Wednesday, March 30, 2011

One Creative Motherfucker! An interview with Merrel Davis on Branding

Today has the pleasure of chatting with Merrel Davis founder of Screenwriter Karaoke a monthly networking event for new and veteran screenwriters.

GL -
Merrel, Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Please tell us a bit about yourself – How did you get interested in screenwriting?

MD - I took a long and meandering journey to through several industries to get to Los Angeles. It began in the soulless depths of a government contract office in Washington D.C. In case you haven't done your own empirical study, every terrible cliché about government work and office work you can imagine is true. The number of dead souls wandering among the living outside of the pentagon number in the thousands. My time in “job prison” was not without benefit; I was able to reflect and cultivate my storytelling, put my toe into the water, save money and then ultimately move to New York City.

The screenwriting portion of storytelling, was a natural progression for me. I'd been involved in other parts of production and post-production (I actually wrote about that here: "Become a better Screenwriter through Post-Production") I found myself editing short films and comedy skits that frankly, weren't very funny. I had a sort of an aha! moment which went something like “why am I polishing their turds? When I can polish my own!”

2009 was an important year for me, it marked the real transition into “screenwriter.” I wrote a feature script that, while not produced, was solid enough to get me in on scholarship to several screenwriting workshops and conventions. I sold a series of animated scripts overseas, and then in 2010 my short script “Obsolesk” won best science fiction script at AIFF, all while I was working as production staff on a NAT GEO television show.

While in New York City I began a monthly networking event called “Screenwriter Karaoke.” I was looking to have some no-pressure hang time with like-minded industry peeps. So, I started Screenwriter Karaoke; it's an easy way to come and meet other screenwriters and filmmakers, have a couple of drinks, and sing a couple of songs. Since the inception of Screenwriter Karaoke, I've taken it to events such as The Great American Pitch Fest and the Creative Screenwriting Expo

Now here in LA, I've seen attendance triple and lots of great new faces coming out every month.
Our next Screenwriter Karaoke event is April 2011 in Los Angeles.

GL - Branding? What do you mean when you say a screenwriter needs to “brand” themselves?

MD - It's tough as ever to reach the dream. The talent pool grows and grows and at any waking moment in LA there is a cacophony of writers clamoring recognition and livelihood. When I say a screenwriter needs branding, it means they need to effectively set-themselves apart and above of their peers. Good writing is vitally important, not much can be done without a solid foundation, but so much is how you present yourself in the context of your good work.

Before we get too deep, let me say, “branding” is a broad term, some people believe a brand only applies to your body of work directly, I am one of the many people who believes your brand is not only your work, but your personality, your brand is how you carry yourself in the marketplace, and that marketplace is partially online. Your brand is the essence of you, presented for consumption and extends beyond just the subject matter of your craft.

I've encountered countless writers and filmmakers who have good work but have lacking presence in meetings and person. Balancing artful business with your cultivated craft, that is your brand.

When a client approaches me and says “Merrel please brand me” the first thing that I tell them:
Managing your brand is kind of like thinking the way a literary manager would, but with a targeted focus on online branding and printed material.

Your brand includes current and previous bodies of work, websites, online presence, business cards, accomplishments, awards etc. – my job is to synthesize and cohesively set-forth a brand that truly represents the client.

Generally speaking, a client comes to me or my partner (see for story notes and development, we sort them out, and then ask when and where they are pitching (or even if they even are.) Based on whether it's an indie or a studio film we then devise a plan for online.

GL - But I just want to write, why should I spend so much time working on my image?

MD - “But, I just want to write” is a nice way of saying, “No one has compensated me well for my writing yet, and I resent that.” This isn't about image, it's really about effectively letting people know who you are and what you do.

What's the first thing anyone is going to do after they meet you? If they are interested, they'll Google you or IMDB you. If somebody Googles your name what comes up? Facebook profiles, a genealogy chart or a navigable body of professional work?

Web presence is vitally important for this reason, everyone has an iPhone or an Android phone, it literally only takes 3 seconds to call up information.

GL - What are some of the do’s and dont's of branding? Are there any?

MD - Last year, I wrote an article “WTF! 10 lessons I learned about the entertainment industry in 2010.” it covers a lot of my lessons learned in conducting business in Los Angeles.

When it comes down to it, authenticity is the best policy. But don't over-do it! Here's a snipit from my article: “There is nothing more noticeable than the stench of desperation in the room. Los Angeles is the city of 'keeping up appearances' and the way you carry yourself is as important as the message you carry. That’s not news, but be very careful not to confuse candor and aspiration for desperation, or the other way around.” Don't be that person!

With regard to websites it's very important to have one. If you already have a site here's a list of no-no's. If you do any of these, I presently hate you, but we can be friends soon I hope!

- An entirely FLASH based website is the bane of my existence. The flash renaissance is over, often you can't skip the intro, it's not as easily searchable by “the googles,” and flash doesn't work on hand-held devices such as the iPhone and iPad. Also, auto playing music or video is just bad form. Give the user a chance!

Lastly, don't use Blogger or Blogspot websites for your film. NO! Get your own website and email, the days of hotmail and AOL are out. It's hard to take someone serious if their email address is and similarly if they have a free hosted website on blogspot.

GL - Ok, so now we’re standing out from the rest of the crowd? What next? What if I’m not ready for my new found attention? What steps should a new writer take to get themselves ready to be the focus of a producer’s attention?

MD - The best steps you can take to ready yourself for the attention of a producer or anyone else for that matter, is to have a solid track record and body of work that is easily found and consumable to somebody who is just the slightest bit interested. It's amazing how much ground you can cover with a link to your website, a writing sample, and an IMDB link. It shows prospective colleagues, managers, agents and producers that you are aware of what is required of you, and oh by the way, here it is.

GL - Should your brand extend into your writing style?

MD - Your writing style IS a large part of your brand. What you write about will help you decipher how to brand yourself. That sleek dark, grungy website may be good for the Phillip K. Dick inspired spec, but not for a teen comedy.

GL - How has being a “Creative Motherfucker” helped your career?

MD - Yes, it is actually true that my business card has one of the seven dirty words. I think Carlin would be proud, I mean if he weren't turning over in his grave, that motherfucker!

Seriously though, my business card has landed me countless meetings, facilitated immediate connections, and just looks damn cool. It is the ultimate litmus test; there are three outcomes, they: 1) Look at my card briefly, not long enough to take it in, then tuck it away quickly. 2) Look at my card and read my title and become aghast. Or 3) Look at my card, see my title and laugh.

For people who respond like #2, you just saved me some time. For people who did #1, it shows me a lack of interest, where as people who actually look at it love it. So, I guess being a creative motherfucker has its advantages for sure.

GL - What kind of projects can we look for from @UncompletedWork?

MD - On every horizon things are looking up!

On the web side, I'm building a website for an academy award nominated writer/director. On the producing side of things I'm currently in pre-production on a reality / docu series. My latest script, an unnecessarily, overly-complicated time-travel romp is in the throes of a reoutlining. When I'm not working I'm usually berating myself for not working while playing Call of Duty: Black Ops.

GL - Merrel, thanks again for taking time to share your knowledge! We look forward to seeing you at #scriptchat Sundays at 8pm EST.