Sorting through the numerous business cards and materials I gathered at AFM, I began my follow ups a few days after I arrived home. The return correspondence has been very encouraging. For obvious reasons I won’t publish the names of the companies I’m talking with, but suffice to say things are moving in a positive direction for two of my projects. The devil is in the details of course, but as filmmakers we are used to countless details.
As I begin to ramp up pre-production for First Signal with a May production start date, I was talking to a fellow filmmaker the other day about the importance of insuring there’s a market for our projects after we wrap production. There’s simply too much time and money involved to wind up on a shelf which translates to holding up a return on investment.
I’ve talked about this subject before when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. It was vital to me that Justice was introduced in a theatrical setting. While many submit to film festivals at considerable expense and wait for an acceptance (a practice that was frowned upon at AFM unless it’s an A level festival with potential buyers in attendance), I pushed for a theatrical run. The result was a limited run of 14 theatres, box office revenue, an international premiere on an ocean liner and substantive media placements. If I worked for years to get my film off the ground the last thing I’m going to do is pay $$$ to a second tier film festival. Then wait weeks (if not months) for a decision by a committee, then, if accepted, be at the mercy of a programmer to place my film in a time slot convenient to the festival, ceding box office revenue (filmmakers don’t receive a cut from festivals) and sharing in their public relations efforts with other films. As you can imagine, the public relations and release strategy for First Signal is already in the planning stages.
Speaking of planning stages, I had the opportunity today to visit the American Heritage Museum in Hudson, MA at the Collings Foundation. Some of you may remember my trips to the Collings Foundation for their World War II reenactment event “Battle for the Airfield” or their “Wings of Freedom Tour” around the country.
Although they are in “preview” until their Grand Opening in April of 2019, what I saw today was truly outstanding. The museum represents the history of war in America. Although it starts with the Revolutionary War all the way to the War on Terror, the primary focus is generally on World War I and World War II.
The tour starts in the orientation theatre and then proceeds to two immersive experiences before advancing to the main exhibit hall. The first is the World War I exhibit complete with a trench you can walk through. From there you proceed to the World War II exhibit which features a Mercedes-Benz W31 and Panzer 1A. Click this link to learn about all the tanks, vehicles and artifacts that will be part of the museum when it reopens in the spring. Of course, as a filmmaker, their use of archival film to enhance the static displays was brilliantly done.
A few months ago I came across a casting notice for a book trailer. The name of the book was Heil Hitler, Herr Göd by A.P. Hofleitner and was based “on true-life memoirs” around a family in occupied Austria at the end of World War II. As this period of history has always been of interest to me, I submitted for the part of Herr Göd.
Shortly after getting cast, I started my research. When we think of the European conflict of World War II, generally we look at Germany and what was going on in Berlin. But how many times do we think of the average family just caught up in it? That was the genesis of the book.
Once I arrived to set I met director Rob Gooding and author/producer “Andy” Hofleitner (who, as fate would have it, I actually met earlier in the parking lot). Andy presented each of the actors and crew a signed copy of his book. It didn’t take long to realize the passion behind this project. Not only are the accounts in the book true, but the family in Austria is Andy’s. The author of the memoirs was his grandfather. The “props” used in the book trailer were the actual ones from the story with one piece signed by Hitler himself. The gravity of the story suddenly became real. To know that you are not only recreating moments in history, but are actually touching it.
A few days after the shoot I started to read the book. From page one Hofleitner brings the reader back in time to a family caught in the crossfire of war. The family is far from idyllic and this is what Hofleitner does so well. His words create real world, conflicted and complicated characters facing the impossible. But through it all they persevere under the most trying of circumstances. Hofleitner’s masterful way of setting up scenes and bringing the characters in had me riveted to the last word. There is an escape scene from a factory that was so brilliantly written it had this reader in the center of the conflict. To know as I was reading each word that each one of these moments really happened, one wonders how such atrocities could have happened in the first place. But they did and that’s why we must never forget lest history be repeated.
For me the most engaging character was Max. His voice from being on the front and witnessing the horrors of the war, brought reality home when he would recount stories in the seemingly quiet village the family resided. Imagine you are sitting in your back yard enjoying a drink and hearing horrors so far away they must be fictional…right? But then, in a moment, the roar of Allied bombers destroy the tranquility of the moment.
