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.
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.
For years I have followed the film markets, but none so closely as the American Film Market (AFM). As an independent filmmaker and screenwriter, I think it’s important to stay informed on the latest trends and news. As we are “indie” it’s too easy to operate in our respective vacuums without the benefit of new voices. That ended last week when I attended AFM in Santa Monica, California.
As this was my first AFM, I followed their how to work AFM guide. Several weeks prior to the start of AFM, I researched companies that might be interested in hearing more about my projects. I curated a list and then sent an email of introduction that included a brief (title/logline) of my projects for consideration of a meeting. By the time I arrived in Santa Monica, I had several meetings confirmed. In addition, I made sure my Cinando profile was completed along with the MyAFM section of AFM’s website. The completion of my profiles and subsequent postings in MyAFM conversations resulted in a few companies reaching out to me for meetings.
My industry badge granted me access for four days that began on Saturday. But as the director in me wants to get the lay of the land prior to “arriving on set,” I landed in Los Angeles on Thursday and picked up credentials on Friday. I knew that the start of the market for me on Saturday would mean putting on my acting hat. The days and weeks of memorizing the loglines and synopsis of my projects along with talking points was soon going to be put to the test. As an actor, I wouldn’t think of arriving to set without knowing my lines, attending a film market is no different. If you don’t take the time to know your own projects, why should anyone else take their time? As attendee’s schedules are booked up well in advance, AFM is all about maximizing time.
The Lowes Hotel is entirely converted for the market (you can’t enter the hotel without the proper credentials). When you enter the lobby you are soon greeted by representatives of the industry trades with the dailies, see throngs of attendees going to and fro and banners representing the myriad of companies that are bunted on the multi-floor balcony railings. What were hotel rooms before the market, are now offices. You have arrived at AFM.
Over the course of two days, meetings with producers and production companies in the United States, Canada, Germany and Romania resulted in positive experiences. Then there were the various film commissions from Russia, Georgia and Japan that also asked for meetings. On Saturday night at the official carousel cocktail reception, casual conversations resulted in meeting two producers with substantial credits (there was a specific request for China related stories – First World anyone?).
But what I do want to stress is that you can’t go into the market thinking “what can you do for me” it’s more about “what can I do for them.” Think about it, is the screenplay I have going to be a good fit for “X” production company or producer? One company I met with wasn’t interested in science fiction, but wanted to see my political thrillers. In the reverse, one producer was very keen on developing science fiction franchises and requested information on the “First World” universe. In both those cases, they asked for scripts. It pays to have a variety of projects to offer.
These meetings are also about building relationships for the long haul. All the meetings and interactions I had were positive, with the exception of one. In that case, it didn’t take long for me to realize that one was just playing the posture and poser game (he didn’t even have a business card). Yes, while AFM is all about meeting the right people and developing a network, you do have to be judicious on who you interact with.
But here’s an interesting twist of fate. Years ago I pitched Justice Is Mind to a distributor that passed on the project. For AFM, this company reached out to me about First Signal. When I was meeting with them and Justice Is Mind came up and their original pass, they presented a new division for digital distribution and asked me for a screening link. As for First Signal, the number of companies looking to get involved at the script stage is a market trend. This is an industry about product and intellectual property and that’s exactly what AFM is all about.
Now it’s about the follow up. The continuation of introductions, conversations and presentations that started at AFM. One thing that’s always excited me about this industry are the possibilities of what’s next. Because for this filmmaker, there will be a next AFM next year. As for AFM, a special thanks to Jonathan Wolf, Managing Director at AFM, for creating a welcoming atmosphere for first time attendees and his informative presentation at the AFM Orientation.
After AFM I had the opportunity to visit Eastern Costume. I was introduced to Eastern by the costume supervisor on Madam Secretary regarding Air Force Uniforms for First Signal. Another special thanks to Ian Brown, Military Technical Advisor, for a three hour tour. Whatever you need for your film, Eastern Costume has it!
