As 2015 comes to a close, it seems fitting to reflect on the past year as we look forward to 2016. The title of my end of year post is not only about the industry but about the movie Spotlight – “The true story of how The Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.” Having been a magazine publisher and now a filmmaker, Spotlight is an unprecedented film that must be seen. Simply put Spotlight presents the importance of investigative journalism as a filmmaking triumph.
On a personal level, I sadly know more than a few victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. On a knowledge level, very few people in Massachusetts didn’t know about this travesty in one form or another. You either heard about it, or knew a victim. But it was the “Spotlight” team at The Boston Globe that brought light to the darkness of so many. Spotlight is more than just another great movie, it represents the power of film and reminds us about the vital role that journalists have in a democracy. They are the voice for the voiceless.
I write passionately about this because when I was a magazine publisher there were more than a few times when I was pressured by the “powers that be” to silence a story by intimidation. I never caved in. I worked for my readers, not for some institution.
2015 has been a great year for film. From Spotlight, Trumbo, The Martian to the return of Star Wars, there was something for everyone. I almost feel sorry for The Academy. They have some really hard choices to make. But what it proves is that independent film, despite industry reports, is alive and well. This year proved, yet again, that original ideas still flourish.
The highlight for me this year was the 2nd anniversary screening of Justice Is Mind this past August. In addition to a reunion of the cast and crew, our 21st screening was another reminder that audiences want to see original works and they don’t care if those involved are household names. They just want to be entertained.
Perhaps the icing on the cake was the volume of media that covered the event from Worcester Magazine to our first international coverage in The Huffington Post. As Pamela Glasner stated in her article, “Justice Is Mind takes on less of a sci-fi feeling and more of a ‘forward-thinking documentary’ feeling.” All these efforts have been part of a long-term marketing plan to continue to introduce the film to new audiences. You can be sure, there are plans in the works for the 3rd anniversary screening.
This past year I continued to polish my political thriller SOS United States and In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind. When you consider the current political climate around the world and advances in mind-reading technologies, both of these projects continue to be well timed. There are significant efforts around both of these projects that I plan to introduce next year.
If there is one thing I learned in 2015 is that you have to continuously reach out to expand your networks because you’ll never know what’s possible until you try. From direct discussions with private equity groups and hedge funds to presenting new projects to relaunching my personal website and some new clients, this has been a most interesting year.
But as Constance Smith says in Justice Is Mind, “I didn’t promise you an easy case.” Nothing in this industry is easy. It is work done the old fashioned way like an investigative journalist. You research, email, telephone and network. As producer John Davis (The Blacklist) told The Hollywood Reporter about what his father Marvin Davis (who once owned 20th Century Fox) taught him, “Get your ass out of bed. Work your ass off. And when you drill 80 straight dry holes, which he did, make sure you drill the 81st, which he would also do and hit the mother lode.”
Russia. Spain. Taiwan. First, the email came in from a colleague if I could assist a filmmaker in Spain to register his film in the United States. That was followed by a university in Taiwan that wanted to license Justice Is Mind. As the week drew to a close a distributor in Russia approached us about a VOD for Justice in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
In the world of filmmaking “chain of title” is critical to establish a variety of documented steps of ownership rights to a film. As a former magazine publisher, I’ve been working with copyright matters for years. Sadly, I’ve seen some projects that don’t take this matter seriously. If you don’t have a properly established chain and necessary releases, it can severely complicate matters when it comes to dealing with a distributor. The chain starts with registering the script. Believe me it’s worth the fee.
The next chain of events this week came when I was contacted by a university in Taiwan that wanted to have Justice Is Mind for their library. Obviously, I was flattered and directed them to the variety of download and streaming options for the film. I even pitched them to screen the film like we did at some domestic universities here in the United States. It will be interesting to follow this development. Perhaps it could serve as a model for international university screenings.
On Thursday we received an offer for Justice Is Mind from a distributor in Russia that wants to distribute our film on a variety of VOD platforms in that part of the world. While I’m still reviewing the agreement, unlike some other recent distributors that approached us, this one appears to be pretty buttoned up. This is when I go back to my magazine experience and a phrase from President Reagan “Trust but verify” when it comes to foreign companies. I don’t say this because of the United States/Russian connection that Reagan was referring to during the Cold War, but from a business point of view with independent verification aka “due diligence.” Because once you sign on the dotted line and transfer the film assets, it’s done.
What has been very interesting for 2015 is how much the film industry has changed on the global stage. Everything from financing to production to distribution has literally taken a 180 degree turn. Some will say for the better, some for the worse. It all depends on your point of view. Film Specific had an interesting take on all of this last week. Their webinar can be found here. But if there is one thing that prevails in all of this it’s marketing. Yes, I’ve written about this before. In my view it’s marketing on all fronts, from presenting new projects to potential investors such as SOS United States and In Mind We Trust, to the continued marketing of established projects such as First World and Justice Is Mind. As I’ve said before, consistency is key for the long term.
Of course while all this was going on, I was patiently awaiting the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I remember sitting in a theater in 1977 and seeing Star Wars come to life. Was it that moment that I wanted to be a filmmaker? I don’t know. All I do know is that with all the issues the world is facing right now it’s great to see a film that brings everyone together in a unifying force to enjoy a medium that the world over appreciates.
In Justice Is Mind the fictional trial was The Commonwealth v. Henri Miller. In reality Justice Is Mind was primarily filmed in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This past week, Justice Is Mind’s editor Jared Skolnick, who is also an award winning filmmaker, was featured in an article titled “Hey, Hollywood and Bollywood — how about Valleywood?” The story in The Valley Advocate stated that Jared “makes movies in the Valley because this is where he’s from and where he began building his professional network.” The same holds true for me. Even when I was living in Los Angeles in 2007 and cast the two leads in First World in the “Golden State” of California, I filmed the project in Massachusetts? Why? Because this is where I’m from.
Having lived in both New York City and Los Angeles, I can certainly understand the desire to be at the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Having been on a network TV show, a city like Los Angeles can be very exciting when you are working on the high end of the industry. I know numerous actors (some I’ve trained) and filmmakers who have left Massachusetts for the hope of fame and fortune. I firmly believe if you have the desire and will to move to these cities you should. You will never know until you try. For me, I’m glad I had my experience in both these great cities, positive ones from a career point of view, but my creative energy and the launching of all my projects has originated in Massachusetts. It’s not something I set out to do, it just happened that way. My new personal website, www.markashtonlund.com, chronicles the journey.
Case in point, the making of First World and Justice Is Mind. Both of these projects were enormously ambitious between the number of talent involved and needed locations. I had to work in a region where I knew the people and their general enthusiasm about being part of the film. Why film in a location that will require permitting, location fees and local regulations just to look cool, when you can film somewhere else for free working with enthusiastic location partners in exchange for promoting their business?
For me, as I did with Justice Is Mind, once I give the green light to a project I like to move along at reasonable pace in pre-production. Simply put, time is money whether literally or figuratively. As some may have noticed from postings to this blog, I have generally already scouted most of the locations for SOS United States and to some degree for In Mind We Trust.
But as we have seen from the latest film markets, the greatest challenge filmmakers on all levels have is in securing production financing for their projects and a return on investment. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to recognize that it always comes down to equity and what the investor wants. To say there has been an about face in film financing you just have to revisit articles that the trades wrote around the latest American Film Market and then there was this blog post over at Film Specific. But there is one piece to “The Commonwealth” financing pie that keeps films in the state.
Although Justice Is Mind has been on Amazon Prime for over a year, last night was the first time I saw it on a TV half the size of my car (My Pontiac Solstice even appears in the film). While I’ve seen the film countless times on my computer during the production phase, and at every theatrical screening, seeing it in this context was a new experience. I may be a bit bias of course, but the quality of the picture and sound was probably the best I’ve ever seen it. When I think of the numerous QC (Quality Control) checks we had to go through, seeing it in this format brings another round of applause to the cast and crew and the technology of VOD.
As a filmmaker, I’ve worked with Amazon for years. They are by far, in my experience, the most filmmaker friendly of all the VOD services. In addition to paying on a monthly basis, their algorithm technology ensures that customers that may be interested in your film are made aware of it. Of course, I’ve been marketing First World and Justice Is Mind on a regular basis to drive traffic to our listings on Amazon and other VOD platforms. Simply put the old adage of “if you build it they will come” doesn’t work, it comes down to marketing.
Regarding marketing and distribution, there was an interesting article on IndieWire this week about self-distribution. Having been a magazine publisher, distribution for me is second nature. But I know way too many filmmakers that hate it. Look, I get it. You just wanted to make your film and it took every resource you knew to accomplish that. With First World and Justice Is Mind now released, there’s just a regular program to keep the conversation going in whatever venue, media outlet or platform I can reach. But now, I’m back to the foundation building process with In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind, and SOS United States. Making a film is like building a house—it all starts with a foundation.
As for the foundations of the industry, there is some serious seismic activity going on. From Variety’s “Why Good Films Are Failing at the Box Office in Awards Season” to the Hollywood Reporter’s “Harvey Weinstein on the Awards Season Crunch: “Everybody Cannibalized Each Other,” one has to wonder what state the industry will be in a year from now from a business point of view. That business starts with economics when someone, or some company, funds these visions. As I’ve stated before, I’ll state again, it does come down to a return on investment. I’ve never understood why the industry cannibalizes itself for an award at the expense of profitability. In all seriousness, I personally don’t care what film wins what award, I’m just interested in the film itself.
Audiences aren’t stupid, they want to see quality films. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that if someone sees a film in a theater, they will look for it on a platform like Amazon. Of course in “the old days” that conversation was around DVDs. Remember when films would go “straight to DVD”? Now some go straight to VOD. If there is one word that drives this industry and its resiliency it’s innovation. It’s innovation that gives filmmakers and audiences choices on where and how to watch a film.