Marketing planet Earth one project at a time.

film industry

Tital Shifts

The title card for First Signal

A couple of weeks ago I sent an update to the actors and crew of First Signal about what our release strategy may look like.  I believe, if all goes according to plan, our first theatrical screening will be sometime in October. I hope that follows with additional theatrical and festival screenings into the second quarter of 2021 with a VOD release around May. 

As someone who reads the trade publications, I see how release dates and general overall strategy is changing on a daily basis. This article in The Hollywood Reporter today, pretty much summed up the current state of the industry. Fortunately for First Signal, the film itself wrapped principal photography last year and just finished post in early June. So, all things considered, our release strategy hasn’t changed all that much.

I do believe one of the real issues that’s going to face this industry next year is available inventory of new product. With very little being produced over the last several months, eventually this empty space will catch up to the industry. I believe this is why we are seeing studios and distributors stagger their releases from the 3rd quarter of this year into 2021. They need commercial films to bring audiences back to theaters. Honestly, who really wants to see a previously released movie in a theater when you can watch it from the comfort of your sofa for a fraction of the price? Of course, I would love to see classics return to the silver screen. Particularly those from the 1930s, 40s and 50s!

So far, the festival market is going well for First Signal. I was delighted to receive a Best Director win from the Eurasia International Monthly Film Festival last week. To receive an accolade of this stature from a festival is truly an honor. This is all about building a momentum so when First Signal goes to VOD, a hopeful following has built up for the film. From a media point of view, there is so much noise to cut through to get noticed.

A scene from “Operation Troy” in First Signal

The release strategy I’m looking to employ is the model I did with Justice Is Mind. It started with a world premiere followed by a limited theatrical and special event run before it went to VOD. My feeling with Justice, and now First Signal, was to follow the studio model. If it works for them, why try to reinvent the wheel? I just adapted it for the scale of my project. At the end of Justice Is Mind’s run, we had numerous media reports and reviews that helped propel the film when it was released on VOD.

On course.

Hoping to put SOS United States into production in 2021

First Plan

First Signal‘s website

With First Signal now accepted in eight film festivals, I am pleased where the project is going so far. We have had a couple of wins and finalist positions for the trailer which makes for a nice build up to the festivals considering the feature length version. Time will tell where the festivals will take us along with other theatrical and special event screenings.

The point of festivals and screenings is to develop interest in First Signal that goes beyond those that saw the film in a theater. It is about word of mouth and, hopefully, some choice media placements to develop a following for the film, so when the film goes to VOD, there’s a waiting audience. Like the journey of most films, that is the plan. What’s not in the plan is losing control of the film in a bad distribution deal.

For some years, I have heard from numerous filmmakers that after they sign a deal with a distributor or sales agent, they receive little to no money from sales of the film despite the grosses. In more instances than I can go into here, they sometimes wind up in court. The Dallas Buyers Club matter was relatively high profile, this article in Deadline hit the nail on the head and the collapse of Distribber had indie filmmakers taking solid note.

Our eighth festival acceptance!

The last three contracts I reviewed were so heavy in the favor of the distributor/sales agent, that I could not see any path to profitability, yet they would hold the rights to my film for over ten years. Translation? Once I sign the rights away, I won’t have the rights to exhibit my own film.  In each of my last three calls, they all talked glowingly about First Signal, promising encouraging sales estimates and things they can do for the film. But when pressed to offer those estimates (that I know are only estimates) and details in writing, they somehow were not available. Worse, on two occasions, the contracts stated they would have the rights to any sequel I write and work products. Was there ever a minimum gurantee? No. Was there a fancy computation of proposed acquisition price for a sequel that didn’t benefit me at all? Yes. Would I ever enter one of these contracts without some sort of minimum guarantee or entertainment lawyer reviewing my contact? Never. I generally remember this “atmosphere” when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. In the end I went with a wonderful digital aggregator that I will mention shortly.

General Reager arrives at Chievres Air Base

Unless you are just making a film to put on a shelf, a film requires a distribution plan. It requires a plan that has some sort of path to profitability and/or the ability to leverage the film towards a larger project (sequel, etc.). There is nothing sadder when I hear from a filmmaker that has been taken by one of these companies. The years and capital they have spent to bring their projects to life only to be tied up with nefarious distribution expenses, horrid customer service or legal doubletalk. The last thing anyone wants is to get into litigation (one of the filmmakers I talked to was preparing to file action against his sales agent). Even more insulting two of the three companies I talked to stated that they would require Executive Producer credits. Let us be clear, I don’t care what industry you work in, nobody likes a coattail rider. You do not have the right to ask for a top credit on a film just because you are offering a contract. Period. Nothing is this world is free, most certainly not an Executive Producer credit to make you look like a prolific producer. I know Hollywood is all about smoke and mirrors, but I only tolerate that act on the silver screen not in the boardroom. 

First Signal – another meeting

There is a silver lining to all of this. Yes, there are great sales agents and distributors. Yes, they do pay their filmmakers. But sadly, there are enough in the other camp that simply require substantive due diligence along with a crack lawyer to protect your interests.  You may have heard the saying “Caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware. That could not be truer than in this industry. At the end of the day, we must just do our homework.

One area of this industry that has been part of the silver lining are the digital aggregators. If you have a film, want to see it on a variety of VOD platforms BUT also retain your rights, I highly recommend FilmHub. I’ve had Justice Is Mind with them since 2014. If you are looking for no upfront fees, payment every quarter and excellent customer service, then FilmHub just might be your answer. Will I place First Signal with them? It honestly depends on a variety of factors, as we are in the early days of the release plan. Our next steps are festival, theatrical and special event screenings that will commence in the 4th quarter of 2020.

Resolute.

First Signal – another revelation

“Attending” Cannes

Thousands attended the Marché du Film Online. In a world of uncertainty, the entertainment industry came together to insure the continuation of this worldwide marketplace. Of all the industry events I’ve attended over the years, Marché had the best panels that not only informed on the current state of the industry but demonstrated innovative new business models and predictions for the years to come.

One innovation that ramped up exponentially during the crisis has been the virtual cinema. With the majority of movie theaters closed around the world, some distributors joined with cinemas for a virtual experience. Customers visit their theater’s website and order a movie to view online. The revenue is split between the theater and distributor. With one distributor reporting $700K in sales from 13 movies, the early adopters certainly did well. But as another distributor stated, the early novelty dropped considerably during the last month. With restrictions easing and people going out more, the “stay at home” audiences have drastically changed in numbers.

First Signal publicity shot

Another thing that distributors learned during the last few months is that content is truly king. Films that they couldn’t previously sell, suddenly started to sell. With the proliferation of VOD platforms and offerings, new content is critical. Two tech pioneers from the Czech Republic introduced Artinii. A service that screens films in alternative settings (outdoor non-theatrical venues such as a bar or restaurant).

But all this available content on VOD also brought the conversation back to data of who is searching for and watching what. With so much of this data controlled by individual companies, it was discussed that this data should be available to all distributors to give customers what they want regardless of the platform they are watching it on. Proponents said that it would benefit everyone from the distributor to the customer. Opponent VOD platforms want to protect their data to benefit their catalog of offerings. While I understand that the platforms want to protect their own customer data, I have to believe that a neutral third party could hold general data that could be used by the industry to ascertain what’s working and what isn’t. This is why the theatrical experience is critical — distributors know by ticket sales what films are resonating in what market. Needless to say, the data debate will be going on for some time.

