Somewhere between selling 6,000 comic books a month as a high school student, and producing the mega-hit The Walking Dead, David Alpert has learned a thing or two about “Taking the Weird and Making it Great.” And he shared those lessons at a tell-all evening of the same title during a recent visit to San Luis Obispo County. The event was the first in a series of Creative Chats at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles.
While best known for The Walking Dead franchise, Alpert also found success producing BBC’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and American Ultra starring Jessie Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. He’s also a Harvard and NYU Law School alumni. And now he’s scaling all of his experience into something bigger: an international content company called Skybound that keeps creators at the center of their projects through production and extends their ideas through TV, films, video games, and merchandise.
I related to this concept, not only because the idea of creators maintaining control is at the center of what SoCreate does, but also because it is not the norm.
“The way Hollywood has it set up is, ‘hey creator, we will take your rights, give you some money, and if this is successful, you’ll have to sue us if you want to see another dime from it. Oh, and you won’t win because we’re a giant corporation,’” David said. “I wanted Skybound to be heretical. If I could empower the creator, treat them fairly, and give them access to information, they’d be successful. I’d be successful. We both make some money, and they’d go tell all their friends.”
“If you treat people right, it’s not just the right and moral thing to do,” he added. “It’s good business.”
And his concept is paying off. Today, Skybound produces comics, books, games, TV shows, movies, merchandise, and more to keep fans engaged with its stories. “We just finished our fifth cruise. We also just made wine, and we’re bottling bourbon next year,” he said. “We’re finding ways to tell stories in mediums that haven’t been done before. We always ask ourselves, how can we interact with our fans in ways that others don’t?”
I asked David what medium he’s most excited about exploring next. “Podcasts have yet to find their native format,” he said. “But I am interested in pursuing audio, and maybe interactive audio, choose-your-own-adventure style.”
Audio would be another spoke in David’s “Wheel of Awesome,” which is essentially a hub and spoke business model with the creator at the center and Skybound’s various departments as extensions of the creator’s original idea.
So how does David convince creatives that they should partner with him to take their ideas to the next level?
“Passion and belief,” he said. While other execs may be laughing creatives out of their offices, David sees big opportunities. “Any area where you see people who are truly passionate about something, and the mainstream is scoffing, it’s inevitable that the weird idea becomes mainstream. It’s just a matter of time.” David recalled a time when he got his hands on the Twilight manuscript. He acquired the rights to attempt to sell it to a few studios. “I tried to sell it to Fox, and they laughed at me. I knew it would be a giant hit, but I couldn’t get it done.” Someone else eventually sold the manuscript to Paramount, and the rest is history. To date, the original film has grossed nearly $400 million worldwide.
The evening chat ended with a question and answer session with attendees, in which David was happy to share his thoughts on several entertainment-industry hot topics, including Netflix, Amazon, the future of digital media, and his biggest life challenge.
On Netflix and binge-watching:
“There are really positive, and really negative things about these streaming services. Binge viewing is amazing. Binge releasing is bad! It is bad for creative. Great episodes are not just about the episode. That comes from engagement, anticipation for the next episode, and discussion with friends and co-workers during the gaps. If the answers all come out on the same day, there’s no conversation, no ability to control a cultural discussion. And that’s what is interesting about telling stories: it’s the ability to control some form of the conversation and the anticipation … There’s no reason why Netflix couldn’t do episodic releases.”
On the future of digital media:
“Digital media is the future. No one knows what it’s going to be or what it’s going to look like, but all of us are going to consume it.”
On the biggest challenge he’s had to overcome:
“Finding the courage to pursue the things I love, when there was no paycheck coming in.”
On the project he’s most proud of:
“Spare Parts. Very few people saw it. You’ve probably never heard of it. But it’s a movie about the 2007 national underwater robotics championship. Students from MIT usually win it. But that year, 4 Hispanic Dreamers took home the prize. Telling their story was a blessing and an honor. We got to screen it at the White House.” The movie stars George Lopez, Marisa Tomei, and Jamie Lee Curtis.
At the end of the day, David makes a good argument for keeping creatives in control of their intellectual property. If it’s successful in its own right, “why would I change it?” he said. “Passion sells.”
Courtney Meznarich, Director of Community Outreach