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Serpentine

First Day

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Stock footage that was used in Serpentine.

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.

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A still from First World. The Presidential Suite at the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, 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.

Now casting.

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A still from Serpentine: The Short Program. The Brandenburg Gate pictured from the Cold War era, is also an Easter Egg in relation to Justice Is Mind and its star Vernon Aldershoff (standing). In Serpentine he played an FBI Assistant Director. In Justice Is Mind he played Henri Miller with part of his story originating in Berlin, Germany during WWII.


Original Stock

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This opening shot in First World was created by the director for another program. As he owned the footage, he used it for this scene.

Writing an original story is by no means an easy process. There are times when I think and rethink various elements to make sure they flow. Does this transition from that transition make sense? Am I carrying the story forward and adding something with each moment? Even though I’m writing fiction, I always ask myself would people act and respond this way in “real life”?

But at one point it starts to click. For this story it happened around page twenty. While I have the general outline for act one, two and three (Yes, I believe in the three act structure), it’s the journey these characters take that will make the story what it is.

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This shot of the FBI in Washington, D.C. for Serpentine has also been seen in Madam Secretary.

But one thing that is easy, is creating worlds that are larger than they appear or you have the budget for.  With every film I’ve produced (and some commercials), I always use stock footage. From the White House in First World, to Reincar Scientific in Justice Is Mind to the FBI in Serpentine, it’s a simple purchase from one of the stock footage houses.

Most stock footage is very affordable. However, there are times when it can get pricey. Case in point was footage from the Nuremberg Trials after World War II in Justice Is Mind. In addition to the footage, I also had to obtain it at a certain aspect ratio.  But in today’s modern world of filmmaking, it’s amazing what’s available if you just look for it.

As this story largely takes place in one room, it will be stock footage that takes us out of the scene to illustrate certain moments of the story.  Why ask the Department of Defense if you can film a B-2 taking off from Whiteman Air Force Base if you can just acquire the footage for $79.

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In Justice Is Mind one of the characters is leaving Germany for the United States.

I remember after Justice Is Mind was released, I was asked by someone in the industry if I went to Logan International Airport in Boston to film planes taking off.  I remember jokingly responding that it was a real pain in the ass to get over all the fences and position myself with a cameraman at the end of the runway. I think they thought I was serious. Oh well.

As I dove back further in the First World story and archives, I came across a time in 2008 when certain funding commitments were imminent for the production of the film (it was going to be part of a slate of films with a particular producer). But then the global recession took hold and literally decimated the film industry (particularly on the independent side).  At the time it was disappointing, but everything happens for a reason.

It’s interesting how one is turned to a particular story. When the idea came to me during my moments at the Naval Justice School about developing a story in a one location environment, something drew me back to First World. Was it the military aspects of that story? The fact that I’ve already created these characters? Who knows, the one thing I never ask myself is why. I just write.

Next scene.

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Although Reincar Scientific is a fictional company, this building actually exists in Berlin, Germany.


In Line

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Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier in Justice Is Mind. Two of the most brilliant actors I have ever worked with.

It’s not fashionable for actors to not learn their lines. Your number one job requirement when cast in anything is to learn lines. If you refuse to do that, please find another occupation or avocation.

When I read this interview with Bill Nighy (one of my favorite actors) that is has become “fashionable” for actors to not learn their lines, I always wonder where such nonsense started. Seriously, how do you execute a film (forget a play) when an actor doesn’t have their lines down? This is akin to a Director of Photography not interested in operating a camera.

Over the years I have unfortunately come across actors and performers that think it’s OK not to be prepared. Being unprepared is not only disrespectful to those in the cast and crew that have done their homework, but as a director I’ll never cast you in anything.

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Robin Ann Rapoport and Vernon Aldershoff in Justice Is Mind with Michele Mortensen and Richard Sewell.

As a writer/director I do have to count myself lucky with the actors I have cast in my films. Out of the four films I’ve produced, only two of the actors arrived to set without having their lines memorized to say nothing of having read the script.

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Vern and Robin in Evidence. Two excellent actors reunited in Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program.

