Monday, November 16, 2009

Feature on James Johnston

Although this is another new and unusual format to the blog, we thought it might be a good story to share with all the readers. James Johnston came to Virginia Tech and spoke about his experiences as an Independent Film Producer and Director. Here is my article I wrote for our online newspaper on his experiences and advise for future filmmakers.

From a rap artist to a chef to a maker of music videos, James M. Johnston has traveled a different path to becoming an established independent and feature filmmaker. The Department of Theatre and Cinema hosted Johnston on Wednesday afternoon in the performance arts building. He spoke about how he got into the film industry, experiences as an independent film artist and gave advice for upcoming filmmakers.

Johnston’s overall theme of the presentation was that he is more interested in being a creative artist than a Hollywood film icon.

“ I want to make films as an artist not as a paycheck,” said Johnston. “I feel like I have something to say and [I want to produce] what matters to me as an artist and not what is hot at the time.”

Professors Paul Harrill and Ashley Maynor chose to have Johnston come speak at Virginia Tech. Both say they know him personally because of their travels to various film festivals and respect for his work.

“The short-films he's made as a writer-director, as well as the feature films he's produced, have been made in Texas with small crews and small budgets. Yet, they have more humanity than most movies made with 10-times the resources,” said Harrill. “We place an emphasis on self-reliant filmmaking at Tech, so he's a filmmaker that we want our students to learn from.”

About 15-20 cinema students showed up to the presentation eager to hear what Johnston had to say, as well as, a couple of Associated Movie Producers (AMP) students.

There was no sign of Johnston five minutes before the presentation until all of the sudden a tall man with gold shoes and a long beard stepped into the room. The mysterious man was then introduced as James Johnston.

Johnston began the presentation by explaining how he got into the film industry. Johnston started out his career as a want-to-be hip-hop rap artist at 18. It was not until a friend brought home a video of independent short films that he even began to consider work in the film industry.

“The thought never even crossed my mind that people could make films outside of Hollywood,” said Johnston. “Seeing [these films] really changed my life and I started getting into film and dove in head first.”

Johnston then advised the audience that volunteering for low-budget films was his next step in learning about the film industry. He worked every job imaginable from catering to lighting, personal assisting and eventually directing and producing.

Johnston explained that, in order to start out as a filmmaker, you often have to have additional jobs to make money and pay the mortgage. In fact, most paid filmmakers who are known in the industry still have other jobs on the side.

In Johnston’s presentation, he proceeded to show two of his short films called "Merrily, Merrily" and "Receive Bacon". He used the films to broadcast promote some of his work and also to explain the importance of editing and peer sharing.

When asked about peer feedback on films Johnston said, “Some of my friends' films are not the type of films I make but [when they review my film] they know what I am going for as a creative filmmaker. You will know your group when you find it and [that group relationship] becomes like creative soul mates.”

Johnston’s final points in the presentation had to do with his thoughts of what it is like to be a producer. He explained that in the independent film world the role of the producer is very different than in Hollywood.

In Hollywood, the producers are the bosses and own everything, but with independent films it is a partnership with the director and is overall more artist-driven.

As far as current projects go, Johnston said he produced with director David Lowery for his recent film, "St. Nick".

“When David brought 'St. Nick' to me it was just an outline, but I knew exactly what he wanted to do with it,” said Johnston. “I told David, ‘Hey look there is a certain way we are going to do this with a budget we can afford.’”

Now that St. Nick has played at many film festivals and has won many awards, it has become known all over the world. Virginia Tech was the first Virginia and academic premier of the film. The film premiered in Pamplin Hall in the evening after his presentation.

Only time will tell what new projects and films Johnston will work on in the future. But one thing is for sure and that is Johnston loves “working on anything creative and getting [his work] out in the world.”

Notes from Ashley:

Websites for St. Nick:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meeting Maroon 5

As most of you know I have been working for a month now to try and get a phone or face-to-face interview with Maroon 5. The sad news is that there are many complications that happen to prevent interviews from taking place, and unfortunately I was unable to obtain that interview. The good news is, instead of an interview I am excited to say I met the band one-on-one before their concert last night and was able to watch the whole show on the side of the stage. Even though there is no interview, I want to share my amazing experience with our audience.

The story began when Rachel, one of Maroon 5’s public relations representatives, who tried for a month to set up the interview. She worked so hard and I am so thankful to have someone put in that much effort on my behalf. It certainly gave me the perspective of what someone in her role goes through when it comes to the challenges of scheduling. The day of the interview, the drummer had an emergency before their show in Rochester, NY, so they had to cancel all interviews for that day (eight total!). We tried to reschedule but with the band's tour and other scheduled appointments, it became impossible. While I was taking a test, right before the concert, I received a “missed call” on my cell from Rachel. What a great voice mail – her message said that while she couldn't get me an interview, she in fact had pulled some strings and got me a quick meet and greet before the show! I was bummed that I wouldn't have a chance to ask the questions we prepared, but I immediately became both excited and nervous to meet MAROON 5! Arrangements were made for me to meet the band's tour manager.

