have to bemade under $3M or over $55M or they are killed by piracy. There’s no room for patience and slow development. The quarterly statements drive decisions. Only Pay Systems can afford to take long range view, Netflix, HBO, etc. The model is very different.

JOHN – Michael et al, this has been a fascinating discussion on an aspect of the entertainment industry that many (most?) of us seldom see. My background is in a different, but related, space – online marketing and advertising, so I thought I’d pose a question related to the intersection of the areas. So, here it is: as the traditional broadcast advertising funding continues to evolve faster and faster (ad skipping, multi-screen viewing, audience participation), what impacts do you see on the processes of creating entertainment?

Michael DeMeritt – For your Producer, Consultant or AD (DGA) needs at AVAILABLE

The biggest impact out front is on BUDGETS! Beyond the painful effects of pirating making investors justifiably skittish on feature projects over $2M and under $50M, ad skipping has had an impact on advertisers perceived value of ads. There is a belief in the market that the volume of people skipping ads needs to be measured and the value of the ad placement reduced proportionately. Ironically, multi-screen viewing, which can allow banners ads floating in your “focal zone”, are considered a remedy to this problem. At least partially. Watchers on two media tend to allow ads to run on the core program while they comment on the product on the secondary device. This gives the perception of greater exposure than ad skippers, and advertisers appear to hold greater value on shows that offer this opportunity. None of this has been truly verified. In fact, a Direct TV/TiVO study put people in a room individually, scientifically selected, and one half were showed a show with no option to skip commercials, the other half shown the same show with a remote and instructions how to skip ads. Everyone in group 2 skipped at least one block of ads, the majority skipped all ads. Then the participants where polled on what ads were on the show. Group 1, forced to watch the ads, did not have as good a recall as the group 2,who skipped the ads. The concept is simple, to skip the ads you have to face the screen and pay attention so you skip JUST the ads. This focus actually allows more information in your brain than just passive watching. Does it mean anything? Hard to say. And I don’t know of any University to actually set this up and confirm the results. Right now there are three very successful counter measures to ad skipping, and a fourth that is slowly being confirmed as legitimate. 1) Product Placement. Not the “bang the nail on the head” kind that was predominate in the early naughts, but a newer, more incorporated use of popular devices and products. Watch Sleepy Hollow and pay attention to the kinds of shots used on the cars they drive. Notice in all TV real products are featured while prop products are just in the background. 2) Pay for it viewing and volume in streaming – HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Cinemax, Etc. do not care about eyes per viewing. They focus on retention. Youtube has many success stories, home grown channels that capture millions of eyes and make a tidy profit for product providers. You can wade through channelawesome.com for hours – whenever you want. Both models do not require an audience to gather up in one “place”. 3) Back to the 1950’s – Yahoo Streaming, Youtube, and many other internet sites have hearkened back to the days when you just HAD to sit through the ads to get the content. Some are egregiously unbalanced. Sit through a 30 second spot to watch a ten second video clip. I paid off Words With Friends because of this factor. Those videos were mind numbing, just so I could play QAT. My last major project, Sin City Saints, will be part of this method starting March 23rd. Its all free, but you cannot skip the ads. 4) Better Commercials. This factor is slowly being recognized by ad makers. Direct TV has seen true-time ratings show a spike for commercials that are pretty good. That is, people will back up and watch a commercial twice if it’s exceptional, or stop scanning through, back up, and watch the ad (which really supports the focus while skipping study). Some people share well-made commercials like other video clips. That Darth Vader kid and the car — so cute! Bottom line, though – exhibitors want product as cheap as possible (welcome Reality TV — you are cheap to make, so we love you) so a lot of eyeballs are unnecessary to make money. The Internet wants you to work as close to free as you can: your blood, your sweat, my equity! There is a drive for more action, more effects, stunts, and cool lighting on less money. So, be ready for skinny budgets with large desires.

Dave Isbell – Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

Michael thank you for all of the terrific insights on this discussion thread. This was truly an enjoyable conversation filled with much wisdom! Thank you for helping Spartans in this way. This discussion is now closed, but all of our Spartan Insights discussions and the helpful Spartans who participated can be found at www.spartanshelpingspartans.com.

 

Share:

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: