Yesterday I attended the annual World War II Saturday at Battleship Cove. While there seemed to be less reenactors than last year, I found it just as engaging and interesting. If I come away with having learned a few more moments during that time in history, it’s well worth the visit.
By example, I learned some interesting details behind the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO). Sure, I was generally aware that the United States and China had some sort of cooperation during the war, but when it’s illuminated it puts it in perspective. That “perspective” continued after SACO dissolved which was followed by China’s civil war.
Speaking of China, Justice Is Mind has been picked up by China Mobile as a flat licensing deal. As I understand from our distributor, it’s now going through censorship and localization on their end. It will certainly be a milestone to break into the Chinese market. One does not need to be a filmmaker or read the industry trades to know that China is one of the leading film markets.
Given the tumultuous state of U.S. box office revenue this year, it’s imperative that these foreign markets are available to filmmakers. For Justice Is Mind and First World our primary foreign market is the United Kingdom. I have also noticed that viewership in Japan is picking up. But one driving force that continues to put films front and center is the importance of a marketing plan.
I can’t tell you how many times the marketing plan for an independent film seems to begin and stop at the industry trades. Never mind when you read the first cut to studio budgets seem to be in marketing. As I have often said you can have the greatest project in the world but if nobody knows about it nobody will care.
As soon as I finish writing a script, I start working on the marketing plan in terms of a target audience. With distributors relying more and more on filmmakers to assist in the marketing plan, there really needs to be one in place before the first scene is shot. With First World it was science fiction conventions. With Justice Is Mind it was law schools and universities that focused on neuroscience. With Serpentine: The Short Program it was the Ice Network. Yes, like the aforementioned, films have their primary target audience then they broaden out from there.
Amazon is a perfect example of that. Someone might have heard about Justice Is Mind from our primary plan, but found the film on Amazon. Their algorithm then points customers to other recommended films. At that point the plan is relatively complete. But it all starts with that primary plan to push consumer awareness then generally continues with social media and other digital marketing tactics on an ongoing basis.
It’s hard to believe that it was five years ago this month that we were producing Justice Is Mind. Yet here we are five years later with new markets opening. The greatest thing about the world of film is discovery. It doesn’t matter when the film was made, it’s about when a customer learns about it for the first time. In today’s world of VOD a film no longer has a shelf-life.
With Marche Du Film (Cannes) coming up, I always find it interesting to learn about the new players while reading about the fate of others. No doubt in the weeks ahead we will read in the trades about the big splash of a new company’s star driven acquisition or the sorry story of others that used to hold court on private yachts. Having been to Cannes many years ago (not for the festival) the location is truly a stunning one to announce a major project.
There is no question that this is an industry of flash. When you have good news to announce you do so publicly, loudly and in grand fashion. The whole point is to cut through the noise to get your project noticed. As I’ve said time and time again, this industry is as much about making motion pictures as it is about promoting them. This is why in so many cases when you see a production budget you multiply it by itself for marketing and public relations.
But then there are the rest of us that aren’t making $175 million motion pictures (at least not yet!). What filmmakers like me rely on is reliable consistent revenue from VOD. While so many players come and go in this industry, we rely on VOD platforms to be there year after year. Although sites like Netflix are in a public relations battle with Cannes, Amazon is playing by the rules and, “was not coming to the South of France “looking to disrupt Cannes,” adding, “You have to approach Cannes on its own terms.”
And while Cannes is one of the world’s greatest launching pads for a film, there are VOD sites like TubiTV that are also making waves. Just this past week the site announced a $20 million outside investment. Justice Is Mind has been on TubiTV for several months and has started to gain some solid traction. I’ve also noticed an increase in traffic for Justice on other VOD sites. All these upticks bode well for the industry as a whole. It shows that consumers are watching across a variety of platforms and it doesn’t matter if they are star driven $100 million plus budgets or films made for under $100K. At the end of the day audiences want to be entertained and they want the choice to be theirs.
But as the industry enters a new season it’s a review of my current projects First World, SOS United States, Serpentine and In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind. Are my websites updated? Do they convey the current status of each project? You know what they say about first impressions, you only get one to make one.
There is, however, a cardinal rule that I live by. I never disclose who I’m talking to and who I submitted to. This is why I declined to respond to a local entertainment publication that reached out to me on one of my projects. This is like when actors announce who they just auditioned for (or what festivals a filmmaker submitted to). I promise you that doesn’t help you get the part any quicker. In fact, it can have an opposite result. The same holds true for behind the scenes conversations. Sure, the trades like to know what’s going on, but confidentiality is paramount.
However, I will say this. The world’s largest oversees mobile player picked up Justice Is Mind from our distributor earlier this year. But until it’s live, I’ll hold on the formal announcement.
Although I wrote a screenplay when I was in grade school (I wonder where that is), First World was my first “professional” effort. Aside from my passion for all things NASA and my love of science fiction, I’m not sure where the initial idea came from. It was in 2006 and I was living in Los Angeles at the time. Before I knew it I purchased Final Draft and just started to write. Many months and drafts later First World was born. Great, I finished a screenplay now what do I do with it.
