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.
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
August 18, 2013. Five years ago today I was in Albany, NY for the world premiere of Justice Is Mind. The idea for Justice came to me in 2010 when I came across a 60 Minutes story about Thought Identification “mind reading.” I was researching mind reading “computers” when I was writing the sequel to First World. Yes, I finished writing the sequel. But no sooner was my Final Draft software cooling down and it was fired up again to write Justice.
I’ve often written about the development of Justice. The endless pitch to producers and financiers started at the script stage. Then I produced a short film version Evidence to develop interest in the project. After a couple of theatrical screenings and media the financing came together to produce the feature. Let me just say that 2012 was a whirlwind of a year. But in the end, over 10 crew, 100+ actors and 15 locations came together. Even post production into 2013 went relatively smoothly. Justice enjoyed a limited theatrical run, screenings at law schools, science fiction conventions and an international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth (yes, that was a highlight!). The film is now available worldwide on VOD.
When you’re an independent filmmaker the completion of a feature film is a milestone that should be enjoyed and celebrated. As I see with so many in this industry, they worry incessantly about the next project when working on the current one. There were only a couple of occasions during Justice when a few people tried to get out of commitments because of an audition or other project they wanted to be part of. I’ve always believed in giving your maximum to every project you’re involved in. You worry about the next one after the fact.
It’s one thing to attend a film premiere for someone else’s project, it’s entirely another to attend one for your own. For nearly two years after our world premiere, so many of us attended the screenings together. For a while we were like a traveling road show! These weren’t film festivals, they were theatrical screenings. There is nothing more gratifying as a filmmaker than seeing your film on a marquee next to mainstream “Hollywood” productions. You work like hell to make the film, but seeing it in the market is in one word – gratifying.
A feature film isn’t about the “cool” photos behind the scenes of making it, it’s about creating the world around it so when it’s released there’s a place in the market for it. An acting friend of mine last year coined the phrase “the milk carton movie” for those films he was involved in that never saw the light of day. There were essentially “missing.” I couldn’t even fathom making a movie that sits on a shelf waiting for someone else to decide its fate. Film festivals are fine enough if you get into the top tier from an awareness point of view, but as a filmmaker you don’t see ten cents of box office from them. More importantly why would I want to share the public relations spotlight with other films? I remember only too well when we had a screening for Justice at a major university and, unknown to me, there was a small film festival in town that weekend. A reporter said to me they only had so much space and simply couldn’t accommodate everyone. Well, thankfully our screening went well because it was marketed internally and had some scientific personalities attending. That was a lesson to be learned.
As I now venture into the world of First Signal, I look back on the days of Justice Is Mind with great fondness and realize what’s possible when the right team comes together. I’ll never forget what one of the stars of Justice said to me at our last theatrical screening in March, 2017 “This never gets old.”
No, it doesn’t.
From finishing the latest class at the Naval Justice School to National Guard role playing exercises at Joint Base Cape Cod, the last six weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. But perhaps the most anticipated was last weekend’s auditions for First Signal.
Every film has its origins. First Signal can trace its back ten plus years ago when I wrote First World in 2006. After three screenplay nominations, the production of a short film version, over twenty screenings at sci-fi conventions around the world, that project was at the twelfth hour of funding with a production company attached only to see the economic collapse in 2008 hit the entertainment industry like a rocket explosion. Anyone that was around at that time and working in the industry knows what it was like. But in the end it’s called survival.
It was First World that gave birth to Justice Is Mind. The psychological sci-fi courtroom thriller with mind reading at the center of the story. When I was writing notes on a sequel story to First World, it was the development of a mind reading computer called CENTRAL (Computer Encoding Neuro Transmission and Library) that found its way into Justice Is Mind. In Justice the computer program was called FVMRI for Functional Video Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The rest, as they say, is history when Justice Is Mind was produced in 2012 and released in 2013. My goal since 2006 was to create a new sci-fi franchise around the “First World” universe. With First Signal the aim is to do just that.
Like Justice Is Mind, I wrote First Signal with the intention of producing it myself. Sure, one can pitch to “the industry” and wait…and wait…and wait. Or, take the bull by the horns and get it done. The key is to find enthusiastic actors, crew, location partners and a host of others to see the vision through. To say I am pleased with the auditions from last weekend would be an understatement—I was thrilled.
But first and foremost I want to thank actress Patience McStravick for inspiring me to write First Signal. If it wasn’t for our conversations last fall during our time at the Naval Justice School about a story that largely takes place in one room, I doubt this project would be where it is today. Then it was her introduction to talented filmmaker Daniel Groom. Patience starred in his film They Don’t Know (highly recommended!). With Patience and Daniel on board, First Signal was moving forward.
Auditions commenced last Saturday at the Nashua Library in Nashua, NH and then moved to The Verve Crown Plaza in Natick, MA on Sunday. Some I cast in my past films (and were good friends), some I recently worked with between the Naval Justice School and National Guard. Others I didn’t know. But prior to all this, some parts were already cast. There are times as a director you just know you can offer a part to someone without an audition.
