Even as a kid, Dwight Smith, ’87, knew he’d one day leave his hometown of Muncie for Hollywood. The day after he graduated from Ball State’s telecommunications department, that’s exactly what he did.
“I’d always been drawn to the entertainment industry. At first I thought I wanted to act. But in college, it became clear I wanted to write and produce.”
He found his footing in the world of soap operas, landing an internship with “General Hospital.” But after five years working in that world, he was ready for a change.
After a short, successful stint writing sitcoms, he met producer Michael Agbabian. Soon after, a partnership was born. “He and I were assistants at a film studio and had similar sensibilities. We were developing ideas for reality TV before it was a thing.”
The pair worked as freelancers, producing the first season of “Project Runway” before moving on to the game show “Weakest Link.” The second and third seasons of “Last Comic Standing” followed. Before long they were toying with the idea of starting their own company.
“Being a producer for hire means you can only focus on one show at a time,” Smith explained. “Michael and I were ready to run a production company where we could work on many shows, all at the same time.”
‘We didn’t have any staff … we were scrappy’
In 2008, Smith and Agbabian founded that company, Mission Control Media, with humble beginnings. “We were scrappy. It was just the two of us in an office with a phone.”
But hard work and serious networking paid off as the veteran producers continued creating hits for networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, Syfy, Spike, the Food Network and Bravo.
“We were fortunate to work our way up quickly, and have been working non-stop ever since,” Smith said.
One of their programs, Syfy’s “Face Off”, features prosthetic make-up artists creating looks for sci-fi and horror films. Now its twelfth season, “the show means so much to us,” said Smith, who described his pride when it won the 2015 Critics’ Choice Award for Best Reality Competition. “We were at the awards ceremony, up against ‘The Voice,’ ‘Amazing Race,’ ‘Dancing with the Stars’, all these great shows … and when we won, it was a surreal moment.”
Another ongoing success for Mission Control is “Hollywood Game Night,” which debuts its fifth season on NBC June 22. “[Actress] Jane Lynch does a phenomenal job as our host … she brings so much to the show.”
Mission Control executives were excited to work with software giant Apple for their newest program, “Planet of the Apps.” “It’s Apple’s first show so there’s going to be a lot of eyes on it,” Smith said. The series features creators pitching apps to A-list advisors including actresses Jessica Alba and Gwyneth Paltrow; musician will.i.am; and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk who then work with the developers to potentially secure millions of dollars in investments.
‘That’s how this industry works’
Smith’s Hollywood success is no surprise to Nancy Carlson, professor emeritus of telecommunications and one of Smith’s mentors. “Dwight is like a country star who’s worked in Nashville 20 years, gets a hit, and people call him an overnight sensation. The truth is he’s worked hard in L.A. for decades so I’m thrilled he’s become a well-known producer.”
Over the years, Carlson took students to visit Smith in L.A. and appreciated his candor. “Dwight would talk about the latest projects he was pitching. He trusted us with details about his shows that way.”
Smith said one of his greatest joys was helping the granddaughter of another Ball State mentor, retired telecommunications professor Dave Smith, find production work in L.A. “Dave helped me land my internship on ‘General Hospital,’ which set the groundwork for my career. I gave his granddaughter some advice over the phone and then decided to offer her a job. She started as a production assistant on ‘Hollywood Game Night’ and last season worked her way up to become a producer.”
He’s seen plenty of Midwesterners find success in Hollywood. “It’s the work ethic that’s instilled in people from the Midwest. It makes them stand out.”
And if his career has taught him anything, it’s that relationships are key.
“Out here, you should never think a relationship is unimportant. Somebody who’s a low-level production assistant could be your boss in two or three years. That’s how this industry works, so it’s important to be kind and to want to start at the bottom. You need to work your way up to gain the knowledge that will help you remain successful.”
‘He’s one of our favorite alums’
When his schedule allows, Smith loves to return to Muncie to visit family and proffer career wisdom to Ball State telecommunications students. During an April visit to campus, he spoke to students in Tim Pollard’s “Media Promotions” class. Shantelle Taylor, ’17, said she enjoyed Smith’s presentation. “I want to create a business someday, so it’s encouraging to hear from someone who had the vision to start his own.”
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Carlson said she’s proud of the many ways Smith gives back to his alma mater. “He has a real affinity for college students. He’s one of our favorite alums.”
To that end, Smith is working to better engage the university’s alumni base in Los Angeles.
“Dwight’s a voluntary alumni ambassador with the Alumni Association,” said Allison DeWitt, ’09, Ball State’s director of alumni engagement for regional markets. “In that role he’s able to act as a liaison for Ball State, providing opportunities for L.A.-area alumni to stay connected with one another and with the university.”
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Smith said of plans to help host alumni events in the area. “Ball State still means a lot to me.”