Always expect and plan for resistance to change or innovation.
Just because someone told you that it can’t be done, doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. It just means they couldn’t do it.
Never stop pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.
Listen and observe. You can learn something from everyone, even if it’s what not to do.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Damion Taylor.
For the past 15 years Damion Taylor has worked with studios like NBCU and Netflix to understand audience behaviors and how they translate to viewership. With a reputation as an innovator, he has revamped the traditional greenlight & development process to help creatives become proven entities with their own original IP and fan bases BEFORE pitching to studios…. think of it like the entertainment minor leagues.
As one of the creators of the internet phenomenon TXT Stories, Damion has used his proven development process to garner millions of fans and dollars during the development process — resulting in the successful acquisition of New Form Digital Studio.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/7308b3d8f7c7319c2dd1de79ba78f56c
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My entire life I have been equal parts left and right brain. In college, I majored in Neuroscience and had two minors: English Literature and Vocal Jazz Performance. I knew that I wanted to find a career that allowed me to utilize both my creative and analytical skills. As Entertainment and Technology began to converge in the late 90s/early 00s, I saw the perfect opportunity. After briefly working as a scientist and toying with the idea of medical school, I transitioned into market research and data analytics for TV and film studios. It was pretty much the best of both worlds.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Around 2006 I was consulting for an Entertainment Market Research firm and I was placed in charge of managing the home entertainment/DVD annual business review for a big studio client. While going through the data, I noticed an interesting trend: as DVD buyers subscribed to Netflix, they almost immediately stopped buying DVDs. Even more concerning for the studio, was the fact that the consumers most likely to subscribe to Netflix were the consumers who bought the most DVDs. To give some context, this is before Netflix was a streaming service and DVD sales made up the lion’s share of movie studio revenues.
I remember being really excited about presenting my discovery to the studio. I was certain they would be thankful and impressed that I brought this huge potential threat to their attention. Instead, the President of Home Entertainment smugly rolled his eyes at me and chuckled when I presented my discovery. I remember him saying: “Why are you talking about this? Netflix is so small. They’re really not that important. Let’s move on.” I was stunned and it wasn’t until years later that I actually learned a lesson from that interaction.
A few years later I was sitting in a strategy meeting with the same President who had dismissed my warning about Netflix, but this time he was bemoaning how the DVD business was being destroyed by Netflix. He lamented: “Who could have predicted this? Who knew that consumers would shift their behaviors so abruptly?” In that moment, I learned 3 things:
1. Hubris is a liability.
2. Some people have to learn the hard way for themselves.
3. Just because someone doesn’t believe you or understand you, doesn’t make what you’re saying any less true or valid
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was working for a major studio and preparing a presentation at the last minute (literally finishing 5 minutes before I had to present on stage). This was the first time that I was presenting in front of the entire company — global territories and all. I wanted it to be perfect, so I kept revising and tweaking until the very last moment.
For the most part, the presentation was flawless…that is until we got to the key takeaways on the last slide. In the section where I spoke about the performance of one of our big studio movies there was a typo…a bad one. I was in such a hurry, that I didn’t get a chance to proofread the slide. So, instead of saying that “the movie is a hit” I accidentally typed that “the movie is sh*t.”
I was mortified and the whole room laughed at the mistake. At the time, I swore that was the end of my career. Looking back, I learned that there is no such thing as perfection and it’s okay to laugh at yourself when you make a mistake. I also learned to always give myself time to proofread before presenting.
Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
Definitely. For years there has been talk about popular culture, especially entertainment being more representative of the US population. Unfortunately, the approaches to representation and diversity haven’t really produced results. Of course, there has been some progress, but not nearly as much as one would expect.
At my company my team and I are writing and creating concepts that feature underrepresented individuals as leads. Not a novel concept, but unlike most concepts with minority leads the character’s identity is not centered around their race or culture. Of course, it’s part of their character, but not the primary lens through which their story is told. Frequently minority characters are only brought to the forefront for stories that focus on “minority issues” or the “minority take” on a universal experience. Unfortunately, that treatment perpetuates the “otherness” of those groups. It doesn’t allow them to be more than their race or culture. For the time being we are really focused on Science Fiction and Fantasy stories, but actually have a couple comedy stories in the pipeline too.