Kim Gordon as the President of the United States was my immediate first choice for this role. Her portrayal as District Attorney Constance Smith in Justice Is Mind was brilliant. I wrote the Major Ellen Sampson role specifically with Patience McStravick in mind (Patience is an Army veteran as well).
But there was one actress that I wanted to bring back to the “First World” universe. It was in 2006 and I was getting ready to produce the short film version of First World. The short called for a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. An actress by the name of Lindy Nettleton submitted. She arrived at the same time actor Jeffrey Phillips did who was auditioning for the role of the President. They both read for the parts together outside an elevator bank at the hotel I was staying at while I recorded it on my Palm Treo! During their reading I truly thought they were heads of state (Jeffrey also appeared in Justice Is Mind as George Katz). Although I stayed in touch with Lindy throughout the years, I had no idea if she would be interested in reprising this role after a decade plus. When she said she would play Allison Colby I was beyond elated! First Signal was coming full circle.
But the circle was complete with last weekend’s auditions. I could not be more excited to work with such talent. I invite you visit to First Signal’s IMDb page to learn about the talented group of actors in this project. For those that know how I promote, you’ll be learning more about them the weeks, months and years ahead.
From actors I’ve cast in past projects to learning about new talent in the region, since the notice went live I’ve been very encouraged by the quality of the submissions. However, for this project I’ll be reaching out to additional sources for certain roles. The goal of the table read isn’t just to hear the script, it’s also about casting possibilities for the feature film itself.
The character of Cedric Yonah is particularly important to the overall story. Not only does the actor need to be great at his craft, but he also must have a certain look. I can almost say that I’ve received enough quality submissions for all other characters, but I’m still looking for this one. This isn’t exactly “The search for Scarlett” but let’s just say the search is ongoing.
This reminds me of the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. As I understand from the development process, director Robert Wise didn’t want to have a recognizable actor walk out of the spaceship as it wouldn’t have been believable. But it had to be an actor with gravitas and a certain look. The casting of Michael Rennie as Klaatu/Mr. Carpenter was brilliant.
Casting is not an easy process. I remember the three hundred plus submissions for Justice Is Mind. While I was fortunate to find some of the leading roles from the short film version Evidence, there were numerous parts that I needed to cast. In as much as you want to see a quality audition, it’s also about how you get along with the actor during that brief time. I do believe it comes down to the sixty second impression.
However, what I still don’t understand is how simple submission instructions aren’t followed. When I submit for a project I make sure I follow the instructions to the letter (why wouldn’t I?). If you refuse to follow submission instructions, how are you going to be during filming? I kid you not I received a submission that literally said here is my IMDb link and Google me. Sorry, if you can’t submit a required headshot, resume and link to your reel you just get relegated to archive.
But this is just part of the development process. Every project takes on a life of its own. I always find it interesting where a project gets its start. First Signal started at the Naval Justice School. But Justice Is Mind actually got its start when I wrote the sequel to First World and was researching mind reading technology. Thus my discovery of the 60 Minutes story from 2009 on thought identification being developed at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Four years after that story Justice Is Mind screened at CMU.
Last week I mentioned how producing a film is not rocket science, but writing about rocket science is a different story.
With Justice Is Mind I did an exhaustive amount of research on two fronts. The first was mind-reading technology with the second being the law as it applies to investigations and the courtroom. But at some point you reach a certain knowledge bank when you can start writing.
Once a project of mine is given the green light I bring it to experts to insure its veracity. Of course there’s creative licensing, but at the end of the day a rocket launches vertically not horizontally!
One of the things I enjoy the most about screenwriting is learning something new. Am I an expert on mind-reading, the legal profession and rocket science? Good heavens no. But I can certainly talk about it in the context in which it’s presented. That’s what filmmakers do. We present. We create a fictional world against fact. Sure, some stories are pure science fiction with no regard to science, but I like to root my stories in plausibility.
While I was inspired to write Justice Is Mind from a 60 Minutes story, did I ever actually think the science fiction I postulated in my story could become near science fact? As a storyteller I’m doing just that, telling a story. My feeling has always been that as long as the story is interesting, it will hold an audience.
We’ve all been reading the difficulty that films are having at the box office. There are countless discussions on why this is happening. I have my own theories, but what I truly believe it comes down to is having an interesting story that is well marketed.
When I was marketing Justice Is Mind the actors were brilliantly talented and on par with any A list actors you would see on the silver screen, but they were not A list from a public relations point of view. I couldn’t market the film with Starring So and So, but I could market the concept. The end result was audiences bought a ticket and came to our screenings. Some were nearly sold out while others saw an OK attendance. What it proved to all of us was that audiences will turn out for an interesting story.
Revisiting the First World story has also been interesting. In addition to my “rocket science” research, I had almost forgotten the mountain of work I have done on this project, from writing the original script, producing a short film version, writing a sequel and publishing a novella. It’s safe to say I have some well thought out characters to work with!
Last week I had the opportunity to submit In Mind We Trust as a pilot for a TV or Web series. As some of you know, In Mind We Trust is the sequel to Justice Is Mind. When I wrote the sequel a couple of years ago, I think the idea for a series was always in the back of my mind.