Of course, my trip to Los Angeles wasn’t all business. I had some great reunions with friends along with some requisite touring. Seeing the Endeavour Space Shuttle and the King Tut exhibit at the California Science Center was truly exciting. But my favorite place to visit is the Griffith Observatory. From the wonders of science and space to its expansive views of the city, it was wonderful way to spend my last night in the city at…
…the top of the world.
In the entertainment industry it is the “one sheet” that advertises and promotes a film. In an instant the release of a one sheet sets the tone for a film that could be weeks, months or years from release. It is a form of media that should be carefully thought out. While it’s impossible to convey the entire story in a film poster, it should at least project a certain atmosphere.
When I was in post-production with Justice Is Mind my goal was to conceive of a poster that would represent the general story. With an MRI image in the background we see two sides of Henri Miller. One looking forward in the present world and the other looking backwards into World War II. I had the general concept in mind when we were shooting so I had Vernon Aldershoff, the actor that plays Henri Miller, photographed accordingly.
With Serpentine, the story revolves around a figure skater caught up in a Cold War mystery. With a sheet of ice as the backdrop, a skater is centrally framed in Red Square to convey the premise of the story. For SOS United States, the image of two F35’s flying in proximity to a cruise ship, dramatizes the accompanying tag line that says it all.
There are times when the production of a one sheet has to be as accurate as possible. First Signal was one of them. While the science fiction aspect gives one a certain amount of creative freedom, some things need to be right. The Moon to Earth vantage point was modeled after the famed “Earthrise” picture taken from Apollo 8. But it was the star field that needed to be accurate. Thankfully, Celestia, a 3D astronomy modeling program, was available (Special thanks to Daniel Elek-Diamanta for creating the poster and finding Celestia!).
Right after I registered for AFM, I was wondering what I could create to represent my various projects. While they each had their own branding and collateral (depending where they were in the production pipeline), I realized that I didn’t. Those that know me and my projects know what I create, but there is a whole industry universe out there that doesn’t.
I am therefore pleased to present the one sheet for The Ashton Times. Designed by my longtime colleague and friend Adam Starr, it is designed to promote and illustrate the type of works I create. For the last couple of weeks it has been included in my industry communications and promoted on MyAFM and Cinando. As we are an industry of image, I think it’s important to create what we can to present our projects in the best possible light.
It seems fitting that I’m preparing to leave for AFM during the anniversary week when Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 2014. That screening proved to me that you don’t have to be a major or mini studio or have A or B list actors in your film to have a marketable project. Indeed, you only need one thing…
…a good story.
Many…many…years ago I worked for someone that instilled in me the importance of preparing a solid presentation when making a pitch and a quality “leave behind” (the document you leave behind after a meeting for further consideration). In those early days I didn’t really know what all that meant, but it soon made sense. As they say you only get once chance to make a first impression. That couldn’t be truer in the entertainment industry where everything is about communication and visualization.
Since my last post, three First Signal presentations have resulted in solid location possibilities and interesting cooperation. We shall see where these communications go. But the point is, there are mutual communications.
When I first make a pitch I make every effort to provide as much information as possible with an equal amount of brevity. Why? Because not only is time short for everyone these days, but a pitch needs to offer something beneficial for the party you’re making a pitch to. I also believe it’s important to be clear in what you want and what you can offer in return.
Case in point, I receive at least one pitch a month from screenwriters wanting me to consider their screenplay. Fair enough they don’t know that I only develop my own work, but they could at least do some homework on what I’ve done. It’s pretty clear I’m only interested in science fiction and political thrillers. But what really stuck out like sore thumb with a pitch I received this week, was the fact that this writer didn’t include a phone number, web site, IMDb link or other external links so I could review who they were. This was almost as bad as the actor that submitted to First Signal and said “Google me.” That’s not the way it works.
But what is working beautifully is my DJI Spark drone. Over the last couple of weekends I’ve been to Ogunquit, ME and Newport, RI and have been able to capture some cool photography. I also tested the active track feature with my car. A couple of the scenes in First Signal require a drone shot to follow a vehicle.
