IT’S RARE that anyone gets the chance to inspire a declining industry with a new product that shows true potential to bring in new revenues. That’s what Corey Michael Blake, CEO of Writers of the Round Table, experienced when he began to showcase a new publishing product he was about to start distributing.
“I got a national distributor on board. They love the idea. They actually said in their 30 years, it’s the freshest, most innovative thing they’ve ever seen.”
The product itself is not new. The audience is one of the largest and most targeted of all demographics. The idea was simple. Take a successful business or self-help book and turn it into a comic book. Easy to describe in one sentence, much harder to implement in reality.
The end result though, is something that once the reader picks it up, it’s very tough to put it back down again. These books are really addictive.
The printed publishing industry has been in decline for many years. What caused that decline will differ from one circle to the next. Some will say it’s that readers want their information quicker and in smaller chunks and that people have no patience for books anymore. Others will say its multi-media and many more will say it is the internet. Now days the finger is being pointed at digital readers.
Any way you cut it, what Corey Michael Blake and SmarterComics are trying to accomplish is something ambitious and they have the industry’s full attention.
THE NAME COREY MICHAEL BLAKE may not sound familiar to you, but chances are you have probably seen him before. Whether it be playing basketball in the nude for Yard Fitness or singing Bohemian Rhapsody during a Super Bowl ad for Mountain Dew, he has been in more commercials than he can remember.
“I was the face for Mountain Dew and Pepsi and SBC and Hasbro and Miller and Mitsubishi and Wrigley’s Gum. I did about a dozen major commercials. The Mountain Dew spot was a Super Bowl spot. It was the Bohemian Rhapsody spot, four guys doing a take off on the Queen video. That was a huge spot in 2000.
I was the main guy in a spot for a company called Yard Fitness. It’s me playing basketball in the nude and guys have to guard me. It was a hilarious spot that ended up being viewed over a million times on the Internet, won almost every major advertising award, landed my picture into Sports Illustrated, and got us a lot of attention.“
For those die-hard “Fight Club” fans out there, Corey was one of the bald-headed men standing around in the basement scenes. In particular, you can find him in the scene where Jared Leto is getting beaten up. That role as an extra earned him his SAG card. From there he went on to land co-star and guest-starring roles on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, “Diagnosis Murder”, “Fastlane”, “Joan of Arcadia”, and “The Shield.”
Even though he would experience a small amount of success, Corey started to grow more and more tired of the Hollywood scene. He realized one day, that he really didn’t enjoy the hustle anymore. The constant auditions and the stress of never knowing where your next job would be was draining him.
“Eventually, I woke up and realized that until I was either a movie star or a series regular on a TV show, I was going to have fight for every opportunity. Essentially, I just realized it was just a job. I had a job. I was a tool that other people were using to sell stuff. I was not part of the creative process beyond my days on the set. For every job I was cast in, there were a thousand people I was competing against at least. At the end of the day, any one of us could have done the job.”
More so than the auditions themselves, it was the politics of how the whole system worked that really killed his motivation.
“It was simply a matter of you look like somebody’s uncle or you look like somebody’s nephew or somebody. Before the casting director or producers came into work that day somebody made a nice gesture and you look like that guy from their morning routine that gave him a free cup of coffee or something. And for some reason, they feel good about you and pick you that day. It’s luck of the draw.”
It sounds pretty reasonable to be frustrated by a system where you know no matter how hard you work, no matter how many auditions you show up for, it can come down to nothing more than the casting director doesn’t like the size of your dimples. Corey’s life needed to be based on more than that and a change was in order.
To get back to his creative roots, he organized a trip of local actor friends up into the mountains around Mammoth in California’s ski country. During the next week they would confine themselves to a cabin to learn how to tell stories.
“We ended up coming out with some great ideas, raised some dough and shot a number of 35-millimeter films. I ended up shooting four, one that as based out of that original group, “The Boy Scout.” It was an action comedy. Our actors were trained by a Hollywood stunt team for three months in their dojo and the film was shot by a multi award-winning cinematographer. I was good at attracting high-level people around our projects. We filmed it on a 30,000-dollar budget, with 45 crew members, most of them working for free. On a limited bidget like that, most of the money goes for equipment, film and getting it developed, etc. But we would spend a year putting together each of those movies. So we did four of them in as many years. The next one was a musical comedy and then we did a straight action pic and we did drama.”