The question I had before I submitted was that the pilot might not make sense unless someone watches Justice Is Mind. The response back was pretty straight forward. “…to have a lot of unanswered questions at the end of a pilot script — it opens up the world any mysteries for the series.” Well if there’s questions they want, they’ll get it with this story!
It’s stories this industry wants and needs. Sure we read how the major studios are just focused on tentpoles (I loved Wonder Woman by the way), but the terrestrial networks and OTT services just continue to expand and need programming to fill their schedules. With Apple, Facebook, Vice and others actively moving to original series orders, the quest for stories continues.
The one piece of advice I was given when living in Los Angeles was to always have more than one project ready to present. I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, but it makes total sense. Some may love sci-fi but have no interest in political thrillers. Others may not want something sports related, but are looking for a drama. Well, the latter fit the bill with In Mind We Trust.
Personally, if I had my druthers, who wouldn’t want to see their concept set up at a Netflix or Amazon. When I see the production values of The Crown and The Man in the High Castle (two of my favorite shows), it’s just amazing where the industry has gone over the last several years. But like anything in this business, it’s about time and in the case of a series—staffing.
Unlike a movie that can be staffed pretty quickly, a series requires an unprecedented amount of personnel. Just take a look at the end credits of a show or their listings on IMDB. These aren’t just one off projects like a movie, these are, if the show succeeds, long-term commitments. But before any of this is even remotely considered, it comes down to the story itself.
When I think of the number of mind-reading, privacy and intelligence agency articles being published on a regular basis, I certainly think In Mind We Trust has as good a chance as any of getting a review. Thankfully, the concept has already gone through some market testing with Justice Is Mind. From a theatrical release to media coverage and VOD, anyone looking at this project can already see it’s more than just words on a page.
As the venerable Hannibal Lecter said, “Shall we say dinner and a show?”
Before we finished working at the Naval Justice School (NJS) several of us agreed to get together to see a play one of our fellow actors was in. Phoenyx Williams was certainly pulling double duty. Playing an NCIS Agent along with me during the day he would then travel back to Providence for nightly performances in the “Post-Electric Play” Mr. Burns (by Anne Washburn). Williams played the “electric” Mr. Burns.
But before the play, we met up for dinner at the excellent Federal Taphouse & Kitchen. Although it was exactly a week since we last saw each other at NJS, it was great catching up with new friends and sharing some interesting stories. I’ll just say this, lots of laughs! Of course the director in me is always mindful of the clock and we were soon on our way to the Wilbury Theatre for a 7:30 show.
Although most of us had been briefed on the synopsis, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. The premise from their website states, “After the collapse of civilization, a group of survivors share a campfire and begin to piece together the plot of “The Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare” entirely from memory.” It started at the campfire and then went on to two additional acts with two intermissions. I have to confess, I’ve never watched The Simpsons.
As a writer, producer and director I’ve certainly created experimental work. But with experimental work comes risk. While the story wasn’t for me (as one of the actors in the play said to me this play is either for you or isn’t), the acting, writing and production itself was excellent. Although I didn’t care for the story, the execution was brilliant and the actors are wonderfully talented. The “fun” highlight was when the actors moved the audience (we were on risers with wheels!). In conclusion, the third act was owned by Williams. He nailed it.
Whether it’s stage or film, this entire industry is an experiment of some sort or another. I applaud anyone that creates an original work and doesn’t try to duplicate someone else’s efforts. I hear time and time again from filmmakers and actors who try so hard to be like this filmmaker or this actor. How about creating your own brand? You can be sure that I want to see what Anne Washburn comes up with next and I’ll be following these actors!
As for next, this past week was also about reorganizing my projects. With Serpentine: The Short Program released, my focus goes back to promoting that project along with In Mind We Trust (the sequel to Justice Is Mind), First World and SOS United States. I say now what I’ve said before, projects do not come to fruition overnight. It takes abject dedication to bring a work to life. Whether that be a play, movie or performing career.
But with every new experience comes a new idea.
There is something to be said about arriving at a theater and seeing not one but two of your films on the marquee. Yes, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. Because it is in that moment that all the work that has gone in to making a film is celebrated.
And celebrate we did. One by one family, friends, actors and crew started to arrive. Some I saw as recently as a couple of weeks ago, others it’s been a few years. But in the moment it feels like it was just yesterday. And heavens knows there were many yesterdays to get to this point!
After a reception in the lobby of the Strand Theatre, I made my opening remarks and then Justice Is Mind began. I was sitting next to Vernon Aldershoff and he said to me, “It never gets old.” No it doesn’t. And seeing the film in its highest resolution in a DCP format was another highlight.
Of course the highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program. This is one project that was particularly close to me for a variety of reasons. The moment the film started I was reminded about my days as a skater, teacher, magazine publisher and the TV work I would do around the sport. But it’s not about me, it’s about the product. One that you want audiences to enjoy.