Book trailers are a smart marketing tool. To quote from C. Hope Clark’s latest email newsletter, “Whether you are traditional or indie published, it’s about reach, connection, and sales.” And that’s exactly what a book trailer does. It visualizes the story you are about to read.
After dealing with a massive snowstorm the day before, the first day back at the Naval Justice School went well. As this is my fifth time doing the program, these are like class reunions between the actors and staff. But with every new class, we have new actors join the program.
I can’t speak for other regions, but in New England the acting community really is about six degrees of separation. While I may not have worked directly with some of the new actors, the other actors have or are familiar with their work. What struck me interesting with one of the new actors was him telling me about a project of his own that he’s putting into production himself. Sound familiar?
While any actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, etc., wants to be hired, there’s nothing more satisfying than creating your own work. It truly is magical watching your performance, your words and your images come to life. But one does not magically snap their fingers to get a project off the ground. In the end it’s about partnering with good people that believe in bringing the project to life.
In addition to the casting notices going up this week for First Signal, location searches will also begin in earnest. As I mentioned to someone already involved in the project, the way I approach a location is to trade the opportunity to shoot with a mutual public relations and marketing plan. I’ve taken this approach with the films I’ve produced and, with the exception of $100 to shoot in church for Justice Is Mind, it has worked.
The last thing you do as an “independent” filmmaker is ask what their rate or how much they would charge. I promise you, you’ll get frustrated when you hear numbers that are impossible to meet. Worse, you meet them and go broke in the process. You want to work with people and companies that are excited about the project. But that excitement is not without responsibility.
On a set I am the first to arrive and the last to leave. Why? Because it’s my responsibility to insure that I leave a location the same way I found it. Case in point was the conference room we used in Serpentine. In the film, the location was at the FBI in Washington, D.C. In the real world that was the Aquarius board room at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA.
That room worked out great in the film, but it needed to be dressed. I purchased Washington, D.C. images to cover up the posters on one wall and added The Brandenburg Gate during the Cold War era to highlight a certain moment in the story (it was also an Easter Egg for Justice Is Mind). How did the viewer know they were at the FBI? Stock footage the moment before that showed the exterior of the FBI. What’s interesting about that footage is that one of my favorite shows, Madam Secretary, has also used that same clip.
With the script breakdown for First Signal almost complete, look for a casting notice in the coming days. And that military exercise I mentioned last week? Looks like that contract is coming through.
July 20 should be a national holiday because it marks an unprecedented milestone in the history of the human race – the day we set foot on the Moon in 1969.
Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to look at their home, the planet Earth, from 238,000 miles away. July 20, 1969 marked the very pinnacle of research, science and mankind’s determination to explore the unknown when Armstrong famously said “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Yet, sadly, there are those ignorant dangerous fools that still believe the manned missions to the Moon were a hoax. Somehow an achievement that exceeded the mysterious building of the Great Pyramids was created by the Hollywood studios. It’s unbelievable to me in today’s day and age that such ignorance permeates our existence. When evidence is there for everyone to hear and see, they turn deaf and blind by deliberate choice. Some of these misguided morons have tried to post their so-called views on First World’s Facebook page. Thankfully it’s called a delete and ban.
Yes, as you can surmise I feel very strongly about the aforementioned. For if there is one thing the Apollo space program taught us was that anything is possible if we remain singularly focused on just such a mission. In the 1960s there’s no question that the United States government was motivated to compete against the then Soviet Union. Say what you want, but that was a healthy competition because the fruits of all those scientists lay in the very technology we enjoy today.
But decades before Apollo 11 there were the steps of over 300,000 allied soldiers that were evacuated from Dunkirk. The Battle of Dunkirk is well known as a substantial turning point in World War II and has been brought back to life by Hollywood.
Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk is most certainly a must-see film. But more importantly it is a history lesson for those that may not know the story. It is a story about what’s possible when faced with the impossible. How do you evacuate over 300,000 people off a beach? The answer was as miraculous as it was obvious—you mobilize a fleet of small civilian boats to effect a rescue.
While I greatly enjoyed Nolan’s version of Dunkirk, if anything because it reintroduced this critical moment in world history to 21st century audiences, I found myself enjoying the 1958 version better. For me it provided a larger backstory as it followed several characters between England and France until they arrived on the beaches of Dunkirk.
