Imagine the impact of your childhood experiences and how it effects you today. Darcy Rhino sheds light on how Susan Johnston took the experiences of her childhood to empower her community through story and technology.
Take a closer look at Susan Johnston’s bio and it becomes apparent that her whole life and career was always and inevitably leading to the creation of the New Media Film Festival®. She’s been an actor, model, producer, film services sorceress and early digital whiz. She’s been knighted, named an honorary astronaut, been awarded Gamechanger of the Year and traveled the world. As a lifelong activist, she’s written and recorded songs to support Greenpeace campaigns and for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. It all started with an offbeat upbringing in Cranston, Rhode Island.
Her mom and dad were high school sweethearts, but their marriage went off the rails when Johnston was just a toddler. A marital spat she witnessed at the age of two has stuck with her, a key to understanding the film industry professional and enabler Johnston would become.
Susan Johnston first stepped out of the wings and onto a stage as a Brownie. “I was a flower in a play,” she recalls from her LA home. “I crouched behind the flower. Then the flower fell and the audience laughed.” She was hooked. “Having a whole audience laugh when your life feels like hell is pretty cool.”
From her role as flower child, Johnston’s mom graduated her to beauty pageants and an early, successful modeling career for magazines and television. During those formative years, Johnston’s mother took her to the theatre as often as possible. “I got to see a lot of amazing performers coming through town,” she says, and remembers the breadth of experience she gained. “I’m thinking every kid lives like this, but looking back on it, I was entrenched in cast, crew, audience, sound, lights – everything for years.”
Then, when she was just 16, tragedy struck. Her mom died. Johnston had to live on her own for the next three years while she completed high school. “You’ve got to pick up and get a move on,” she reflects. “You put things in a box and put it way back.” This period of her life was anything but easy. Still, there was an up side. “Now, when something happens,” she says, “I just stand in the middle of it.”
While she lived with her mother, Susan Johnston was living a parallel life with her dad. He worked as a musician and promoter while Susan was in junior high school. One of her fondest memories is of an old school bus her dad painted blue and converted into a tour bus by removing half the seats. He taught her to drive in the ingenious jalopy. When her dad remarried, Johnston gained two step-siblings. Together, the six of them formed a band and gigged, including at her own school.
But perhaps the most important influence Johnston’s dad had on her life and character was through other people. Because he was always booking performers and personalities, she got to know many of them. She remembers hanging out and chatting casually with the likes of Robert Redford, Richard Chamberlain, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Fraser and Slim Pickens. “They were just adults to me,” says Johnston of her younger self. “So we would talk about anything and everything.”
Long conversations she remembers as respectful and fascinating with, in particular, Redford and Chamberlain struck her years later as important to finding her place in the world as an equal to those she later considered giants. When she told Springsteen she wanted to be an actress, he warned her of the lonely road ahead. “I came to know what it meant. You could be away on location for so long, you feel isolated. Sometimes you feel like everyone wants something from you because of your position, and that’s loneliness. Or being in a room with people you grew up with who don’t understand what you’re doing so you can’t have a conversation about it – that’s a loneliness.”
The Digital World
In high school, Johnston landed a work-study placement in the computer department of a large corporation. Her first experience in the new digital age was exciting and led to a placement at a division of Pierre Cardin. “I worked in their computer department with this fantastic machine which looks like it came from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m in this clean room of a PDP 1134 with giant discs and sounds, and I am responsible when it crashes while everybody else is screaming because they think the world is going to end. I just loved it. That’s why on the tech side I’m not scared of anything.”
The experience left Johnston with far more than confidence with new technology. Her father’s innovative approach to getting things done together with her digital experience at the corporate level as a problem solver at such a young age gave her confidence to face pretty well any challenge. She could simply remain calm in the midst of turmoil and, calling upon her skills and creativity, solve problems. When characterizing her own approach to working in the entertainment industry, Johnston likes to quote Yoda. “There is no try. Do.”
Los Angeles Calling
In 2000, Johnston – moved to Los Angeles in the midst of the commercial actors strike. She worked – often for free – and studied every day to develop her skills. On one day she might be a best boy, on another a snake wrangler. When a director asked her to produce a project she was working on, Johnston agreed. “My motto at the time,” says Johnston, “I’m not going to ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself or that I haven’t tried myself first.”
Johnston says her favorite film is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder because she wants to be that character, but not just because he lives in a self-made magical kingdom. “When you’re a producer responsible for 30 people on set, just imagine that you are Willy Wonka with all these kids and their parents. So, of course I think I’m Gene Wilder overseeing a team of people in a magical world, content creation.”
New Media Film Festival ®
When the Writers Guild of America strike of 2007-8 happened, Johnston felt a strong urge to do something that would make a difference. Looking back at her life, she believed she had what it would take. From her dad, she developed business acumen. From her mom, a spirit of exploration. “I’m good on the tech side. I’m good on the innovation side. I’m not scared of anything, so I can start things.” One night before she went to sleep, she set herself a task. “What do I do with my skills and experience to help this community that I’ve been a part of my entire life? When I woke up the next morning, the schematic for the festival was pretty much downloaded.”
That schematic became the foundation for the New Media Film Festival®, which launched in 2009. “It wasn’t easy because no one knew what new media was then,” Johnston recalls. Yet, the festival took off, immediately breaking new ground. It was the first to screen a film created by artificial intelligence, the first to offer Emmy consulting and to distribute micro content. A work that won the augmented reality category went on to become the first ever series of its kind. “We distributed it and nominated it for an Emmy,” says Johnston. Two documentaries submitted to the festival recently hit number one on Amazon. As many as five others have made the top 50.
Chip Taylor, composer of the 60’s hit “Wild Thing” and Songwriters Hall of Famer submitted a music video to the festival. He also happens to be the brother of actor Jon Voight and uncle to Angelina Jolie. “I didn’t know this when we accepted him,” says Johnston. “One of the things about the festival is that we just press play. The content sells itself.” Because Taylor described his project as the first in a series of music videos, the festival encouraged him to enter it in the pilot category. As Johnston puts it, “Old school is, there’s a video for each song on your album. New media is, it’s episodic. It’s a series.” Taylor won the category and the festival submitted his project for an Emmy. There are plans to submit it for a Grammy as well. “That stuff is mind boggling,” says Johnston.
Johnston says that those who submit their work to the festival will have its support long after the annual event wraps. “We’ll reach out to you if someone’s looking for your film. If there’s an opportunity for you, we’ll look for you. You’ll have positioning on a global scale. Positioning and strategy placement is really important for careers. You’ll have the level of judges – HBO, marvel, Fox, Emmy winners. Everything designed at the festival is to help the filmmaker – the press junket, VIP soirée, producer panel and pitching, the red carpet. Everything about the festival is designed to empower and catapult the filmmaker and content creator.”
When it comes to thinking about her own accomplishments, what jumps to mind first for Johnston is those she serves. “What am I most proud of? I understand that story is someone else’s child.” When pressed, she does admit that it’s pretty darn cool to be knighted. In 2017, the Ordine di San Martino del Monte delle Beatitudini in Italy knighted her for work on behalf of humanity and artists. Susan Johnston, story enabler, talks with crowds and walks with kings, never losing the common touch.
Susan Johnston is President, Select Services Films, Inc., Founder/Director New Media Film Festival ®
Darcy Rhyno is a magazine columnist, features writer and travel writer and photographer. His work has appears in Canadian Geographic Travel, Saltscapes and Coastal Discovery. He writes about interesting personalities, experiential travel, national parks and wilderness, ecological issues, culture and the arts among other things.