First Signal‘s trailer was selected as a finalist in this festival

The one thing the general public doesn’t know, is the system that brings films to audiences. Imagine the following: films are produced year one, year two they are in post and year three they wind up at a market (AFM, Cannes, etc.). A release date is set, advertising dollars are spent, the marketing and public relations machine goes into overdrive a buzz is generated. Then suddenly, without warning, the theaters shut and all marketing comes to a grinding halt. Honestly, I don’t even want to know the tens, if not hundreds, of millions that have been lost in this industry.

With some theatrical markets just opening and others in the opening planning stages, from what I heard audiences aren’t rushing back. One of the primary issues is that the system is holding back new films as nobody really wants to do a release to near empty theaters. It could also be assumed audiences don’t want to see old releases or they are still concerned about the crisis. There’s also the issue of capacity. With social distancing still employed, who can make any money on capacity limits? How can you plan a theatrical release strategy when reactionary Governors threaten to shut down states again? And, honestly, who wants to sit in a theater with a mask on for three hours? Seriously, how do you eat popcorn? I know I won’t return to a theater until masks are no longer required. Given the amount of information available, they are a prop that has no meaningful benefit in the mainstream. I want my choices of recreation to be enjoyable not overly regulated to satisfy the hysterics. In Canada and the UK they give you a choice. Hopefully, in the United States we will soon have freedom of choice (odd, I thought we did with something called our First Amendment…I digress).

First Signal publicity shot

It became quite clear during the market that release windows are rapidly changing between theatrical and VOD.  The customer wants the choice on where, when and how to watch new releases. You might not want to go to a theater and pay $14, but you may pay $19 to watch it on premium VOD at home. Cinema, however, is going to be jammed in 2021 because of the films that are being held back this year. At the end of the day films are financed by distributors in advance…they need a return.

I will say this, theatrical is critical to a movie’s success. This is where substantive revenue is made. This is where substantial press is received. Without some sort of theatrical exposure, a film gets lost among VOD offerings. One of the most thoughtful discussions was how to properly advertise a film on a VOD platform. You can advertise a film as in theaters, but VOD specific advertising is still a nascent possibility. Recognition on the platforms is critical. Just putting a film on them isn’t enough. You need audience engagement and that largely comes from a theatrical release and the media.

A panel I particularly enjoyed was when a well-known producer covered the process of constructing a proper script and presenting the package to the industry (investors, sales agents, etc.). What I loved was her no-nonsense practical approach. This is an industry about continued learning and expanding your network. It’s about meeting and working with new people.

I was generally pleased with how First Signal was received during the Marché. Several sales agents requested a screener and one sent me a deal memo to review yesterday.  In addition to submitting to a variety of festivals with 4th and 1st quarter events, I’m closely monitoring the reopening of theaters and other screening opportunities to plot strategy. Fortunately, First Signal wasn’t “caught” in the crisis from a release point of view. We were still in the fitting out phase.

In the end it was a great job by all concerned. The team behind the Marché du Film, turned the most prestigious film market in the world to a successful virtual event. But as all agreed, virtual markets won’t work for the long term. This is an industry that requires socializing. It requires in person meetings as that is the only way you can really decide if you want to work someone. You can be introduced on a video chat, but the real works starts when you meet in person.  

Live!

First Signal‘s sales card

Virtual Market

First Signal is complete! What started as an idea in 2017 is now a completed feature film. The satisfaction of completing a film is like none other. When you consider the number of people and technical matters that go into the process, it’s project management bar none. While there are always difficult moments to overcome, as filmmakers we always come out on the other end wanting to do the process all over again. For when a film is complete, it truly is a piece of art. Not one that you hang on the wall, but one that you project on it.

The completion of First Signal arrives with additional film festivals that have accepted the trailer. I’m delighted to report that the trailer has won Best Trailer at the Crown Wood International Film Festival and Tagore International Film Festival. The trailer was also a finalist in the Prague International Monthly Film Festival. These early accolades create a wonderful foundation as I submit the feature film for festival consideration and implement the marketing and distribution plan.

This all comes of course as the entertainment industry is trying to right the ship in a sea of unprecedented uncertainty. Theaters are just now announcing plans to reopen at reduced capacity, production is slowly restarting and film markets have gone temporarily virtual. As for the latter, I’m registered for the Marche du Film that’s starting on Monday. I was looking forward to attending my first Cannes in person, but virtual will be fine for this year’s market. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “After all tomorrow is another day.”

I count myself lucky that we have been able to successfully navigate the post-production process of First Signal given the present situation. Although we had already planned to be in post-production during this time, one doesn’t plan for a worldwide upheaval that literally shuts down the world. Throughout this vortex, it was the dedicated post-production team of Daniel Groom, Daniel Elek-Diamanta, Adam Starr and Tim Haggerty that made the completion of First Signal possible. One member of our team went through a multi-country ordeal to get home and literally sent the final files the day before he was leaving. During the actual production of First Signal a couple of members were going through some very trying personal matters. It’s those types of efforts that give credence to, the show must go on!

The entertainment industry is resilient. We always find a way to overcome obstacles. Because if there is one thing the public wants, it’s entertainment. They want to escape into a story, experience new characters and visit their worlds. Since the dawn of theater neither war, famine, plagues or “out of this world” experiences have brought an end to this industry. If anything, it makes us work harder to do that one thing we all enjoy doing…

…create.


Launch Phase

Apollo 11 rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building

In the coming days I’ll be able to announce that post-production on First Signal is completed. With every inch closer to that accomplishment, I can’t help but think of the journey. It has been nearly three years from concept to competition. In hindsight I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Through all the fits and starts of locations, cast and crew, in the end everything worked out the way I hoped. As of this date the official trailer for First Signal has been selected by three film festivals!

However, another journey lies ahead. Fortunately, it’s a trip I’ve been on before – marketing and distribution. Yes, the plans include film festival submissions, distributor pitches, various screening opportunities and, I hope, some solid media interest in the “First World Universe.” With the world starting to reopen, the key will be to find partners that are interested in working with us. Like I did with Justice Is Mind, you want to work with those that want to work with you. I’ve always believed that distribution should be a partnership of cooperation, not just a take from any given side.

There’s no question that the entertainment industry has been financially decimated. I sadly know several people that have had to exit it permanently because of economic reasons (everyone needs to eat). While it’s encouraging to learn that production is starting to resume in certain parts of the world, some of the restrictions I see being proposed will only accomplish an increase in costs and time with nary a health benefit. Who is going to cover those increases when we are now in an economic depression? The economics of this whole situation is pretty simple. How is a distributor going to price a film when a sizable percentage of the global audience is on unemployment or reduced earnings? What it really comes down to is disposable income and what audiences are willing to spend to be entertained. I sincerely hope I’m wrong and that we see a vibrant return to some sort of market normalcy (I refuse to use the phrase ‘new normal’). As movies have always been a form of escapism, I believe audiences will return sooner rather than later to the theatrical experience.

A mysterious shadow in First Signal

The remainder of 2020 and a good part of 2021 will be devoted to the marketing and distribution of First Signal. I know the film will find its audience and a solid distributor will present itself. For me, I always try to look at a situation with a spirit of optimism and to avoid those situations that attempt to drag me into some sort of milieu. I’d rather navigate out of a small port with an overcast, than attempt to sail through a busy port in the center of a storm.

I can thankfully say that First Signal isn’t tied to debt covenants or other financial obligations. One of the benefits of being the sole executive producer is that I’m largely only answerable to myself on the financial front. But a film isn’t designed to be made and relegated to a shelf. A film is produced to be seen and enjoyed by an audience. One of the primary responsibilities as executive producer is to insure that my film gets released. If anything a producer has a responsibility to the actors and crew that shared the vision. Because that’s what film is all about – a vision.

