Definitely Not L.A.: Hollywood Screenwriters In Metro Detroit
In 1994, Jim Burnstein had made his first big break into the Hollywood movie business. Years of hard work writing, rewriting, and taking meetings paid off when Disney produced Burnstein's script for Renaissance Man
, starring Danny DeVito. Burnstein had finally begun making a name for himself in Los Angeles, but he also wanted to remain at home in Plymouth - and to cut down on trips to the west coast. Fortunately, his agent, Stu Robinson, said Burnstein could make that work.
"He said, 'It's going to be a disadvantage for you at first, but after a while it's going to be an advantage because it'll make you exotic,'" Burnstein says. "And that made me excited because I had never been called exotic before. But he was right. It made me different."
Since re-planting his roots in Michigan, Burnstein has had several scripts produced, ranging from 1996's D3: The Mighty Ducks
to the recently released Vietnam-era romance Love and Honor
, starring Liam Hemsworth and set in Ann Arbor. As a University of Michigan screenwriting professor, he's worked to educate the next generation of young writers. And as a former member of the Michigan Film Office
Advisory Council, he's fought to make it possible for his students to follow in his footsteps and have a Hollywood career while living in metro Detroit.
"For a while, something happened that I didn't think would happen," Burnstein says. "We kept our students here once they graduated. And then, when [the Michigan film incentives] got vastly scaled back in 2011, the exodus began again."
Burnstein's term at the film office ended as well in 2011. He says the reduced film incentives haven't made his own writing career any more difficult, as he's the product of a different time and a few strokes of good luck. But he says the change has made careers like his improbable all over again.
"It hasn't affected me professionally, but personally it has," Burnstein says. "You put nine years of your life into something, and then it goes away. There are young people who will have good careers because we had that. They just won't be living in Michigan."
Where no Michigander has gone before...
The difficulty of working as a screenwriter in metro Detroit has been much more real for Keith Damron, but that hasn't stopped him from spending almost his entire career in television. Damron's fascination with the medium began at a young age, when he read Gene Roddenberry's book The Making of ‘Star Trek.
"It was a fascinating tome for a 12-year-old," Damron says. "To someone who had no knowledge at the time of how television worked, it was a real eye-opener."
After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a degree in telecommunication and film, Damron spent 10 years as the community program director at Wyandotte Municipal Cable TV. But in 1996, he decided to move to L.A. and try his hand at the big time. Through a connection of his wife's, he arranged a meeting with the producers of Fox's sci-fi TV show Sliders
. Damron sold a few scripts to Sliders
and ended up scoring a gig as the show's story editor, which he describes as "the best job in the world."
"It was produced at Universal Studios, where they have the Universal Studios backlot, which is like a giant sandbox," Damron says. "We were working with different worlds, parallel universes, so we used just about every corner of that sandbox."
While in L.A., Damron also wrote episodes for Justice League
(which he describes as "an absolute delight") and Cleopatra 2525
. But in 2002, he decided to move home to Wyandotte for personal reasons. He took a job as a lecturer at his alma mater, EMU, where he is now an associate professor. He wrote episodes of Legion of Superheroes
and Justice League Unlimited
in the years immediately following his move home, but these days he mostly focuses on teaching while shopping some scripts around on the side.
"I'm more or less working [as a writer], but I've also got another career that's very satisfying," Damron says.
According to Damron, a career like Jim Burnstein's is a stroke of extraordinary luck. Damron's advice to the aspiring screenwriters in his classes is clear and succinct.
"You need to be there," he says. "Anybody can write from anywhere in the world, but for a television writer, you have to be in L.A. Anybody can write a script and put it in the mail and cross your fingers, but as far as the level of professionalism is concerned, being there demonstrates your commitment to the craft."
Live here, sell there
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and Jim Burnstein's former student Dan Shere is one of them. Shere moved to L.A. after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1997, and almost immediately had an incredible stroke of luck: he sold the screenplay he'd written in Burnstein's class to United Artists. But he would quickly discover the trials and tribulations of the process known as "development hell."
"You just keep writing draft after draft," Shere says. "As a young person, you're making good money. But a lot of the time you feel like you're on this treadmill and your script's not getting made, and it's not really getting better either."
Shere moved on to projects for MTV, DreamWorks, and Spike, and his script for a comedy short, George Lucas In Love
, was produced in 1999. But, he says, "nothing was really moving forward." So in 2004 he decided to move back to Michigan.
"There are no distractions here in terms of Hollywood silliness," Shere says. "When you factor in L.A. traffic, you can spend a good half of your week pursuing meetings with people. The benefit here has been just focusing on writing. I fly out for meetings once in a while and condense them all into one time period."
While building a family of five in West Bloomfield Township, Shere says he's "rebooted" his career. In 2007 he was offered the opportunity to work on the script for what would become the 2013 animated children's film Epic
. Having previously written mostly adult comedies, Shere was unused to being one of several writers to work on a script--a common practice on animated films.
"I liken it to being on a sports team," Shere says. "You may have played an important role, but you're still really part of a team."
But he says the reward of seeing his first produced feature script on the big screen was worth it - especially with his four-year-old son on his lap.
"It was just an awesome experience because he was just thrilled at everything that was supposed to be thrilling," Shere says. "There's no cynicism at that age. Kids haven't seen it before and they're just kind of soaking it in and responding on a pure emotional level."
Shere is now working on a script for another children's animated film. He says there's no reason any screenwriter should be unable to make it working in metro Detroit—or anywhere else in the country—as long as his or her work is strong.
"There's a hunger for good screenwriting and the vast majority of screenwriters just aren't that good," Shere says. "The secret is to write something good enough, and it will take care of itself if you put in some effort."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
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All Photography by David Lewinski Photography