‘Wolves’ Author Does Dance of Vindication : Publishing: Thanks to the hit film, Michael Blake has set up cottage industries for artists who are ‘shut out,’ as he once was.
Michael Blake is definitely not role-model material for your ordinary Hollywood mogul. He thinks small, human-scale small. Talking with him is like booking a Hollywood tour from the back saddle of a Harley. Words and ideas flash past. Perspectives are ground-level.
Blake wrote “Dances With Wolves,” originally a hard-to-find paperback book and then the surprise hit movie starring old buddy Kevin Costner and co-produced by old buddy Jim Wilson. Blake has other books and movies on their way but he isn’t stopping with writing. In many ways, he demonstrates the energy and imagination that seems to be constantly bubbling below the surface of this town, waiting to spring forth, but so often bottled up, waiting for the breakthrough.
“Cottage industries” is how Blake describes his new enterprises, a chance, he says, “to bring artists together.”
Here’s what Blake has wrought pre- and post-"Dances With Wolves”:
* An audio book company, Seven Wolves Publishing. Its first entry is the unabridged “Dances.” Blake does the entire narration over five cassettes and almost eight hours, accompanied occasionally by signature wolf howls and the sound of an aboriginal string-wind instrument, the bull roar.
* A book publishing wing for novels, poetry and reissues of references Blake used in researching “Dances.” Its first publication: a book by Los Angeles photographer Axel Creiger. Other books are scheduled, including, most likely, Blake’s next novel, “Airman Mortensen,” due out this year. He plans to turn over the earnings from the book to a favorite cause, the Mountain Lion Preservation Fund.
* Live entertainment, concerts and readings featuring musicians and writers, live from a new facility built at the Raleigh Studios.
Those are the starters. After fame and some fortune, more fame, maybe some more fortune.
But the roads leading to even some small fame and fortune are so often mined with disappointment, despair and disillusionment, even with a project called “Dances With Wolves.”
* Blake’s first novel, “Dances” failed to stir any interest from any hardcover publisher. Two paperback publishers finally showed interest. Blake signed with Fawcett, received $6,500 and saw only 30,000 copies printed.
* With audio rights to “Dances” in hand, Blake was turned down by every audio book publisher contacted. No one would dare do an unabridged version of a book few had even seen, let alone tie in with a movie not yet out.
* The idea of an illustrated book based on the making of the movie was turned down by every New York publisher contacted by Wilson, co-producer of “Dances.” Only one small company, Newmarket Press, said it would try.
Now consider the upside:
* The movie, produced by Costner and Wilson’s Tig Productions along with Orion, has grossed $93 million (against its $18-million cost) since coming out late last year, plus an assortment of awards early in the award-giving season. Tig was formed, in fact, to make “Dances” and has already completed its second film, “China Moon,” which will be released by Orion. When “Dances” was completed and marketing strategies were being studied, the producers decided they didn’t want conventional commercial tie-ins. No T-shirts. No trucker caps. No coffee mugs. No Hollywood souvenirs. Books and a soundtrack record were approved.
* The paperback version of “Dances” was reissued and 800,000 copies were sent to bookstores.
* More than 17,000 of the audio books were distributed, already hitting B. Dalton’s best-seller audio list.
* Newmarket’s large-size, 80-page book on the making of “Dances” went into its fourth printing after sales of more than 65,000.
But what gives Blake the most personal pleasure, in addition to a writing career that has zoomed (since “Dances” he’s completed three scripts for Universal and Orion), is Seven Wolves Publishing.
Blake sees that and his related enterprises this way: “We have many friends who are artists. They all work at high levels. But many are shut out. So I thought, why not form a company and get people together.”
Early last year, as “Dances With Wolves” was in post-production, Blake called on an old friend, photographer Frank Gargani. The idea: to start their own publishing company. Blake would be chairman, Gargani president. Except for a brief stint by Gargani on a punk-music publication called No Magazine several years ago, neither knew anything about publishing, let alone knowing anything about how to make and distribute audio books. Gargani had to learn fast, using telephone books to lead him to sound studios, tape processors, printers, wholesalers, distributors, calling on friends for assistance. Gargani’s office is a Westside studio shared with seven other photographers. No computers. One typewriter. One production assistant.
“One way to indulge our creative ideas and get equitable position in the marketplace,” Blake says now, “was to publish the audio books ourselves. Now we’re no longer babes in the woods. We learned. We learned you shouldn’t be cowed by the powers that be. Look what happened when Milli Vanilli lost control. We’ve been able to bring a lot of people together for some truly meaningful work.”
Ten years ago, Blake and producer Wilson tried to bring people together for another purpose. Then they were an untried writer and an untried director hoping to find work in Hollywood. They were living downtown in a former glass-blowing factory at 1st and Santa Fe, hard by the concrete channels of the Los Angeles River. On Monday nights they opened their doors to what they called the Los Angeles Directors Group. Young actors, directors, photographers, writers would show up starting at 8 p.m. Nothing was structured. Just an assemblage of people who wanted to practice or to be heard.
“They just showed up Monday nights,” Blake said. “It was like ‘Field of Dreams.’ They came.”
There were no critiques. Just a chance to practice cold readings, scenes, improvisations, works in progress.
As it turned, out each person was a work in progress.
Ten years later, the actor who practiced cold readings is Kevin Costner. Wilson went on to direct some small movies and with Costner formed Tig Productions. Blake eventually turned to his interest in Native Americans and three years ago wrote “Dances.” The Directors Group itself stopped meeting eight years ago, having run its course.
The name of Blake’s Seven Wolves Publishing goes back to those younger, headier, early ‘80s days. Several members of the Directors Group were part of a Los Angeles fan club of sorts that followed the punk group X. They called themselves Thirteen Wolves, inspired by their number and the license plate holder on Gargani’s ’51 Mercury, “Wolves.” For luck, Thirteen Wolves became Seven Wolves when two old X fans decided they would become entrepreneurial publishers last year.
The next test for Blake comes in two weeks. That’s when he kicks off his “The Race Is On” series of live entertainments at a refurbished Raleigh Studios commissary on Melrose. He’s producing four performances Feb. 15 and 16, acoustic musicians only, readings by writers and poets, most based on a personal passion of Blake’s: “environmental atrocities.” If the shows draw audiences, there may be future performances.
New audio books.
A folio series of poets in published and audio forms.
The mogul dances with ideas.
“Artists don’t get much respect,” he said, “until they hit a best-seller list.”