2004_11_rossmartin_big.jpgVital Stats:

- Ross Martin
- 30 years old
- Head of Programming, mtvU; film and televeision producer
- Grew-up in New Jersey; now lives in Park Slope

Ross's World:

You're a white Jewish guy. People might be surprised to learn you started your career working for Spike Lee. What was that experience like?
Of course I stood out, working for Spike Lee. When I started at [Lee's production company] 40 Acres & A Mule, Spike was a mythological figure to me, as he still is for an entire generation. But he changed, partly because he had to adapt to a changing New York and a changing market for his work, and I was there to see a lot of that change. He loves characters, he loves production, he loves New York, he loves being a capitalist, and, of course, he loves basketball.

I didn’t say to myself after I saw She’s Gotta Have It or Do The Right Thing, “I need to work for Spike Lee.” I had a deep respect for him, for his relentlessness – once he makes up his mind, he gets it done, no matter what. He once said to me, “You gotta respect anybody who gets a film done.” Somehow I ended up there, working for him, and my job was to develop talent and ideas. We felt like we had a purpose – to use the momentum of Spike’s career to amplify the voices of filmmakers who weren’t being given a chance. We went out and found young writers and directors, we worked with them, and we drew attention to them. Once I got in that game, I got all tenacious, I tried to create shots for people, as Spike would say about what Stephon Marbury should be doing. I tried to create opportunities for myself and for the company.

What drew you to work in film in the first place?
I went to graduate school for poetry, but I couldn’t stand taking five poetry classes each semester. So I signed up for a screenwriting class because the only thing you had to do was write a script. I wrote one and I got an award from the school for it: $100. The script, of course, is awful. But my professor convinced me I could make millions (and still write poems) if I wrote another one.

I wanted to go to NY because this is where things bump up against each other, there’s combustion, and Spike seemed to be fueling a lot of it. I liked that. Somehow I convinced people at 40 Acres to let me “work” there, reading scripts, researching, photocopying. Technically, I was the intern who didn’t admit he was an intern (and wasn’t leaving until he wasn’t an intern anymore). I was completely overzealous – the first guy there and the last to leave. The development execs would show up for work, and I’d have been outside for a half hour (I was too junior to have a key) waiting for them to open up the building so I could get inside and answer their phones for them. At night, I’d go to the drinks, the screenings, all the bullshit you have to do when you’re trying to figure out how it all works. I got good at making up excuses for not having a business card on me.

When you went to work for nerve.com's Nerve Productions, you headed their television development. Why the move to television?
Nerve was less than a year old, and I became an editor after I convinced them to start publishing poems in the magazine. It was a mighty thing for the poetry world – several hundred thousand people were reading every poem we published. I was a development exec for Spike, at the time, so I had these two different but amazing jobs at once.

After Love & Basketball, I was ready to leave 40 Acres, and I was excited about what Nerve was trying to do. It was risky and new, but there were some passionate and brilliant people at Nerve, people like Genevieve Field, Susan Dominus, Emily Nussbaum … all of whom are prominent magazine writers and editors now.

I was already entrenched in the film world, and I saw Nerve as a creative factory, generating tons of content. I brought the brand into different media. First, we did a deal for Nerve Books with Random House. Then I launched Nerve Productions to license Nerve’s content and eventually develop and produce original programming. I loved the idea of being an editor of the magazine and collaborating with other editors to develop content that could become film and television. In the first year, I set up a comedy at Dimension Films and a special at HBO. When the HBO special began to take off, I went more in that direction. I believed it could transform Nerve’s business, and it did.

At Nerve you started doing some documentary programs and produced the HBO doc Nerve.com: Downloading Sex. How is developing and producing documentary programming different than fictional? And what was it like working with HBO?
The HBO special was a grand experiment for Nerve, for HBO and for me. Here was this behemoth HBO, a brand I was in awe of, and its matriarch, Sheila Nevins. I had been hearing about Sheila from Spike for years – he loves her. I walked into her office and tried to pitch the concept of a Nerve series, but she already knew what she wanted. She goes, “Do you want to make a show for us, or do you want to make a show together?” I looked at my boss, he looked at me, and I told her, “We want to make a show … together?”