And it was the next day that audiences around the world were able to stream Serpentine: The Short Program on both Amazon and the Ice Network. So far the numbers look promising and early reviews have been encouraging. But like First World ten years ago, this is an industry of the long haul. Or as we say in figure skating, the long program.
While VOD is a savior to the independent filmmaker, there is nothing like the theater. Because there is that one moment you’re hoping for that can only happen in a theater. To again quote from All About Eve, it was Eve Harrington that said it best, “If nothing else, there’s applause.” And they did when Serpentine: The Short Program faded to black.
Whenever I secure a theatrical screening, one of my goals is to obtain local press to bring awareness to the event. Sure, there’s the requisite social media engagement and Facebook event. But there’s nothing like securing media placements. This week the Sturbridge Villager wrote a terrific cover story on Serpentine and our upcoming premiere at the Strand Theatre on March 6. Not only did reporter Olivia Richman capture the essence of the film, but my background in the sport and passion for filmmaking.
It is about passion when a theatrical screening is on the horizon. For the thousands of independent films that get made every year only a sliver receive any sort of theatrical release or even one time screening. To fully capture that exposure I always seek to have the events “officially” photographed. I’m delighted to report that David Bruno of David Bruno Event Photography will be our official photographer for the evening.
Further to the above it also simply comes down to organization. By the time the day of the event arrives my aim is to actually enjoy the evening rather than running around at the last minute trying to rectify something. This is why I no longer participate in some third party events unless they are produced by professionals. I recall one science fiction convention I was at five years ago when despite my assurance that they had a DVD projector, screen and speakers set up, they didn’t. Compounding the issue was some volunteer lecturing me that their failure was my responsibility. Understand these words, if you dare to put on the hat of producer it is your responsibility to make sure things run smoothly.
As for distribution, next week I transfer Serpentine: The Short Program to the Ice Network. I have to say it will be great to see Serpentine on both Amazon Prime and the Ice Network. With Amazon being available to over 60 million and the Ice Network reaching figure skating enthusiasts around the world, the VOD distribution plan will bring the awareness this project needs to develop as a feature film.
Of course all these efforts with Serpentine remind me of the days when I first produced Evidence which led to production of Justice Is Mind. In some ways it seems like it was years ago (it was), in others it seems like it was yesterday. Because if it’s the one thing I endeavor to do is to promote my projects at whatever stage they are in. There are regular updates to Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, pitches for development, media and presentations for distribution and screenings.
Over the course of any given week I get Google Alerts on various subjects I track. One of them, no surprise, is for mind reading. When I received an alert for a recent article in MustTech News I pitched them Justice Is Mind for coverage. I was delighted to receive an email from them about a wonderful review they posted yesterday – “A must-watch film for those in love of thrill and science fiction!” That works!
And it’s back to work next week at the Naval Justice School in Newport, RI. I have to say I’m looking forward to falling back into the character of an NCIS Agent and working with some new actors and JAG students. Out of all the performance work I’ve done, this is the most unique. Not only is this a great acting opportunity from a role-playing point of view, but you learn something in the process about how the legal services work in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
Back to base.
I am pleased to announce that Serpentine will have its world premiere at the Strand Theater in Clinton, MA on March 6, 2017! Serpentine will premiere after an encore screening of Justice Is Mind. For Serpentine this will be a first, for Justice Is Mind this will mark our 22nd screening. But it is the Strand Theater that give us our first theatrical break.
It was in 2012 and I was looking for a theater to screen Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind. It was the Strand that gave us the opportunity to screen after J. Edgar. Over a year later Justice Is Mind had its Massachusetts premiere at the Strand. The same model is being employed for Serpentine: The Short Program.
A theatrical screening marks a starting point. A launch pad, if you will, into a greater marketing program. Everything in this industry is timing. It’s about striking while the iron is hot (even though the rink is cold!). For Serpentine the launch will take place between national and world figure skating championships. The goal, as it was with Evidence all those years ago, is to develop as much interest as possible to produce the feature film version this year for a 2018 release. Why 2018? The Olympic Winter games take place in South Korea next year. It’s about riding a wave of popularity post games.
With a running time of just over 12 minutes, we will be presenting the first 10 pages of the feature length screenplay. Serpentine not only features several of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind and First World, but introduces actors making their debut performance. In the world of film it’s all about performance, what we see on the screen and how it comes together behind the scenes.
As for debut performance, it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with an aspiring actress and model. This week I signed with Dynasty Models & Talent for New England representation. Yes, it’s an exciting step as I continue to lay out some personal plans of my own. During my visit at the agency, the owner asked me if I had any words of wisdom for this actress. I first offered her the back story on how I was cast in a TV show some years ago but then went on to say how you have to want to be in this industry more than anything. No matter what you want to do, it takes a one hundred percent commitment and being able to weather continuous rejection. As I’ve stated before, this is an industry of no (or no response). But when a yes does come, it makes you appreciate your hard work all the more.
They say you are only as good as your last performance. While I agree with that to a point, I believe you are only as good as who you surround yourself with. This is an industry not lacking in advice, particularly from those you never asked. In my view it’s about working with those that want to showcase their efforts with you. I’ll just say this, it is not a coincidence that I’m working with a lot of the same people from Justice Is Mind and First World to bring Serpentine to life. This project also marks a reunion of sorts with a former business partner. More on that development later.
