Mikey Neumann is someone I look up to.
He’s been the face of Gearbox Studios for a number of years, where his position as a creative force allowed him to oversee writing on a number of titles, including Brothers in Arms and the beloved Borderlands series. He’s that guy that every studio wants to have on staff because his talent is only matched by his outward facing generosity and cult of personality. Mikey is the type to not only take young writers under his wing, or help anyone in any situation really, but also be painfully blunt about his personal life.
The first time I met him, I wound up flying into Dallas almost by accident and a guy I’d only known through Twitter interactions offered to let me come stay with him. Which was good because the airport was hit by a tornado, so I found one cab driver insane enough to drive me into the storm towards Mikey’s house, where we proceeded to hide out and drink and listen to some rap music he’d recorded. It’s one of my all time favorite memories but also one of those things that defines a person who’s exactly who you imagined them to be.
That’s perhaps why it felt like the internet shut down last year, at least in some corners, when Mikey wound up in the hospital for reasons that were not made clear. It turned out he’d been battling multiple sclerosis for nearly five years, and the disease had been eating him alive.
Mikey got out of the hospital with a new lease on life, but the guy who was always making new weird things was not going to stop making new weird things. That’s when he left his industry leading videogame job, the sort of position people spend a lifetime working towards, and began focusing on his web-series Movies With Mikey full time.
The show, which allows Mikey Neumann to break down films in long form format, is a direct rebuttal to things like Honest Trailers or Red Letter Media. It’s criticism but with a set of goals for saying nice things about cool projects, and celebrating while learning from what has come before. It, like Mikey, oozes positivity in a manner that is addictive.
With an Emmy nomination under his belt and a new dedicated calling, we sat down to discuss where Movies With Mikey, and YouTube-based entertainment in general, goes from here.
Paste: Where did the idea for Movies With Mikey come from?
Mikey Neumann: To me, no good idea happens all at once. There’s a seed, kind of a feeling of an idea, and then there’s like 200 iterations of [it].
I was getting into the YouTube scene more and more back in 2012-2013. Not casually watching, I mean, my main form of media consumption was quickly becoming YouTube. Back then, the film landscape of film shows on YouTube looked a little different. When the show actually launched in 2013, my “feeling of an idea” revolved more around taking movies generally regarded as crap from the 1990s and 2000s and giving the audience a deeper appreciation for movies that included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, Pearl Harbor, Last Action Hero, Ladyhawke, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. From the beginning, the goal with each episode was to have people walk away going: “Huh, I never thought about it like that.” You can see the DNA of the show to come the best in the Long Kiss Goodnight episode. It led me to not be afraid of being 100% genuine about a film. It’s hard to be funny when you’re not able to stand behind sarcasm and cynicism. However, it wasn’t doing particularly well traffic-wise, so I took a little break to think about how to refocus it.
Quite a few months later, I did a piece on The World’s End. Edgar Wright tweeted it. Simon Pegg (when he still had a twitter) also tweeted about it. The internet was really responding to this thing I’d put together. That was a crazy feeling for me: “Oh, the people that make the films might react to your commentary about them in a positive way and share it with others.” On the other side of the entertainment landscape, I was sort of realizing that some entertainers should spend their time just trying to build stuff up. There are so, so, so, so, so, so many shows on YouTube now that have a single function: tear it down. There is absolutely no problem with divining comedy from things we perceive as bad. It’s hilarious. But there is a giant hole for people that wanna make you laugh, generally at their own expense, to try and make your day better. As time went on, I started speaking a lot deeper truths, well outside the comedy, and just speak to people and say: we can do this. It’s going to be okay. I’m here for you.
TL;DR: the show is all of those things.
Paste: Where did you learn cinema and what are the bona fides here to start breaking it down?
Neumann: I’m very much self-taught. Which is why I try to never get too into the weeds with the technicality of this art. I lean with knowledge I have, more from making films (which I’ve been doing since I was like 10) than from going to college for it. The show comes from looking at works on YouTube and making a new thing, using my existing film knowledge from having a terrifying obsession with them from an early age.
There used to be this channel in Dallas called The Popcorn Channel. It scrolled showtimes for all local theaters at the bottom and on the top, it aired new movie trailers. There was no internet movie trailers back then, so this is how I could see every single movie trailer. And that’s what was always on in my room: movie trailers. It led me to reading a lot about them: who is making them? What do all the jobs do? What is visual storytelling?
Some other kids played baseball.
Paste: Your illness change the direction of your career. What are the highs and lows of that?
Neumann: Okay, ripping that band-aid off.
Lows: I was very sad and very lonely for most of this year because I left a job I had for 16 years entertaining people on the world stage. Background: I used to work at Gearbox Software on games I was writing for like Borderlands and Brothers in Arms. Earlier this year, I suffered from something we really still don’t fully understand, possibly as a result of my Multiple Sclerosis that left me legally disabled. Meaning, I can walk and move around but my right is entirely numb, and walking is hard because my balance is so terrible. I was sick for so long in March-April that my muscles atrophied and I had to go through long-ass physical therapy to get myself back. That also took months. It took a huge mental toll on me, but the show was one of the things that got me through it.
It’s scary. You lose your safety net literally overnight but I could not physically do my old job anymore. I dunno, it sucked. These decisions were made for me.
Paste: You suffered through The Great Patreon Purge of December 2017. What did you learn from this experience? What are your thoughts on the company now? Are there better ways to support you?