But whether you liked the 1958 version over the 2017 entry isn’t important. What’s important is that these films are watched. What’s important is that we learn from history. Who would have thought back in 1940 that the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany (and Japan) would someday become great allies in years to come? For it’s allies that truly unite mankind. Building off that first step on the Moon, modern day space programs are a coalition of cultures.
And so the new season started with a bang—literally. Yesterday I attended the Massachusetts Military History Exposition in Orange, MA. This is the second year this group produced this show. While last year focused on World War II, this year’s outing represented a timeline of military history. My favorite group was those representing the 16th century.
The group from the year 1528 called “Das Geld Fahlein” offered an excellent history on how troupes from those days were organized, compensated and fought. Imagine you are a knight in “shining armor” on a horse galloping towards several hundred of these 30 foot long spears and other types of sword defenses. It may have been low-tech even by 1528 standards but it did what it had to do—stop the enemy.
Another area of interest to me has been about communications and infrastructure during World War II. I talked to a few reenactors at the German camp about some technical aspects of how they communicated back then. The distance limitation in radio communication and the shelf life of the field batteries was very interesting. Needless to say, there’s always something new to learn at these events.
Of course the highlight of these types of events are the battle reenactments. While “Hollywood” would have multiple takes over a period of days if not weeks to shoot something like this, this is a one take moment. Once the action starts it just keeps going until there’s a victor. Yesterday was also the first time I used Facebook Live. I broadcast the World War II battle and had viewers all over the country. You can watch the video at this link.
But through all the uniforms and equipment of wars long past, there is the educational component of these events that’s so important. It is through events like this that one learns about the issues of those times and what brought yesterday’s societies to conflict and then peace. Like my experiences last year attending these events, it’s the reenactors that bring them to life. Their depth of knowledge and passion is what makes for a most enjoyable experience.
As so many of my projects have some sort of military component to the story, while I have a great time at these events, it’s all about networking and learning about the talent involved. Why on earth would I seek to hire actors, get costumes and source equipment from the ground up if I could reach out to one of these groups?
This past week I finished watching season one of The Man in the High Castle. Between the story, acting, production values and world building, it has to be one the best, if not innovative, shows I have ever seen. This groundbreaking series from Amazon yet again demonstrates that the streaming services have arrived. When you watch a “TV show” produced by and for a streaming service that exceeds the quality of cable TV, you can see how “cord cutting” has come into being.
But like so many TV series and films, it was interesting to learn that The Man in the High Castle was in development for years. It just demonstrates that persistence and patience is again the key to moving forward in this industry as nothing happens overnight. When Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind, went live on Amazon in the US, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria this week, I was reminded by one of the actors that Evidence was five years old. Justice Is Mind was written in 2010, followed by the production of Evidence in 2011 and the feature film version in 2012. Since Justice Is Mind was released in 2013 the marketing has been ongoing. Why? Because the next goal is a TV series around the concept. When will that happen? In this industry, that would be anybody’s guess.
An editor from one of the industry trades recently posted the following to their Facebook profile, “The hardest part about this industry is even when you find your champions, so much of your success is out of their control. They can work their asses off to help you, but they’re still climbing Mount Everest while dragging a dozen anvils behind them.” The point is obvious, this is an industry that works on teams. All you have to do is look at the cast and crew lists on IMDb to see the staggering number of people involved. For Justice Is Mind that number was well over 100.
A friend of mine recently said to me, that I write what I can produce. That’s partially true. Justice Is Mind was written exclusively with the idea that I might be able to pull this off within my own network of contacts. Whereas a project like First World requires substantial resources with my political thriller SOS United States falling in the middle. Even the short film version of First World had a cast and crew of over 25.
Since First World and Evidence went worldwide on Amazon, it has been interesting to see new audiences discovering these projects. That is the glorious thing about streaming. Your project is discoverable. But in each of these projects, they had some sort of theatrical and exhibition push prior to their online premier. It’s this type of audience development that propelled them forward online.
The one thing I remember when writing Justice Is Mind is that I could visualize it happening. The same is holding true for this political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. Of course there are elements that raise the bar from my last feature, from filming on ice performances to “dressing” an arena to look like a “world championship”. But like the Justice Is Mind project, the plan is to first produce a short film version to not only generate interest in the project, but to develop a team that can see it through.