In one of my short films I was very excited to work with a particular actor who was also a producer/director. I was incensed when not only didn’t he have his lines memorized, but laughed it off in the process. Didn’t he care that there were about 15 people on set that saw this behavior? It was during that moment that I was reminded of a student film I was in the year before. One of the actors I had a scene with made a big deal that actors need to know their lines. I kid you not when our scene started he didn’t have his lines memorized at all. He thought it was cool. I was having none of it. Needless to say when he submitted for Justice Is Mind his submission was deleted.

This being said, ALL the actors I worked with in Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program had their lines brilliantly memorized. For those that have seen Justice you know it was a dialogue heavy production. The courtroom scenes alone were basically one monologue after another. Their preparation and professionalism made the production a smooth one resulting in an on time and under budget finish. Professionalism (which has nothing to do with union status) goes a long way.

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This one still from Serpentine: The Short Program features the stars of Justice Is Mind.

However, responsibility also falls to the director as well. Whenever I put a film into production, I always make sure the actors have received their scripts well in advance. Isn’t that my job? To give actors the tools they need to succeed? I can’t blame actors for not having their lines down if I don’t deliver them in a timely fashion.

Case in point I was approached this past week to be in a film that was shooting this week. Before I committed the director confessed they were still “tweaking” the script and it should be ready shortly. What the hell does that mean? Do I get it the day before? Or day of! Needless to say, I declined to be involved. I’m sorry, if you can’t get your act together on the production side, you’re asking for a disaster on set. Honestly, this isn’t rocket science.

Professionals.

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Jeffrey Phillips as the President with Lindy Nettleton as the Prime Minister in First World.  As a first time writer/director, I count myself lucky to have worked with these two professionals. Jeffrey was also in Justice Is Mind.


The Fall

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The Justice Is Mind sound wave as artwork by Daniel Elek-Diamanta.

Although fall doesn’t officially start until the 22nd, for most of us in New England, it starts after the Labor Day weekend. While I like the summer, I love the fall. It’s also the time of year when I tend to be the busiest.

This week starts another class at the Naval Justice School. In addition to falling back into my character as a Special Agent of NCIS, I’ll also be directing the mock-trial program on site for the agencies that retained us. I have to say this is one acting job I always look forward to. As the majority of the same actors have returned from the previous class, I think the same can be said for all involved.

What makes this a unique gig for actors is the ability to play a character for 11 days. As these are role-playing parts, once you have the situation memorized it makes for a great opportunity to really bring a character to life. The atmosphere of the school alone is what makes it engaging as a performer.

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Justice Is Mind expands to Udu Digital!

As for law and engagement, I learned this week that Kinonation, our distributor for Justice Is Mind, secured another outlet with Udu Digital. From their email to me, “Udu is an ad supported (AVOD) streaming service available on the Roku media player that’s used by over 13 million people every month in the US.”  It’s always nice to see another outlet picking up my first feature film!

And feature film is what the fall is also about. With the Toronto International Film Festival in full swing it’s always interesting to see what deals are struck. One film that did great was Chappaquiddick with a $20 million commitment. As a Massachusetts resident most of us know of the story chronicled in this film. It will be interesting to see how this film does in the state versus the rest of the country. At the end of the day the Kennedy name is nationally known. So that alone will carry some of the marketing.

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A behind the scenes shot when I was being taped for ESPN’s The Price of Gold.

But name and marketing will be key with one other film that is gaining substantial traction at the festival. That would be I, Tonya starring Margot Robbie.  While the film has been well reviewed, it has been reported that the film arrived to the festival without distribution. Of course that may have already changed, but the real question is this – what are the commercial aspects to one of the darkest moments in figure skating history?

In addition to being at the event in Detroit in 1994, I know some of the players involved (Nancy Kerrigan in particular). I was also interviewed for ESPN’s The Price of Gold documentary in 2014 about the incident. Part of me says this story has already been told…countless times. Is this the only story that figure skating can tell or could this mean a broader interest in movies around the sport? It’s impossible to tell at this point. And, you guessed it, I’m monitoring these developments because of Serpentine.

Finally, I wrap up this week’s post with a great piece of artwork from Daniel Elek-Diamanta. This is the sound wave from Justice Is Mind, Daniel’s first composing gig. He wanted a unique wallpaper for his computer. I’d say he struck the right chord!