The experience of shooting those four films would be some of the most frustrating and sometimes painful lessons of his life.
“They all had great aspects to them. And most of them won awards in various capacities. But on every one of them, I made some major mistake that destroyed the camaraderie of the project.
“On the first one, I hadn’t yet learned the legalities of everything, and so I didn’t have strong contracts in place. So when it actually came time at the end of the project to determine who had final cut of the film, we had nine producers who had worked on that project and we set different camps of opinions over the music. That issue eventually tore us apart and no one wanted to work together to market the film. On the second film, I dated the leading actress, which was just stupid. That was a horrible Hollywood cliché move and destroyed the trust of the entire crew. The third film, I actually produced for another guy who directed and we just had totally different ways of working with people. He was product-focused and I was people-focused. I didn’t feel he gave a shit about the people and I allowed that to hinder my performance as a producer.
And then the fourth one was a drama that I co-wrote, produced and directed, which had some phenomenal dance. We had an amazing choreographer on it. The intention of the girl that I was essentially hired by…. She wanted to leave people feeling horrible after watching the film. “
Long story short, that fourth and final film would leave such a bitter taste in Corey’s mouth that it has still never gone away.
“At the end of the day, I’m in a theatre with 300 people watching this movie. I decided at that moment, I would never ask anyone to watch this movie again. I would never put this in front of anyone. There’s enough shit in the world and it’s important to fill people with hope and inspire them and motivate them. So I walked away from that.”
HIS TRIP OUT TO HOLLYWOOD wasn’t a straight shot like so many others. Instead he would spend the first 20+ years of his life in Illinois. Born and raised in Wheeling, IL Corey was a pretty average kid.
“I was a good student, had friends, and I liked school. I was an A student. I was always artistic, creative, funny guy. Got involved in theatre my sophomore year, was always in choir, was in show choir. I loved performing.”
During his high school years he would get his first taste of entrepreneurship. He started a summer day care for kids where Corey and a couple of his friends would watch up to 10 kids at a time.
“We would watch them over the summer. We would have them for 4 or 5 hours. We played games with them. Took them on walks. Did puzzles and educational stuff with them. And then walked them on a path, dropping kids off at home and taking them back to their parents. And they paid us. I don’t know how much, some small figure.”
Deciding not to go far away from his roots in IL, his eventual choice of Millikin University for college had nothing to do with acting. Rather, an unusual choice of language studies was the driving factor.
“For some reason, I got to bug up my butt that I wanted to study Japanese and I wanted to become a translator. I thought that would be a really interesting career, and Millikin offered some kind of program on that. The summer before I got in, I questioned my choice — I had been acting in high school and I’d been pretty good at it and thought maybe I should give it a shot. And so, I kind of switched at the last minute which helped me avoid the intimidating audition process that I was never taught how to do in high school.”
“I loved my experience in college. We would take something like 23-credit hours every semester and we’d be working all day, go to class all day, go to rehearsals all night. I really thought I got a good education.”
However, when he graduated and had to enter the “real world”, Corey found he was exhausted from years of acting non-stop.
“I was tired of acting. And so, a buddy of mine asked me if I wanted to move to Portland with him. I just wanted to kind of get out of the Midwest and do something different. So we packed up and drove out to Portland. I was there for six months. I auditioned for one play, didn’t get in and I was just like, “I don’t want to be dealing with this anymore.” So I got a job at a deli. It was great little stylized place.”
Little did he know, but a quick promotion at the deli would lead to a pretty startling discovering. During his duties as the assistant manager he stumbled upon some odd accounting numbers.
“So I’m assistant managing and I’m going through the books, and I figure out that the manager is stealing from the owner. So I sit down with the owner who doesn’t believe me and he says that it could never happen. But then, I walked him through the books and it’s undeniable. On average, the manager was taking 50 bucks a day from the owner, which adds up to quite a bit of money over the years.