Of course when you’re waiting for something so exciting to happen time passes as slow as it possibly can. I walked (a.k.a. ran with excitement) over to the loading gate to make my appointed meet time with Shawn, the band's tour manager. I called Shawn, as instructed, and since the band was meeting with those affected by the April 16th shootings, there was a bit of a delay. He said he would call me or meet me when they were done. More waiting...but there was a guy smoking a cigarette outside. Since you never know whom you are going to meet – we began to chat and it turned out that his name was Teal and he was a crew member for the band. We talked all about what it was like to be on tour and how he got the job. One of the most interesting facts he told me was about the entourage that travels with the band, which includes a yoga instructor. Teal had to get back to work and other crew members came and went and I took an opportunity to speak to each one. Everyone was so friendly and it was a real bonus to speak with them. Finally, a woman came out and asked if I was looking for someone. I told her I was waiting for Shawn and she took me back stage with her.

I was waiting at the doorway to the stage when all the sudden 6 men slammed opened the door and ran in all pumped up and messing around with each other. I did a double-take and was like, wait wasn’t that Adam Levine (not believing what I was seeing)? The tour manager said, “Well there they go, you want to go say hi?” He introduced each band member to me individually and then some of the band went out to watch the opening act and the others went to get ready. I walked over to the side of the stage and was able to hang out with James and Jesse. We talked about what I was studying and what they thought of Virginia Tech. It was great they were so down to earth, and in the end, it wasn’t nerve-racking at all to speak with them. They all thought it was so funny that people think our school looks like Hogwarts, from Harry Potter. When it was time to go out on stage they were all right next to me and I watched as they walked out in the dark then you could just hear everyone going nuts.

The show itself was amazing! They played every song you would want and expect to hear, including an acoustic version of “She Will Be Loved”, which was my personal favorite. They also brought all of their own light sets, which was amazing with the music. I got to see everything going on back stage from the testing of guitars, to making sure band members didn’t trip over their wires. It was an incredible experience. Shawn was also personable and friendly and he kept telling me I could stay as long as I wanted and asked how I was doing. Of course, I stayed the whole show! At the end of the show, they ran off and had people waiting to give them towels and anything else needed. Then they went on for an amazing encore and it was over. My phone died before the show so I was unable to take any pictures with the band or during the show on stage, but I still have the memories and a guitar pick to remember the concert by.

It’s almost impossible to describe how amazing the show was and how amazing the band is, not to mention the opportunity to have this experience. They really are normal people with amazing talent and I have to say meeting them in person and being so close to the behind the scenes activities, sure beats a telephone interview any day!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Interview with Andy Levine

I had the opportunity to speak with Founder and C.E.O of Sixthman, Andy Levine. This has been my most inspirational interview to date because not only was I able to learn about his life and career path, but he also got to know me and gave advice on ways to learn about myself. For those of you not familiar with SIxthman, it is a company that designs cruise trips with various bands and their fans. Though I have never been on one of the cruises, I have heard nothing but amazing stories, which inspired to me to want to speak with Andy. From managing the band Sister Hazel to jamming on a cruise with John Mayer, Andy is definitely an inspiration to anyone looking to go into the media industry. What follows is a selection of questions from that interview.

Ashley: For those who would not familiar with Sixthman or Rockboat, can you describe what Sixthman is?

Andy: Sixthman is a company that harvests the energy of communities to bring them together to celebrate their passions and for the experience of a lifetime. Whether it’s a cruise ship or on an island, just wherever. In simpler terms, we build experiences and vacations for bands and their fans. We charter cruise ships and we invite 15-20 bands to come perform and we invite 2,000-3,000 people to come sail on the cruise ship ranging from 4-7 days. People who get on the cruise have an opportunity to meet a lot of people they soon realize they have a lot in common with. Many are repeat cruisers, which allows them to come back together every year to celebrate.

Ashley: What is your role with Sixthman?

Andy: I am the founder and CEO.

Ashley: Why the name Sixthman?

Andy: When I was in high school I played basketball but I was not good enough to start. So that’s what I was ... the sixth man. Then when I was in a band, I wasn’t very good but I acted as the manager and booked all the gigs. Then when I officially managed Sister Hazel I was kind of the in-between person of how the band could connect with their fans. When we were coming up with a name for company I felt like that’s what we were doing. We were taking bands and their fans and blending it as a medium for them to connect with each other and many times that takes a “sixth man” to get it done.

Ashley: How did Sixthman get started?