Newport.

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Back to Newport this week!


Feature Presentation

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There is that moment in a theater when the words “Feature Presentation” come up just before the picture starts. Certainly as a theatregoer we’re excited to see the film, but as a filmmaker it’s a rush—particularly when it’s your movie.  That rush happened for me when Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program screened together at The Strand Theatre in March. Ask any filmmaker and they’ll tell you, there’s nothing like seeing your film on the silver screen.

But for all the accolades that come with making a feature film, there are significant challenges that theatregoers don’t necessarily concern themselves with. The recent articles on Broad Green and Open Road chronicle the times ahead for some. While the capital to produce is there, it’s the net return that’s the issue. Thus consolidation or, in the case of Broad Green, production shut down. In my view it comes down to a reasonable budget with a solid marketing plan tied to distribution. To turn a phrase from Ron Popeil you can’t “Make it and forget it”.

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Producing my first film First World back in 2006. At the Commonwealth Hotel in Boston.

I met with a colleague a few weeks ago who wants to make his first feature film. He’s a talented filmmaker who has made some award winning short films. A short film is one thing, a feature is an entirely other animal. His concerns were numerous—completing the script, managing a crew, finance and distribution. Basically it comes down to taking that leap of faith. You have to believe in yourself and your own capabilities. Yes, you rely on others, but as Luc Besson said you have to be the General of the Army. Look at any film in production from the low budget independent to the major studio release, the entire project revolves around the director. This isn’t to say that the director acts unilaterally, they too have to report to someone or at least adhere to a structure.

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Behind the scenes of Serpentine: The Short Program.

As for structure and directing, I’m looking forward to returning as site supervisor for the Naval Justice School’s mock trial program in Newport, RI. Yes, it’s directing of a sort, but it’s just as much as adhering to the structure of their program. What I enjoy about this program is that it’s neither film nor stage, it gives me the opportunity to roleplay a character over multiple days without a set script rather a set of circumstances and situation. As director it’s generally to make sure that the actors have an understanding of this process as it’s not stage or film. There’s no call to action and cut, rather you are in character when in the school. My supervisory role is essentially making sure everyone shows up on time, answer related questions and to follow the rules of the base and the agency that has hired us.

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From behind the scenes to on screen. This scene is one of the primary media stills for Serpentine

One thing about this industry that I enjoy is the variety of opportunity it affords. Whether directing a film, writing a screenplay or working on a military base, it’s about being well-rounded. The one thing that has helped enormously with my work in Newport was the years I spent doing TV interviews (many live). While there was no script, there was a subject matter and certain facts I had to adhere to. My point is that whatever the work is, it’s about the accumulation of experience because who knows what that next part will be.

Casting.

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Back to Newport next month!


The Star

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From the opening credits of Serpentine. Tommy’s name racing along the ice.

On Sunday my friend and business partner Thomas J. McGinnis passed away after a long illness. For so many that knew him he was our North Star. A light that guided us throughout our careers.

Back in 1993 Tommy took a chance and believed in my vision for an international newsmagazine for the sport and art of figure skating. It wasn’t just his financial support that breathed life into this venture, it was the stature he commanded in figure skating and the numerous personalities and “stars” he introduced me to.

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With Tommy and Lois at The 25 Most Influential Names in Figure Skating. 2002. New York City. We produced this star-studded event in a theater.

I’ll still never forget that day. Here I was at a skating conference to give a presentation on what I planned to do. No sooner was it over when Tommy came up to me and said “Do you need an investor?” As a fledgling entrepreneur, I certainly did! Of course I knew who Tommy was. You couldn’t be involved in skating without knowing the name. Simply, his was a name that yielded grace, style and importance.

While so many judged my ability to pull off this venture, Tommy never questioned it. He used to tell me he knew a star when he saw one. I didn’t quite know what he meant at the time, but it didn’t take long for the magic that was Tom’s coaching on and off the ice to have its effect on me. He was filled with wonderful witticisms. One of the earliest bits of advice he gave me was, “Be available, but not too available.”

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Tom McGinnis and Tom Collins at a skating reception. Collins produced Champions on Ice.