Neumann: I learned you can’t put all your business eggs in one basket because that basket might collapse, but it’s not entirely like I didn’t know that. I panicked and started a Patreon the day before I knew I was gonna resign from Gearbox and it really exploded. I kind of went: oh, this is my full-time job now.
When people were leaving, it was scary. We rode it out and they seemed to make it right. When you build a revenue stream, that’s not easy either. So suggestions just to throw it away (super common) fall on more patient ears. If Patreon is your bottom net, you don’t remove that before you have another solution proving itself out.
I stayed and after they announced the changes, it all went back to normal—better than normal, actually. What I think and hope a lot of people are doing in response to this sort of wake up cal, is adding more revenue streams and thinking about having more boats in the water, should one of them sink.
Paste: How’d you get into games writing? What’s the big secret of doing it right?
Neumann: I started at Gearbox as a texture artist. So, I got in through art. There weren’t really a lot of game writers back then. We had started on Brothers in Arms and I was like, I think we can make something special and try to make more magnetic characters to an audience by trying something new. People listened. I was learning the whole time, but I have a lot of pride at what we accomplished in that original trilogy of games. It was the same story over three war games. Advancing with each one. You don’t really see that in war games. Not in the same way. It didn’t hurt that the game was fun as hell and had all these kick-ass squad combat mechanics.
To me, doing it right comes down to giving people something they can’t get anywhere else.
Paste: What did Borderlands teach you about storytelling?
Neumann: It’s always about the characters. Once an audience falls in love with the people, they’ll follow you anywhere. Build the plot to challenge the people we love, and the audience will follow you anywhere. Also the type of humor is important in a comedy. Like, at this point, “Borderlands” as a word is a tone. You can describe something as Borderlands and it paints a pretty solid picture in your head what kind of tone it is.
Paste: You’ve lived a very public/open life with a lot of twists and turns. Yet, you’re always an absolutely good person in everyone’s estimation of you. What are, for lack of a better term, your rules for being a not fuckhead?
Neumann: Surround yourself with people that are better than you. It rubs off. Illness has softened me. Once you truly understand that life is precious and short, it changes your goals a lot, I think. To quote the great Doctor: Always try to be nice, never fail to be kind.
Paste: Who are your heroes?
Neumann: I appreciate Bo Burnham an unhealthy amount. The way he consistently challenges the form through performance is always impressive. It’s not just that he’s hilarious, his performances are astounding, right before they leave you with a thought that will shake you to the core. He makes his struggle through life part of the show. He will entertain you while educating you. That is heroic, entertainment-wise to me. For real-life heroes: there are too many. Anyone standing up from wherever their seat at the world’s table is and speaking truth to power. We as a species are in a consistent arms race to stifle ourselves and our potential. My hero is anyone that stands up to that and says “no.”
Paste: You’re one of the few Real Adults I know on YouTube right now, making real adult content. This question swings both ways: How much of what you’re doing is for audiences of all ages and how do you keep that in mind? Conversely, when you exist alongside folks like a Logan Paul—I don’t even know what to do with this. Are you disappointed? Are there words of wisdom you want to offer? Do you want to say things, not to him per se, but to those that are coming up so they don’t wind up here? What do you think the future of YouTube looks like?
Neumann: I had never even thought about it. I just try to be someone you want to listen to. I’ve softened the swearing and stuff over time, but I haven’t softened the message. I think any age is a good age to learn empathy. With each generation of YouTube, you see an increase in the quality of content, but also in what that content is attempting to achieve. I mean, I hope the future of YouTube looks at least a little like what I’m doing because that means I might still exist on it. YouTube is like being popular in high school. There are lots of types of popular, and the most popular is exactly what you expect it looks like, but there is quality content for all kinds of stuff. Just type in a hobby and see what’s out there. You’d be amazed. There is probably someone making content that you will feel like is just for you. That’s just math. With that many people making stuff, it’s likely your favorite show is already on there, and you don’t even know it exists.
Paste: How does someone make a living in YouTube now? What do you say to the person who is just starting out with a dream and no followers?
You need a revenue stream like Patreon to work on growth. Without a huge channel, ad revenue will never help you eat. You are either filthy rich, making like 50 grand a month, or you’re trying to figure out how $1500 over the next three months is going to translate into food and shelter.
It’s tough. The way the algorithm currently appears to work effectively eliminates a YouTube middle class because you have to grow your channel so much to get there, and there’s very few people there. A middle class income on YouTube is a few hundred thousand subscribers. It’s tough. I hope new tools continue to emerge to help people make it possible for people to make things for you. There’s always new shit on YouTube.
Paste: Finally, you just got a bump from the director of Wonder Woman for your video on Wonder Woman. How does that feel, as both a fan and critic?
Neumann: As a fan, you don’t stop smiling for like two hours. I took a lot of shit for the Wonder Woman episode, and I have absolutely NOTHING on the shit women on the internet get every day, but it felt a little vindicating. I mean, that was a stupendously nice thing to say and share with the world. If your show is gonna be worth anything: never, ever, ever, ever take that for granted.
Conversely, I want to help the artist get their art to a wider audience while educating them about it. If I can make the world a better place in that process, if only for a little bit, then it’s worth it. It’s really that simple to me. I’ll find a way to do it, lord knows this year has proven that to me.
Movies With Mikey is doing its first ever live show at Drafthouse Richardson in Richardson, Texas, on Jan. 20.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.