While we all enjoy seeing our favorite films on VOD, there’s nothing like the theatrical experience. You enter a vast room with anticipation; that leads to the dimming of lights and the initial roll of the opening credits and the crescendo of a score.


Next Phase

Both First Signal and First Launch start at the planet Shinar

With post-production on First Signal coming to an end, it seemed fitting that I finished a draft of the sequel early last week. Titled First Launch, the story picks up two years after events in First Signal.  While First Signal introduced the First World Universe in a very contained environment, First Launch is entirely the opposite. With the majority of primary characters returning, the logline “The President faces a military coup and extrasolar war when a covertly built second generation space shuttle reveals a worldwide military destined to confront an alien presence on Earth,” sets the story shortly before the 2016 Presidential election.

While I’m glad to have finished a draft to the sequel of First Signal, my priority is to see that First Signal properly exits post-production as I plan for general marketing and distribution. As for distribution, this past week I was approached by a theater to have First Signal screen in July. While I normally would have jumped at the opportunity, I honestly can’t commit one way or another until we learn when restrictions are being lifted. I do know one thing, so long as mask requirements (something I vehemently disagree with) are order of the day there’s no point, or joy, in having a theatrical screening. While our governor may employ Orwellian powers in Massachusetts, he has no power or jurisdiction of its citizens outside this tiny state. Thus, I’m looking at screening opportunities outside of New England and the country.

As today is Mother’s Day, here I am with my mother Eleanor on the MS Queen Elizabeth

I am, however, considering “attending” the virtual Cannes Marché du Film in June. As the fees are negligible, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try and see what comes of it. There’s no question that by the end of the summer, theaters worldwide will be open and the markets will endeavor to return to some sort of normalcy.

While the large theater chains can tap into a variety of reserves and credit lines, it’s the independent theaters that are most at risk during these perilous times. As their only source of revenue are ticket sales, the real concern in the industry is that some of them just won’t make it and that a vital link for independent films will simply disappear. Unless you have a robust concession, ticket sales alone just don’t carry theaters. Simply, the box office percentage that’s shared with the distributor just varies too greatly between films.

But with every economic upheaval, there is always a revelation of something new or in this case a return. How many of us remember drive-in movie theaters? I remember the days when we would all pile into the car, drive up to a parking spot, place a speaker on the side of the car and watch a film unfold on a giant screen. It’s no surprise, that moviegoers are starting to look at the drive-in as a solid alternative while the traditional theatrical experience is sorted.

Opportunity.


Right down the street from me, the entrance to the former Edgemere Drive-In


Course Correction

First Signal – color grade example.

I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a filmmaker on the planet that isn’t affected by the current world crisis. The one saving grace with First Signal is that it was always scheduled to be in post-production during this time and won’t be finished until May anyway.  Color grading and sound mixing is moving right along.

While we all monitor for the opening of the economy (it’s vital this happens as soon as possible), the question is when and how to ramp up marketing and distribution efforts. I will say this, after submitting First Signal a few weeks ago to two film festivals, I have formally stopped until the film is 100% complete. With future submissions I will also require an assurance that a film festival will not default their festival from live to online.  I have ZERO interest in premiering First Signal online with a film festival. It will never happen.

I’m not surprised that only seven films took up Amazon’s virtual film fest offer. Unless Amazon’s screening fee was going to offset production costs, why bother. Any filmmaker can upload their film direct to Amazon, why dilute future distribution opportunities with an online premiere.

First Signal – private conversations

A few days ago a film festival I submitted to with a December event date, sent this long winded email stating generally that if people don’t feel comfortable attending or their theater isn’t available, they’ll make it online – and won’t refund submission fees. I frankly couldn’t believe the gall. I guess they’ll have to answer to the credit card companies who will chargeback the submission fees to the filmmakers. Having produced many live events, you as the organizer/promoter are responsible to execute what was contracted with the customer. If you don’t you must refund. It’s as simple as that.

I have never been a traditionalist.  From publishing to filmmaking, I have always taken an unconventional approach. When I launched my figure skating magazine years ago, I was told it was never going to work as I needed to do this or that or whatever. Whether it was budget related or simply because I had a different idea, I executed the way I could to accomplish what I needed to do. I brought that same approach to filmmaking. When I produced First World and quickly learned that festivals wanted shorts under 15 min long, I found science fiction festivals, unique events and, yes, online (a fledgling platform called Hulu) to present my first film.

My point in all this is being able to pivot. For better or worse the world has changed in the last couple of months. I’m not going to try to roll a square rock up a hill, when I can slide it on rails at ground level to the same destination.  As filmmakers we think unconventionally when we create our projects, the same should hold true for marketing and distribution.

Next plan.


A Premiere

The cast and crew of Alternate Ground.

Last night I attended the world premiere of Daniel Groom’s Alternate Ground to a sold-out crowd at Chunky’s Cinema Pub in Nashua, NH. Although Dan has directed several short films, this was his feature film directorial debut. Alternate Ground’s combination of sci-fi and horror worked brilliantly in this UFO abduction film. While watching Alternate Ground unfold, I was reminded of some classic sci-fi and horror films from the 1970s and 80s that I adore. I don’t know if that was his intention or not, but from a marketing point of view it was a brilliant combination of classic film with contemporary storytelling. Suffice to say it was well done.

Prior to the film’s start, Dan remarked to the audience about the importance of independent film and the filmmakers that bring them to life. The word “sacrifice” doesn’t even begin to describe what the filmmakers, cast and crew do to bring art to the silver screen. I promise you the passion in a truly independent film such as Alternate Ground is 1000x more than any studio could achieve. Last night you could see that passion on screen and from those attending. It’s that passion that drives the independent filmmaker to continue pushing forward to do one thing – create.

Some years ago, I was asked by someone why I work so hard on my film projects when the promise of a return is nebulous at best. I simply responded, it’s a story I need to tell. This person continued to press me on the subject until I finally said something on the order of, it’s people like me that create what you see on TV, in the theatres and the books you read. Without creatives there is no substance to society. Without creatives life is just black and white with no color. The person that was pressing me was someone who, sadly, works a terribly boring job. And while I can say I’ve worked many boring jobs in my life, you must find the time to be creative, to express yourself in whatever medium that brings you, and hopefully others, some joy. To Daniel Groom, his cast, crew and partners, you brought a great amount of joy last night.

Congratulations!

With director Daniel Groom at the world premiere of Alternate Ground.
Photo: Myra Wilson-Myre


In Orbit

The Athol Daily News

Liftoff of the trailer for First Signal went off without a hitch. To put in in space terms, we are now in low Earth orbit. A special thank you to WMUR, Athol Daily News, Greenfield Recorder and Britflicks for reporting on the trailer. We’ll continue orbiting until First Signal is released and we venture into deep space. OK, enough with my outer space analogy on releasing a trailer!  

Two weeks ago I had several browsers open with the trailer ready to be published. Did I spell the title of the trailer correctly? How does the formatting look for the email newsletter? Once I proofed everything for what seemed like a tenth time I finally entered the commands to go live. When the time came everything worked. But it wasn’t for a lack of planning. The organizing and release of the trailer took about three months. It wasn’t just about the actual video file of the trailer but all the marketing around it.  

When you are an independent filmmaker your team is small if not but one. There’s no marketing communications group to handle this effort. Oh sure, you ask people to read this or double check that, but at the end of the day the responsibility is yours. Like it always happens before I launch something, I think of the steps it took to get to that point. It all started as an idea at the Naval Justice School in Newport, RI in 2017.