Over the ensuing years, and with my other business partner Lois Elfman, we built a multi-million dollar media company that eventually saw the title available in over 60 countries. For years it was the world’s largest for the sport. Indeed, it was a venture we were all proud of. I fondly remember the days when Tom would visit the office or call. No matter who I was on the phone with, they were quickly placed on hold. This was Tommy calling and I was available!

Sadly, in 2004, we lost the company in a brutal hostile takeover from a predator investor who bought up our securities and foreclosed. In one day, a decade plus enterprise was over. Over 20 of us lost our jobs. Worse, Tommy lost his investment.  My God, how do I make that call? What do I say to this man who gave so much? Who believed in me?

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Todd Sand and Jenni Meno with Tommy at an event we sponsored.

When I made the call his first response was, “How are you?” How was I? How was I. With the emotional turmoil that Lois and I went through the months preceding, someone asked how we were. That was the type of person Tommy was. He was a coach. He knew that not every performance ended in a gold medal. He knew there were just as many difficult days as there were great ones. He knew the peaks and valleys of life. He imparted all this knowledge onto his students.

After the company, Tom and I were frequently in touch as friends. There were so many things we would joke about. I always wondered how old Tommy was. His response was as accurate as it was witty, “I’m older than you and younger than Dick Button.” OK!  As for Dick Button, it was Tommy who introduced me to him at Skates of Gold in 1993. Tommy knew everyone!

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At The 25 Most Influential names in Figure Skating. 2002. New York City.

Very few of us know the impact someone has had on us until an end is coming. Tommy’s investment bought me an education in the real world. I’ve often remarked that I wouldn’t have been able to produce a feature film had I not had the experience of running a company.

Over the last few days I’ve been looking at Tommy’s emails to me.  I can’t help think of the kindness and generosity this man imparted to me and so many others. Never a judgement, but a lesson. Never a criticism, but encouragement.  Let’s say I’ve shared many the tear. To be frank, he was the father figure I looked up to and admired. Someone who I could talk to and not be afraid.

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With Rosalynn Sumners at a Champions on Ice reception.

Tommy’s words of wisdom and support continued when I put Justice Is Mind into production. One of his emails read, “Mark, how wonderful. Best wishes for success” and on one of our screenings, “Mark, well done!  Congratulations and wishing you the best in success.” Making a feature film is not easy by a long shot, but knowing that Tommy was there wishing for the best was just another element that made that project go in the positive direction that it did.

When I announced my return to figure skating with Serpentine in 2016, Tommy wanted to be involved. He must have figured out that I do my best writing in the morning when he once responded, “You are an early riser. I thought the stars appeared only at night?” It was wonderful to add his name as an Executive Producer. It was like we had come full circle in our work together. When the Associated Press syndicated a story about Serpentine Tommy’s response was quick, “A hot property.”

In April I brought him a copy of Serpentine. I knew his health was failing. But he wanted to stay engaged. It was hard seeing a man so full of life slowing slipping from this world. There were many things we talked about. I left that day feeling sad. Waving goodbye to a friend I wasn’t sure I would see again.

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After a toast to Tommy. With Lois Elfman in New York City on Wednesday.

A few days passed and an email came in from him, “Enjoyed Serpentine very much. T.”  That email meant the world to me. A couple of emails after Tommy told me about his devastating health news while also promoting a friend who was appointed to the presidency of the Julliard School. That was Tommy, always thinking of and promoting others.  Our last email exchange was when I was updating him on some plans for Serpentine. His response “Great. Tom. XXX”

I did see Tommy about two weeks ago when he was in hospice. I thanked him again for our friendship and for believing in me. I held his hand and told him not to worry about anything.

While Tommy loved to be around stars and create them, indeed he was The Star. The rest of us simply orbited around him.  For those of us that were fortunate to come into his orbit, we were his students whether we realized it or not. From on ice to off, Tommy had a knack for discovering and nurturing talent. It was a rare gift. To turn a phrase from Auntie Mame, he invited us to his banquet so we never starved.

I will miss my mentor and friend. A voice in my life is now gone. But with Tommy’s performance and tutelage in this world transferred to another, perhaps it’s time we score his life while he was with us.