Having grown up in the 1970s and 80s there was an entertainment medium called the mini-series that produced some terrific programming. When I attended WWII Weekend yesterday, I was reminded of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Perhaps it was these two great mini-series that got me interested in the Second World War. For those that follow me on social media or this blog, you know I often tour museums like Battleship Cove or attend events like WWII Weekend. When I was in Albany, New York a couple of week ago I toured the now museum ship USS Slater.
For those of you that may be interested, I highly recommend WWII Weekend. This was my first time attending this event and I have to say they did a masterful job. To quote from their website, “WWII Weekend is one of New England’s premier living history events, providing the public with an interactive, educational and fun WWII experience that is difficult to come by. Participants will have the chance to examine and learn about multiple different kinds of World War 2 vehicles and weapons, as well as how the soldiers of that era lived, by walking through Allied and Axis encampments and interacting with the reenactors.”
First, I believe it’s important to take the time to occasionally experience one of these events or attend one of these museums. Even though our present world is currently gripped with a variety of regional conflicts, I think it’s important to remember that at two points in the last century nearly every country in the world was engaged in a world war. For me personally, it’s about learning something new and inspiration for my writing.
When I brought Justice Is Mind back to World War II, the amount of research I did was on the same level as that of the courtroom scenes and experimental science behind mind reading technology. It was after our international premiere on the MS Queen Elizabeth that several guests came up to me and complimented how we handled that element of the story, particularly the very end. Although that area of the screenplay was pretty well vetted, it only matters how it’s received by the public after it’s produced. With a film, there’s generally only one chance to get it right. To quote Bill Sampson in All About Eve after a film is released “You’re in a tin can.”
Although the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating doesn’t go back to WWII, when I was looking at field communications equipment at the WWII Weekend yesterday, a certain angle occurred to me which I could take with this story. In this new story codes and encryption are a key element to the final act.
The one thing I enjoy the most about being a writer is the research. Whether it’s learning about historical events and how they can be woven into a particular plot or about certain technologies and how they shape a story. Who would have thought that a program on “thought identification” on 60 Minutes would have resulted in Justice Is Mind?
Of course, as a filmmaker, one of the exhibits I found truly fascinating was all the vintage cameras. In today’s world we simply hold up our cell phone and roll as much “film” as you generally want. In those days they may have had to deal with springs and cameras the size of large bricks, but filmmakers and photographers from that era produced groundbreaking work under often arduous conditions.
I only subscribe to a handful of writing and filmmaking newsletters. In today’s day and age anyone can have a newsletter, but what it really comes down to is content. Many years ago my former business partner recommended that I subscribe to C. Hope Clark’s FundsforWriters. The amount of useful and insightful information about the world and industry of freelance writing is nearly unlimited. For me, I always enjoy Hope’s “EDITOR’S THOUGHTS” and the featured article. I was honored when Hope asked me to write the featured article for this week’s newsletter. Titled “From Bookstore to Theater, Turning Your Book into a Movie”, you can read my article at this link.
Writing an original story is not easy by any stretch and we all approach our stories differently. But in each and every case, there is that one moment when we are inspired to write that one word or phrase that will ultimately result in a book a movie or both. When I wrote a screenplay for a friend last year based on his book, there was a road map of sorts, a foundation in which to build off the primary story. The book was the original idea, the screenplay was the adaptation. A couple of weeks ago at the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, a friend of mine was passionately telling me about an original story that they want to turn into a movie.
And therein lies that one word that drives us creatives – passion. I can only speak for myself when it comes to writing an original story, but passion is the number one driving force for me. When you are “world building” an original story, if you aren’t excited about the concept why should anyone else be? I was having dinner with a friend last night who mentioned the complexities of the Justice Is Mind story and how it compared to a particular author and the movies that followed. The comment was very flattering.
For me, I like a complex story. A story that isn’t paint by number, but one that you need to watch more than once. I like characters that are multi-dimensional or suddenly change their tone. Take for example Margaret Miller in Justice Is Mind. In the beginning we see a concerned wife who happens to be a novelist. Suddenly in her desperate attempt to save her husband she goes against type by retaining a dubious private investigator to steal what she wants.