Andy: In 2001, I was managing Sister Hazel; we had worked with the band to build a really healthy street team. The fans were out there putting up flyers, calling into radio stations requesting songs, going to record stores and requesting their CDs and even letting us sleep on their couches. So in 2001, once the band achieved a pretty decent level of success, a group of fans got together on a message board and said, “ hey we have done everything you have asked of us we want a convention with the band, we want to hang out.” We said, "Yeah they're right!” and decided to do something out of the ordinary.

We invited 400 people to go on a cruise on Labor Day weekend. We were scared to death and I thought I was going to get fired. But we had so much fun and we realized the people that came on the cruise really appreciated the band. They were so respectful and understanding and knew a lot about the band. Of course we did the autographs and bonding. We played blackjack with everybody and we ate dinner with everybody, it was just very very cool. So we got off the ship, and we said we are on to something and we need to continue this. So to get a whole ship we had to get 2,000 people. We started calling other bands we were friends with like Pat McGee, Edwin McCain, and we said, “ Hey if we get your fans and our fans together we can get a whole ship.” They responded and said, “ Hey you get the ship, and we’ll come.” Sure enough, we were able to get enough money to rent out a whole ship the following year and had about 2,000 people there for our first year.

Ashley: How did you get the job of managing Sister Hazel?

Andy: I was in college and I played in a band with some of the guys that are now in Sister Hazel. When we broke up they formed a new band and asked me to manage them. I said, “Yeah that sounds fun” ... I did, and enjoyed that experience.

Ashley: It appears that you hire a lot of young people at Sixthman and then train them in the Sixthman way as opposed to more experienced people in the hospitality industry. Is that on purpose and why?

Andy: You know, I've found that the people that succeed at Sixthman have not been pre-programmed. We consider ourselves a very nontraditional business and nontraditional culture. We have the most success because we look at things creatively and do them differently. We have found here that when people come in with too much experience it becomes a challenge to them to break the “same old way” of doing work. But, on the other side, a lot of people that come in with a lot of experience are really extensive in their work. For myself, it goes back to Sister Hazel. There are all these expensive managers out there that have made a lot of people big. For myself, the only way I was able to have success was because I was young and hungry and willing to try new things and learn and hustle a lot of times. So when I have to choose between “the young and hungry and willing to try new things, make mistakes and fix them” or “ the trained” I’m going to pick the young and hungry. When bands asked me what kind of manager they should get, either the manager that has been around forever and has this big company or someone who is able to hustle and focus on them, I always say “ go with the hustle, go with the hustle.”

Ashley: In what way are you non-traditional?

Andy: Well for one, no one here has offices. We are a culture where we don’t count vacation days; we don’t count when you come into work. We basically give you a set of responsibilities and we ask you to get them done. Wherever or however you want to do them is up to you. We hold you accountable for them and if you try to take advantage of that freedom you pay the price. We believe that work is something you build around life, not the other way around. We know everyone has different situation whether it be families or other obligations. I challenge everyone to try and come up with his or her perfect day and then we try to build responsibilities around that “perfect day”. It’s up to you whether you want to come in early or stay here late. The other thing is, we are really open. We don’t have many secret thoughts. We share with each other and with our customers our ideas. We do the best that we can to know as many of our customers by name. Our biggest problems our solved by our customers because they have the ideas not us. We are just here to listen and we try to do that the most. When we do that well, good things happen and when we forget about it for a moment, bad things happen.

Ashley: You recently posted to your blog your favorite 5 books on leadership. What is the role of leadership within Sixthman and how do you teach Leadership?

Andy: One of the books on that list was Next Generation Leader. I do a lot of reading and one thing that always comes up is, “ You can command action but you have to inspire greatness.” I think the old model is one where people command to do certain things to do a certain way. If you really want people to go way beyond their own capabilities, you have to inspire them. You have to get them to really see what the future is. For me, my challenge as a leader is I have to embody all the values of our company. I think that’s one thing people like around here. They feel like, “ Oh Andy is a good guy, he cares about us and puts himself last, he loves our customers.” I get out there; I get on the phone and do my best to deal with tough problems. I always ask the artists to go the extra mile to share with their fans. I am not near where I want to be, I have a long way to go but I’m constantly reading and learning. I fall down and make mistakes. I think people see that I am trying really hard and I really care. I think it’s important for everyone to see the passion for why I am here and all the amazing things that have happened. I can only contribute to the people that are caring as much as I do, and I think thats one thing that separates good companies from great ones.

Ashley: Do you ever get star struck with all of the Stars you deal with?

Andy: You know that’s a great question (laughs)! I have been so fortunate; I have been with Elton John and John Mayer. To put things in perspective, they are just normal people. They like to be treated like normal people. I never ask for a photo or autograph. The person I have been in awe of, however,was the author of Next Generation Leader, a normal guy and a pastor. He is the one person I went up to immediately to shake his hand and found that I could not speak. Being out with an artist like John Mayer, for example, is just different. We will be out all night drinking scotch and I’m totally comfortable giving him a hard time for what he is wearing. I don’t know what it is. I do respect these individuals for what they've accomplished, but I still feel like they are normal people. So no, I don’t get star stuck.