I am also addressing the risk and the impact of personal biases in the greenlighting and development processes. We have revised the processes so that data and testing are integrated from the very beginning, instead of after you’ve already spent money on a pilot or trailer. It makes the process more objective. It also means that creative can really hone their stories and have a strong sense of what does and doesn’t work earlier in the process. We do rigorous testing to help identify and start building an audience/fanbase before pitching. It makes it easier for studios to say yes and means that creators can potentially earn money while developing the story — in some cases never really needing to pitch studios unless they want to.
For minority creators who may not have connections or whose stories get passed over as being too niche or ethnic, this process really gives them a leg up. It helps studios and content buyers see the financial viability of stories that at first glance don’t fit the mold of what they are accustomed to seeing.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
One of the first people we worked with was a Latina writer in her thirties. She was one of the first people to test our development process. She initially worked with my team as a line producer, but really wanted to be a writer. She was convinced that she was too old to transition into writing — despite the fact that she was a great writer who graduated from Yale. We tested and honed a few of her concepts and after getting them really tight, Snapchat showed interest in buying one of them. The concept was eventually sold to Snapchat and ended up being one of the best performing scripted series on the platform. Even more exciting is that Snapchat still frequently highlights the series as a great success and an example for how others should create content for the platform. The success of that series resulted in her landing a position writing for two shows on a cable network. Even more impressive is the fact that she landed the position during the pandemic!
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?
1. The first step towards acceptance and understanding of something new is exposure. People believe what they see. For many people, films, TV and the Internet are their only exposure to some underrepresented groups. When people aren’t represented or limited to being represented as stereotypes it leads to harmful perceptions. The impacts may be subtle at first, but they eventually bubble to the surface in actions. Sadly, I think the events we are seeing in the U.S. lately demonstrate that.
2. From a financial perspective, it actually has been proven to increase revenues. I hate to use the same example that everyone else is using, but the Black Panther movie is the perfect example.
3. Finally, it opens up so many more opportunities for innovation and creativity. It means so many more opportunities to tell and visualize amazing stories that awe and inspire us.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
1. We have to look for talent in different places. If we continue to search for talent in the same way and same places, we are going see the same results we have always seen.
2. Normalize minority leads and characters as humans first instead of focusing on them as minorities first. The latter perpetuates their perceived “otherness” and actually works to maintain barriers.
3. When it comes to the greenlighting and development process, it’s time to leverage all of the tools and data we have at our disposal instead of relying so heavily on “gut instinct.” At the end of the day, our gut instincts are just a limited data source with a slew full of biases. So why not give it a jump start with a larger data set and make it more objective?
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Service to others. A true leader realizes that at the end of the day it’s not about them. It’s about removing barriers for others and helping those around them become the best they can be.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Always expect and plan for resistance to change or innovation
2. Just because someone told you that it can’t be done, doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. It just means they couldn’t do it.
3. Never stop pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.
4. Listen and observe. You can learn something from everyone, even if it’s what not to do.
5. Find mentors.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Embracing data as part of the creative process from the start. I know everyone is talking about data these days, but being the data person I’ve discovered that most of the time it’s only superficial. Data is rarely being used in any way that is truly meaningful when it comes to the creative process. A lot of creatives believe that using data will limit their creativity, but I don’t believe that data and creativity are mutually exclusive. I think there is a ton of synergy if people are willing to embrace it. The studio or creative that embraces it first, will reap the rewards and mark the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t forget that you can start late, start over, be unsure, act differently, try then fail — and STILL succeed.
I love this quote because it always reminds me that success isn’t easy and doesn’t come immediately. Despite all the bumps in the road you can still succeed. It has literally been the story of my career. I completely switched industries early in my career and then stopped working to go to business school. So, ended up being older than most of my peers when I rejoined the workforce. I had to essentially start my career over. I was unsure and thought differently than my colleagues. I even failed several times. But I have been able to learn from each of those experiences and as a result I find myself becoming more successful as a result of each challenge.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Neri Oxman from MIT. She founded The Mediated Matter Group at MIT, where she established and pioneered the field of Material Ecology, fusing technology and biology to create designs that align with principles of ecological sustainability. Neri has over 150 inventions and patents, as well as work included in prominent museums and art galleries. She just thinks so differently and out-of-the-box. I would love to just pick her brain to hear how she would approach things in the Entertainment industry.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find us on Facebook and Instagram. My corporate site is Prometheus Digital, but our media brand is called Digital Compendium (a.k.a. Digi Com).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!