Britflicks

Up until that point I honestly never thought I would be revisiting this First World Universe I created.  First World, the script, came out in 2006 with the short film version following in 2007. With the global financial crisis in full swing, it was next to impossible to get a film financed. At one point, just before the collapse, the financing and production teams were in place. But then, seemingly overnight, financing fell out of the markets and that was the end.

Slow but sure the markets recovered. A filmmaker friend of mine knew about my frustration with getting First World made and challenged me to write something that I could film on a true indie budget.  A moment that involved mind reading in the sequel I wrote for First World turned into Justice Is Mind.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Shortly after the trailer was released, I started to receive interest from sales agents and distributors I didn’t meet at AFM. I have to say that was very encouraging. The whole goal of a trailer is to “sell” the feature. As I can well appreciate how inundated these representatives are, the fact that they are even interested at this point bodes well for the project. What kind of deal will ultimately emerge? That’s really impossible to tell as there are numerous factors involved.

While post-production continues with an end of April (early May) completion date, marketing of the trailer continues, while I plan for the release of the feature and presentation to sales agents and distributors.

On a closing note, I’m aiming to have a draft of the sequel to First Signal completed before the film is released. To turn a military phrase, it’s about preparedness.

 “If I don’t put an end to this now, the military will be running this office.”

President Helen Colton
The sequel to First Signal.

First Trailer

I’m pleased to announce the release of First Signal’s official trailer! You may view the trailer on YouTube at this link. Our official press release can be found at this link.

An alien solar system.

I cannot begin to thank the actors, crew and location partners enough for making First Signal possible. When I started to write the script a few years ago, I really had no idea that the story was actually going to be produced. Then moment by moment, meeting after meeting, First Signal became a reality.

A secret meeting.

There were so many fits and starts during the pre-production phase I wondered if we were ever going to lens those first scenes. But through patience, perseverance and planning, principal photography started last May and wrapped in July.  The post-production team of Daniel Groom, Daniel Elek-Diamanta and Adam Starr have been working feverishly to bring First Signal to life.

A general who wants answers.

While pre-production and principal photography are obviously important, the real magic happens in post. It’s in post that one takes the time to insure that quality is always top of mind. For it’s quality that distributors are looking for. When I was at AFM the discussion wasn’t so much about “stars” but about the on screen production value.  In essence, how does the film look and sound.

A president at the crossroads.

Now that the trailer is out, marketing begins again in earnest. The months of planning for this day are now here. Marketing is something I truly enjoy. If you believe in what you’re selling you can pitch it to anyone. This is where the three P’s (patience, perseverance and planning) come into play. If someone you pitch your project to says no, you just keep moving down the line. For Justice Is Mind, I must have pitched over one hundred theatres, in the end twelve screened the film. Had I given up after I heard what seemed to be the endless “no”, the limited theatrical run never would have happened.

A mystery.

Given the challenges independent filmmakers face on a daily basis, the release of a trailer is another reason to celebrate. It proves that like-minded people, with very busy schedules, came together for a singular purpose – to create a motion picture – to create a piece of art.  Over the next few months the final pieces to the feature film puzzle will be completed. In ocean liner parlance First Signal is being “fitted out.”

Welcome to the First World Universe!


The Rollout

Rollout of Apollo 11 to launchpad 39a

With the trailer edited and scored, we are in the rollout phase as the color grading commences.  As each day passes we are rolling closer and closer to the day when the trailer for First Signal is released. I don’t think I’ve prepared nearly as much for the release of any of my film projects. Yes, Justice Is Mind was obviously important to me, but with First Signal being my first feature film in the “First World Universe,” I want to make sure I reach who I need to reach.

When I was talking to an acting friend this past week, we started to talk about certain sci-fi series and movies and what we do and don’t like. For me, I’m not so much into spectacle but story. I’d rather watch a solid story than things getting blown up. Yes, sometimes you need to blow something up, but I feel it should be done within the context of the story, not just for show and tell.

Last weekend we had First Signal’s ADR session. Watching these talented actors bring their characters back was nice to see. It was also an opportunity to show them the trailer and opening credits. Aside from some stills, they haven’t had the chance to see anything since we wrapped last July. I know when I’m part of a project as an actor I anxiously await to see what the product will look like.

With audio complete, the provisional score nearly done, VFX being built and the film close to a lock, I can almost see the light at the end of the post-production tunnel. But this is where all the details come up. From polishing the edit and score, finishing the VFX, sound mixing and color grading, creating a film is an arduous task and all about project management.

One of my favorite “TV” series these past few years has been The Man in the High Castle on Amazon. The entire production on both sides of the camera was first rate.  When I started to write the sequel to First Signal it dawned on me the character of Major Sampson could parallel Juliana Crain.  In High Castle, Crain was instrumental in the resistance movement and played all sides to achieve her goals. In the sequel to First Signal, Sampson finds herself torn between three worlds – the President of the United States, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cedric Yonah the Premier of the Synedrion Council.  As of this morning I just hit the sixty-page mark and I think I know how I want it to end. I think!

As for films that have a military storyline, I saw 1917 last weekend. I can’t say enough great things about this film. From filming the entire story in one continuous shot, to the production values and acting, 1917 was truly a delight. The cinematography alone is reason enough to see this film. I can only imagine the pre-production planning!

I was reading an email newsletter this morning and the author talked about having to love the journey not only as a writer but as it pertained to sales. As a screenwriter, there is that moment when you feel these characters talking back to you as you type their dialogue and action their elements. When you’re filming your screenplay, you see these characters come to life. When you’re watching your story on the silver screen or your TV, you know you’ve made a sale. There is something immensely satisfying being in the lobby of a theatre when someone asks to buy a ticket to your film. Equally when you get notice that your film has been streamed.

The journey is a long one, with many highways and exits ahead. But it’s a journey that I have loved since I wrote my first screenplay in grade school.

Stay the course.


The Brand

The bunker in First Signal.

Yesterday I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in few years. The first thing he asked me was “How’s the writing going?” I told him about First Signal and a few other things going on. As he runs a successful business in Worcester, I asked him how the salon was.  He responded “Busy.” I really didn’t have to ask him that because I know his salon is always busy. He’s been working on building his brand for years.

It took some years to build my brand in figure skating and equally as long as a writer and filmmaker outside of the sport. Building a brand isn’t something that happens overnight. It builds from one project to another. However, we now live in a world where people think that having a large social media following is a brand.  Social media, in my view, is great for amplifying what you’re doing in the real world. But without a foundation of something, it’s just likes.

When I started to revive the First World Universe to write First Signal a few years ago, I realized after reviewing all my original material and the media we had at the time, that I created a unique brand. One with its own voice. With First Signal I finally had the opportunity to present this world as a feature film. The first in what I hope to be a series of films in the First World Universe.

With the trailer nearly complete, the marketing train will soon be leaving the station. Once it leaves it can’t come back. While post-production has been going on in earnest with countless notes with the editor, composer and VFX artist, I’ve been working out the marketing plans for the trailer and ultimately the feature.  All of us on the post-production team know how important it is for the trailer to present the film. At the end of the day it’s about selling the feature.

One of the primary sets in the sequel to First Signal is the Oval Office.

As for the First World Universe, I’m just over the thirty-page mark for the sequel. This is the story that takes place before the events in First World.  In my view, writing a sequel is no easy feat. You must balance the established characters and their stories with something new. I think one of the most interesting sequels was 2010 from the legendary 2001.  Starring Roy Scheider, John Lithgow and Helen Mirren, 2010 created a wonderful “what if” possibility.

