With 2012 coming to a close, it’s time for a bit of reflection. At this time last year, I was in post-production with the short film Evidence. Today, it’s post-production for the feature film version Justice Is Mind. Suffice to say it’s been a pretty good year. But ending on a positive note is not without its challenges.
After the short film premiered at the Strand Theatre on January 20, 2012, along with several subsequent screenings, the process began in earnest to secure the funding to produce the feature. I’ve been down this path before with First World. You need to hone your logline, synopsis, have a polished script and a business plan. Raising money is a road a filmmaker generally travels alone. The presentations seem endless but that’s just part of the process. For it is a dream that all filmmakers hold on to – the search for funding can take you to the ends of the Earth.
The one thing I have learned is to surround yourself with good, if not great, people. These are people whose opinions you trust and who you want to work with. With each production, event or project I’ve been involved in this circle has grown. It’s not about simple networking (which let’s be honest, can be highly overrated), it’s about that group of people you associate yourself with that will not only bring your dreams to life but theirs as well—mutual passion.
So while my travels didn’t take me to the ends of the Earth to raise the funding to produce Justice Is Mind, they did take me to Houston, Texas where you could say I struck oil. I traveled there on business as a marketing consultant for a construction and intelligent parking solutions company owned by my best friend’s husband. Both Mary Wenninger and Stefan Kneiling knew that I ran a media company for over ten years, but their number one question to me was, “How big an organization or event have you run?” The question was a good one because producing a film (especially during principal photography) is generally nothing more than project management. My thanks again to Mary and Stefan for their support of this project that has not just realized my dream, but the dreams of so many involved in Justice Is Mind.
Regardless of what our politicians do about the “fiscal cliff”, the American dream will not fall off with it. Passion, innovation and building, no matter what times we live in, finds a way to grow. I may have held this dream to produce for over thirty years, but it just proves that anything is possible. So when 2013 comes to a close, I plan to be writing about the newly released feature film Justice Is Mind. As I’ve quoted before from Space: 1999 “The impossible just takes a little longer…that’s all!”
P.S. Sadly the science fiction community lost Gerry Anderson the creator of Thunderbirds, UFO and Space: 1999 and countless other sci-fi TV series and movies this past week. In the 1970s I watched with great excitement as Commander Straker (UFO) and Koenig (Space: 1999) led their troupes through unknown worlds. Thank you Mr. Anderson for inspiring so many with your vision of tomorrow.
This past week I got together with a friend I hadn’t seen in several months. We saw The Hobbit in this new format called 48 FPS (frames per second). I’m all about new technologies, but we both thought this was an epic fail visually. When your eye is caught paying attention to the film like a high resolution TV broadcast that looks like a daytime soap opera, that’s not the experience I want.
But prior to the film, our conversation centered on screenwriting. Something my friend wants to do. He reminded me of when I started to write screenplays. Where do you start? How do you get your work “scene”? While there’s no magic answer to this and every writer’s path is different, there are some practical ways to get your work noticed and maybe gather up some awards in the process.
I think it’s safe to say that anyone that writes their first screenplay does so from an area or interest of life that is passionate to them. For me, I have always loved science fiction and the space program. When I wrote First World in 2006 the first draft was pretty awful. I had this great screenwriting software called Final Draft (side note: it’s the best screenwriting software out there. It’s worth the expense), but painfully little guidance at the time other than enthusiasm. Well after showing it to some friends in the business, getting some solid feedback and several rewrites I was coached to enter it into some contests.
In the industry there is a website called Withoutabox.com. This is a portal in which the majority of film festivals take submissions. A good number of film festivals also have screenwriting contests. That’s where I found my first screenwriting nomination for First World.
By the time the festival had arrived I had already produced and screened the short film version. But there was something pretty exhilarating when the email came in from the California Independent Film Festival. First World had been nominated for Best Screenplay. The word “Best” was pretty fabulous. I was told that they had just over eighty screenplay submissions and only five were nominated for the Best Screenplay award.
When I went to the festival, I was surrounded by like minded people that were exceedingly passionate about their craft. I didn’t win the Best Screenplay award, but just hearing “And the nominations are….First World by Mark Lund….” was good enough for me.
My point is that getting your work seen and read has to all start someplace. And while I have entered numerous contests with no awards along the way, that one nomination renewed my passion to write, to rewrite (yes, that’s part of the process) and to develop new ideas. It was from writing the sequel to First World, Exodus that the idea for Justice Is Mind came to me.