Just because I was living in Los Angeles it didn’t guarantee any more access than if I was living on a remote island. So I started to submit my screenplay to film festivals and by my shock it was being selected. When First World was nominated for Best Screenplay at the California Independent Film Festival in 2007 I figured I was on to something. Did I win? No. But being nominated was good enough for me.
In so many ways I think it’s good to start out in this industry being a bit naïve. But one does learn quickly. Raising money for a feature film was harder than writing an original story, much harder. But I wanted to at least introduce part of the story to develop interest in the concept. So, I condensed the story and produced a 25 minute short film version with my friend Adam Starr. Since First World Adam has been part of all my films.
After the short was produced in 2007 I found myself presenting it at sci-fi conventions around the world. It soon found itself in India as the only film at the inaugural First Ever National Discussion on Science Fiction. As a magazine publisher, I knew distribution and promotion. This was one area of filmmaking that I didn’t shy away from. Suffice to say I was relentless in introducing this project to anyone that would take the time to read what I was pitching. Some paid attention, most didn’t, but those that did just continued to build awareness for the project. In the end First World screened at 21 sci-fi conventions.
Some years later when the VOD world started to emerge an upstart website called hulu was born. Through my distributor IndieFlix I got First World on the site. There was something quite glorious to see First World run on VOD with ad interruptions. Remember, it’s either advertising or a subscription fee that pays for these services. Filmmaking and the VOD platforms are not a free enterprise!
After the hulu run I placed First World on Amazon’s Create Space. It was a relatively new service, but I was all about experimenting. Soon after Amazon ripped First World from our submitted DVD (yup that’s the way they got it on their system in those days). It took about three months but then it happened…my first payment from Amazon. Every month since I’ve been paid something from Amazon Create Space for First World.
But then something else happened in 2016—Amazon announced Amazon Video Direct. Short of it, filmmakers could now take advantage of the same system that distributors did. All we had to do was enter the required data, upload poster, film, trailer, closed caption file and presto we are worldwide across all of Amazon’s platforms. It took quite a bit of doing, but I was able to render a large enough file for First World.
First World has been on Amazon Video Direct for a year and has generated 464, 172 viewed minutes—translation this short film from 2007 has been watched over 17,000 times in the past year.
Since First World I have gone on to write, produce and direct three other films – Evidence, Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program—all of which are on Amazon Video Direct. But like this article that recently ran about Amazon Studios, I also believe in theatrical distribution. While VOD is a godsend to filmmakers, a theatrical release showcases a film.
Am I still waiting to turn First World into a feature? Yes. But as Evidence brought forth my first feature film with Justice Is Mind, time will tell if that happens with First World and Serpentine. The entertainment industry teaches us patience and that it is ever changing and sometimes volatile. But there is one thing that this industry looks to when considering a project…
This past week there was a great article published in MovieMaker magazine titled A Script Is No Longer Enough: Why First-Time Feature Directors Must Make a Proof-of-Concept. For those of you with a completed script that you want to see on the big screen, this is an absolute must read. This is the exact path I took to make Justice Is Mind.
My first script was not Justice Is Mind, it was a sci-fi epic titled First World that was nominated for a few screenwriting awards. In my view, once you’ve been nominated (or won) some screenwriting awards, that pretty much should signal that you can write. But the next obvious step is going from the printed page to live action. That is easier said than done. The former largely consists of time and the one time purchase of software. The latter, no matter how you slice it, requires real cash.
In 2007 I produced a short film version of First World for $14,000. With a feature film budget of $2 million, there were certain concepts and scenes I wanted to present (we needed a motorcade). The short did really well on the science fiction convention circuit with over 20 screenings and some solid press (it’s now available on Amazon). In 2008 I pretty much had the financing lined up (Chinese investor) along with a distributor in Germany. But then the economy crashed as epically as the story itself. Indie film financing around the world was crushed. But it was the short film that opened up the doors for the feature. Since then science fiction enthusiasts made this fan trailer to promote the project and I still present First World when the opportunity comes up. As I’ve said in earlier posts, it’s about patience.
As a producer told me when I was living in L.A. while you are developing one project, you are working on another and another and another. The idea is that they may be in various stages of development and you are presenting along the way. With luck, one of them may take off. For me, that launch was Justice Is Mind.
Having written the feature film version of Justice Is Mind in 2010, I wanted to produce a short film version as a “proof of concept”. At this point it wasn’t so much proof that I could direct, it was to see the concept itself come to life to present it to financiers and production companies. In addition, I also wanted to see actors in what would be the starring roles. After Evidence was produced in 2011, there was something else I discovered the project had – audience and distribution interest. Those two things by far are THE most important – obviously. After two theatrical screenings in Massachusetts and Connecticut, followed by several sci-fi convention screenings and VOD placement, the funding came together for the feature film.