In the sequel to First Signal the following dialogue happens in the Oval Office

“Exactly. Now he’s operating covertly and illegally. If you lose and Reager legitimately controls the military and his commander in chief is complicit, history books won’t judge your actions today, because they’ll be none left. It will be the end of civilization.” – Elisabeth Seward, National Security Advisor to President Helen Colton

That dialogue derives from actions around Operation Troy in First Signal.

“General if I sign this. What’s the objective of Operation Troy?” – Helen Colton, President, United States of America.

“Identification.” – General John Reager, Commander, Air Force Space Command

This week I write the draft press release and email newsletter to announce the trailer. As for when the trailer will be released? Sometime in February

Coming Soon.

A VFX still from First Signal.

The Last Weekend

VFX begins for First Signal. The starfield for the end credits.

Before I started to write my last blog post for the year, I took a moment to review what I wrote this time last year and the year before. In 2017 it was “One project I’m excited for in the new year is the First World prequel I’m writing.” In 2018 it was “The pre-production process of First Signal continues towards a May launch.” For the end of 2019 I can proudly say post-production on First Signal is well underway.

The stars of First Signal.

I’ve often stated the word perseverance and what it means to never give up. I see so many projects being announced with great enthusiasm only to wither away. I’ve also stated that making a feature film is a task like none other. It’s about surrounding yourself with people that share your enthusiasm and vision. If it’s one thing I’ve learned this year is that it’s important to work with those that understand dedication and don’t just call it in. That dedication will be released in 2020 for all to see.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions or subscribe to the “New Year. New Me” philosophy. By example, I workout an hour a day seven days a week. I know next week the gym will packed. Over enthusiastic people trying to run a hundred miles an hour on a treadmill when they don’t even enjoy taking long walks. They don’t see results in a month, so they stop coming. They don’t know that to run on a treadmill you first have to learn to walk on one. That means showing up, taking small steps and watching your diet. In the entertainment industry I see the posts “My feature will be produced this year!” or “This year I’m going to star in a film!” Um, well, what did you do three months earlier? Just wait for the 1st of January to arrive? Did you look at your script and see how it could be adjusted to shoot on a budget you could afford? Did you see that part in a film but not submit? Remember in this industry there are no small parts. And more importantly it’s all about risk.

When you join a gym you risk not having the body of Adonis after six months. But you know what? After those six months you may have lost twenty pounds, feel and look better and no longer crave that evening pint of ice cream. When you write a script you risk not having it ever produced. But after you adjust for a budget you can afford, you could soon find yourself in post-production. When you decide to be an actor you don’t start as a star. You submit and submit and submit. You accept the roles you can, no matter the size, because that can lead to a starring role.

That happened to one of the stars of First Signal. He was my first choice, but I cast another actor who lived closer to our shooting location. The actor I originally wanted didn’t dismiss the project when I offered him a background role. He stayed interested. When the actor I cast flaked off and ghosted me, I offered the part to him. He breathed life into this character that I never thought possible.

This is an industry not only about accumulating experience but dedication and enthusiasm. If you have experience and are known to be dedicated and enthusiastic, you will be top of mind when a project comes to being. This just happened to me when I was contacted by a production company for a project coming up for a few days in January. It might not happen in the end, but at least I was contacted (with no agent involved).

Believe me I don’t look at this industry through rose colored glasses. We all have those days where it seems like we aren’t gaining any traction or making any progress. But I do believe if you stick with it and are persistent those chances improve tenfold.

See you at the premiere of First Signal in 2020!


Second Market

With Daniel Groom at AFM 2019.

On Thursday I returned from my second attendance at the American Film Market (AFM). By all accounts, it went well. This year I was accompanied by Daniel Groom, First Signal’s director of photography and editor. He was also representing his own feature film Alternate Ground.

AFM 2019 at the Loews Santa Monica. All the hotel rooms are converted to offices.

My attendance at AFM in 2018 was generally a fact-finding trip and learning how a film market works. Yes, I had meetings, but it was more to promote projects in development, like First Signal, and to represent my first feature film Justice Is Mind. It’s important to note that AFM is not a film festival. Yes, AFM has screenings, but they are mostly for buyers and sales agents.  AFM is one of a handful of film markets around the world. Simply put, these markets are where deals are done for independent filmmakers.

The Oval Office at the Reagan Library.

Preparing to attend a film market is the same as pre-production on a film – preparation. You research who you want to meet, make a pitch and hope for a meeting. Like an actor preparing for a part, you rehearse, memorize and have talking points. If you can’t articulate your own film, it’s hard to expect sales agents and buyers to take any interest. In a curious twist, I was in a meeting when someone wanted to present their film regarding locations they were looking for. Oddly, they couldn’t really present the logline or what the general concept was.

The Queen Mary in Long Beach.

I would say my last meeting at AFM was the probably the best one of the market. First, they were specifically looking for films like First Signal. I met with the principal of the company and two representatives. In their suite, I was able to make a complete pitch for First Signal. From development, production to goals for a series of films in the First World Universe. I stressed the importance of marketing and kept an open mind on their points, some of those points being working with them to plan for a rollout in upcoming markets.

The Grand Salon on the Queen Mary.

There is another point that’s stressed at AFM and that’s professionalism. From scheduling meetings in advance to how to introduce your projects when you don’t have a meeting scheduled. All in all, my experience was positive. But here I was in a booked meeting with a sales agent when another filmmaker arrived, interrupted my meeting and pretty much insisted the agent give them a few minutes. The agent mentioned they were in a meeting, but this filmmaker didn’t care. I just looked at this filmmaker blankly taking it all in.  When the agent returned and apologized, the first thing I said was you don’t need to apologize for someone else. I’ll just say this—it’s all about first impressions.

At the Griffith Observatory with Los Angeles in the distance.

In the end, AFM 2019 was a great market for what I was representing. This industry is rapidly changing from an economic point of view. The differences between 2018 and 2019 were apparent and stark. It’s truly about being adaptable and going with the flow. Having worked in the publishing industry, I’ve seen the advent of digital change. I knew some years ago that VOD/streaming was going to truly be the primary revenue driver for most independent filmmakers. That reality is now here.

The USS Iowa.

But as you will see from my pictures, my trip wasn’t all business. From the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, to the Queen Mary, Griffith Observatory and the USS Iowa, I always enjoy my visits to “Hollywood.” I also discovered a new navigation app called Waze. Given the traffic challenges in LA (although I think they’re worse in Boston), I highly recommend it!

Next steps.

Boarding Air Force One at the Reagan Library.

The Arrival

General Reager arrives at Chièvres Air Base, Belgium

There has been a flurry of activity since First Signal wrapped principal photography in July. From editing, scoring, special effects to market preparation for the American Film Market, the work on a feature film hardly ends when the final “cut” is called. Post-production is where the puzzle of all the shots taken comes together. You only hope you have all the pieces! Thankfully, we do.

The one thing I’ve learned on this feature film, was that a long pre-production period was a good thing. There were casting changes that worked out for the best, ideal locations that came forward and research that proved invaluable during production and post-production. The one thing I’m glad I did during the pre-production process was attend AFM last year. It gave me a sense of how a film market operates and what to expect (or in some cases not to expect).

A secret meeting begins.

For AFM 2019 I have several meetings booked and several more sales agents/distributors that want to see a complete screener of First Signal. Certainly, these are all positive developments. However, as a filmmaker, the one thing you must believe in is your own film and not to be swayed by critics.  One sales agent stated that I needed to introduce the “creature” early. As First Signal is a story driven science fiction film akin to Gattaca with the production style of Fail Safe, I declined that meeting (there is no “creature” in First Signal).  In addition to an original story, what First Signal also offers is the start of a new science fiction series.