The show we all imagined – and everyone involved had a different idea of what it could be – had no rules, no precedent. In the end, the show did very well, and it quadrupled Nerve’s business almost instantly. For me, it was crucial. It was the process of taking a wild magazine concept from the page to the screen.

You left Nerve to form your own company Plant Film, which is a pretty big move.
Much of me is written down on tiny, crumpled pieces of paper, stuffed into my pockets. Eventually those ideas become poems. And then one day I recognized there was a book there. It has been the same in film and TV. I had this manila folder crammed with ideas for television and film, but mostly TV. One day I realized, I’ve got an entire slate of potential shows to develop. After the HBO special, two financiers approached me separately, and I combined the deals to buy myself a few years to set up projects. They had been tracking my work, and it was right before 9/11. It was enough to give me a chance to do what I was passionate about, taking an idea and turning it into something real. When you get that kind of opportunity, you don’t flinch.

After spending your career in the relatively small New York film community, what prompted you to move to LA with Plant Films?
At that time, though I had a few scripts in my pile, I had a lot of zeal for TV. And I was curious about LA. I knew so little about it, but I knew it was where I needed to be, eventually. We moved west, but my company always maintained equal business on both coasts.

Would you have ever considered returning to New York if it wasn't for the mtvU job? After being a development exec and producer, what about becoming a programming exec at a major cable network interested you?
I love New York, but I was happy in LA, and I would not have moved so soon had it not been for mtvU. I suppose many of my projects were not quite traditional, and what initially attracted me to my current position is it’s a new way of thinking about how TV is made, distributed and watched. Also, growing this brand with a new way of thinking about what's possible… that’s familiar territory for me. I did it for Spike, I did it for Nerve, now I’m doing it for MTV.

Plant’s projects are still going strong, though obviously I’m no longer actively running them. But my producing days are far from over. They’ve just begun. I’m producing more than ever at mtvU, and I will continue.

In a 500 channel universe, what role does mtvU seek to play? How is it different from MTV?
mtvU exists because college kids want it; if they didn’t, we’d be out of business. We broadcast to over 700 schools across the country, reaching over 6 million college students on air, online (www.mtvu.com), and on the ground with campus events, performances and tours, year round.

MTV undoubtedly does amazing work reaching a very broad audience. We have a different objective; mtvU is programmed specifically for the college audience, with their interests and lifestyle specifically in mind. One example is our new short form series, “The Opening,” where we give students an inside peek at various careers they might be interested in after college, then hook them up with jobs to apply for in that category, online. That is something you would never see on MTV, but it’s perfect for us. We strive to be the essential operating system for the college audience… their source for entertainment, information, news, and much more … we equally integrate everything they need into one cohesive platform available at their fingertips.

Will mtvU be music-driven, or will that take a backseat to other lifestyle and information programming?
Music is our core competency, no question about it. Music is what college kids live their lives to. mtvU is where new artists get discovered, like Joss Stone, Franz Ferdinand, Coheed & Cambria, The Killers … the list goes on and on. We just debuted the first annual mtvU’s Woodie Awards, a real moment of truth for indie music, where college kids get to acknowledge the artists who’ve won their hearts, not necessarily the charts (yet). The response from students, artists, labels and the media was unbelievable.

At the same time, music isn’t all we do. mtvU has become a real resource for college kids – for jobs, internships, travel, finance, grants for social action, and more. Through our contests – film, animation, comic strips, music and more – mtvU’s become a national platform for talented students to share their creativity. They program the channel by creating content for it.

And what I think I’m most proud of is that this channel has a conscience. Our goal this semester was to mobilize our audience of over 6 million to stand up and help put an end to the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. We partnered with Amnesty International, then brought [film director] Joel Schumacher to NY to direct a [public service announcement] for us, featuring a former Sudanese slave who is now an aspiring American college student. College kids on campuses across the country have responded to the call with rallies, concerts, protests, letter writing campaigns, fundraisers, and more. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC is featuring our campaign in their Sudan exhibit. It’s unbelievable. Our audience is making a difference.

