King Arthur looked on his loyal knights gathered around the round table. Each of them was ready to give their life for their king. He rose, and brought Excalibur down in the center of the table. The La Crosse stick resonated with a loud clack. It was high school, and Michael Gray and his friends were putting together a film project for class. It was fun. It was priceless.
“Stuff like that was just so much fun it was ridiculous…And when I realized you get paid for it, it was so much more fun,” Gray said.
Michael Gray owns and runs a film production company right in the heart of Pasadena and is beginning to really make a name for himself. He discovered his love for film very early on.
“When I was six years old, my dad taught me how to use a VHS camera and they couldn’t pry it out of my hands. There was just something about it that felt really peaceful and awesome,” Gray said.
Gray was raised by two politicians and attended very Catholic or Christian schools for most of his life. It was difficult for him to find a place to express his creativity and passion for videography. When it came time for college, Gray’s parents made it very clear that they did not want him to pursue a career in the film industry.
“My dad said, and he would probably regret the fact that I remember this, but he said ‘If you want to go to film school, you’re going to have to pay for it on your own, cause we either want you to go into political science, the family business, or we want you to go into business.’ And I said, ‘Okay, cool,’” Gray said.
That’s when the scholarships started coming in, from every school Gray had applied to, and his parents started thinking, “Okay, maybe there’s something to this,” Gray said. And that’s what changed everything.
After college at Emerson, Gray made his way out to L.A. where there is actually a large community of Emerson grads. When it came to settling down, Gray’s girlfriend brought him out to Pasadena where he eventually built his production company.
Gray started out in the industry working for director Michel Gondry.
“He is very French and very hard to understand. Even harder to understand when he’s speaking French,” Gray said jokingly about his former employer.
Under Gondry, he learned about the commercial and film industry. When he started to hunger for more, he moved over to Baker Studios where he worked as a coordinator producing YouTube videos. Gray figured out how to build audiences quickly and how to lower the cost of production while raising production value, not an easy task.
Gray managed to scale the ladder at the company in a relatively short amount of time to eventually become an executive producer and ended up with his small portion of the company, in a sense. They produced mostly family-friendly content at the time, which Gray found to be a lot of fun, but it wasn’t what he really wanted to be doing with his career.
He was a 23 year old from the east side of Detroit and didn’t want to make family-friendly content. He left, bought and executive produced a documentary called “Cow Power” that his friend had worked on and wasn’t sure how to take a finished product and really turn it into something. Soon after, Gray was approached about creating some more YouTube content and he jumped on board. It wasn’t long until he started up a company to manage and develop YouTubers. It didn’t work.
“I’m fighting against companies that have 100,150 million dollars in the bank. They’re getting massive rounds of funding from huge venture capitalists…and it’s like, man, I’m not them,” Gray said.
The struggle is real. With titan companies like Warner Bros. taking on YouTube channels like Machinima backing them, it can be extremely difficult for a young independent filmmaker starting out his career.
Gray didn’t have their level of talent to pull from or anywhere near the same size budget to spend. A friend called. He had just passed on a really low budget feature film and asked if Gray wanted to produce it. He did, and came to the realization that the YouTube route just wasn’t working, at least on its own.
Gray put together a small production company and after a year of going home everyday and wondering “Why am I not where I want to be?”, he decided to just trust his instincts. He signed his first two directors and produced 12 commercials in three months. He went back to his investors and set them straight.
“Hey guys, I’m not doing what you’re paying me for, I’m doing something that I think is going to be way cooler. Deal with it,” Gray said with a hearty laugh.
A lot of yelling ensued during that conversation. In the end, however, Gray’s investors came around. Since then, he has produced 65 commercials, signed eight directors, worked on national and local spots, traveled the world for the job, and ended up here in Pasadena, with his own production company and their very own hand constructed green screen.
The company is now starting to be in a position to make the films they want to do.
“We literally get paid to make videos. I would do this every single day of my life, if I didn’t get paid. And people pay me. It’s so insane. It’s so crazy to me,” Gray said.
Gray has a simple and successful business plan for his company. It all comes down to three words: Macro, micro and the niche. Macro are the projects the company does in order to survive. Micro, the jobs they want to be taking and doing. Niche, what is it that they do, that is different from everybody else? And Gray said he believes a person or company is always working on all three of those things at once.
“In order to make it work, you have to be doing something else at the same time,” Gray said.
For Gray’s business, his Macro is producing top-quality commercials and having amazing commercial directors. The micro produces feature films and Gray says they really want to push towards that. The niche SMASH [Gray’s company] is building for themselves is documentary-style spots [commercial type videos] geared towards the 18 to 24 year old range audience.
Gray’s company is starting to make a name for itself, but there is a major problem in the film industry: it’s broke, according to Gray.
“There’s no money out there, there just isn’t,’ Gray said.
And for independent filmmakers, that is true. While Disney may be making larger scale productions like Guardians of the Galaxy or The Avengers, all of the smaller filmmakers are getting pushed aside. It’s a money factory industry, and if you can’t make money, you’re not going to get any from the big guys up top.
“The problem with this industry is, making a feature film is horribly hard. I love it. I love how much it takes to make it happen. But it’s so incredibly hard. You have to convince people to give you money to raise a budget that will potentially turn profit but 90% of the time doesn’t. It’s a high-risk gambling situation for investors. It’s a high-risk situation on set, because [there’s] so much liability.” Gray said.
Michael Gray isn’t letting the big names in the industry tell him what to do. He’s working hard and swimming through a sea of sharks and pollution to create material that means something. It’s not easy, but he won’t deter, and to make it in this industry, you can’t give up.
“My goal, is to make films that I want to make. That is the hardest job as a producer, it’s almost impossible… The problem is the industry sucks right now. And anyone who is independent will tell you that… There’s so much content and there’s so many people who need to make a movie that’s bankable, that you end up in a situation where you can’t recoup a budget.” Gray said.
Moving forward is difficult these days, but things have a way of repeating themselves over time. The 80’s saw great motion pictures like “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “Back to the Future.” And then came the first failure of a major blockbuster film, “Heaven’s Gate.” Eighty million dollars in 1987 was a lot of money, “like Christopher Nolan money, it’s too much.” Gray said. The movie bombed and the industry panicked. No filmmaker could produce anything unless they were a bankable name like Spielberg or Lucas. Gray points out that there is however, a light in the darkness.
“We saw a rise of independents. Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, a number of other guys who have changed how movies are being made. We’re going through that again,” Gray said.