Ashley: Who do you like the most/ do you have a favorite artist?

Andy: One of the questions people ask me all the time, “ who are the hardest people to work with?” The reason I can’t answer that is because to even consider doing a cruise like this and risking a million dollars with an artist we don’t know anything about wouldn't happen. We do considerable research on all our talent invited to cruise with us, so we won't go near someone who has one bad comment from a fan or a bad reputation. We try to stay far, far away from that. In being prepared and doing our homework, thankfully we have not really had a situation like that.

The artists are all so different. On board, John [Mayer] is great. He is always asking what he can do. I have found that the artists are competitive because they are always saying, “ Tell me about your other cruises compared to ours. Is ours the best? Is ours the most expensive? How does this one rank? Are we the coolest?” So Johns always like what can I do to make this the best cruise ever? John is a great host. When he is on board, he is out meeting people, being the DJ in the club, or doing stand-up comedy. The one thing we ask John and other bands to do is when we announce the event, they need to own it. I need them to make videos, invite fans, and give them an idea of what they expect. When people see how invested they are and that they own it, they are not as surprised when they get here to see him all over the place. John agrees," Yeah you got it.” So far these talented people “walk the walk” and get out there with their fans.

Ashley: How do you pick the mix of bands for each cruise?

Andy: We end up picking about 15-20 bands per cruise. We try to make it so you have half the bands you have heard of before and half undiscovered. Then with any one of those we look at the different “ flavors” you will get. We don’t want too much of the same thing. We will have a blue grass band walking around on the John Mayer cruise because people who love music, love music and its great. We will try to have surprising bands, bands that make you cry, upbeat bands, bands that make you want to drink a beer. We try to think of the different moods you will be in on the cruise and try to get you to experience that livelihood.

Ashley: Of all the cruises to date, what was the one moment when you knew this venture was a success?

Andy: All along this experience there have been so many moments that reminds me everyday how “I cant imagine doing anything else.” When you see people walk away with new friends, connecting with old friends, or just completely ready to burst with satisfaction, I know that I've made a great career choice.

Some examples I will share...

It was on the first John Mayer cruise. It was a 3-day cruise and on the last day John was going to play a show on the deck. I didn’t know how he felt about the cruise. For me, this business is all about (1) will these fans and the bands have a good time and (2) will they want to come back. He was performing and I had not even said anything to the manager yet about coming back again next year. We were all sitting around having a beer and all of a sudden John says, “ Who is having a good time? Who wants to do this again next year with me?” Everyone went nuts and I was so proud and excited! When an artist tells his fans he is coming back, it validates the concept as a success....and no one wants to let their fans down at that point. I put my arm around his agent and said, “ Boy that puts you in a terrible negotiation position.” John Mayer is not that kind of artist to offer something to his fans but expect “more money.” I let his management know that “ it's my job to sell it out and your job to produce it.” (The second John Mayer cruise sailed off successfully March, 2009)

The Bare Naked Ladies on their cruise decided to surprise every guest by standing there when people got on the ship and take a picture with everyone. Then as the ship was sailing away they decided they wanted to do an unannounced acoustic show. A guy comes up to me as the ship is pulling out as he just got his picture taken and is listening to the band play, and he turns to me and says, “ If we turn around and go back right now, I would have already gotten my money's worth.” THAT’s what I am going for.

Randomly on one cruise I went up to a girl and I was like, “ How's your trip?” She leaned toward me and said,” I started to keep a diary and I stopped on day 2 because I was like, no one is going to believe me.” These are the moments that get you so fired up.

Ashley: Did college help prepare you for the industry now?

Andy: I dropped out of college to manage Sister Hazel the end of my junior year. It wasn’t until 3 years ago that I went back to college to finish my 35. I didn’t think much about it, but it was exciting for me to finish something I already started. In reality, I had 2 college experiences. The first one, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I didn’t understand the importance of people telling me what I need to know. When I went back, I was able to get into it and see what I was going to apply an education towards. I was able to appreciate the courses and see where it worked in the job I am in now. It was so helpful for me and it helps me everyday. I wish that people in college today could have that understanding.

Notes from Ashley:

-For more information on Sixthman, check out the website:

- Here are some videos from Sixthman:

- Like I said in the introduction, Andy Levine talked to me after the interview about myself and gave me advice. One interesting aspect of the conversation was he talked about a website called primary color assessment. It’s a free online self-evaluation. It helps identify your strengths and passions. If interested in this you can check it out at:

Pictures from the MayerCraft II :