The rest as they say is history. Justice Is Mind was released in 2013 and has enjoyed a theatrical run, is available on VOD and had an international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. Two of the stars from the short film version carried over to the feature along with several of the crew. In fact the key grip from Evidence, Jeremy Blaiklock, was the director of photography on the feature film version. With over 200 people involved in Justice Is Mind when the next project comes online I have a proven network to approach first.
As for the next project, I will say this – I’ve already selected the “proof of concept” scenes for the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating along with SOS United States. For me, I’m not pursuing a “spec sale” deal, I’m only interested in directing and producing. But at the end of the day this is a business so one considers all options.
Lights, camera, concept.
It’s been just over a year since I completed my political thriller SOS United States. Like all my screenplays, I revisit them after some months for various edits. Part of the general premise revolves around a cyber-attack on the nation’s power grid that also cripples military satellites. Imagine my response when Emmy and Peabody Award winning journalist Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out” was released last week. As Koppel stated on CBS This Morning, Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin had told him, “It’s not a question of if, it’s just a question of when.” Needless to say, Koppel’s book will now be part of my “general” pitch with SOS United States.
As American’s we like to think we are number one, that we are an invincible. Sure, we lead in many areas, including our military capability, but unless you are truly living off the grid we all remember the Sony Entertainment hack and one drive down most streets in our nation says – fix me. It’s always a positive when a journalist like Koppel shines a light on something we take for granted – electricity. Remember 1953’s War of the Worlds when the phone went dead after the initial alien attack took out the power lines? “That’s funny the phone isn’t on the same circuit as the lights.”
As for film, the American Film Market (AFM) starts next week. Their website boasts, “2,000 new films and projects”. You should see the catalogs of sales agents and the hundreds and hundreds of films that are represented. One does have to truly wonder how to stand out in the crowd. But stand out we must. Because, let’s be honest, it’s our project first before someone else’s.
It should be interesting to see how AFM resonates after Toronto’s tepid market. There’s no question that the recent box office troubles of Steve Jobs, Burnt and Our Brand is Crisis will be over analyzed and discussed. As filmmakers we are told by the “experts” that you need to attach stars to pre-sell into foreign markets, raise capital and secure distribution. But how many times do we see the absence of the consumer equation in this formula? It doesn’t matter what star you have in your film if the story isn’t there audiences won’t buy it.
Case in point I watched Marathon Man yesterday. Now there is a film that has stars and story. Imagine seeing the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier bring a film to life with the incomparable Dustin Hoffman along with the great Roy Scheider and the, what I believe, was the American debut of Marthe Keller. Watching the DVD special features, the passion of all involved truly made this film resonate at the box office in 1976, a film which still holds up today as a classic crime thriller.
This industry is a marathon. It’s easy to read about this great deal and that great deal, but we very rarely get the entire back story of the years it took to get to that point. By example, just this past week, two years after our initial release, a distributor in one of the world’s largest film markets, reached out to me about Justice Is Mind for VOD. It’s all at the preliminary stage, but it proves that long term marketing and promotion is effective.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind in 2010 I had no idea that the science of mind reading and its related legal and ethical implications would present itself in the real world the way it did (Pamela Glasner’s article in The Huffington Post pretty much sums it up). There’s no question this public awareness helps when I market the film.
In the sequel, In Mind We Trust, part of the storyline picks up from the end of Justice Is Mind – lost artwork from WWII. In the story it’s revealed that Wilhelm Miller worked in transportation whose responsibility was to ship stolen artwork via train, artwork that disappeared at the end of the war and begins to resurface through the Miller family.
It is oddly ironic that over the last few weeks there has been substantive media attention to an alleged underground NAZI gold train that disappeared at the end of the war. Apparently, a death bed confession revealed its whereabouts. There’s no question that there are countless unresolved mysteries from that time period. And the stealing of artwork, gold and other treasures during the war is another horrid atrocity that the world continues to face and rightly so. Now that Poland’s military is involved in the search, we should have a resolution one way or the other sooner rather than later.
But then we move forward in time to First World and SOS United States. When I wrote First World back in 2006 sure China had ambitious plans with their space program. But I had no idea it would move along at the pace it has. There’s no question, that unless something substantive happens to China’s economy, that country will land a man on the Moon. Much like the space race when the Soviet Union successfully put Sputnik in orbit, it was a wake-up call to the United States. And wake-up our country did by landing a man on the Moon in 1969. Curious how Russia announced this past week they are going to the Moon. Something tells me that China and Russia will soon be cooperating.
This of course brings us to SOS United States. Although China is moving along at a rapid clip, they are disadvantaged in certain areas of military might, particularly in aircraft carrier development, thus the conflict in my political thriller around the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and her ordnance.
But it is the continued cyber-attacks by groups in China directed against United States interests that really is the crux of the world we live in and a major plot element in SOS United States. And let us not forget how Chinese warships entered United States waters off Alaska this week.
In my view, every film whether the subject is good, bad or indifferent needs some sort of hook. Something that will pull the audience in from the real world while they escape into the narrative world of a movie.