But let’s not sugar coat this too much. The entertainment industry is perhaps one of the most difficult industries to navigate. While the advent of new technologies has made entry far easier from when I wrote First World, it is every screenwriters dream to see their work produced or at least optioned. While Justice Is Mind has been produced, I’m still determined to see First World liftoff to a feature presentation. In so many ways it comes down to timing, market conditions, etc. But that’s a post for another day.
When I saw a rough cut of the trailer for Justice Is Mind this week, I could not have been happier with the result. For any of us that write, we do so alone and lost in our thoughts as we translate those to what we hope is a workable story. Like that first nomination years ago, I now know producing an independent feature film is also possible. Thus, my next screenplay revolves around an ocean liner.
This past week there were a variety of reports locally and nationally about the industry. In the Hollywood Reporter there was a story about how the major studios don’t actually pay to make movies anymore they are more facilities, marketing and distribution companies. It has been true for some time. The studios mitigate their risk by partnering with production companies, investment funds, etc. This practice particularly picked up steam when capital was flush pre recession and especially post recession. As the majority of the major studios are divisions of multi-billion dollar companies, risk avoidance is what they now do best.
Here in Massachusetts, there were new reports on the building of film studios in Devens and in Westborough. For any of us in the region that is even remotely tied to the industry, we all remember the grand plans of Plymouth Rock Studios. Having recently just moved back from Los Angeles at the time I knew Plymouth was never going to happen. First, even with the tax credit benefits of the state (and they are nicely generous), there were simply too many empty stages in Los Angeles and unless you signed contracts with the production companies that supplied TV programming where on Earth was the revenue going to come from to support such an ad-venture?
Anyone that has worked with me knows that I am the consummate optimist. I strive to push the envelope until it gives, but in the end I’m a realist as well (I’m a New Englander after all!). When I see with these “studio” projects and the bravado of one person who claims mysterious sources of capital with a “build it and they will come mentality,” I just shake my head. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way in this business or any other business. If you don’t build a solid foundation to a business how are you going to support it?
The one thing we have in the New England region is great talent on both sides of the camera. This talent deserves to be involved in major projects not reaching for the crumbs when a BIG film comes to town. What film projects need is capital. Can you imagine instead of building all these buildings, a few million dollars in capital were raised to produce independent films with varying budgets? Sure as the budgets grow, you need to attach bankable (usually out of town) talent to sell your project domestically and internationally. But that doesn’t mean that after you secure bankable talent at the top (say 1-3 actors) the rest can’t be cast locally between talent and facilities in the region. Imagine a talented actor who is leading an independent film produced for under $50K and the project does reasonably well in sales. As that actor’s profile starts to rise at some point they may be the “anchor tenant” of a larger film. Just like in the studio system days long past, an actor, a cinematographer, a writer all had to start somewhere. The studios had smaller films to test talent before moving them to larger projects.
For anyone that’s produced an independent film you basically need to create a virtual studio to make it work anyway. Someone handles casting, locations, editing, marketing, distribution, etc. Why not seek to formalize it by raising capital to produce films under one virtual roof rather than build buildings and wait for product to come?
With the digital age we live in a virtual studio system is possible. Once enough films get into the distribution pipeline and the revenue stream starts, the foundation is there to eventually build a studio. When I started a magazine I launched it on the dining room table and eventually got an office once we had revenue to support it. It’s not a foreign business concept it’s a practical one.
Having seen a rough cut of the first 43 minutes of Justice Is Mind, the story has now progressed to the FVMRI procedure. In Justice some pivotal moments take place in a medical setting. I can tell you first hand that securing medical-like locations is a herculean task all by itself. It’s not that people don’t want to work with you, there is something else that comes up like a cement wall—HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Yes, the very act that I reference in Justice that doesn’t protect capital crimes revealed during the FVMRI procedure also protects patients in the real world from having their medical information compromised. We all certainly agree that patient records needs to be protected. But in the end, it just came down to assurances that patient information won’t be breached. My continued thanks to the MRI Centers of New England in Haverhill and the Vernon Medical Center in Worcester for your support of Justice Is Mind.
As for the rough cut of what I’ve seen so far? I’m more than pleased. There is no greater satisfaction as a filmmaker than seeing words you’ve written on paper come to life. With a variety of communications going back and forth between our editor, composer and me this week, the trailer is being edited and the score is being composed. I think it’s pretty safe to say that there are a fair amount of people looking forward to seeing the trailer!