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Serpentine‘s world premiere poster. Thomas J. McGinnis Executive Producer.


New Direction

Denise Marco and Isabella Ramirez in Serpentine

Denise Marco and Isabella Ramirez in Serpentine.

This past week I was contracted to direct some commercial shoots through an ad agency. From a farm, to a school and a bank, each was a different experience. The talent for these shoots were “real” people not actors. The one thing that non-actors bring to a commercial for their own company is authenticity. If they don’t believe in what they’re selling who is? They also aren’t trying to create a character, they already are one.

All my films have had non-actors. In First World it was the equestrian. In Evidence it was a scientist as a court stenographer. In Justice Is Mind it was the pizza shop owner and MRI technicians. In Serpentine it was the skater and skating coach. In my view as long as you don’t ask for too much range, it usually works out fine. But that being said, it doesn’t matter if they are actors or non-actors, it all comes down to organization and coaching a performance.

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Brittany Wilkinson in First World.

There are some directors that are all about an obsessive amount of direction. I’ve seen this first hand as a performer. Sometimes I understand the level of detail they want, but often it’s just to demonstrate to everyone what title they hold on set. For me, if I don’t have any comment for an actor I’m directing that means it was OK with me. Particularly for non-actors, you have to find an emotional place for them to exist without thinking they are performing. For actors, who tend to analyze everything, I believe less is more. But in all cases, my one requirement is believability and when required a memorization of lines.

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Kim Merriam in Evidence.

In one of my films, one actor, who had the script for at least two months, arrived on set with almost no lines memorized. To say I was frustrated was beyond description, but the actor he played opposite was a true professional and thankfully picked up where he couldn’t. It was so bad, that we had to tape his lines to a window and shoot from an angle!

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Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier in Justice Is Mind.

As for lines, when I wrote Justice Is Mind the characters of Constance Smith and John Darrow had literal monologue after monologue and numerous other scenes with complex dialogue. But when Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier auditioned they brought such a realism to the characters that even I didn’t envision when I wrote the parts. It is no coincidence that I cast them opposite each other in Serpentine: The Short Program. At the end of the day, this is what a director lives for when casting—knowing you can cast actors without an audition.

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Paul Lussier and Kim Gordon in Serpentine: The Short Program.

This past week’s shooting reminded me of days long past when I directed my first TV commercial. It was a direct response spot for ESPN in the 1990s for the figure skating magazine I published. I fondly remember sitting in the editing booths with technicians going over one cut after another to a previously recorded narrator’s voice from a script I wrote. At the time I didn’t really know I was the director, but when I think about it they kept asking me if everything looked OK or if I wanted to try something different.  I now realize that they were training me on directing.

As they say, it all starts somewhere. And that’s what I told the talent I was interviewing this past week. Some may never be on-camera again, but there may be one or two who will remember the experience years from now when they are on network television.

Action.

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I just finished updates to SOS United States. This new poster was designed by Daniel Elek-Diamanta.


Motors & Mansions

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My Pontiac Solstice at Chateau-sur-Mer

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.

Next trip.

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Chateau-sur-Mer


New Season

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In Serpentine the climax of the story happens at the world figure skating championships in Moscow.

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.

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In First World all communication platforms in the United States are being monitored.

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.

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In SOS United States an F35 from the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier goes to intercept an ocean liner that may have a nuclear bomb on board.

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.”

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In Mind We Trust, SOS United States, Serpentine and First World center around Washington, D.C.

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.

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In SOS United States the SS United States returns as the Leviathan.

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.

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In Serpentine the FBI has been following a champion figure skater as part of an unresolved Cold War mystery.

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.

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Where do they come from in First World.

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.

Presentation.


First Decade

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The view of Earth from Lunaria in First World.

Although I wrote a screenplay when I was in grade school (I wonder where that is), First World was my first “professional” effort. Aside from my passion for all things NASA and my love of science fiction, I’m not sure where the initial idea came from. It was in 2006 and I was living in Los Angeles at the time. Before I knew it I purchased Final Draft and just started to write. Many months and drafts later First World was born. Great, I finished a screenplay now what do I do with it.