So with the vast majority of all the pre-production work completed on First Signal, there is one organization we are waiting to hear from that is considering our presentation for locations and cooperation. They have a department that deals specifically with the entertainment industry.
For those that have ventured down the road of producing a film, there are numerous details to attend to. But one thing that is truly paramount is character and story background. This week I sent the actors and crew a multi-page document that provides not only the character backstory but terminology associated with the “First World” universe.
While Justice Is Mind was about mind reading, I honestly can’t expect actors or crew to read mine. First, I find the phrase “motivation” to be terribly overused. Rather, I like to give the actors and crew the big picture. It’s easy for a director to drone on about this or that or whatever. But when someone reads in black and white what the backstory is or universe they are in, it makes the process so much easier. It also fosters thoughtful creative input.
As for creative, this week also yielded some interesting conversations regarding costuming. In First Signal, four of the characters have very specific looks. Two are outfitted in Nehru styled suits, while two are Air Force officers. It’s the latter that saw the progress we were looking for. From discussions with an Air Force base military store to a costume company that outfits the military in my favorite TV show, the aim is to have these actors outfitted accordingly.
Speaking of actors, I received a call a few days ago from an actress that was beyond frustrated with the fact that she hasn’t secured representation. Is she talented? Yes. Does she have a solid resume? Yes. The one thing I stressed in this industry is that nothing is simple or easy. There are no shortcuts. And the one unwavering thing you need is patience. But comparing my work to yours or another actors is not the route you go. And when you start tuning out the advice you sought because you aren’t hearing what you want, you might need to rethink your career. This industry is waiting for no one, but it may respond if you have talent, a viable idea or a unique project (film or TV). I say may because I will quote the late Maximilian Schell, “This an industry of chances and luck.” Even after all his years of fame from Happy Days, Henri Winkler still auditions.
I do seem to be having good luck with the DJI Spark. I have to say this is a very smart drone. It takes a bit of getting used to operating virtual joysticks (there is an optional controller you can buy), but there’s so many flight options that are brilliantly automatic. At the end of the day all a filmmaker wants is a great shot.
Finally, I just finished reading James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, this is an important read. In the hyper partisan, media obsessed world we live in, it’s too easy to make snap judgments without knowing or caring about the facts. That’s really what our country comes down to does it? Facts, truth and loyalty to the constitution of the United States and those that defend it.
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.
This week I completed a first draft of First Signal. I have to say there is something immensely satisfying about completing a script. From the moment I get the idea for a story it’s weeks and months of research, notes and random thoughts.
For me writing doesn’t start and stop at my computer. While I don’t believe in writer’s block, there are those times when after I do a bit of writing I just see the story stop for a moment. Sometimes it just takes a change of air to get the characters and storyline talking to me again. In my case, it’s generally a trip to the gym or watching a movie that brings me back to the computer. In fact, after I saw Darkest Hour last weekend I was inspired to write a critical speech in First Signal. If you can’t get inspired after watching Winston Churchill there’s a problem!
Like Justice Is Mind I wrote First Signal to independently produce, not to submit to production companies or agents. While my other projects are in various stages of review or consideration by the latter, First Signal is not part of that mix.
It is ironic how this whole project came to being. Here I am at the Naval Justice School talking to one of the actresses. Suddenly, the idea for a limited location drama that largely takes place in an underground bunker came to mind. After talking with her about the idea, I just started to write it with her as one of the new characters in the “First World” universe.
While I love acting and performing, I think my greatest joy comes from creating projects and original stories. Although it has been some years, I remember the days of Justice Is Mind and the dedicated cast and crew that made it possible. Unlike a play, when you create a motion picture it’s out in the world forever. As I often watch films from the 1930s and 40s, I wonder who may be watching my films in say the year 2088. From that era I count Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Laura and Now, Voyager as some of my favorites.
Although I plan to reach out to a variety of actors and crew I’ve worked with in the past, the next step in this process will be a casting notice for a table read (one part is already cast).
First Signal—When Air Force Space Command receives a signal from an alien satellite in Earth orbit an emergency meeting with the President reveals a government conspiracy.
