NYFA LA Instructor Kenneth Johnson on “The Mike Douglas Show”
The New York Film Academy believes that a crucial element toward maintaining its intensive hands-on programs is having instructors with industry access and real life experience in the field he or she teaches. Los Angeles Filmmaking instructor Kenneth Johnson knocks those requirements out of the park. Johnson has been a successful writer-producer-director of film and television for over 40 years. Creator of the landmark original miniseries V, he also produced The Six Million Dollar Man and created such iconic, Emmy-winning series as The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk and Alien Nation.
Referred to as Kenny by those who know him well, Johnson trained in classic theater at Carnegie Mellon University, and had early success as a producer-director of live TV in New York. At only age 25, he became Executive Producer and Showrunner for the legendary, talk-variety program The Mike Douglas Show, which won an Emmy under his leadership.
Kenneth Johnson with Bill Bixby
Moving to California, Kenneth produced and directed several TV specials including Vincent Price in an Evening of Edgar Allan Poe and two top-rated documentaries for ABC: Alan King in Las Vegas. He became the youngest writer-producer-director at Universal Studios when he joined The Six Million Dollar Man where he created the Emmy-winning Bionic Woman. He was Showrunner of both Top Ten bionic series simultaneously. He then created The Incredible Hulk, yet another iconic, long-running Emmy-winner for which he penned Bill Bixby’s now-famous line, “Don’t make me angry…you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
In the 1980s, Kenneth continued to cement his place in television by unveiling his epic alien invasion miniseries V. It was critically acclaimed and he received a Writers Guild Nomination. His original miniseries V stands as the highest-rated work of science fiction in television history.
In the 90’s Kenneth created the Alien Nation TV movie-pilot which became an Emmy-winning series and five subsequent Emmy-nominated TV movies. Throughout his career, Kenneth has directed notable television movies for all the major networks including the top-rated Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and Don’t Look Under The Bed for Disney.
Johnson on the set of “V”
Other TV movies include Sherlock Holmes Returns for CBS, which brought him a nomination for the Edgar Allen Poe Award from The Mystery Writers of America.
Kenneth also directed the feature films Steel and Short Circuit 2. Beyond his film and television work, he has written the novels An Affair of State, V The Original Miniseries and V The Second Generation, published in four editions.
Needless to say, it’s an honor to have Mr. Johnson teach filmmaking at the New York Film Academy Los Angeles for the past six years—his insight is invaluable.
“Having had the opportunity to present my seminar at numerous other film schools and universities, I have continually been most impressed by the students at NYFA” says Johnson. “The majority of them have a strong desire and determination to succeed in this very tough business. Their attentiveness is always good and their questions probing and thoughtful. Plus we have fun together.”
Johnson initially contacted NYFA Los Angeles Director Dan Mackler about being a resource for NYFA LA because he believed he could provide students with something that is often missing in academic settings: what it’s like to actually be in “The Trenches” of filmmaking. As Johnson puts it, he can provide, “What it’s like to be boots-on-the-ground doing the work. Including the prep necessary, a wealth of smart insights from my career producing and directing TV and features, plus useful tools I’ve created over the years that can benefit them. And I do it with gusto, laughs (often at myself) and a gazillion visuals: miles of behind the scenes footage, storyboards, etc., to show exactly how we accomplished the finished work.”
Johnson’s advice begins as soon as you walk into his first class. The very first thing he asks his students is if they love this business. Of course, every student will nod affirmatively, but then he makes it clearer: “Do you REALLY LOVE IT?! —because if you don’t love it like breathing, you can’t succeed and you’d be wise to step away.” At the end of the final session, Johnson gives his students a multi-page handout called “Getting a Gig,” which contains every bit of advice he’s amassed on that important subject over the span of his career.
When asked about today’s landscape, Johnson says, “I think there are more opportunities in TV simply because there is far more product necessary to feed the TV (read cable, web, streaming, etc.) audience’s infinite appetite. Far more TV and video projects get made every year than features. They also happen faster. TV is also a great place to learn your craft. When I started producing, writing and directing on the Bionic shows at Universal it was like grad school…with pay. TV is the greatest training in the world for making movies — or for waging war. If you can survive through the making of under-scheduled, under-budgeted, restrictive TV schedules, making a theatrical movie becomes a piece of cake. Just ask Joss Whedon or Steven Spielberg.”
Johnson admits that the biggest challenge in our business is the constant rejection. “All of us in the arts get told no far more often than yes. Or even worse, we get told yes and then no — when the studio or network management changes while you’re in the midst of writing, prepping or even sometimes shooting. Francois Truffaut said he always tried to have at least three to five projects in development simultaneously —because he knew the odds were against more than one ever happening— and that one only if he was lucky.
A filmmaker has to develop a thick skin and a determination (as Fred Astaire sang) “to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.”
Those who are true survivors will indeed survive to try another day. Where there’s life there’s always hope.
Johnson has three upcoming guest sessions for the MFA Producers group on July 9, 16, and 23 of 2015.