How do you deal with the reality of having an audience that's going to leave you every four-to-five years? Is it available off-campus at all, especially to students who don't live in campus housing?
Our audience is among the most savvy, experimental, passionate, mobile and diverse in the world. And every year, there’s a brand new class that’s heard of us but never had access to us before. So the challenge in programming for this whole group is mammoth … and exhilarating. It’s why we’re built as a channel to take risks and to incubate new ideas and new ways of expressing them.

mtvU is uniquely programmed to connect with college students and reach them everywhere they are. Given their hectic schedule, mtvU can be seen on campus in dorms, the student unions, dining halls, gyms, online at mtvU.com and at our campus events throughout the year. We are definitely exploring other ways to reach students off campus, but have no definitive plans at this time.

How has the channel been accepted on campuses? Since you're not Nielsen rated, how do you gage the channel's success?
mtvU is the ultimate channel specifically for all things college. That’s why we’ve heard from students on over 600 campuses, demanding the channel, since our launch last January. Amazing universities such as Duke, UC Berkeley, Colorado, Northwestern, Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, Howard and many more have joined the mtvU family, and the list keeps growing. In fact, mtvU’s reach has expanded almost 15% this year, now reaching well over 6 million students across the country.

But the criteria of our success goes far beyond just the numbers … it’s also determined by how we connect with the college audience. Understanding their lifestyle, preferences and sensibility is integral to what we do. This audience is smart and savvy, and if you don’t connect with them in a meaningful way, they will see right through it. So far, I think we have met the challenge with a tremendous positive response from students. People are starting to get what we’re up to.

The Best Film on Campus Contest will be judged by feature film directors Joel Schumacher, Gus Van Sant and Allison Anders. Stand In will make John Kerry, Jesse Jackson and Frank McCourt serve as substitute professor for the day. How difficult was it to get these high profile people to agree to participate?
For the most part, people have been very receptive. We now get calls from talent who have heard about mtvU shows like Stand In, for example, and want to participate. But you know, getting people to believe in something new is never easy. That’s what mtvU is all about, and that’s what college is all about. Creating something new, believing in it, and getting other people to believe in the possibilities. It’s why I came here.

Somehow in the middle of all of this, you also wrote a book and also taught courses at a few different colleges. When? Why? How?
I write in the cracks of the day. But there aren’t as many cracks in my days, nowadays.

Ten Things to Know About Ross:

What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
My own book. Used.

Gotham Madlib: When the ____________ (noun) makes me feel ___________ (adverb), I like to _____________ (verb). (Strict adherence to "Madlib" rules is not required – answer however you wish.)
When the subway makes me feel like killing someone, I like to find people who look like they are up to no good, get as close as I can, and write down everything I can overhear them say.

Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
I’m obsessive. I’m obsessed. I have obsessions.

NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
I designated myself the one in our family who will find us the best pizza place in our new neighborhood. There are probably fifty pizzerias in our neighborhood. I’m almost done, but I can’t remember some, so I need to start over.

When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
The bookstore. Give me an hour and I will turn it into five.

How did you spend election night? How do you feel about the results?
In an editing room working on mtvU’s Woodie Awards. Got home in time to stay up the rest of the night. I think the results show us how much we in media and entertainment have to learn about the country we fly over and program for.

Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
I’m an “expressive” driver.

Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
When a sanitation official followed me home and gave me a ticket for throwing out our home garbage in a public garbage can on the street. (I didn’t feel like waiting for garbage day to come.)

Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
I would like to have less stuff. A lot of it.

There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
Joel Schumacher came to New York to shoot a PSA for mtvU for our campaign to help end the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. The PSA featured a former Sudanese slave, Francis Bok, who is now an aspiring American college student. Francis and I became friends. He’s 7 feet tall, very dark, and probably weighs less than I do. After drinks with Joel, I asked Francis if I could buy him some dinner, whatever he wanted. This is a guy who was a slave for ten years, who escaped, who has met with president Bush to convince him to send aid to Sudan. So what did he want in a city with some of the best food anywhere? He wanted a crispy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s. I reminded him I would take him literally anywhere he wanted. But no, he insisted on his favorite meal, Wendy’s. So he and I had dinner together at Wendy’s in SoHo. I wish someone had taken a picture of us.

For more information on mtvU, visit their web site at www.mtvu.com. Ross's book of poetry, The Cop Who Rides Alone: And Other Poems, was published by Zoo Press and is available now.