Thursday, May 22, 2014

How Michael Nesmith Ruined My Life

Now that nobody's mentioned it, Karl Malden isn't the only one who made a seemingly whimsical decision that had profoundly negative reverberations in my life. Michael Nesmith gave me a shot, I give him that, I hit a bullseye, then he gave me another shot, I give him that, another bullseye, and he ended up calling not just one but both projects off, decisions I still don't understand, since it wasn't just me. MANY others would have been employed, a giant gang I grew to vastly admire.

While it was happening, it was great. When I tell people I once had a TV show, produced by Michael Nesmith, I can now prove it by pointing to this segment from Overview that magically appeared on YouTube one day. Though I am grateful for being given the opportunity to make such a thing, my gratitude is tempered by the fact that if Nesmith had accepted NBC's offer to put it on after SNL, not only would dozens of talented people NOT have been put out of work, but I'd have a career in television. Tom Shales and I would have been broadcast TV's only alternative to Siskel and Ebert, two guys in suits just sitting there, vs. me on NBC after SNL in my own little PeeWee's Playhouse of 80s special effects and trashy videos. That would have been fun, no matter how long it lasted. Welcome to my dream job. Watch it and I'll start again.

In 1985 I had a regular video column in the L.A. Weekly. I was the first video critic who focused entirely on "made for video" releases, which were a brand new phenomenon at the time. Michael Nesmith's Elephant Parts was the very first ever. I wrote about it and Nesmith became a fan of my writing just as I was a fan of his videos, and he ended up using me as a critic in his home video magazette (half magazine, half cassette), Overview.

NBC, who had aired Nesmith's previous show, Television Parts, saw the pilot and wanted it, but Nesmith wanted to market it solely to the home video market, which made a certain amount of sense since it reviewed videotapes. Unfortunately, no retailers knew what to do with them. Overview needed to be in newsstands since, if it wasn't on television, it was, in fact, a periodical, but no newsstands knew what to do with it. Video stores sold Overview for less than blank tape, another deliberate marketing tactic that somehow backfired. Customers didn't like the idea of taping over something, so all the tapes were returned to be erased so they could be sold as ACTUAL blank tape.

Okay, he was decades ahead of his time. But everyone in the publishing industry knew at this pre-internet time that you don't even THINK of publishing a magazine or newspaper without the funding to publish at least six months, but more realistically two years, since that's how long it took for any publication to break even. Nesmith didn't follow up on his bet with any more episodes to get people used to the idea of getting a videotape in the mail every month. He didn't try to build an audience. He just folded. Bye everybody.

I gotta say that just because Nesmith's innovative marketing tactic didn't work is no excuse for turning down NBC. In fact, it's the opposite. The only excuse I can make up in my head is that all of us could have used the gig except Nesmith. He had other fish to fry. So did I and I got on with my life. 

One day the phone rang and it was Nesmith again asking what I was doing that afternoon. I said "nothing" and he invited me to his office. Once there, he drove me and several others to the Burbank airport where we got into his private Lear jet and flew to Silicon Valley where we were taken to Hasbro's private research laboratory in the middle of nowhere. We each had to sign a 15 page letter of non-disclosure before we were led into a room and shown the very first mock-up of the very first interactive video device. This was before CD-I or CD-ROM or DVD or any other interactive technology had reared its head.
It was a black box with a joystick that went in-between your VCR and your TV, making any ordinary VHS or Beta tape interactive. They called it skipframe technology, reading alternate frames on the tape, 30 frames, 60 fields per second, divided by four tracks, giving four separate 15 field per second videos running simultaneously and collated, ABCDABCDABCDABCD, with the joystick choosing which path to follow, A, B, C, or D, as the tape played in real time. Want to switch to only two tracks? No problem ABABABAB at 30 fields per second. Ten tracks? No problem ABCDEFGHIJABCDEFGHIJ at six fields per second. Wanna put four Star Treks on a one-hour tape playing simultaneously with the ability to switch back and forth between them like the old eight-tracks? No problem.

As a marketing scheme it made sense since video was booming, PCs hadn't quite made it yet, and everyone was buying one of these new fangled VCRs. Hasbro figured the best way to introduce interactivity to the home market was with a device compatible with any VCR and any TV. Soon computers co-opted the entire interactive market and Hasbro was left making toys and mega-movies.

I played with the demo, which was simply footage of a car going down a street. With a joystick, I could decide at each intersection which direction to continue. That was it. The device did absolutely nothing else and it STILL blew my mind. Nothing like it had ever existed before. They asked me what I would do with it.

"I want an interactive Star Trek where every time you beam somewhere, you end up in a different episode and you have to figure out how to get back to where you started."

OMG, thought the rep from Paramount, we don't even have to shoot anything, it's all post with footage we already have.

Fastest deal I ever made.  

I don't remember the rest of what flew out of my mouth but I was immediately hired to write the world's first interactive movie called So You Wanna be a Rock 'n' Roll Star, to be starring Nesmith. 

And how will you write such a thing? they asked.

And I realized why I was there. It could only be done with flow charts and I was the king. Nobody had ever used flowcharts like I did, including these three from the LA Weekly and National Lampoon.

I had also written screenplays so I said I'd invent some combination of flowchart and script, a flowscript. They liked it.

Nesmith put together a co-production deal with Paramount Pictures and I moved into his offices. Working with Peter Kleiner, we put together a flowchart that circled the room, with each box on the chart corresponding to a scene in a 227 page script, pretty long for a film only 30 minutes long.
One month before we were to go into production on So You Wanna be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?, Wall Street crashed and the whole project was put on hold, just long enough for the technology to be superseded by other technology that came out first, putting the kibosh on all the interactive projects we were developing, including Taking the World by Storm, The Interactive Comic, The Parenting License, and Being There Interactive. In fact, the technology we were working with never emerged, none of the projects ever happened, including the interactive Star Trek. Need I mention the legal hell of trying to revive properties owned by Paramount Pictures, Hasbro Toys, and Pacific Arts?

Many years later, I was introduced to someone at a party who said "Are you the Michael Dare who wrote So you want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?" 

"Yeah," I said, "but how could you possibly know that?" 

He sold me my flowchart circled the conference room at MSM where it was used to teach people how to write interactive media. 
Which didn't put a penny in my pocket. I missed THAT wave, even though I obviously influenced a lot of people. Being a pioneer ain't all it's cracked up to be.

More years later, when other technologies emerged making the project more viable, I wrote Nesmith and asked him why we didn't go ahead with the project with different technology. He had just won millions in a case against PBS so I figured he could afford to just produce it himself. He never got back to me.

And the wrap-around-the-room flowchart that proves this isn't all bullshit? From the days when dot matrix was hi-tech, I hereby violate my non-disclosure agreement and give you the first five pages of the first flowscript.


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