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A shooting star

Two Emmys, a music video of the year and four Grammy nominations have vindicated a leap of faith for this University of Memphis alumnus.

By Greg Russell

George Flanigen was a country music song waiting to happen.

George Flanigen
George Flanigen
“I was fresh out of college, unemployed and angry at the world,” says the University of Memphis alumnus about his first days out of college. “I graduated in December of 1981 so I was starting my life in ’82 and I got out there and I couldn’t find a job and I couldn’t get anybody to call me back. All my buddies who graduated with a business degree were getting out and getting great jobs, getting a company car and I couldn’t get anyone to call me back. It was the hardest time in my life.”

Flanigen, too, had graduated with a business degree, but was pursuing a career in his minor, television and film production. While at the U of M, he had served on the Student Senate and was president of SAE fraternity.

But despite making all the correct moves in college — go ahead and insert twangy lyrics here — Flanigen’s life was less than rosy.

 “I felt like I had done everything right in college, but now I was really thinking I had made some major mistakes and done some things wrong.”

But the song didn’t remain the same — the lyrics took an unexpected upswing.

“Probably six months after graduation, the phone rings out of the blue and it is Dr. Don Carson (former dean of students). He says, ‘George, I was thinking about you and I was wondering how things were going with you out there.’

“Well, I unloaded on him. He probably wished he had never asked. He let me rant and I told him that I didn’t know if that education was worth it ... all that time I spent on student government and my fraternity that I put on my resume meant nothing.

(top)Flanigen (left) and partner Robert Deaton (right) with KISS; (bottom) Flanigen with Martina McBride
(top)Flanigen (left) and partner Robert Deaton (right) with KISS; (bottom) Flanigen with Martina McBride
“When I got done, he said, ‘George, you are trying to do something that there are tens of thousands of people trying to do. It is not a normal job. You’ve got to have tenacity. You’ve got to stick to it and stay with what you love. You have a good education; you just have to wait and be patient.’

“I got off the phone from that pep talk and two weeks later, got my first job in the entertainment industry. And I promise you if he had not called, I was thinking I would get the film crap off my resume and go get a real job, because that was what my family was busting me to do. Had that call not come in, I may not be sitting here today talking about this.”

From down-on-your-luck to the current Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Recording Academy (Grammys), those days on the streets of Nashville are long gone. Flanigen is an Emmy Award-winning director of music videos, commercials and television. He and Robert Deaton, his partner in Deaton Flanigen Productions, won the Emmy for the flashy introduction of Monday Night Football that resembled a mini-set of the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun. Fighter jets, a military-style command room and finally Hank Williams Jr. capping off the spot with his familiar “Are You Ready for Some Football?”

“That was the most difficult place we ever shot, on the deck of the U.S.S. Roosevelt in the middle of somewhere — they (the Navy) didn’t even tell us where we were,” Flanigen says of the shoot. “They flew us out for four hours and we landed on the deck. It was so loud, you couldn’t hear — you had to sign-language everything. You were constantly being grabbed by somebody and pulled out of the way. If you weren’t grabbed, you’d be dead. It was so dangerous, á la Top Gun.”

Flanigen has shot Wendy’s commercials, promos for Regis and Kelly, and spots for the L.A. Lakers and Suddenly Susan.

The company’s client list reads like an all-star cast of country and cross-over musicians: Kid Rock, Trace Atkins, Brooks & Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Alabama, Reba McEntire and Martina McBride. It was a video he directed for the latter that put Deaton Flanigen Productions on the national stage — literally.

1994’s “Independence Day” won the Country Music Association’s coveted Video of the Year and is still the No. 2 most-popular country music video of all time, behind Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.” The somewhat controversial lyrics of the video paint a painful picture of domestic abuse. The video is still requested by women’s shelters, police organizations and similar groups. It was McBride’s first work with Flanigen and Deaton.

“We all knew we were making something special with ‘Independence Day,’” McBride says. “It felt powerful and groundbreaking when we were shooting it.