Having spent over three decades in the sport of figure skating in a variety of capacities, I suppose it had to be inevitable that I would conceive of a story around the sport. When talking about the concept a couple of weeks ago, I referenced the political thriller Marathon Man that starred Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. But there is another movie, a bit obscure, that is having another influence on this story—the conspiracy thriller Executive Action that starred Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. I say obscure, because when you look up the film you’ll see what happened when it was initially released.
In the end the goal, of course, is to write a story that audiences will enjoy. For me films are a living legacy. Long after their creatives are gone, a film lives on. One of my favorite thrillers is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).
But before I vanish into this new world I’m writing, I’ll leave you with a sample piece of dialogue from an FBI supervisor, “If I know this much you can bet that someone else sure as hell does. Because suddenly, there’s a concerted effort to get Wilson’s daughter to the World Championships in a country that has no extradition treaty with the United States.”
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.
Yes, I am an American and proud of it. But it’s also dialogue from one of my favorite films Citizen Kane. Here’s a film made in 1941 by a 25 year old director by the name of Orson Wells. Citizen Kane is arguably one of the greatest films ever made. The film was controversial at the time because it was largely discussed that it was about William Randolph Hearst who owned an empire of newspapers. Hearst was so enraged by the film’s perceived comparison to his life that he made countless efforts to ban it.
July 4, 2015 – Independence Day here in the United States. Unless you live under a rock or just arrived from another planet, the world knows the fierce patriotism that engulfs our entire nation during this time, and rightly so. To be an American means to be able to have a voice. A voice of expression without fear of persecution from the state.
But it is the state of the film and TV industry in our country that perhaps gives us the greatest voice around the world. Yes, we have the world’s largest and best military and we forever give thanks to the men and women in uniform that defend the ideals of this country here and abroad. But it is our entertainment industry that shines a light on what it is to be an American. No matter your station in life, your political or religious beliefs, there is a film or TV series for you.
Those that know me, know what I like when it comes to my viewing pleasure. I tend to gravitate to films that tell a story with larger than life characters, but also ones that have some sort of message (apologies to Louis B Mayer). Films that highlight World War II and the Cold War tend to get my attention as they present the human spirit against the conflicts of mankind as they look to sort out the trials of hope against tyranny. But the one thing I have a zero tolerance for is the banning of films or TV shows.
When Judgment at Nuremberg was made it set forth to illustrate the atrocities of World War II that were perpetrated by judges in NAZI Germany. Was the film controversial? Yes, in some circles. But where did the film have its world premiere? Berlin, the former capital of the Third Reich that is now the capital of a unified Germany. My point? As controversial as it may have been at the time, it was important to present the film in a setting to spark conversation because if there is one lesson we must never forget from World War II is – to never forget.
In the United States these past couple of weeks, we have had to sadly relive the horrors of a Civil War that ended 150 years ago after the execution of innocents at a church in Charleston. At issue, of course, is the Confederate Flag. In my view it represents sedition and the enslavement of a people. To the view of others it represents a way of life that has long past. While I most certainly don’t condone the flag of another country (one we defeated) flying over United States state capitol buildings, the outright ban of it and pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t helping the larger conversation. Sadly, our country was founded on slavery. It is part of our history that so many want to forget, but we cannot forget. We cannot erase our history, but we learn from it the best we can and try to form a more perfect union. But when TV Land reacted by pulling the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard this past week, that wasn’t the answer.
History teaches us what happened when a certain country started to burn books, films and destroy artwork. If you don’t know what the country was, it was referenced earlier in this post. As Americans we cherish our right to choose, our right to live life free from oppression. My favorite film is Gone With the Wind. Yet, the calls to have that film banned by the overzealous is just an ignorant reaction. And to be frank, I don’t give a damn about those voices.
This is America. We don’t ban films and TV shows if we don’t like them we simply don’t watch them. I can tell you I find plenty of films and TV shows offensive, I’m not going to launch a boycott. I’m simply not going to support them. Do we really want to bring back the Hayes Code? Do we want to go back to McCarthyism? Do we want to be oppressed? I think not.
But putting aside my position on freedom of speech and expression, I have had the good fortune to be able to travel a good part of this small “pale blue dot” of a planet we live on called Earth. Indeed, our planet is a fragile one as is our society. One that we must all take care of. But throughout all my travels, there is a certain pride I feel when I pull out my passport or tell people where I’m from.
The United States of America.