A few months ago I thought seriously about attending the American Film Market (AFM). Aside from the fact that I’m due for a visit to Los Angeles to catch up with friends and colleagues, there’s no question that networking opportunities at AFM are important to anyone in the industry.
Before I spend some thousands of dollars to attend (or on anything), one does have to be practical about it. Will there be a return? In my view, “Hollywood” is a year round industry and “pitching” isn’t married to a film market. But markets are something I’ve been tracking for several years and when The Hollywood Reporter starts its day 3 daily with the headline, “AFM Dealmakers in Revolt! ‘There’s Nothing for Us’”, I’m glad I didn’t make the trek.
I predicted that when Hulu came online that VOD would be the future for independent film. Now in 2017, Amazon and Netflix are the saviors of independent film. Television, whether terrestrial, cable or VOD, has taken so many A and B+ actors out of the independent film world to the more lucrative TV industry. So what’s left? Well, to quote from The Hollywood Reporter’s day 3 daily, “A lack of big-name, must-have projects is leading to plenty of grumbling at the market, with some buyers wondering if this year marks the ‘death knell’ for the indies. Says one frustrated insider: ‘It’s B-, C- and D-quality stuff’”.
If you read the dailies from the film markets you know the hundreds, if not thousands, of films that are looking for some sort of home. Something to recoup the investment that has been put up for someone’s dream. This is an industry of dreams envisioned and dreams realized. It’s important, for obvious reasons, that we keep the dream alive.
In my view the dream will be kept alive with a good story. Plain. Simple. To the point. Star driven independent films only do one thing, drive up the cost of the film with no guarantee of return at the box office. That’s fact, not fiction.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind my goal from day one was to produce it myself (with investors of course). Sure, I presented it to some production companies, but the feedback was unreal. There is this assumption that after you do all the hard work you somehow need their help. Here is a recent email I received from a production company, “I didn’t had the chance to look in details at the project as they seem to be in too early stage for us. Don’t hesitate to keep us posted when you will have a budget, cast, financial plan.” Putting aside the horrid grammar, the question begs to be asked, “And I need you why after I’ve done all this work?” The answer is simple, I don’t need you.
Producing a film is not rocket science. You just need a good script and capital. Done. Yes, it is that simple. The “rocket science” comes up if you’ve never produced because there are countless details you need to know, particularly when it comes to post-production (sound engineering anyone?). It also can get involved if you decide to use a named actor and have to deal with the myriad issues around that. Seriously, at the end of the day a filmmaker just wants to see their dream come to life. Having produced four films (3 shorts and 1 feature) and seeing them come to life on the silver screen is a feeling like none other.
Tomorrow I start to write this new feature with the same production aim as Justice Is Mind. The title of this new feature may have the word First in it, but thankfully it will be the fifth.
I can’t take credit for this week’s blog post title. I lifted it from Audrain Automobile Museum’s email promoting their third production of Cars & Coffee in partnership with the Preservation Society of Newport County. Yesterday’s outing took us to the beautiful Chateau-sur-Mer.
This type of production is a win-win for both the museum and the society. First, in a very cool way, they draw traffic to these storied mansions of yesteryear. Second, the auto museum gets the message past their beautiful location on Bellevue Avenue. Needless to say, I highly recommend visiting the museum and the mansions the next time you are in Newport.
I’m not sure who created the idea for this event but it’s a brilliant promotion. Marketing and event production should be seamless and effortless in its look. When the consumer arrives it should just appear that the event happened, rather than feeling forced. When they are at the event it’s a welcoming atmosphere with like-minded people. When they leave, they are looking forward to the next production.
This past week I was talking to a potential new marketing client. Sadly, he was one of these overly analytical types who didn’t want to listen to anyone except his inner ego. He couldn’t understand why his product wasn’t selling. I suppose I could have told him that his inner ego isn’t a customer. I passed on working with him.
While I go for the cars, it’s really the conversations I enjoy the most. I’ve been working on a production idea in Newport and for the first time I mentioned it to a few attendees. Is this market research? Absolutely. If you can’t interest those that live in that world why develop it.