Just because I was living in Los Angeles it didn’t guarantee any more access than if I was living on a remote island. So I started to submit my screenplay to film festivals and by my shock it was being selected. When First World was nominated for Best Screenplay at the California Independent Film Festival in 2007 I figured I was on to something. Did I win? No. But being nominated was good enough for me.

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In First World China launches Tsien One to the Moon in 2018.

In so many ways I think it’s good to start out in this industry being a bit naïve. But one does learn quickly. Raising money for a feature film was harder than writing an original story, much harder. But I wanted to at least introduce part of the story to develop interest in the concept. So, I condensed the story and produced a 25 minute short film version with my friend Adam Starr. Since First World Adam has been part of all my films.

After the short was produced in 2007 I found myself presenting it at sci-fi conventions around the world. It soon found itself in India as the only film at the inaugural First Ever National Discussion on Science Fiction. As a magazine publisher, I knew distribution and promotion. This was one area of filmmaking that I didn’t shy away from. Suffice to say I was relentless in introducing this project to anyone that would take the time to read what I was pitching. Some paid attention, most didn’t, but those that did just continued to build awareness for the project. In the end First World screened at 21 sci-fi conventions.

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Getting ready for a First World screening in Los Angeles in 2007.

Some years later when the VOD world started to emerge an upstart website called hulu was born. Through my distributor IndieFlix I got First World on the site. There was something quite glorious to see First World run on VOD with ad interruptions. Remember, it’s either advertising or a subscription fee that pays for these services. Filmmaking and the VOD platforms are not a free enterprise!

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After the hulu run I placed First World on Amazon’s Create Space. It was a relatively new service, but I was all about experimenting. Soon after Amazon ripped First World from our submitted DVD (yup that’s the way they got it on their system in those days). It took about three months but then it happened…my first payment from Amazon. Every month since I’ve been paid something from Amazon Create Space for First World.

But then something else happened in 2016—Amazon announced Amazon Video Direct. Short of it, filmmakers could now take advantage of the same system that distributors did. All we had to do was enter the required data, upload poster, film, trailer, closed caption file and presto we are worldwide across all of Amazon’s platforms. It took quite a bit of doing, but I was able to render a large enough file for First World.

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First World on Amazon Prime in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Japan.

First World has been on Amazon Video Direct for a year and has generated 464, 172 viewed minutes—translation this short film from 2007 has been watched over 17,000 times in the past year.

Since First World I have gone on to write, produce and direct three other films – Evidence, Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program—all of which are on Amazon Video Direct. But like this article that recently ran about Amazon Studios, I also believe in theatrical distribution. While VOD is a godsend to filmmakers, a theatrical release showcases a film.

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Some special effect work with closed caption file.

Am I still waiting to turn First World into a feature? Yes. But as Evidence brought forth my first feature film with Justice Is Mind, time will tell if that happens with First World and Serpentine. The entertainment industry teaches us patience and that it is ever changing and sometimes volatile. But there is one thing that this industry looks to when considering a project…

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Memory Avenue

IMAG1684I was walking down Park Avenue in New York City last Thursday on a way to a meeting and soon found myself strolling down memory lane. 3 Park Avenue started to loom higher and higher as I walked toward 20th street. It’s not the tallest building in the city by any measure, but the memory it holds for me was my first job in the big apple. The year was 1983 and it was a mailing list company. Of course it’s 2017 so I stopped to take a picture of the building and posted it to social media.

Time has flown since those early days. Did that first job help in my quest to become a magazine publisher years later? Did it lay some sort of foundation to my TV work? Then films? That of course is hard to tell, but I do believe every experience leads to another that builds to another. Some jobs we love and some we detest. At best we learn from the experience and move on. This first job was fine. It did teach me how mailing lists were sourced and sold.

The meeting I had was part of a larger goal of mine. Let’s just say that since I reactivated my SAG-AFTRA membership I’ve been looking into things.  But like so many I see on social media these days, I don’t broadcast every detail of my business activities until either a deal is done or it makes sense to do so. Seriously, why take the chance that a premature post could jeopardize a future opportunity (and don’t even get me started about those that take to social media complaining they didn’t get a part!)? Look none of us are perfect when it comes to social media. In the old days we would call our best friend and just rant on the phone, now it’s a quick post so the world can see…the world!