This weekend I picked up the sales cards/sell sheets for First Signal. A special thanks to Daniel Elek-Diamanta for the design! These sell sheets will be used like business cards during the market. What I aimed for with the sell sheet were select stills and copy that represented the story. While it’s impossible to present an entire film on such a piece of collateral, the goal is that of a trailer—promote the feature.

In the beginning.

Out of the 82 page script, First Signal is edited up to page 76.  The pieces of the puzzle are nicely coming together. Editing is a process all unto itself. It’s time consuming and detail oriented. It’s about pouring over hours of footage and audio to look for the best takes to build the story.  A special thanks also to our editor (and director of photography) Daniel Groom for his work.

As I head into the last two weeks before I leave for AFM, there will be meeting preparations, practicing my pitch and finalizing the schedule. I’ll still never forget the first time I walked into the lobby of the Lowes Hotel last year—everything I saw was about the world of independent film. It’s an ideal market to network, get the latest insight and to present your project to the industry.  

First World on Hulu

It is amazing to me how much this industry has evolved from my first film. When I released First World in 2007 Amazon had just announced video on demand the year before with Netflix just announcing a streaming service. Of course theatrical and DVD were still major revenue sources. But it was when I saw First World on the nascent Hulu that I knew the world of filmmaking would change forever. Yes, theatrical is still the primary revenue source, but we all know what happened to DVD. As I employed when I was a magazine publisher, I think it’s important to test and try new release and market technologies to reach audiences the way they want to watch your film.  

AFM


The Market

The President in First Signal.

The one thing about preparing for a film market is that it makes the process of filmmaking all the more real. It compels you to organize your marketing materials and position your film for the market, from building a website, to sales cards, to online profiles, stills and any other materials that showcase your film. The adage, if you build it they will come, doesn’t work in this industry (or any other for that matter).  It’s not enough to make a film, you have to tell the world about it.

When I was organizing my home office yesterday, I found a variety of sales materials from last year’s AFM. I found a sales card for one film that at the time was in post-production and represented at the market by a well-known production company. When I looked the film up on IMDb, it was still in post-production and that production company was no longer affiliated with it. There could be a thousand reasons as to why this film is still in post or the company that was representing it no longer is. The one thing I do know, is there needs to be a Plan A, B and so on.

James Griffin and Cedric Yonah in First Signal.

I was reminded through Facebook memories this week about the numerous screenings we had for Justice Is Mind. The year following our release in August 2013 was a very exciting time. Not a month went by when there wasn’t some sort of activity, be it a theatrical screening or media report. The apex of Justice Is Mind was our international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. There was a moment during that cruise when I was standing on deck reflecting on the journey Justice Is Mind took to get to that moment. Suffice to say, it’s important to stay focused, believe in your project and move past any and all naysayers.

With First Signal now past the halfway mark in post-production, I see what opportunities lie ahead. But I can’t help but think of the journey it took just to complete principal photography. Despite the substantial challenges we faced in pre-production (too many to list!), First Signal eventually found its dynamic locations and talented cast and crew. If this process was easy everyone would be doing it. To quote President Theodore Roosevelt “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

To the outsider, they see a film and think it comes together magically. They generally have no idea what it takes to go from script to screen. When I attend the American Film Market in four weeks, I’ll come across hundreds of films each with their own unique story in various stages of production—all looking for a home. For me, this market will be one of many interesting ports First Signal visits.  

With this post, I’m pleased to present two additional stills from First Signal and The Ashton Times AFM 2019 poster representing my projects.

The journey.


When Worlds Collide

The mysterious Cedric Yonah and James Griffin arrive.

This past week the pitch process for First Signal began in earnest. As long as you follow the process outlined by the American Film Market (AFM), it’s pretty straight forward. There is so much that goes into getting ready for a market. For the last few weeks it’s been about updating my websites, building First Signal’s official website and preparing other marketing materials. They say you only get one shot at a first impression, so why not give your best one.

Post-production is moving right along. The film is nearing the halfway mark with a rough cut, with the first twenty minutes generally scored and color corrected. It’s these twenty minutes that’s being pitched to interested parties at the AFM. I can’t say enough good things about the post-production team of Daniel Groom, Daniel Elek-Diamanta and Adam Starr. The post-production process is highly detailed exacting work. It requires organization, patience and diligence. Traits, I’m happy to say, that we all have. But there’s something else none of us have, an ego that gets in the way of working together. To turn a phrase from McDonald Walling (William Holden) in Executive Suite, “In your own words, Shaw, I have only one interest around here – the good of this company.”

The Griffith Observatory. One of my favorite places to visit when I’m in L.A.

With this post, I’m releasing an additional still that introduces the mysterious Cedric Yonah and James Griffin. Titled “When Worlds Collide,” it follows the previously released still titled “Who are you?” In that still we saw General Reager and Major Sampson looking at someone. Now we know who they were looking at. It is from this point forward in the story that the tension in First Signal builds to a revelation that leads into the sequel.

It’s hard to believe that in six weeks I’ll be back in Los Angeles. It’s even harder to believe that it’s been over ten years since I lived in the city. Like so many of us that are part of this industry we are drawn to LA for its magnetism with the word “opportunity” in the air. While I loved my years living in New York City, it’s Los Angeles that always feels like my second home when I visit.

I was living in LA when I wrote my first screenplay First World. What was the genesis that gave me the idea? It may have been all my visits to the Griffith Observatory. For it was an event at that famed institution when I had the honor to meet Ray Bradbury. For the few minutes I talked to him and told him how much I admired his work, he asked me if I was a writer. I told him briefly about First World, he smiled, shook my hand and said graciously, “You keep writing.”

First Signal

A new title card from the opening credits of First Signal.

First Website

First Signal‘s official website launched this week.

Now that First Signal is well into post-production it’s about the marketing plan. Part of that plan is the launch of an “official” website. Unlike social media that gets your news out quickly, I view a website as the central source for a brand or in this case a film. For those of you that followed Justice Is Mind, you saw how the website started and then built out during the post-production and distribution phases. When you consider the number of films looking for attention during any given year, you really need all the tools you can to make yours known. I am therefore pleased to announce the launch of First Signal’s official website https://www.firstsignalmovie.com/ Enjoy!

As I was telling a fellow filmmaker yesterday, when it comes to marketing your film you need to be relatively relentless. Unless your distributor is going to launch an aggressive marketing communications campaign to support your vision that responsibility is on the filmmaker—as it should be. Sadly, I see so many projects get released only to fizzle on the launchpad.  

The job of a filmmaker is an all-encompassing one. It generally involves writing the script in relative solitude, to directing the project with cast and crew, back to solitude for post-production, then managing the release, distribution and marketing. I firmly believe that when you put the word “filmmaker” on your resume you can list your responsibilities in one word – everything. Frankly, that’s why I love this process. It gives me the opportunity to wear many hats. 

One of those hats will be pitchman when I travel to AFM in November to represent First Signal and my other projects.  With the edit at the 30 minute mark, the opening credits sequence nearing the completion stage and scoring well underway, so far everything is proceeding on schedule. Unlike last year when I waited to book my trip three weeks before the market and almost had to pay a premium, I booked my trip last week to get a good rate. In the next two weeks I start presenting First Signal to a list of sales agents and distributors I curated from AFM.

As for agents, I informed my talent agent yesterday that I was leaving their representation. While there are numerous reasons why I left, I was first reminded that my contract passed the one year mark. In addition, I took a look at my full page resume, and with the exception of one gig, I secured the rest on my own.  With my on camera work largely reflective of domestic and international TV, I need representation that aligns with my experience or do what I’ve generally always done – represent myself.

