Vice-president and creative director of BET (Black Entertainment Television) Networks, Maurice Marable, revealed the secrets behind the art of story at the recent PromaxBDA Africa Conference in Johannesburg.
Whenever a creative in BET’s promotions department approaches Maurice Marable with a concept for a promo Marable asks: what’s the story; who is the audience; what does the promo look like; who are the characters; how does the promo begin and end?
“The story cannot be unless you have a back story with a human element,’ Marable told PromaxBDA Africa delegates. “Consider this story: back in the 1950s there was a young black man working on a farm in the American south. His father wanted more for him because there weren’t many opportunities for black men at the time. So the young man got married, joined the military and travelled the world.
“The young man was my father and I was born in the late 1960s. I didn’t know it at the time but by travelling to Germany and Spain with my family, I picked up story after story just by experiencing different places and people.’
A self-confessed “closet creative’ and “a strange kid who watched commercials instead of cartoons when growing up’, Marable’s motto in life has always been to do the opposite of what is expected.
“At school instead of training to become a 100m sprinter I did pole vaulting, just because there were no blacks in the sport at the time,’ explained Marable. “When my family moved to Georgia I decided to become a filmmaker and make commercials but my parents said no. So I did accounting only to drop out soon after. I joined the military, thinking I would be like my dad. But he got angry because I had put myself in danger.
“While on military duty in the Iraq desert I again asked myself – what do I want to be and the answer was a filmmaker. I left the army and went to study film at Georgia State University. When I told my Dad and he said: “Who do you think you’re going to be – Spike Lee?’’
At that time Marable worshipped Lee and became a line producer for him. They made several commercials together, including one with the late Michael Jackson.
“But then it struck me that in my own story I was playing a bit part in Spike Lee’s story,’ said Marable. “So I left Spike and didn’t work for six months. I’m a big believer in the universe and one day I saw a poster for HBO on a train. Then the train doors opened and suddenly a lady from HBO called to offer me a production manager job.
“Yet there I was still working on someone else’s creative. I asked each and every creative director if I could write something and they all rejected me. But I kept nagging and eventually they gave me a 15-second promo for a science fiction show that aired at 2am. It was heaven to do.’
Marable was later promoted to the position of writer / producer. “At HBO they did promos very simply, just by putting the talent in front of a white screen and getting them to say, “Watch my show!’
“I grew up loving films and that’s why I create such cinematic promos with strong, dramatic storylines. At HBO I kept telling directors how to direct the spots I’d written so I wasn’t very popular. The HBO top brass noticed, moved me to the creative department and finally allowed me to direct my own promos.’
Marable stressed that creatives must always break the rules and find different ways of attacking the same problems.
“It all comes down to storytelling and being as epic and cinematic as possible,’ he commented. “Failure is where success is because it gives you a chance to learn and try again.’
While at HBO Marable created and directed promos for hit shows like Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire and The Game.
The Six Feet Under spot, in which the stars of the show shop in a grocery store was, according to Marable, controversial.
“At HBO you have to pitch 10 ideas to the network bosses before you get the go-ahead to do a single promo. They hated my grocery store idea and they didn’t like my other nine pitches either. So I told them about the grocery story again, about the symbolism and metaphors and the hints it gives to what happens in the series. Eventually the bosses agreed.
“Two days before the shoot we still didn’t have a song for the promo. My VP told me to choose a song and Nina Simone’s Feeling Good spoke to me. No-one apart from the actors came to the shoot. As any creative knows, you never know whether it will work. I thought I’d messed up but the promo won a Promax award so it worked. It was a case of standing up for my creative and winning.’
The Boardwalk Empire promo, a high budget piece because it incorporated lots of CGI, picked up three gold statuettes at the last Promax event in Los Angeles. Marable has also been Emmy-nominated for his opener for Big Love.
“I love my creative team in the workplace and I preach family, trust and respect,’ stated Marable. “Work hard and you will be rewarded. Talk less, listen more and remember that every story is about the human story.’
At the end of his PromaxBDA Africa presentation Marable revealed to Screen Africa that he was working on his first ever long form project.
“It should be ready to go in about a year and a half,’ he said.
By Joanna Sterkowicz
screen africa magazine – january 2013