Virtual Reality

Bloomfield Hills native Neil Mandt takes an emerging technology in a new direction.
Neil Mandt
Neil Mandt on the set of “Hijacking Hollywood” in 1995, which he wrote, directed, and produced.

Neil Mandt, an award-winning producer in television, film and, more recently, nontraditional media, reveals his big break came when he was 10 years old and pedaling his bike near his home in Bloomfield Hills.

“I grew up on Aldgate Drive,” he recalls, “no mansions or anything, just upper middle class and very normal and regular. We were right down the street from St. Hugo of the Hills Church, and the neighborhood felt like all the ones you see in any John Hughes movie.”

On this particular day, young Neil got word that a wedding scene for a TV movie of the week was being shot at St. Hugo.

“Hollywood (was) right down the street from me,” Mandt says. “Can you imagine the excitement? So, I get on my bike and I hustle down there, and I see cameras, lights, and trucks. I’m 10 years old and whatever the normal height is for a 10-year-old, knock 25 percent off. I’m a little guy. And I find a grip or someone who’s working on the set and I look up at him and say, ‘Who’s in charge? I want to be in show business.’ ”

And the rest, as they say …

The audacious confrontation led to a quick conversation with the film’s casting director, who suggested that the pushy little kid pedal home, find a picture of himself, write his name and phone number on the back, and return it to her — which Mandt quickly did.

“Six weeks go by and I get a phone call,” he continues. “I’m 10! 10-year-olds don’t get phone calls! I find out my photo had been passed from the casting director to a talent agency in Detroit, and (that) I have an audition the next day for a Buick commercial. My mother says, ‘You have school tomorrow. You’re not going to an audition.’ ”

Let’s just say his mother’s emphatic message didn’t quite land with Neil, who not only missed school the next day, but made it to the audition — without his mother’s knowledge or chauffeuring help. Of course, he got the job.

“So I go home that night,” Mandt says, “and tell my mom I have to be out of school the next week because I booked a commercial. And that’s how I started in the business.”

Dog Years
Neil Mandt with Burt Reynolds and Gordon Whitener on the set of “Dog Years” in 2016.

He lined up 15 more commercials over the next year, signed with an agent in New York City, and was soon traveling there regularly for auditions with his mother.

“After about the third or fourth trip to New York,” Mandt says, “my mom’s like, ‘I can’t do this. I’ve got three other kids, I’m busy. You go.’ So I fly to Newark, take the bus to the Port Authority, walk up 42nd Street to where my agent is in Times Square, do my auditions, and then fly home. I did that maybe 30 times in two years. (I was) 11 and 12 years old and I navigated the airports, buses, and the city all alone.”

Once he got to Lahser (now Bloomfield) High School, Mandt, 47, launched his own TV show on the school’s educational access channel.

“I was 16,” he says, “and I didn’t know anything about production, writing, directing, or editing, but I had an idea for a show — to go backstage and interview rock stars. So I started calling record companies, telling them I had a TV show called VTV (Video TV) Special Report, and (I was) able to convince them that I was a legit TV personality in Detroit. Ever see the movie Almost Famous? That’s me. I went to shows, hung out with the bands, and made video content for my show.”

Mandt continued to do his show at the University of Detroit Mercy, winning a college Emmy Award for his efforts, which led to another life-changing phone call during his junior year — this time from WDIV TV.

“They had just lost their entertainment reporter,” he says, “and they asked me if I wanted the job. I was 20 and I began doing daily reports. It was a wonderful opportunity and an unbelievable experience, and I loved it.”

But Mandt, who had already left college for that job, quit after just a year and moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of a more varied career in television. By the mid-90s he was working as a producer for ABC News, and had already covered both the O.J. Simpson criminal trial and the Oklahoma City bombing.

“At 25 I was on a very good path to be a real network producer,” Mandt says, “but that was it for me. I wanted to tell nicer stories, first and foremost, not horrible ones.”

Neil Mandt on set
Neil Mandt with his brother, Michael, at the premiere of “Million Dollar Arm” in 2014, which they co-produced.

Over the next 20 years, that’s just what he did — delivering content for film, digital, and mobile audiences, along with more than 3,000 television episodes for an array of networks, ranging from ESPN to SyFy TV to the Food Network. He also won an Emmy for his coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics, and in 2014 he co-produced Million Dollar Arm, a Disney film starring Jon Hamm. He seemed to be plugged into a winning formula that virtually guaranteed success.

“But then, about three years ago, I felt it all buckle,” Mandt says. “It was becoming impossible for me to continue to sell TV shows, and it soon became clear to me there was something wrong with the economic model. Now we all know it was because customers were cutting the cord from cable TV, so that made me realize I needed to do something different, and I started looking at VR.”

VR, or virtual reality, is a computer technology that utilizes software to generate images and sounds that replicate either a real three-dimensional environment or create an imaginary setting. To experience the effects, a user puts on a virtual reality headset that consists of head-mounted goggles with a screen in front of the eyes, as well as headphones to ensure complete sensory immersion. Mandt recognized an opportunity in the field as soon as he slipped on a pair of VR goggles for the first time.

“It was horrible, horrible, horrible!” he says. “It was a nauseating experience. Bad quality, no story. So I thought, ‘I’m going to apply my storytelling techniques to it and make it good.’ And that’s essentially what we’ve done.”

Mandt VR, a 7,000-square-foot production studio in the heart of Hollywood, offers what its founder and CEO touts as “seamless, non-nausea-inducing imagery.” He’s at the forefront of a form of viewer engagement Mandt is convinced is revolutionary in the same way the birth of sound was to silent films and the introduction of color was to TV programming. 

As of late last year, Mandt VR was one of some 20 companies trying to capitalize on what’s projected to be an $80 billion business in less than 10 years. Not surprisingly, Mandt is confident he’ll come out at the head of the pack.

“Most of the VR experiences, hundreds of thousands made to date, are just put the goggles on and you’re someplace, just looking around,” he says. “There’s no story, no purpose for it. We’ve put in a story. And what that story is used for depends on the client.”

Mandt VR’s client list transcends entertainment, music, media, and sports, and includes partnerships with Disney, Forbes, and ABC, as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oklahoma State University football team. Those qualities are the same ones that explain why Mandt is so bullish on the future of his home city.

“I’ve watched everything that’s been going on,” he says, “and this is a different resurgence than many that have been promised before. It always feels like we’ve been close, but there’s no question this time it’s the real deal. In 10 years, I think Detroit is going to be one of the most vibrant cities in the United States. And in 20 years, if they play their cards right, it could be a world-class city.”