As for development, as an independent filmmaker, theaters like the Strand are important for our continued success. That being said, the Strand has established a GoFundMe campaign to restore and upgrade their wonderful marquee. For our screening on March 6 all ticket sales will be going to the Strand (no share of box office). As a filmmaker there is something special when you see your film in lights.
As planned Serpentine went to picture lock this week. And while that’s certainly a milestone, there are numerous other details that need to be attended to. From completing the visual effects, to sound engineering, scoring and color correction. And then there’s the marketing plan.
As I did with Justice Is Mind, and First World back in the day, I always aim to cast the widest net. When it comes to securing media or perhaps a screening opportunity, the more eyes on a project the better as you never know who may be interested. There’s so much more to filmmaking than the actual mechanical work of creating the film.
Since pre-production on Justice Is Mind back in 2012 I have been receiving email newsletters from various “experts” in the industry. Honestly, there is no magic wand and having a star in your project just doesn’t matter (look what happened this weekend at the box office). Your project will either resonate or it won’t. It will either breakthrough or get stuck. And while there are certainly a set of standards that need to be followed from having a quality picture with a proper aspect ratio, closed captioning and a few other industry standardizations, the rest is really up to the filmmaker. My point is there is no cookie cutter sheet that gives you instant success.
Serpentine is as opposite to Justice Is Mind as First World is to SOS United States. But in all my projects I make every effort to have an audience of some sort in mind when I start to write. Passion projects are great, but given the work that goes in to making a motion picture someone has to appreciate it past your family, cast and crew.
Since First World was released on to Amazon Prime it has seen a sizable increase in traffic. Science fiction is a relatively easy sell. Justice Is Mind is a hybrid of genres with science fiction and fantasy folded into a straight drama. The marketing of that film was a three prong approach with audiences reacting all over the place from science fiction enthusiasts to those that love courtroom films. Audiences have loved it or hated it. But no matter the reaction every click and view just increases the audience. And just this week I learned that Justice was picked up by a Chinese concern. More to announce later on that development.
On a personal note, I’m glad over ten years have passed since I was publishing a magazine in the sport of figure skating. It has given me a perspective well outside the bubble I lived in for over a decade. In general, as I’ve learned, living in a bubble is never a good idea as it warps your perspective.
As for perspective, since I’ll be voting for the first time in the SAG Awards this year, I’ve been watching more independent films than I normally do. Or should I say, than I normally would simply owing to their story. What one has to appreciate is the sheer energy and enthusiasm that goes into making an independent film.
One film I just have to recommend is Jackie. From Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy to the cinematography and story, I thought it was brilliantly executed (although the score gave me pause).
On August 18, 2016 Justice Is Mind will celebrate its third anniversary. The same week that will see the website completed for the figure skating political thriller I’ll be announcing soon. Some ask where does the time go, for me it’s about taking the time to develop projects that I’m passionate about.
When I was writing Justice Is Mind back in 2010 writing a political thriller around the sport of figure skating was the furthest from my mind. The same could be said about Justice Is Mind when I was writing First World in 2006. As a screenwriter, it’s the idea that first calls to me and then if it sticks around a while I start to write those first few pages of a screenplay. I’m not one that writes a story using index cards, beet sheets or other devices, rather I let the story unfold as I build characters and the world they live in.
When I look at my dashboard on Amazon Video Direct and see how my films are doing across all their territories, yes, it’s a pretty cool feeling. Just like when you see your film screen in a theater. There is that sense of accomplishment that all involved in the project can share. Because, making a film is a project that does involve a village.
It is precisely because it takes a village that developing a new project takes a considerable amount of planning. Part of that planning is visiting possible locations, meeting with potential talent and laying the foundation before I seek to bring on a crew. This past week I had a great meeting at Northstar Ice Sports and from that meeting went to a local competition at the Cape (one that I competed in myself many years ago!).
I forget how small a world the sport is. No sooner do I arrive and I see one of the judges who I used to talk to regularly when I was actively involved in the sport. We still to this day reminisce about our time together at an International Skating Union Congress in Davos, Switzerland back in the 90s. I was one of the few members of the media to attend and she was moving up the ranks in the judging system. It was also nice running into a couple of coaches I haven’t seen in a while. All in all it was a great time.
This morning I was reading C. Hope Clark’s latest email newsletter and there was a particular passage that really stood out, “We should strive to be in awe of our work, and awe-struck by others. Instead of production, maybe we ought to focus on our power to seek and create awe. After all, wouldn’t you rather be remembered for the one, lone book than the fact you published a lot of forgettable stories? Or maybe you can find a place in the middle, but to do so, you need to slow down and think about the quality you produce.” I couldn’t agree more with her statement as it greatly applies to filmmakers.
