Coming to a Courtroom Near You: How Eric Kmetz Transitioned from Hollywood to UC Law
For most of his adult life, Eric Kmetz '14 lived in Los Angeles and worked in Hollywood. He could probably talk for hours, sharing everything he saw. Everything he did. For the Canton, Ohio native, Hollywood was an opportunity to pursue his dreams.
But after about 11 years in the industry, a journey of a career that was filled with many ups and downs, Kmetz packed his bags and loaded up his car. He was returning to the Midwest in the summer of 2011, leaving behind a decade-plus worth of memories in the film industry. For law school – a three-year journey of its own kind.
When he settled on law school, Kmetz made a tough decision to return to Ohio. He knew if he stayed in California, it would be difficult to mentally break away from his time in the film industry.
After settling on the College of Law, Kmetz embarked on a four-day drive to his new home in the Greater Cincinnati area. Perhaps he was not saying goodbye to Hollywood. Maybe just until next time. But the cross-country trek marked a new beginning for Kmetz, who was set to join the College of Law’s Class of 2014.
Back Home Again in Ohio
Technically, Kmetz – who is now two-thirds of the way to his J.D. – now resides in Northern Kentucky, living across the Ohio River. His trip from Los Angeles was more symbolic than just moving closer to his childhood home, a few hours northeast of Cincinnati. It marked a complete shift in Kmetz’s life.
“Driving from L.A. to here, it’s almost like transitioning into a different world. You sort of cross this Rubicon when you cross the Mississippi (River),” Kmetz said. “I knew I was ready for this, and that I was leaving that behind, and I just had to be in a different mindset.”
With two years of law school under his belt, Kmetz has been able to successfully change gears, although the transition back to the classroom involved a bit of an adjustment period.
“It took a little while to adjust to the studying, taking notes. I hadn’t taken notes in 15 years or better,” the 38-year old Kmetz said. “I didn’t have the problem with the time commitment, in terms of reading. Sitting through the hour, or whatever length it is for these classes, is a little difficult at times.”
Getting His Start in Film
Kmetz began college at Indiana University in 1993. While he only attended school there two years, it was in the Hoosier State where he had a pair of experiences that led him to Hollywood.
The summer after his freshman year, Kmetz found an unpaid production assistant internship for a feature film being shot in Indiana, and “absolutely loved it.” That fall, Kmetz went on a double date to see the new Quentin Tarantino film “Pulp Fiction” the first week it came out, in October 1994. Kmetz said he walked out of the theater “blown away by it.”
“They thought it was terrible,” Kmetz said. “I said, ‘Are you guys kidding me? That was like the greatest film I’ve ever seen.”
The next morning, Kmetz saw the first showing of the film, which was ultimately nominated for several Oscars, including “Best Picture.” Between that movie and his summer experience, Kmetz noticed there was something powerful about the film medium and realized “storytelling can find its voice through film and through screenwriting.”
During his sophomore year, Kmetz applied to the University of Southern California (USC), known for its prestigious film school. The film school was difficult to get into, and Kmetz was rejected three times. He eventually earned a business degree in 1998 from USC, where he studied film financing.
While at USC, Kmetz developed some contacts through people he met on campus. During his junior year, Kmetz did part-time unpaid work at a production company at Universal Studios, reading “bottom of the barrel scripts,” some of which actually got picked up by the studios. Kmetz felt he could write better scripts, so he presented some ideas to people around the office, and they told him to put his ideas down on paper.
After his first year at USC, he returned home for the summer and wrote his first script, “The Other Side of Simple.” He had read screenwriting books, which suggested he write a film in his hometown with locations he knew and people who would work for free. Upon returning to USC in the fall, Kmetz put a business plan together, intent on raising at least $50,000 to eventually shoot the movie in Canton.
Unbeknownst to Kmetz, his script got circulated around and, during his senior year spring break, he received a call from a literary manager who liked his script. While meeting in person, he convinced Kmetz to take himself off as the director and producer, and he would be able to sell the script to a studio and kick start Kmetz’s screenwriting career. About six months after his Dec. 1998 graduation, it sold to New Line Cinema.
Screenwriting Career Takes Off
In the six months between graduation and New Line Cinema buying “The Other Side of Simple,” Kmetz worked his way into an assistant position for a creative executive at Paramount Pictures. When his screenwriting career later took off, Kmetz was able to return to Paramount and sell them a pitch. That pitch was a script for an action movie called “Tag.” Will Smith heard about it and eventually came on board. But the film never came to fruition and Smith moved onto other projects.