The post-production phase is just as involved as pre-production and production. While the film is being built in the editing phase, there is the entire other side of the business of marketing, public relations and distribution that needs to be planned. Film Independent has a variety of terrific forum videos that touched on numerous aspects of independent filmmaking. First and foremost with the advent of social media tools available, David Dinerstein of LD Entertainment said that filmmakers “have so many tools at their own hand that they’ve never had before to start the process as early as possible.” Continuing on that same thought, Wendy Cohen of Participant Media (Lincoln) stated “what’s this movie’s presence is going to be online is not something that should come at the end…I know this is just extra work for everybody but it has to start at the very beginning.”
With more and more production companies engaging in self-distribution of their films, building an audience early on is just part of the process. As one of the panelists stated, “I think it’s a really exciting time in the independent film space. The studios are doing Batman and Superman and Ironman…I think they’ve left everything else to independent sources of financing.” Obviously I agree with this. But with the advent of all these new tools and technologies available to a filmmaker, it comes down to what’s best for the project. Do you sell all rights, partial rights or self distribute the entire film across all channels? Maybe you sign a DVD/VOD deal but keep theatrical? I’ve known some filmmakers that have sold all rights and some that have sold partial rights. Each has a different story to tell with their respective projects.
In regard to Justice what’s now being planned is a trailer launch event and distribution of the trailer – from posting, media and distributors with an eye on where to premiere the feature film in 2013. I think one of my favorite directors (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) summed it up best when he said:
“My three Ps: passion, patience, perseverance. You have to do this if you’ve got to be a filmmaker.”
– Robert Wise
As I start to work on the distribution plans for Justice Is Mind, I am reminded about the similarities between the film and publishing industry when it comes to distribution. Having worked as a magazine publisher for over ten years, I can tell you definitively they have a lot in common. Both have evolved from their standard methods of distribution to include new and exciting revenue generating platforms. For the last several years I’ve been talking about VOD (Video on Demand) and online streaming as the way to go for independent filmmakers. In fact, I was interviewed about this new method of distribution on New England Film a few years ago. Trust me when I tell you Hulu, Crackle, Amazon, iTunes and YouTube deliver solid revenue to filmmakers. It may not be as sexy as theatrical, but there’s real cash in those downloads.
As publishing has migrated to more of an electronic medium, filmmaking has evolved in the same capacity on both the production and distribution side. Unfortunately, just as I’ve known way too many publishers that were terrified of this thing called the internet, the same holds true for some filmmakers that believe theatrical distribution is everything and that somehow VOD doesn’t validate their work. Of course we all want to see our films in theatres. Who doesn’t? But the reality is that, traditionally anyway, theatrical distribution is perhaps the most expensive outlet for film. When you consider the P&A costs alone, a distributor has to make certain that there is a reasonable chance your film will do well enough to justify their investment. But if your film isn’t picked up for theatrical, it doesn’t mean you can’t self distribute. You can simply call up an independent theatre to see if they can screen via DVD and share the gate. Send a few posters for their lobby with social media and public relations support and you may just have a hit that finds its way to traditional pick up by a distributor. My point is that, like publishing, the film industry has evolved and that independent filmmaking is now more approachable than ever. The goal, in my view, is to make your entire package as attractive as possible so when distributors see your work they know you put some time into making it look as sharp as possible.
Prior to operating my own publishing company, I worked at Time magazine and had a mentor that instilled in me the importance of a solid presentation. I worked for a sales representative at the venerable newsweekly for a few years. She handled some pretty major accounts for the magazine and always prepared these wonderful presentations. I’ll never forget what she said, “Always have a nice leave behind.” Simply, once you leave the room make sure your presentation stands out on its own. I took that axiom to the magazines I published and the films I am now producing. It all comes down to packaging. From the one sheet, website, trailer to the end product – the film. Of course, we are limited by our budgets, but with social media and other online tools why not try your damndest to put your best foot forward? With thousands of films being produced every year, standing out from the crowd is important. Besides, I owe it my investors, cast, crew, sponsors and myself to see that Justice Is Mind is distributed over as many platforms as possible to maximize revenue.
One trend in film distribution that I love is the Day and Date release. Like Margin Call did, why not have your film screen in select theatres the same day it’s available for VOD and DVD? It’s a foregone conclusion that consumers want choices in their entertainment experience on how the content is delivered. Who cares what platform it comes in from as long as it winds up in your bank? Remember content is king and the key to more content is someone has to pay for it.
Will Justice Is Mind have its world premiere in a theatre? Naturally, and a day will be set. But while Justice Is Mind is playing in a theatre someone thousands of miles away may have a date with their tablet watching Henri Miller face his own memory at the trial of the century.