(top)Flanigen with Dolly Parton; (bottom) Flanigen with Hank Williams Jr.
(top)Flanigen with Dolly Parton; (bottom) Flanigen with Hank Williams Jr.
 “I actually met with George and Robert beforehand to see if I felt like they were right for it. I wanted to make sure they were not afraid to take chances. I am so proud of that video and I know that it would not have been the same in someone else’s hands. It was an experience that bonded us forever.”

Adds Flanigen, “It is one of those videos, at the end, you say, ‘Wow!’”

McBride has since worked with Flanigen on a half dozen other projects, including a “Home for the Holidays” commercial for Wal-Mart. She says she is not surprised his career has soared.

“He always makes you feel like everything is under control. As an artist, especially if you are the kind of artist who likes to collaborate, one of the most important things is that you feel you have been heard. George always makes you feel that way. He may not always agree with you, but he is willing to listen and discuss different ideas.”

“It is their project — we are there for them,” says Flanigen in his approach to working with artists.

After being sent a song and any parameters such as timetables and budget, Flanigen says he and his partner sit down and listen to the single separately and create an idea before offering a “sales pitch” to the artist.

“It is your time to tell the story the best way you know how.”

Flanigen says different performers prefer different levels of collaboration.

 “Martina, she is hands-on. We will have hours of discussion with her. Kid Rock, he really wants to be involved. He is going to text you, call you and going to sit down and talk about the video idea.”

Flanigen worked with Kid Rock on the “All Summer Long” video that was the most-aired video of all genres in 2008.

Flanigen has a unique way of igniting his creativity.

“I am a gear-head. I love to listen to music while I am riding. I will put that song on and get on one of my motorcycles and go cruising and just think. Then Robert and I will meet and share our ideas and we’ll find the gem and put it on paper. The best ones seem to come right away. Sometimes it is a struggle.”

The “ideas” run the gamut, from a promo featuring KISS in concert on That ’70s Show to Hank Williams Jr.’s “Country Boy Can Survive,” shot in black in white with simple, yet moving imagery of Williams floating down the Mississippi River on a barge. It is a song of survival, one that in many ways resembles Flanigen’s own tribulations.

“I got my first job working in a studio — they paid me about $9,000 a year, but it was more about getting experience and making connections. I hung lights, I was there morning, noon and night. When I wasn’t there, I was working free lance to try to make more money.

Flanigen says he “worked my way up the ladder” and became a camera operator, meeting Deaton in the process.

“We had this love of film, and the only thing people were shooting film on at that time were music videos and TV commercials. We decided to go into business together.

“Sometimes youth and stupidity garners great things. If you had known what you were up against, you may not have done it. But literally, we sold everything we had and started a company with two beepers, an answering service and $1,100 in the bank. And we jumped out on our own shooting videos and commercials.

“Then we proceeded to starve to death for four years. You know how everything happens overnight and you become a huge success, well we starved to death for four years,” Flanigen recalls with a laugh.

The fledgling company began in July of 1985 in an office on Nashville’s Music Row but the pair found the going rough.

“There were some saying we were too young, didn’t know what we were doing and we wouldn’t last,” says Flanigen.

 The pair’s first hint at success came via the Christian music industry with a hit video with then Memphis-based Eddie DeGarmo. Then came smashes with Shelby Lynne, Ricky Van Shelton (“Statute of a Fool”) and Alabama. You can put a “the rest is history” tag on what followed with hit videos with Brooks & Dunn (“Believe”) among others.

Flanigen says the music video business has evolved, meaning his company is changing with the times.

“We’re pitching a couple of new television shows. That is where it is now. The music business has changed so much, there are not near as many the number of music videos being done. We’re looking at other avenues, TV shows and we own three or four scripts of movies. That has been our dream to have a feature film out there.

“It never stops,” Flanigen says of his industry. “You gotta climb that tree everyday. We still have dreams and aspirations and things we want to accomplish.”

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