If you’ve ever sat through the end credits of film you see the number of people that were involved that made the film come to life. Unlike a stage production that can be tweaked along the way once you wrap a film, it’s up to creative editing, or god forbid expense reshoots if you didn’t get what you wanted in the first place. I can thankfully say we didn’t need to do any reshoots on Justice Is Mind.
While there won’t be a special theatrical screening of Justice Is Mind this week, there will be online promotion to further introduce the film to a worldwide audience and build momentum for the sequel In Mind We Trust.
Indeed, while past projects continue to be promoted and marketed a new one is about to be announced.
This past week Justice Is Mind went live on Amazon in Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom and Japan. Since the film was released in 2013, it has been my plan to get the film distributed in as many territories as possible. Considering part of the story takes place in Germany, and as our composer and sound mixer reside in the United Kingdom, it’s great to be able to bring the film to those markets. Also, it’s part of the long term plan to generate as much interest in the Justice Is Mind story as possible as the pitch process continues to further develop the project as a TV series. But, like all things in this industry, it’s about having more than one project in development as things take time.
When I was taking to a fellow filmmaker in England this past week, the one thing we talked about was distribution. As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, as a former magazine publisher I directed the distribution and marketing of my magazines. The process has a variety of similarities. You deliver your finished product to a central source and it’s delivered to the outlets. But as I learned all those years ago, for every middleman there is a percentage given back. Sometimes a middleman is necessary, sometimes not so much.
To quote from Amazon Video Direct’s website “Helping content creators and visual storytellers reach millions of Amazon customers across hundreds of devices with the same distribution options and delivery quality available to major motion picture and television studios.” Why, unless a distributor was acquiring your film for a fee, would you just give Amazon your film to upload? With the tens of millions of customers that Amazon commands, I certainly understand why some distributors require Amazon to be part of their VOD platform mix. But with “platforms like Distribbr, Quivver, and Bitmax – what’s the benefit of going with a more ‘traditional’ distributor over those?”
Honestly, by the time I release my next film, self-distribution may just be the way to go. Unless a distributor brings me a fee and a marketing plan, why would I bother signing away the rights to my film when I can just deal directly with the VOD platforms? I have heard too many horror stories from filmmakers that were all excited a distributor was interested in their project only to receive a fraction of return even though their project was available on countless platforms. It’s sad and frustrating to hear these stories, because I know how much hard work and years of dedication goes into making a film.
As for new projects, the concept poster for my political thriller around the sport of figure skating is now being designed. With the script registered and URL reserved, the general plan is to formally announce the project in mid-late August. Nothing is more exciting than seeing those first images come to life. And for me that starts with the concept poster.
Of course, like building a house, this is the stage where the architectural plans are developed. In my view, a script is an evolving document based on a variety of factors until you lock it down just prior to pre-production when you lay the foundation for what you will ultimately see on the screen.
“Not paying enough attention to the script.” I couldn’t agree more when I first read that statement attributed by Arnon Milchan of New Regency on The Tracking Board. Time and time again I read in the trades, or general consumer press, about the issues a film has faced because of the script. In so many of these cases it seems that a script was rushed to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation. But as I posted this past week on Facebook, no amount of A list actors can rescue an ill-conceived script.
The article that Milchan was quote in revolved around the dearth of the mid-budget movie. I fondly remember the variety of movies that studios used to distribute in mainline theaters that didn’t revolve around a comic book, endless sequel or rehash of something we already saw (like the latest Star Trek and Star Wars films). But thanks to determined filmmakers, great films like Trumbo, Spotlight and The King’s Speech are being made and, honestly, always will be. It’s just a matter of finding the right audience to support it from financing to distribution.
As I come up towards the end of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating, there is the continued promotion of either projects completed or in development. In my post last week I talked about my “special relationship” with the UK. A few days after my post, I was nicely surprised when Daniel Elek-Diamanta sent me a re-imagined look for the SOS United States concept poster. While I wanted the first concept poster to reflect the vintage era of the ocean liner, this one presents the same view but with a contemporary look. When developing a new project, it’s all about promotion and this concept poster really captures it!
In the world of filmmaking, particularly as an independent filmmaker, it’s all about promotion and getting the word out. It’s about exploring every avenue of distribution and pitching your project. We all look around to see what other filmmakers have done to promote their projects, but what works for one film may not work for another. But there are some distribution avenues that are just a no brainer – Amazon.
When Amazon announced their new Amazon Video Direct program I could not be more excited. Although First World was available in the United States for some years, I now had the ability to have it in Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria. Last week it went live in those countries. Yesterday, I uploaded all the necessary digital assets for Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind (the feature is with a distributor). The process was painfully simple to reach an audience in the tens of millions.
But when I saw someone post on their Facebook page, “I fear my work will get lost in a sea of titles and get drowned out by larger studios.” That’s a defeating position to take. Once it’s live on Amazon it’s just a matter of external promotion through social media and other channels. Amazon operates on an algorithm of suggested films. All it takes is a few people to find your project on Amazon and it will just continue to grow. While there are other VOD platforms popping up every day, they rely on the filmmaker to bring the audience whereas Amazon already has the audience. Yes, you’re in a sea of films. But I’d rather be in an ocean than a puddle.