Meanwhile, “The Other Side of Simple” was getting fast-tracked at New Line Cinema, and the script went from a $50,000 budget to $18 million. After the first director left to shoot “The Bourne Identity,” Kmetz received a call from Ted Demme, who had recently finished directing “Blow,” starring Johnny Depp. Demme read the script and wanted to meet. The next Saturday, Kmetz met Demme at a two-story guest house in the back of Demme’s property.
“He is in this big screening room and Johnny Depp is hanging out on the couch, and Ted’s dancing around the room because they just got back rushes for the day from “Blow,”” Kmetz said. “So they’re watching these scenes from the movie for the first time together. Johnny Depp’s just chilling on the couch, smoking a cigarette, (and) I get introduced around.”
Demme was on board to direct the project, and soon after a strong cast was hired as well, including Don Cheadle, Vince Vaughn, Hayden Christensen, Shannyn Sossamon, and Method Man. In the meantime, Demme had brought Kmetz under his wing, brought him along to several meetings, and later hired Kmetz to write another script for him.
Not So “Simple”
While Kmetz’s screenwriting career began to take off, he was regularly taking trips back to Ohio. About a year and a half earlier his brother, Brian, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. “He fought that for about two years, and then he ended up losing that battle in late August 2001,” Kmetz said.
Kmetz temporarily moved back to Ohio to be with his parents. Meanwhile, “The Other Side of Simple” was on track to begin shooting in Toronto in early 2002. In January, he received a call that Demme had collapsed on a basketball court and had died of a sudden heart attack.
“So I just lost my brother and I just lost one of my closest friends in the film industry, who was also like my mentor, in the course of about fourth months of each other,” Kmetz said.
Kmetz returned to Los Angeles and the film was otherwise ready to go, save for one major problem: no director. A new director was eventually hired to replace Demme, and everyone was sent up to Toronto in November to film “The Other Side of Simple.”
“It was just a big disaster,” Kmetz said. The new director did not seem to have the grasp on the script like Demme. The director started to alienate himself from the cast, and he sort of secretly brought on one of his friends to rewrite the script.
“He wanted to change it from a brother story – which was what I had written – to this sort of love triangle. Having just lost my brother within the year, and I based the whole relationship in the script off our relationship, I couldn’t make those changes,” Kmetz said. “It was terrible. I cried.”
During the holiday break, nearly every actor walked off the project. In early January, Kmetz was told to clean his stuff out in Toronto. The studio had pulled the plug on the film.
A New Beginning
Kmetz decided to take a break from Hollywood and put his career on hold. He placed his belongings in a storage unit, cancelled his cell phone service, and boarded an airplane with a one-way ticket. “That began like a 14-month journey for me, where I just lived out of backpack, traveled through Europe for a while, then ended up getting to Southeast Asia, where I stayed in Laos for about six months and taught English,” Kmetz said.
He helped build an English school there, bought a motorcycle, and traveled through Vietnam and Thailand.
Then Kmetz decided to get back into the film business.
He applied to the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI) and returned to California for round two; only now, he hoped to work his way up as a writer, producer, and director – the “triple threat.” The Canton native began the two-year program in 2005, and he started directing, writing, and producing short films. He wrote one script in particular that James Franco liked, and soon after Franco was the lead in Kmetz’s short film, “Grasshopper.”
Around the same time, a short film of Kmetz’s from prior to leaving the country, was “shortlisted” for an Academy Award. This film, “The Book and the Rose,” was played at nearly 40 film festivals around the world and was selected as a finalist by the Academy. The film narrowly missed the top five, which would have put his film in the awards show.
Writers go on strike
After Kmetz returned to California and completed the AFI program, he was re-energized and beginning to establish himself. But he emerged from AFI in debt, because of his travels and two years at AFI. Then, the Writers Guild of America went on strike from Nov. 2007 through Feb. 2008, although it effectively shut down the industry for more than a year. Kmetz could not get work, as no one was buying scripts.
After the strike ended, Hollywood “emerged in such a different landscape.” Kmetz said the larger studios swallowed up the smaller distribution companies and the major companies were mostly interested in sequels, movies based on books with pre-existing audiences, and superheroes/comic books.