But while I was reflective of the past, I don’t live in it.  In those early days it was a literal production to get the word out on something. You had to hope that a radio station, newspaper or TV network picked up what you were pitching. Now you can broadcast live on social media. Indeed, it has democratized the world of promotion and is a godsend to the entertainment industry.

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With Lois Elfman at Dos Caminos in New York City.

Would I have been able to reach around the world with First World, Evidence, Justice Is Mind or Serpentine: The Short Program with the budget I had? Never. But like the days before social/electronic media, you still need a message. You just can’t post “watch me” you need to give someone a reason to in the first place. In my early days of publishing, my press releases would be faxed, now they are electronic. But they are press releases with the same general substance of title, summary and body.  The adage some things don’t change is true. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As for things not changing, a trip to New York wouldn’t be complete without meeting Lois Elfman, my former business partner, for dinner. It was over dinner twenty years ago when I mentioned to Lois my intention to start a figure skating magazine. Now decades later it’s other projects. My thanks to her again for the great article about Serpentine she wrote for the Ice Network and securing the film’s distribution on their VOD platform.

Next post.

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Dinner and a Show

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At “Mr. Burns” at The Wilbury Theatre in Providence.

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.

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Phoenyx Williams in “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” at The Wilbury Theatre Group; photo by Maggie Hall.

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.

Concept.

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The Marquee

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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.

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Serpentine: The Short Program on Amazon Prime in the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan.

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.

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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.

Thank you.

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Some of the cast and crew from Serpentine and Justice Is Mind on March 6, 2017 at The Strand Theatre.


Launch Pad

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Serpentine: The Short Program premieres tomorrow.

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.

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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 10,00050,000 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.

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Cover Story

sturbridge-villager-2Whenever 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.

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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.

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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.

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Back to Newport next week!


The Network

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The Strand  has already started promoting our March 6 screening.

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.

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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.

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The screen test of Serpentine at the Strand Theatre.

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.

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Mechanics Hall before the sold out audience arrived.

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.

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A 2014 photo from the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine’s website.


Follow Up

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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.

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The day we wrapped principal photography on Serpentine: The Short Program. Sturbridge, MA November 6, 2016.

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.

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Completing the closed captions on Serpentine for Amazon.

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.

Interviews.

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A Discussion

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Herbert Fuchs and Vernon Aldershoff in Serpentine.

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.

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Brooke Blahut in Serpentine.

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.

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Justice Is Mind on the marquee at the Palace Theater in Albany, NY

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.

Next post.


Serpentine Premiere

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Serpentine‘s VFX were completed this week.

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.

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At our Massachusetts premiere in 2013.

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.

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Serpentine introduces Denise Marco as Elizabeth Rogers and Isabella Ramirez as Suzanne Wilson.

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.

Marquee.

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World Building

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Kim Gordon stars as Marlene Baxter the president of the American Figure Skating Federation in Serpentine.

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.

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Since her mother disappeared five years ago the FBI has been following Suzanne Wilson.

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.

United States.

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Picture Lock

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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.

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Vernon Aldershoff and Michael Coppola in Serpentine.

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.

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With my mother just prior to the Boston SAG Awards screening of Jackie.

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).

Crossover.

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Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy.


Ice Market

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Serpentine will shortly go to picture lock.

With picture lock on Serpentine coming up probably this week, the marketing plan I’m putting in place for this film won’t exactly be created from scratch. Having published a consumer magazine in the sport for just over ten years, let’s just say I have a pretty good understanding of this market. Oh sure, things have changed over the years, but not that much. Case in point, I’ve been presenting the opening credits to a variety of industry insiders over the last couple of weeks.

But this project isn’t just targeted to the sport.  As a political thriller that traverses a variety of countries and covert situations, the aim is to reach a broader audience. As I state on our website Serpentine is “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Americans meet the sport of figure skating with a hint of Madam Secretary”.

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This shot from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy inspired the FBI conference room shot in Serpentine.