This past week Justice Is Mind went live on Hoopla. To quote from their Facebook page, “hoopla digital partners with public libraries across North America to provide online and mobile access to videos, music and audiobooks. Enjoy thousands of movies, TV shows, videos, music and audiobooks that library card holders can borrow from their public library.” As I wanted to get Justice Is Mind into libraries at some point, our placement on Hoopla just took care of that across the United States.
When I say some point, I talk about a possible DVD for Justice Is Mind. Yes, on the back burner, is the possibility of making a DVD for Justice. I say possibly, because anyone that’s involved on the distribution side of the industry knows that profits in this sector have sunk like the Titanic (particularly for indie-films). Just go into any Wal-Mart and see the studio quality films in the $5 bin or even more market reality when you see a studio film at a dollar store for well a dollar. Because digital distribution doesn’t really involve a manufacturing component, it’s simply easier to execute on a domestic and international level. But believe me there are costs involved for VOD. Let’s just say that closed captioning in languages other than English gets a bit pricey.
There was a pretty good article on IndieWire this week titled “You Can’t Bulls—t’ And 6 More Revelations On How To Market An Indie Film.” I could not agree more with this statement “Even in the age of VOD, nothing beats the theatrical experience.” As I saw with Justice Is Mind in terms of audience and media placements, nothing does beat a theatrical experience. Simply, when you gather a group of people into a room to see a film it becomes a shared experience. There wasn’t one screening of Justice in which attendees didn’t ask questions or discuss the film after in the lobby.
When I set out to write a new screenplay I’m already thinking of how the project will be placed in the market. What angles does it have that I can pitch to a theater, distributor, school or convention? First World was a pretty straight forward science fiction film. But as a psychological sci-fi thriller, Justice Is Mind is a bit of a genre hybrid. But the one common theme was the ethics around mind reading and it’s possible, if not probable, ramifications on society.
While some in the industry complain that there are too many movies being made, I believe there’s never enough. Because there are always those hidden gems that one can discover and promote. The gem in the world of distribution is in fact VOD. When you have library after library of films available to stream instantly, they certainly take up less space than a DVD! But don’t get me wrong, I do love my DVD collection.
It’s these new platforms like Hoopla that offer a terrific new avenue of options to Amazon and Netflix (Justice is on Amazon). More importantly, and call me old fashioned, Hoopla works with libraries. When you have traditional publishing working with digital publishing, the experience can only be a positive one because it yet again gives the customer that one thing they want – choices.
No the title of this week’s post isn’t a new TV series, but a character I introduced in Justice Is Mind that is greatly expanded upon in the sequel In Mind We Trust. And with EFM (European Film Market) currently underway in Berlin, Germany, it seemed particularly fitting.
Today marks one year since I wrote the first draft of the sequel. Yes, there have been some tweaks since then, but more of a decision on where to take the project. While Justice Is Mind was produced as a feature film, the next logical direction for the project is to present it as a TV series. I must have had that “in mind” when I wrote the sequel as it sets up the established characters from Justice Is Mind with new characters in a world where mind reading technology has permeated our way of life from the judicial system to immigration to employment and national security.
With Justice Is Mind released to positive reviews and In Mind We Trust written, I’ve been working on the story “bible” for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been down the TV series pitch process before with certain studios and production companies when my agent took out a series I conceived called Frozen Assets. It was essentially Dynasty meets figure skating and I worked with a leading writer of that famed TV show to shape the series. Being in pitch meetings is an interesting process and you really need to have your pitch rehearsed. I knew the sport, but this writer knew the industry. The show wasn’t picked up (figure skating was dying in the TV ratings at the time), but the experience was a real learning curve for me. On a side note my agent almost killed me when we pulled up to the Paramount gate and I said from the back seat of her car, “Jonesy! Hey, Jonesy!”
As for the industry, attention is on Berlin, Germany this week. Unlike Sundance which has turned into a showcase for studio productions and, in my view, lost its purpose as a haven for independent filmmaking, EFM is a unique film market to follow. It presents films from concept to completion. I might add that The Hollywood Reporter does a terrific job with their daily reports.
Reading the reports you can clearly see how the industry has changed the last couple of years. Sales agents want completed films and stars don’t guarantee any sort of success. I think Marc Gabizon of Wild Bunch said it perfectly when he stated in this article, “You see, film is a great business. It’s fascinating, but it’s also dangerous. You can’t forget about the risks, even when you’re successful — maybe especially then. There’s always a risk, but you have to make sure that if you have a flop, it doesn’t topple the whole company. Don’t bet the house on one or two titles.” By flop he was referring to Bradley Cooper’s Burnt.
While nothing is more exciting than announcing a new project, it does come down to risk. As a producer my job is to project a path of realistic profitability. As a director I need to deliver a solid and marketable project.
One trend I see coming out of EFM are the interesting political thriller type projects. This has been a consistent trend over the last couple of years and bodes well for SOS United States.
