“I thought the mundaneness of a nine-to-five job was torture,” says Susan Johnston, the founder of New Media Film Festival®. Indeed, her life and career have been anything but mundane. She grew up in Rhode Island with a dad who was in the film industry, and every day was “take your daughter to work” day. “I was on the set of The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford as a kid,” recalls Johnston. By age 11, she was singing backup and playing tambourine in a country band.
Johnston got hooked on the entertainment industry and established herself as an extra — a background actor in films. “In my early 20s, I was in every major motion picture that came to Rhode Island,” she says. “I got to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Deborah Allen.” She soon advanced to speaking a few lines, and then Sherry Lansing gave her a speaking role in School Ties and she was off and running. “I was always placed near the stars and if you shut up and observe, you learn a lot,” says Johnston.
In 2000, she drove to LA with big dreams, but arrived in the middle of a Screen Actors Guild strike. Eager to get a foot in the door and willing to do just about anything, she leveraged her contacts back East and landed an introduction to a casting director. The woman put her to work wrangling extras for Kid Rock’s music video “American Badass”. As it happened, she was pretty good at putting out fires and doing whatever needed to be done to keep things running smoothly. Johnson’s creative problem-solving and can-do attitude attracted the attention of producers and directors who hired her for a variety of jobs, often creating new roles for her as she proved herself to be a valuable asset.
Johnston started her own companies — Susan Johnston Casting and Select Services Films — and eventually produced her own films, as she continued to work as an independent casting director and actor. But it was the economic crisis of 2008 that inspired her to launch her newest venture, New Media Film Festival®, which she describes as a “story and technology company."
"I’m sharing my life’s experiences [through Rolling Stone Culture Council] and I guarantee if you read it, I’m going to save you time and money."
“The most powerful people were leaving LA in droves,” Johnston recalls. She was losing friends left and right, but surviving as an independent. She wanted to do something to help her industry, so she leveraged her diverse skills and knowledge to create the festival. It was a place, she says, where all kinds of creators could work together with a variety of tools to create art in whatever medium they desired. “It was a safe place, but they needed awards, prominent judges and then they needed distribution,” she says. She managed to provide it all.
The festival gained traction and industry recognition but, says Johnston, “COVID was devastating.” She had the same “holy shit, Batman” feeling that she had in 2008, with the compounded tragedy of watching friends lose their lives. Determined to weather the pandemic, she made the switch to virtual events. A jazz musician did a live stream performance; directors, writers, and producers made themselves available for an “ask an expert” series; online contests awarded winners free technology.
“I had to learn new skills,” says Johnston. “And I had to find a system that not everybody else was using because there was no way in hell I was going to do a Zoom festival. It took me a long time, but I figured it out.” The result: the festival, which went live again this year, is now a hybrid event, with some elements online.
Johnston relays her decades of accumulated wisdom by publishing thought leadership via Rolling Stone Culture Council. “They’re giving me a voice in a place where I can make a difference,” says Johnston. “That’s the most valuable thing for me. I’m sharing my life’s experiences and I guarantee if you read it, I’m going to save you time and money.” Culture Council membership also gives her the opportunity to meet other members who may have synergistic interests. For instance, a connection with Brian Framson of Citrus America resulted in the company providing fresh juice and snacks at New Media Festival®. “They’re fun, they’re fabulous and I never would have known about them if not for Rolling Stone Culture Council,” says Johnston.