Of course since my time publishing magazines, we now have online streaming and social media. Both have been a godsend to the entertainment industry and a must for independent filmmakers like myself.  Platforms that are essentially free that reach around the world. Just over ten years ago, if I wanted to reach a market in a foreign country I had to buy premium newsstand placement and display ads. While the latter still has a place, geomarketing on social media is de rigueur.

But with these new mediums come a lot of noise. If you let it happen, it’s very easy to get caught up in someone’s vortex of whatever. Seriously, unless it’s somewhat business related or of personal interest to me, I just tune it out. I always make an effort to ask myself if what I’m posting is improving my brand or my business. Sure, we all have our positions on a variety of things and “milk toast” posts are boring, but it really comes down to how others are perceiving you. I know I’ve made more than a few social and business related decisions simply by what someone is posting.  Social media is like the SETI project. The majority of signals are just noise, but on occasion there is that “WOW” moment.

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This shot in Serpentine was inspired from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

On the marketing front it has been interesting watching a variety of screeners through the SAG Awards voting process. While some of these films have done an outstanding job of marketing, others have just failed miserably. Because I read the trades I generally know what the films are doing before they reach the market. Does that influence my vote? No. Because making a film is hard enough and if you are part of the voting process it should be watched.  There’s no question that I believe Arrival is a brilliant film in concept and execution and I’ve been more than public about my disdain for one filmed in my home state. But having started to watch Hidden Figures, the story simply grabs you right out of the gate. Or maybe I should have said the launch pad!

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But through all this I do see a bright future for independent film. Oh there are those that complain about this and about that. Financing has always been difficult and getting a film together can be just as involved as a Moon launch, but filmmakers are an innovative bunch. We cut through the noise, drive around the roadblocks, scale the brick walls and every other obstacle and persevere. To partially quote Theodore Roosevelt, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort…”

Next steps.

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New Credits

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Serpentine is on schedule for a February 2017 release.

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.

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With Ari Zakarian and Christine Brennan at World’s.

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.”

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How half the United States felt after the election. But, indeed, 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.

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Serpentine received front page coverage in the Telegram & Gazette with the story syndicated around the United States.

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.

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At a WWII Weekend.

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!

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The reach of The Ashton Times in 2016. Thank you for your support!


Naval Justice

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This past week I have received some curious inquiries on why I checked in on Facebook to the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island a couple times this week.  Over these next few weeks the school is conducting mock trials as part of their student training. I’m playing an NCIS agent. When you consider my interests in the military (the Navy in particular) and having written and directed Justice Is Mind, you can imagine my enthusiasm in being part of this project.

This is not like a stage production or even a film. In those mediums you generally stay in character for a set period and memorize a script. There is no script here. Instead, you are given a substantive background on your character and their actions during a particular time period. And, like any legal proceeding, you are given a variety of statements and other evidence to take in and, yes, memorize to the best of your ability.

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The Caine Mutiny court martial scene.

In one example, I was in front of a class of students who asked me countless questions over an hour relative to the case. By example, “What were your impressions when you interviewed X” “When you interviewed X about X, what did they say?” Again, there is no scripted answer. Of course, the key is to be consistent in your statements as the students can reference what you say.

I believe these role play opportunities are some of the best training actors can have. Not only do you have to create a world for this character, but background elements as well that fit into the narrative facts of the story. I’ll say this, it has helped that I’ve done live television and public speaking in the past. With this opportunity, I’m speaking to anywhere from five to fifty of various military rank as well as civilians. The atmosphere itself compels you to take the process seriously. There are, however, some moments of levity and the staff and students at the school are very welcoming and supportive. You can learn more about the Naval Justice School at this link.

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A still from Serpentine.

To put this in an entertainment context, most have heard of the TV series JAG and the movie A Few Good Men. But as those projects had a Director this has a Captain that directs the process. It’s been pretty cool learning what an NCIS agent really does. On another movie note, I can’t help but be reminded of the court martial scenes in The Caine Mutiny.

As for entertainment, Serpentine is in post-production with the same team that delivered Justice Is Mind. At this stage of the process, while they are doing their work, I’m planning the marketing program and distribution plans for the film’s release in early 2017.

Action.

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How we got that shot for Serpentine.