“What happens to me for some odd reason is I wake up in the morning or I’ll be half-way through a vodka martini, and something will just pop into my head,” says Dave Stewart. We’re at his Weapons of Mass Entertainment headquarters on Hollywood and Vine, a sort of Willy Wonka’s factory that manufactures not candy, but ideas.
Each idea starts with Stewart, who sends it along an inhouse production line manned by his 16 or so staffers — producers, directors, designers, writers, special effects people, and documentary and film editors. What emerges at the other end is a small silver box, not dissimilar to a candy box, containing the DNA components of Stewart’s idea: The logo, a soundtrack CD with songs by Stewart, a treatment, perhaps a graphic novel that illustrates the story, a sizzle reel and other ephemera showing how the idea will translate across different platforms. It’s as thorough a pitch as you’re likely to see.
Since Stewart started gathering his team 4 1/2 years ago, every box that has gone out to a meeting has come back with a deal. There’s a TV pilot, “Malibu Country,” starring Reba McEntire and Lily Tomlin, which ABC is shooting this month. There are two feature films in the works: Paramount has picked up Stewart and Ringo Starr’s “Hole in the Fence,” and director Jonas Akerlund, known for his work with Lady Gaga, Madonna and U2, is attached to Stewart’s “Zombie Broadway.”
“Ghost,” the musical based on the hit 1990 movie and for which Stewart wrote music and lyrics with Glen Ballard, is opening April 23 on Broadway following a well-received production in London, which earned five Olivier nominations and is still running; and he’s developing “Songland,” a televised competition.
Also in the works: “Pearl,” an animated feature with original songs by Stewart and Orianthi Panagaris; “Smashed,” a feature with Kara DioGuardi; and a six-documentary per-year deal with Cinedigm with each film featuring a legendary artist in the studio with Stewart, to name a few.
Stewart’s success with his boxes certainly speaks to the power of slick presentation. But it also ensures that when his ideas go out into the world, his original blueprint remains as fully intact as possible.
“I know it sounds like I’m a bit of a control freak,” he says, “but actually I’m kind of the opposite. I don’t want to control it all. I want to take my idea to a certain point where it is exactly how I want it to be and there’s no room for people to misunderstand it.”
That’s why Stewart keeps all his creatives inhouse, and rarely outsources. He can make sure whatever goes into each silver box is a true representation of his vision, and then whoever he hands the box to, can take it from there.
Pam Williams, formerly of Laura Ziskin Prods. and George Clooney’s Maysville Pictures, joined Stewart’s team about six months ago, focusing on “Malibu Country” and “Hole in the Fence.” “Things are so often about meeting for meeting’s sake and developing for developing’s sake, and it stifles creativity,” she says. “But here things jump from idea to box very quickly.”
Take his idea for “Malibu Country”: Stewart got that one while driving through Malibu one day shortly after returning home from Nashville. He snapped a photo of the landscape on his cell phone and sent it to his manager, Dave Kaplan, with a brief outline of the idea — roughly a clash-of-cultures saga about a Nashville mother of three who leaves her cheating-heart, rock-star husband behind and moves her family to Malibu, where she attempts to resurrect her own singing career.
Six weeks later, a pilot was scripted, McEntire and Tomlin were brought on board, and, not long after, a deal was made with ABC.
Williams describes the office culture as an “open-door space,” where there’s a “constant cross-pollination of ideas between editors and music people and film and TV people. And all the while, Stewart has his eye on the long ball, not on the short development ball. It moves things very quickly. Sometimes I can’t keep up.”
On top of running an ideas factory, the Grammy Award-winner who came to fame as one half of the Eurythmics with Annie Lennox has his regular rock star duties to attend to — his upcoming album, “The Ringmaster General,” features duets with Alison Krauss, Jessie Baylin and Diane Birch; he’s just completed writing and recording Stevie Nicks and Joss Stone’s upcoming albums; and is contemplating the next move of SuperHeavy, the band he formed with Stone, Mick Jagger, Damian Marley and A.R. Rahman.
Dropping in and out of the office digs are Stewart’s friends and proteges, including violin prodigy Anne Marie Calhoun — managed by Stewart, she performed at the recent Oscars. Don’t be surprised if Stewart grabs a guitar for an impromptu jam with Calhoun in the boardroom, which is exactly what happened half way through our interview.
At the end of the day, Stewart is known for gathering his Weapons of Mass Entertainment colleagues for one of his infamous “Martini Moments.” In fact, if you Google the words “martini moment,” among the first links that pop up is Stewart’s website. “Well, everything we do has to be fun,” he says. “If it’s not fun, there’s no point doing it. And by the way, did you know that vodka makes you 17% more creative than any other drink?”