“The movies that inspired me could not get made in the new landscape,” Kmetz said.
As Kmetz struggled to find work, he learned editing and began working as an assistant editor for promo commercials for the TV show “Gossip Girl.” It was his first “9-to-5” job since the six months at Paramount, and he said it was “torture” for him.
“Hollywood wasn’t the place it was when I got into it when I was 21 years old,” he said. “I decided that if I left, first, it would give me a break away from Hollywood to decide if I really wanted to do this the rest of my life. Next, I could also get an education other than writing. When you’re an out of work screenwriter, there aren’t a lot of other avenues to go to make money.”
So Kmetz decided to attend law school as a way to develop another skillset and position himself for a potentially new career.
The ‘Twisted World of Hollywood’
Before leaving California, Kmetz sold the 2007 Franco project to a small distribution company on the East coast. With a tiny market for short films, he did not expect much to come from it.
One night in 2010, Kmetz attended an American Film Market event at a hotel, which featured mostly low-quality B-movies, including the likes of “Sharktopus” and “Teenage Mutant Girl Squad.” While on the top floor, a poster across the room caught his eye. The film was called “Love and Distrust,” and the poster featured several big-name actors, including Franco, Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Pattinson. Kmetz wondered how a movie like that was made under the radar and being sold there.
“I went over to the poster to see who made this film, and at the bottom of the poster it says, ‘written and directed by Eric Kmetz,’” he said. “So bizarre.”
As it turns out, this company bought five short films (including “Grasshopper”), and edited them together to make it look like a feature film. Since Kmetz was the only writer and director of one of the five films, they decided to use his name. Apparently it had been shown on Showtime in Russia and Hungary, was being sold on Amazon and Netflix, plus was a lead film on Redbox.
“I went home and looked it up,” Kmetz said. “It’s getting all these (really bad) reviews, mostly from Robert Pattinson fans who think they’ve discovered the “underground” Robert Pattinson movie right after he did “Twilight.”
Kmetz, who called this combined film “unwatchable,” said the company did not even contact him to get the master tapes with good sound and visuals.
“I went out to L.A. to make movies and it took about 11 years for me to actually make one, and ultimately I didn’t even know I made it,” he said. “It’s the twisted world of Hollywood.”
Life in Cincinnati
Kmetz will graduate from the College of Law in 12 months, in May 2014. One factor in his decision to come to Cincinnati was that it was “a good school for the money,” especially with the graduate metro rate. Moreover, a good friend of his is practicing in town. In fact, this summer Kmetz will be working with that friend at Markovits Stock & DeMarco, a civil firm located downtown.
Kmetz is a member of Law Review, he just finished a year with the Ohio Innocence Project, and he was recently named the 3L Student Bar Association representative and head of the chess club for the 2013-14 school year. This past year, he was involved with the Trial Practice Team, and has since been named its vice president.
“Trial team has been a great outlet for storytelling,” he said. “Hopefully, I think this appreciation of storytelling is going to find its voice now through law. I’m just not sure where or how.”
Kmetz is interested in being in the courtroom, although he does not think he wants to pursue criminal law. Of course, Kmetz has not officially closed the book on Hollywood.
“Coming to law school is sort of a way to get a larger, diverse skillset, that if I do get back to writing, directing, producing, or another avenue of entertainment, I think I’ll have more knowledge about how to actually capitalize on it,” Kmetz said. “If I don’t go back into entertainment, then it will just open up new doors and I can build a new career.”
In his free time, Kmetz still writes and works on scripts and screen plays. Anything arts-related is up his alley, whether that is seeing plays at Covington’s The Carnegie, operas at Music Hall, or just movies. Kmetz has also been to some Reds games. In March, Kmetz got an Italian Greyhound dog, Wendell, and he goes to the park almost daily.
While he is fully settled into life in the Cincinnati area, Kmetz says he has a “yearning to still get back to an ocean area, whether it’s California or whether it manifests this time on the East Coast.”
Wherever Kmetz may end up and whatever he may do after law school, it will be but another step on his journey. Even if he does not make it back to Hollywood, it is unlikely that he will ever stop writing – even if just for fun. To this day, Kmetz is most proud of his work on “The Other Side of Simple.”
“Everything after that was chasing a paycheck,” Kmetz said. “It took me almost 10 years to realize that.”
By Jordan Cohen, ‘13