What I love about screenwriting is the research that goes with it. When I wrote First World I learned about the Apollo space program, the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, the Roswell incident and how parts of the United Nations operate. For Justice Is Mind it was the science of mind-reading (“thought identification”), reincarnation, and complex legal issues from the introduction of evidence based on new science to the construction of a criminal trial. Whenever I write science fiction, I think it’s important to have it rooted in plausibility or at least have it explained with a sense of realism (Star Trek is great for that).
The basis for my political thriller SOS United States has always been around this premise – the possibility that an ocean liner may have a nuclear device on board. Where did the idea come from? I’ve always been interested in the Cold War and count Fail Safe and Seven Days in May as two of my favorite movies of the time. Add that interest to my passion for ocean liners and SOS United States was born. It was my mother that first got me interested in ocean liners in the 1970s with our membership in the Titanic Historical Society (Yes, Titanic is one of my favorite films).
With premise in mind I started my research. The ocean liner in my story needed to be fast, luxurious and military-like. It didn’t take long to discover the SS United States. Built in 1952 the luxury liner “was designed as part of a top-secret Pentagon program during the Cold War, which stipulated it could be quickly converted from a luxury liner into a naval troopship in the event of a war.” Needless to say I found my ship. And found her I did. Since the SS United States was retired in 1969 she has been laid up all over the world and is currently docked in Philadelphia. More than once the ship was almost scrapped.
In my original notes the idea was that some company purchased the SS United States and refurbished her. But I quickly discounted that as unrealistic. Instead, I researched the United States Lines and discovered their early flagship the SS Leviathan. With that name, and the original blueprints of the SS United States, a company built a “state of the art” luxury liner, equipped with offensive capability to defend against pirating with a maximum speed of over 50 MPH. I guess my original notes proved to be something more than an idea.
Last week in New York City, Crystal Cruises, a luxury cruise line, “announced it will save “America’s flagship,” the SS United States, and embark on the enormous undertaking of bringing the ship into compliance with the latest standards, and returning her to oceangoing service.” While I figured some sort of redevelopment plan would be put forward, as was done with the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, the fact that the SS United States will actually sail again as a luxury liner just proved once again that if you stay true to your mission with persistence and patience the impossible can become a reality. My congratulations to the dedication of SS United States Conservancy to save and preserve the ship and to the visionary leadership of Crystal Cruises to see the SS United States return to the high seas.
Suddenly the world premiere of SOS United States on the SS United States just became a little more possible. I remember sailing on the Queen Mary 2 in 2007 and saying to my mother how grand it would be to have one of my films screen on an ocean liner. After years of planning and determination, Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth on October 29, 2014.
Unless you’ve been living in a galaxy that is truly far far away, inhabitants of the planet Earth are eagerly awaiting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to hit theaters on December 18. We’ve seen the trailers, the stills and countless articles speculating on the story itself, but the latter is truly nothing less than a state secret – and well it should be. This past week on IndieWire even Mark Hamill stated, “I’m Not Even Authorized To Tell You I’m In Episode VII.”
When I was booked on Skating with Celebrities back in 2005 all of us involved in that show, including the studio audience, were sworn to absolute secrecy by an iron clad contract. The show was produced live to tape and then aired in early 2006. Yes, everyone I knew asked me in one way or another who won. Some were downright angry I didn’t confess the results and some were, ready, offended. Like I cared. You don’t risk an entire production and litigation to satisfy one person, who will tell another and so on.
There were so many things I learned on that show that I have taken to my filmmaking work. Like my contract with FOX, the agreements I put in place for Justice Is Mind had a photography and non-disclosure clause. Most were totally fine with it, but it did strike some as overly controlling. My on camera work up until Skating with Celebrities was mostly live so there was no need for a non-disclosure, but you quickly learn the reasons why such things are necessary. Think about it, do you want to risk giving away the ending to a project that has been years in development and lessen its commercial appeal? Even now, I don’t allow clips to be manipulated or edited without my written approval.
We very much live in a “look at me” society with social media leading the charge. Sadly, I see so many posts about submissions, meetings and auditions that I would want to keep off the radar. What if your film doesn’t get accepted? That meeting falls apart? You don’t get cast? At any given time I have more irons in the fire than I can sometimes keep track of (thank god I have my lists!). Unfortunately, premature announcements can derail a deal that may have come to fruition if given enough time.
One such deal that was months in the making was the international premiere of Justice Is Mind on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. Imagine if I had breathed a word of it prior to it being a done deal. Cunard just simply could have said they declined to screen the film, I would have had serious embarrassment written all over my face to say nothing of tarnishing the brand of a film I have worked on for years. In the end the timing worked out great. The deal came through right before one of our screenings. I announced it publicly in May 2014 prior to our screening at the Elm Draught House Cinema.
Perhaps one of the most famous plot secrets was around one of my favorite films Witness for the Prosecution. In addition to director Bill Wilder holding the last ten pages of the film from the actors until it was shot, the end credits of the film features the following “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” Starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, I highly recommend this 1957 classic.
But one thing that’s not secret was discovering that Justice Is Mind was named number two on a user created IMDb list. What film was number one on that list? Star Wars: The Force Awakens.