The one thing I have learned over the past twenty plus years, is you need to market yourself—continuously. If you don’t market yourself, never mind your films, you will either be forgotten or passed by. There is simply too much talent out there competing for the same thing. The chance of you being discovered on a roster of talent or your film in a catalog is slim to none. I’m not saying you have to hire a personal publicist, but social media marketing (without looking like a narcissist), a press release targeted to the media and a quality email newsletter, go a long way in recognition.

On those notes, I plan to release First Signal’s second still next week.

The meeting.

Daniel Elek Diamanta scoring First Signal

First Still

Capturing the essence of a movie usually starts with the one sheet (poster), followed by stills and then the trailer.  It’s about developing the film’s brand and the PR campaign around it. For First Signal, the first official one sheet was designed by Daniel Elek-Diamanta (who is also our composer). The poster represents the famed “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8 along with some sort of alien satellite or ship between the Moon and Earth. As the First Signal story is rooted in the Apollo space program, I thought the blend of science fact with fiction would make for a compelling picture.

With editing well underway, the next step in the branding process is to tell First Signal’s story through carefully chosen stills. Quoting Arthur Brisbane from an article in 1911, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Our first “picture” tells part of the First Signal story with Air Force One arriving in Brussels, Belgium. To the casual observer they just see Air Force One over a newscast. But for those that are following First Signal, they will see much more.  Not only does the still lend to the logline, an emergency meeting with the President, it represents the arrival of Earth’s most well-known plane. I say Earth’s because something else arrives later in the story. The rotating planet Earth in the chyron graphic is later identified as another world. But it’s the crisis in Ukraine that leads to a government conspiracy to thwart an insurgent military action that’s at the heart of the First Signal story.

Over the weeks and months ahead, the idea is to create a campaign to bring awareness to First Signal for its release in 2020. When you consider the tens of thousands of films made in any given year, the marketing and communications efforts need to be just as well thought out and planned as principal photography was. For First Signal it’s about building off our early press.

As for building, next week I start the research process for AFM. But prior to AFM, I’ll be presenting First Signal next week to some interested parties that are traveling to Toronto.  

Finally, I’m re-presenting First Signal’s one sheet now with credits. As you will see, it truly does take a village to make a motion picture. While a director has a vision and acts as conductor, they are only as good as their orchestra. 

Next still. 


First Edit

Heads of state meet in First Signal

As a filmmaker there’s nothing quite like seeing that first rough cut in post-production. You wonder what it will look like. You wonder if the years you’ve spent pulling it all together was worth it. A film is not a play where things can generally be adjusted because you change your mind about something. As Bill Sampson said in All About Eve, “There’s nothing you can do, you’re trapped, you’re in a tin can.” If the 18 minutes of the first rough cut are any indication, First Signal isn’t trapped!  

Building a film in post-production is akin to the prefabrication we see today in the construction world. Have you ever seen how a ship is built? Sections are built elsewhere, shipped and then assembled in one location. That’s pretty much how a film is born. Shots are created offsite and assembled in one location according to the script (the blueprint).  I have one cardinal rule in post-production, we don’t deviate from the script. The shots are created for the script, not the other way around.

A drone shot in First Signal.

When Justice Is Mind was in post-production, I remember receiving emails from some of the actors wondering if their scenes were being cut.  My response was generally always the same, why would I cut something that I wrote in the first place? In the end, nothing was cut. The result was a complete story.

Some years ago I was cast in an independent film. The script was solid and all of us associated with it were looking forward to the end result. Well, the end result was an over-edited product that didn’t resemble the script we were handed a year earlier. A completed film is just that a product—one that must be promoted and marketed.

A stock footage sample in First Signal

With the 6th anniversary of Justice Is Mind tomorrow, I can’t help but think of the promoting and marketing I did for that film. I still, whenever an opportunity presents itself, market that film wherever I can – why wouldn’t I? I see so many projects being hyped during the production process just to wither away in post-production. For me post is the most exciting. Not only are you building a product but you are laying the groundwork for its release.

For First Signal that groundwork includes the completion of the first 11 minutes of the film in the next few weeks. Why so quickly? Just over a month prior to AFM is when I start my pitch process for meetings. Although AFM is in November, time moves quickly in post-production and meetings are set about a month in advance. The idea with this footage is to show prospective buyers what the film will look like.

Although First Signal is in post-production, I still had some casting to do – a voice over artist for a newscast. There are so many services for voice over artists, but I found Fiverr to be the best.  Although there is just one newscast in First Signal, it opens the film. I needed a voice that “broadcast” as a newscaster and sounded believable. Needless to say, we found that voice.

Next Edit

Six years ago tomorrow will mark the 6th anniversary of Justice Is Mind

Last Shot

Conor Timmis (l-Cedric Yonah), Chris Goodwin (James Griffin) and Patience McStravick (Major Sampson).

Last Sunday First Signal wrapped principal photography. The final shot seemed particularly appropriate. It was a POV from Major Sampson (Patience McStravick). With Daniel Groom on camera, Patience guiding his shoulders to mirror her character and myself directing, it was that moment when I remembered the day all three of us met at a Starbucks in January 2018 to discuss First Signal.  None of us could have foreseen the journey that was to lie ahead. While pre-production was fraught with fits and starts, the train of principal photography not only ran on time, but finished five production days ahead of schedule.

Filming in the field.

Shooting First Signal these last few months has been nothing less than thrilling for me.  Oh sure, as director you worry about countless things, but when you see the progress and quality being produced from one day to the next, those worries quickly evaporate. Those pre-production matters that sought to derail the train are nothing more than a distant memory. Of course no vision comes to life without a dedicated cast, crew and location partners. Without their tireless efforts First Signal would still be just that—a vision.

Yefim Somin (l-President Tupolov), Wendy Hartman (President Colton) and Lindy Nettleton (Prime Minister Colby).

The vision for First Signal was nicely magnified by some wonderful press over the last several weeks.  WMUR-TV, The Concord Monitor, The Athol Daily News and the Greenfield Recorder all visited set (The Hippo did a great piece that you can find in my previous post). I couldn’t be more thankful for their coverage. It isn’t just about producing a film, it’s about getting it noticed. When you consider the tens of thousands of films that are made a year, having media support, particularly at this stage, is paramount.

Lindy Nettleton returned to the role of Prime Minister Colby in First Signal after first playing it in First World in 2007.

Throughout the production process and this past week, I have kept the contacts I made at AFM last year informed about our progress. While one during production was keenly interested in First Signal, another got back to me last night and wants to see some footage as soon as possible for TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). In addition to the festival itself, Toronto is one of the major film markets.  

Stephanie Eaton (l-Elisabeth Seward) and Wendy Hartman (President Colton).

This is what producing a film is all about – distribution.  Putting aside getting an actual deal for your film, there are simply so many platforms to distribute and market you really need a distributor to navigate this labyrinth.

Putting together the puzzle that was created during production, is now the purview of our editor and the rest of the post production team. This is where the tone and style of the film come to life. We’ve already decided on a color scheme and I’m pretty close on what I’d like to see for a score. While I’m overseeing post-production, I’ll be working on branding and other marketing aspects. Yes, making a film is thrilling, but seeing it come to life in the consumer market is where it matters.

In closing, thank you to all those that have supported this project. Your support over these months have made First Signal possible.

Next steps.

With Patience and Dan on our last day of principal photography.

In Production

The stars of First Signal in the planetarium at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.

It’s hard to believe that First Signal is nearly at the halfway mark in principal photography. The dedication of the actors, crew and staff at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center has been unprecedented. Producing a feature film is no easy task but when you work with a dedicated group of professionals, the process doesn’t actually seem like work.  Of course the one thing I won’t do is get complacent. There’s still several weekends left of filming with half of them being outdoors.