As some may recall, when I had the idea for a political thriller around the sport of figure skating I went to the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston last year. After talking to a variety of insiders and former colleagues, I wrote Serpentine. Serpentine: The Short Program can be streamed on Amazon or the Ice Network.
With Marche Du Film (Cannes) coming up, I always find it interesting to learn about the new players while reading about the fate of others. No doubt in the weeks ahead we will read in the trades about the big splash of a new company’s star driven acquisition or the sorry story of others that used to hold court on private yachts. Having been to Cannes many years ago (not for the festival) the location is truly a stunning one to announce a major project.
There is no question that this is an industry of flash. When you have good news to announce you do so publicly, loudly and in grand fashion. The whole point is to cut through the noise to get your project noticed. As I’ve said time and time again, this industry is as much about making motion pictures as it is about promoting them. This is why in so many cases when you see a production budget you multiply it by itself for marketing and public relations.
But then there are the rest of us that aren’t making $175 million motion pictures (at least not yet!). What filmmakers like me rely on is reliable consistent revenue from VOD. While so many players come and go in this industry, we rely on VOD platforms to be there year after year. Although sites like Netflix are in a public relations battle with Cannes, Amazon is playing by the rules and, “was not coming to the South of France “looking to disrupt Cannes,” adding, “You have to approach Cannes on its own terms.”
And while Cannes is one of the world’s greatest launching pads for a film, there are VOD sites like TubiTV that are also making waves. Just this past week the site announced a $20 million outside investment. Justice Is Mind has been on TubiTV for several months and has started to gain some solid traction. I’ve also noticed an increase in traffic for Justice on other VOD sites. All these upticks bode well for the industry as a whole. It shows that consumers are watching across a variety of platforms and it doesn’t matter if they are star driven $100 million plus budgets or films made for under $100K. At the end of the day audiences want to be entertained and they want the choice to be theirs.
But as the industry enters a new season it’s a review of my current projects First World, SOS United States, Serpentine and In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind. Are my websites updated? Do they convey the current status of each project? You know what they say about first impressions, you only get one to make one.
There is, however, a cardinal rule that I live by. I never disclose who I’m talking to and who I submitted to. This is why I declined to respond to a local entertainment publication that reached out to me on one of my projects. This is like when actors announce who they just auditioned for (or what festivals a filmmaker submitted to). I promise you that doesn’t help you get the part any quicker. In fact, it can have an opposite result. The same holds true for behind the scenes conversations. Sure, the trades like to know what’s going on, but confidentiality is paramount.
However, I will say this. The world’s largest oversees mobile player picked up Justice Is Mind from our distributor earlier this year. But until it’s live, I’ll hold on the formal announcement.
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.
The media has reported. The DVD has been tested. We have a green board on Amazon. The file has been transferred to the Ice Network. No, this isn’t LC 39 at Kennedy Space Center, it’s the preparation for the world premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program tomorrow night at The Strand Theatre and on Amazon and the Ice Network the following day.
When launch day, or better known in the industry as “release date” arrives for a film, that’s when the story you’ve worked on for so long is transferred to the audience. As Bill Sampson said in All About Eve, “You’re in a tin can.” Of course in this age the tin can reference is more about DCP and DVD.
This past week was just about some final details, finishing up the copy for various email templates and our official press release as part of the VOD launch on Tuesday. The highlight was this article that appeared in The Item. While national press is great for general awareness for VOD, there’s nothing like local press that can drive traffic to a theater. This newspaper circulates in Clinton and the neighboring towns.
Tomorrow night looks to be a star studded affair with many of the actors and crew from both films attending. I have to say I love these reunions. Not only does it give everyone a chance to catch up, but to see our collective efforts on the silver screen. And then there is the overlap. Audiences will see several of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind in Serpentine: The Short Program.
But with each project comes an expanded network and new processes. While Amazon certainly existed five years ago, the opportunity to distribute directly to several countries did not. Since Evidence premiered at the Strand, the number of VOD platforms has exploded. Not only does this mean the need for programming from TV shows and movies, but the ability to rise above the crowd and be heard.