And so, I eventually sat down with him and the owner and the owner said, “Hey, what’s going on?” and he denied it, but then he quit and I was made the manager.“
The same spontaneity that took him from Chicago to Portland would soon lead him away from Portland after less than six months of being there.
“A buddy of mine calls. He was doing summer stock theatre in Virginia after we graduated and he says, ‘Some of our friends are going to L.A.’ He said, ‘If you want to go, I’ll drive across the country and get you in Portland and we’ll go down to L.A.’ I said, ‘All right. That sounds cool’.”
So I think I broke this guy’s [deli owner] heart and left that job. He thought I was going to be his protégée. I went down to Los Angeles and met some friends and I had a pretty rough go for the first two years. We were big fish back in college and I really thought it would be a lot easier than it was in L.A.“
AFTER LEAVING L.A. frustrated by the scene, the politics, and how he felt himself diverging from his sense of self, Corey returned to his childhood home to be with the woman that he had fallen in love with.
“I reconnected with a woman out in Chicago that I had gone to high school with. She saw my Mountain Dew commercial while she was exercising at a gym, literally fell off a treadmill when she saw my face, got in touch with me and we started talking again.“
After permanently moving here after his wedding, Corey decided it was time for a big change. This time he wouldn’t ever let himself get involved in a project where he didn’t have control and he wanted to get back to the roots of most creativity: writing.
Corey would form Writers of the Round Table to solve a big problem he saw: most writers weren’t great business people and businesses didn’t know how to communicate their needs to writers.
“I stayed with the company because I knew that I was good at pairing up talent with professionals and I was finding the business people that needed artists but didn’t know how to communicate with them. And writers wanted to write and didn’t want to worry about the business at all. They couldn’t stand it and so many were terribly unprofessional.
So I started being the conduit and I would find the work and then find the talent to match it and then manage the process and make sure that we were exceeding the clients’ expectations and working the best out of the writer. “
Eventually, it would branch out well beyond technical writing or marketing materials.
“People were starting to ask me to help them with their screen plays and help them with their books and that brought back my creative spirit. So I took my approach to filmmaking — surrounding people with a great team of talent, taking care of the team and nurturing the process to end up with a great product.”
Since then things have gone great for Writers of the Round Table and the business continues to grow beyond writing now and into design and branding. Along the way clients like Robert Renteria would find Corey and they would go on to develop a very successful book, foundation and curriculum that are used all around Chicago schools and youth prisons to help kids find the right path in life.
In 2009 Corey’s biggest project yet would land in his lap. One of those chance opportunities that you are either prepared for or not.
“This guy came to me a year ago, a former investment banker and he had the idea to turn business books into comic books. And he didn’t have a creative bone in his body — this wasn’t his forte. He’s a business guy and he started SmarterComics. Originally, he hired someone else to develop the books but I stayed after him, I wanted to know why he didn’t hire us just to help better our approach.
It ended up he didn’t like the company he hired and so he tried us out. We hired the artists and managed the process, builing three prototype books together. We did “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” just to prove or disprove the concept. And once we realized that they worked, we thought they’re pretty dynamite, kind of like a ‘holy shit moment’. This could actually work!”
In the end, SmarterComics would negotiate a deal with Corey to allow him to publish the first 6 books in the series with prolific authors like Chris Anderson, Tom Hopkins, Robert Renteria, Larry Winget, and Dr. John Eliot, while SmarterComics manages all of the digital rights and distribution. While printed books may be on the decline, Corey is still extremely excited about the opportunity.
“I think in some capacity, people still want to hold a book. The e-book market is exploding. Every month, it grows by something like 100 percent. I mean it’s ridiculous. But it’s still less than 10 percent of the overall market. Because I think print will live on, I have at least a 5-year window. SmarterComics is also strictly pushing only business books, which allows me to branch off into creating comic book versions of other kinds of non-fiction work. We just started Alesia Shute’s Everything’s Okay, which details her struggle through childhood cancer and we’re negotiating a deal with McGraw-Hill to move forward on a comic based on a best-selling book to help those afflicted by eating disorders.”