Along with principal photography, our public relations efforts are also well underway with our first press release announcing First Signal (click this link).  I’m also delighted to report that The Hippo published a great article this week about our filming at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. The Hippo does a wonderful job with their Q&A formats.  

The making of First Signal.

Now that we’ve had some press, I’ll be reaching out to the distributors and sales agents that I met at the American Film Market (AFM) this past November, particularly those that expressed an interest in First Signal. As AFM is all about planning, it’s never too early to start conversations about projects in production.

One of the next steps in the process is how the film will look from a color point of view. It’s something I need to start thinking about as we will soon be releasing stills. While it’s a process that shouldn’t be rushed, it shouldn’t be delayed either. Like the building up towards the release of the first trailer, I believe the releasing of stills should be given equal weight.  As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The field where the final scenes of First Signal will be shot.

With principal photography resuming next weekend, Daniel Groom (Director of Photography) and I will be doing some test photography tomorrow in a field. This location encompasses the last scenes of the film. While the scenes we are shooting indoors are obviously important, the outdoor scenes will be involving a substantial amount of special effect work in post-production.

Patience and Conor have fun between takes.

Although the making of a feature film takes quite a bit of work while you’re on set, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have moments of frivolity. From Patience McStravick (Major Sampson) and Conor Timmis (Cedric Yonah) in a Space Shuttle simulator to a birthday celebration for Daniel Groom. One of the highlights from last weekend was when Sarah Beattie, who works at the Discovery Center as an educator, treated us to a wonderful planetarium show about the constellations. I never knew there were so many! But what was very touching to me, was this lovely blog post that she wrote last week.

For me there is truly no more rewarding of a process than seeing a film come together. It is a form of art like no other. Long after I call the last “cut” this film will live on forever. A film is a testament to the dedication of so many to realize a vision. When you watch a film and see the credits role know that every person, company and location played a vital part in its creation. While the adage for actors is “there are no small parts” that also holds true to those that sit behind the camera.  As I conclude this blog post, I want to say a special thank you to Patience, Dan, Sarah and Linds for believing in First Signal.

Next scene.

First Signal in The Hippo.

First Day

Patience McStravick as Major Sampson and Conor Timmis as Cedric Yonah.

The train has left the station. I’ve often used that phrase to describe what happens on the first day of principal photography. There is nothing quite like that first day. You wonder if you’ve missed anything in the planning process because film production is all about details. Every day of principal photography is an event unto itself. But after months of pre-production, the First Signal train left on schedule.

I always arrive early to any set, but particularly so when it’s my own project. I view it as my job to have everything at the ready for the cast and crew. Last Monday our call time wasn’t until 9 AM, but I arrived at 7:30. One thing I had to do was to turn my “United States” car into a “Foreign” one. That meant changing my Massachusetts license plates into Belgian (First Signal takes place in Belgium).

Major Ellen Sampson and Paul Noonan as General John Reager.

After one of the staff at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center arrived early, I was able to load in my stuff and wait for the crew and actors to arrive. It didn’t take long for 9 AM to approach and then one by one they started to arrive. Before I knew it, we were ready to go with our first shot.

By the end of the day we largely accomplished what we wanted to. All the necessary indoor scenes, promotional photos and some key outside drone footage were shot. Although we still have a couple of drone shots to complete, the day by all measures, was a success. I can’t thank the crew, cast and staff at the Discovery Center enough for making First Signal’s first day a positive one.

Of course there are still many days to go until principal photography is over. Today, I’m putting the final touches on our shoot for next weekend that involves Senator Hadrian and General Reager. Weather permitting we will also be shooting a scene in their Observatory. Then there is the pre-planning for the primary conference room scenes with the majority of the actors the following weekend.

The one thing I want to reference from our shoot last Monday were the actors that played Secret Service agents. I’ve worked with two of them before on my own projects and as an actor. The other three I met through our casting notices. For one, this was his first film. For another, he was in the army. For another, he had a great eye for costuming. It was through their collective experience and efforts that brought an authenticity to their scenes.  

There is nothing more exciting as a writer than seeing your words come to life through the process of film. When you combine great talent on both sides of the camera, against the backdrop of an ideal set, that’s when magic is made.

On a closing note, I want to particularly thank Patience and Dan for your efforts, dedication and friendship. I remember that day at the Naval Justice School when Patience and I first talked about a story that would largely take place in one location. Then, on her introduction, our first meeting with Dan at a Starbucks to talk about the possibilities.

The days are long, the lists are endless, but in the end there is a product everyone involved in can be proud of—a feature film.

Next shot.

Wendy Hartman as President Helen Colton (c) and Stephanie Eaton as National Security Advisor Elisabeth Seward with the Secret Service. Lead agent David Afflick (left of President).

The Missions

From the PBS documentary Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.

Like so many of us in this industry, I don’t think I’m alone in sometimes looking at my resume of work and reflecting on what it took to accomplish some of those achievements. Just this past week I reposted my first TV interview from The Montel Williams Show in 1994. Those early days when I was launching my figure skating magazine. I remember the flight they booked for me the day before was cancelled because it was snowing. So what did I do? I drove to New York City.

When the PBS documentary I filmed last August broadcast this week I marked it as another milestone in my career. Shot entirely on green screen, we were all animated in post-production. The results were impressive and seamless. I highly recommend Reconstruction: American After the Civil War.  Putting aside my involvement, the documentary chronicles a time in history that most don’t know enough about. If you think we live in trying times now, you’ll think differently after you watch this documentary.

In Star Trek: Odyssey

My first experience with green screen came when I was cast in a Star Trek fan film back in 2007. I have to say that experience helped when I was cast on the PBS project. When you work on an actual set it’s pretty easy to get your bearings, but when you are in a green environment it’s all about imagination and staying focused.

When I was standing in the theatre of MS Queen Elizabeth liner in 2014 getting ready for the international premiere of Justice Is Mind, I reminded myself what it took to get to this point – determination and sacrifice.

With my mother on the Queen Elizabeth.

Great projects require great sacrifice. Nothing in this industry comes easy or quick. If you aren’t willing to put the time in, you need to find another vocation or avocation that doesn’t require anyone to count on you. Professionalism has nothing to do with union status, it has to do with integrity and character.

Last Sunday night an actor decided it was OK to withdraw four weeks before principal photography was going to start on First Signal. As I had to be on set at 5 AM in Boston for another project, I decided to continue with the day and report for my call time. Although I was only cast as background on the set I was reporting to, people were counting on me. I wasn’t going to withdraw because I was having a bad day. Instead, I used the day as a reflection point.

Green Hill Park, Worcester, MA. Part of the development process of First Signal was the purchase of a drone.

When you do background work you have time to observe. But when you’re standing outside in the cold and rain for over 10 hours things suddenly become all the more real.  When one of the assistant directors asked me to walk in a certain diagonal direction when “camera” was called, it was that moment when I was glad I was cast in this part. You see, in this business, there are no small parts. I believe everything is cumulative and simply leads to the next opportunity.

As a director we learn to continuously brush things off. We know making a film is an arduous task. We know we are going to receive endless requests for this and asks for that. We know that writing a script, raising the capital, securing locations, interviewing crew and auditioning actors are the responsibilities we assume. It is the commitment that we make to ourselves and others. But the one thing that none of us have a tolerance for is unprofessionalism. Why should we? Why should we give pardon to one at the sacrifice of all?

I have always endeavored to be the eternal optimist and believe everything happens for a reason. Sometimes great projects take greater time.

Hold countdown.