Like Evidence that resulted in Justice Is Mind, the goal with Serpentine: The Short Program is to develop enough interest to produce the feature film version this year to release after the Winter Olympics in 2018. What this comes down to is building an audience and not getting lost in the crowd. When you consider that there are 10,000 – 50,000 films made a year, you can’t wait for an audience that may never find you, you have to tell them where you are.
As the saying goes, when opportunity knocks you take it. But none of this comes without passion, dedication and being steadfast for the long haul. A haul that can seem like forever until the day arrives.
Standby to launch.
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 have often stated that there is so much more into filmmaking than making the film itself. While one naturally wants a quality project that maximizes available resources, it’s also about getting the word out. Although social media helps, there is nothing like a media placement that drives awareness and needed attention. Thank you to the Ice Network and Community Advocate for that attention.
This past week Lois Elfman, my former business partner, wrote a great article for the Ice Network. This article was particularly important for a variety of reasons. First, in addition to the article itself, the Ice Network will also be streaming Serpentine: The Short Program after our March 6 premiere at the Strand Theatre. Second, from 1993 – 2004 Lois and I published a figure skating magazine. For nearly a decade it reigned as the world’s largest under our leadership. There wasn’t a skater, official, ISU member nation or skating club that didn’t know about it. But the Ice Network is today what we published yesterday. Indeed, it was an honor to see this article on their site as it reaches the sport on a worldwide basis.
It also important to mention that there was a third party to this story, albeit a bit behind the scenes this time. That would be acclaimed skating coach Thomas J. McGinnis who also was our business partner at the skating magazine. Tommy not only saw the vision I had for the magazine at the very beginning, but for Serpentine as well. Thus his much appreciated Executive Producer credit you will see when the film is released.
A film release not only consists of a marketing plan but a test. This past week I went to the Strand Theatre for a DVD test of Serpentine: The Short Program and a DCP test of Justice Is Mind. While the Strand screened Justice back in 2013 from a DVD, we now have the film in a DCP format. Both tests went great. I’ll say this, out of all the theaters I have screened Justice Is Mind the Strand presents the best picture and sound. There is nothing like seeing your film come to life on the big screen and that thrill was just as exciting with Serpentine.
Serpentine: The Short Program also got the green light from Amazon Instant Video this week. I say green light because that’s literally what happens with the circles on the Amazon platform when everything is cleared to go. We did have one red light as our original poster submission just said Serpentine. It had to also include The Short Program. Starting on March 7 the film will be available on Amazon in the United States, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria.
Finally, I will conclude this post with the importance of art. On Friday night my mother and I saw the acclaimed National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine at the famed Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA. Part of the program included Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 “From the New World” by Antonin Dvorak. One of my particular favorites. The strength, precision and passion in which the symphony played under the direction of Theodore Kuchar presented one of the most exciting symphony performances I have even seen.
I say strength because unless you live on another planet the continued existence of Ukraine hangs in the balance with the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimea to say nothing of the armed conflict on their Eastern border. I simply ask every American reading this blog, how would you feel if another country walked across our border and occupied part of our country? The proud history of the Ukrainian people existed long before the United States was even a thought. While this historic national symphony of a challenged peoples tours our great country, isn’t it time the United States helped restore the greatness of another before it’s too late?
Conduct music not war.
I will say one thing about frequent snowstorms in New England. It gives one plenty of time to follow up and organize. This is that time of year when one looks at their weather app not for the sun or rain, but when the next storm is coming. But go to a local grocery store the day before and you might think it’s the second coming, the day after a nuclear attack or other such apocalypse. If you’re visiting from out of the region when a storm is on the horizon, it really is something to see.
As for what’s on the horizon that would be the premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program on March 6 at the Strand Theatre and our VOD premiere on Amazon and other platforms on March 7. It’s a multi-layered marketing plan with a dual local and national push. But if it’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s about the follow up.
Whenever I pitch the media it always starts with an email. This gives an editor or reporter time to consider what I’m presenting. Sometimes coverage comes from just the email pitch. But I’ve found that a follow up call a few days later puts a personal touch to it. In today’s world of the endless pitch combined with the challenge of resources afforded by most outlets, a phone call can make the difference.
I think the one thing everyone can agree on is that we are bombarded by media alerts, postings, email and text on a non-stop basis when we first wake up. What’s important and what isn’t. What gets attention and what doesn’t. I do believe that when you put the personal touch of a call to what you’re presenting, it makes you stand out a bit more than the rest. Just this past week, I had some great conversations with editors about Serpentine and other interesting subjects.
This is the time of year of the awards shows and the film markets like Berlin. As I normally do when the markets are running, I read the daily reports in The Hollywood Reporter. They give a great insight into trends and what is and isn’t selling. It’s always interesting to me to follow a film from concept to film market to theatrical release. This is not a quick process by any means. As I’ve often said, the actual production of the film is the easy, and fun, part. It’s the pre and post production along with the release strategy that is the most time consuming. But being snowed in does give one plenty of time.
Tomorrow I formally announce the premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program and encore screening of Justice Is Mind for March 6. Yes, that means it begins with a press release, email newsletter and rollout of the marketing and public relations plan. This is when I substitute my director’s hat for that of distributor. In the world of being an independent filmmaker, wearing multiple hats is what’s it’s all about. My last bit as director on Serpentine are the nuances around the color correction that will be completed this week.
With our return to The Strand Theatre, I can’t help but reflect on the last several years. If I count both films, we are talking about over 220 people that have had some sort of part in bringing these projects to life. As I’ve often mentioned to fellow actors and filmmakers, the completion of films, their premieres and other associated milestones don’t happen regularly and should be embraced and enjoyed when they do. It’s very easy to read the trades and see the results of the end product, but for anyone that has produced or directed, I promise there was a long road to that point. For Serpentine, this has been a one year plus project. What started in January 2016 with the firing up of Final Draft will be seen in a month on the silver screen.
But what March 6 will represent to me is what’s possible in the real world of independent film. I say real world, because there wasn’t a seven figure budget involved in these projects (or even six ). In the real world it’s about collaboration to make a project possible. It’s also about working with those that share your vision. It’s about pushing the envelope to the edge with the resources you have to see it come to life on the silver screen.
Speaking of the silver screen, I was reading this article in the Mirror about the new golden age of picture houses. I fondly remember the world premiere of Justice Is Mind in 2013 at the Palace Theater in Albany, NY that was built in 1930. As for the Strand Theatre it was built in 1924 as a vaudeville theater. There’s something about their vaulted ceilings and ornate designs that make any screening in these venues a memorable one. The trend mentioned in the article can allay any fears about VOD ending the need for theaters.
As I’ve often stated, both theaters and VOD can easily co-exist and well they should. The industry didn’t come to end when TV was invented or when VHS came to market. In fact, they enhanced the industry. They created a secondary market for additional returns. But now it’s Amazon, Netflix and others that are in so many ways leading the industry for independent film. Who would have thought an online platform would finance a film only to have them first distribute it theatrically before landing on their platform. It’s just another example of how this industry modernizes itself without losing sight of where it all started.
But sometimes modernization comes with needed adjustment. I was delighted to learn that IMDb.com is shutting down their discussion boards. The boards were mostly a cesspool of hate filed bitter comments by faceless trolls. While the consumer review section enhances a film, the discussion boards did nothing for the experience. For a company like IMDb it’s about manpower, monitoring and deleting hate filled posts, baseless facts and lord knows what else. Oh but when they did delete, the poster cries like it’s their right to do whatever they want wherever they want. It’s not censorship it’s about defacing a property that is not yours. Try walking on to the property of your next door neighbor and shouting your opinions from the top of your lungs. You would be rightly arrested. You want your right to free speech? Go to your own Facebook page (even they have terms and conditions), start a blog, yell from your property or better yet just go to the public town square and see if anyone cares. Because until you put your name to it nobody does because you don’t exist.
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.
In Serpentine the name of the fictional skating association is The American Figure Skating Federation. In the real world it’s called U.S. Figure Skating. It seems fitting that as I continue work on the domestic and international marketing plans for Serpentine, the United States and Canadian national figure skating championships are underway.
The one major difference between the fictional world of Serpentine and the reality of today’s skating world is that there are no lyrics in Serpentine’s skating music. When I was at World’s last year and heard more than one skater perform to the theme of Titanic with dialogue from the film after the ship sank (with sinking skating performances to match), what do you even say except ‘Who approved this?’ Imagine offering the movie Airport ’77 on a transatlantic flight. Sorry, I just digressed.
This past week I continued building out the marketing and launch plans for Serpentine. Indeed it’s like building a federation of sorts. By one definition a federation is “the action of forming states or organizations into a single group with centralized control.” Given the political climate we can forget “the state” for a moment and just focus on organization. Yes, I strongly believe in centralized control especially when marketing a product. Many years ago it was magazines, now its film. In today’s challenging film market there’s no question that you need a well thought out plan with some sort of hook to market a film.
With Sundance well underway I’m starting to see articles in the trades and consumer press about the new complexities surrounding the distribution of independent films. Yes, there are those films like Hidden Figures that find a growing following. Then there are those like Silence that literally fall silent at the box office. For Hidden Figures the marketing was clear and powerful, the untold story of African-American women “computers” in the early years of NASA’s space program. For Silence there were too many articles about the director complaining about budget and pay.
We are no longer just filmmakers we are marketers. Last week I talked about living in a bubble. While the accolades at film festivals are certainly welcoming and inspiring, it does come down to translation into the real world. In the world of Serpentine, that means the primary VOD platform will be Amazon Prime, with marketing to include all the member nations of the International Skating Union with a primary focus on select other countries.
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).
From the World Figure Skating Championships to the Naval Justice School, 2016 has been a whirlwind of a year. And between these events was the figure skating political thriller Serpentine. From script, to production to media coverage, Serpentine has certainly set the stage for 2017.
I’m never one to make New Year’s resolutions. Instead I look at what was accomplished in any given year. For me, there needs to be at least the creation of a new project or perhaps some interesting acting or on camera work. Thankfully for 2016 there was a bit of both.
Of course we had this thing in the United States called a presidential election. But you can’t define your entire existence over who won or lost. Putting aside that it narrows your world and opportunities, the country goes on no matter who wins or loses. The great thing about the American presidency is every four years we change hands (sometimes). As Scarlett O’Hara would say, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
As for another day, post production on Serpentine is moving right along and on schedule. We are into the second draft of the edit and I signed off on the opening credits VFX sequence yesterday. And generally speaking a good amount of the film has been scored. The post-production process of any film (short or feature), takes coordination. Are all the parties on the same page? Is communication flowing from one department to the next? I’ll say this there is a comfort level working with the same parties that brought Justice Is Mind to life.
In addition to Serpentine, 2017 will usher in some personal changes. I renewed my membership in SAG-AFTRA a couple of months ago for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say I see more trips to NYC next year. One of the benefits to membership is being able to vote in the SAG Awards and getting DVD screeners. Like the election, I’ll just leave it as what film isn’t getting my vote.
But for any given year it comes down to moving the needle just a bit in the direction I want to go in. I don’t try to push for the “all or nothing” approach as that can just set you up for disappointment. Do I outline goals for the near year? Certainly. Are they resolutions? No. Frankly, I’ve never understood those that proclaim with all the caps they can on social media at the start of any year that they’re going to quit X or move to Y! Um, how about just do it for yourself whenever and see where it goes. You won’t know until YOU try not when your “friends” approve.
Sure there’s been some disappointments this year. It wasn’t all champagne and caviar. But there’s no point dwelling on the past or those that tried to check all these bags of drama onto my ship (sorry we’re full up!). Like the car accident I was in. As I thankfully walked away, you just move on (cue Scarlett O’Hara again with score).
In closing it was great to see the reach of this blog across the world for another year. Your support of these words is very much appreciated. And to you and yours across this great planet…
Happy New Year!