Yesterday I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in few years. The first thing he asked me was “How’s the writing going?” I told him about First Signal and a few other things going on. As he runs a successful business in Worcester, I asked him how the salon was. He responded “Busy.” I really didn’t have to ask him that because I know his salon is always busy. He’s been working on building his brand for years.
It took some years to build my brand in figure skating and equally as long as a writer and filmmaker outside of the sport. Building a brand isn’t something that happens overnight. It builds from one project to another. However, we now live in a world where people think that having a large social media following is a brand. Social media, in my view, is great for amplifying what you’re doing in the real world. But without a foundation of something, it’s just likes.
When I started to revive the First World Universe to write First Signal a few years ago, I realized after reviewing all my original material and the media we had at the time, that I created a unique brand. One with its own voice. With First Signal I finally had the opportunity to present this world as a feature film. The first in what I hope to be a series of films in the First World Universe.
With the trailer nearly complete, the marketing train will soon be leaving the station. Once it leaves it can’t come back. While post-production has been going on in earnest with countless notes with the editor, composer and VFX artist, I’ve been working out the marketing plans for the trailer and ultimately the feature. All of us on the post-production team know how important it is for the trailer to present the film. At the end of the day it’s about selling the feature.
As for the First World Universe, I’m just over the thirty-page mark for the sequel. This is the story that takes place before the events in First World. In my view, writing a sequel is no easy feat. You must balance the established characters and their stories with something new. I think one of the most interesting sequels was 2010 from the legendary 2001. Starring Roy Scheider, John Lithgow and Helen Mirren, 2010 created a wonderful “what if” possibility.
In the sequel to First Signal the following dialogue happens in the Oval Office
“Exactly. Now he’s operating covertly and illegally. If you lose and Reager legitimately controls the military and his commander in chief is complicit, history books won’t judge your actions today, because they’ll be none left. It will be the end of civilization.” – Elisabeth Seward, National Security Advisor to President Helen Colton
That dialogue derives from actions around Operation Troy in First Signal.
“General if I sign this. What’s the objective of Operation Troy?” – Helen Colton, President, United States of America.
“Identification.” – General John Reager, Commander, Air Force Space Command
This week I write the draft press release and email newsletter to announce the trailer. As for when the trailer will be released? Sometime in February
In the entertainment industry there are the readers. Those individuals who are assigned to read screenplays. Whether you are at a studio, agency, network, production company or film festival, there are the readers. They are on the front lines of evaluating your script. I was a reader for a film festival a few years ago. From reading screenplays that you can see on the silver screen with an Academy Award nomination to those that would be best served as fodder for a litter box, the net of the result is that a human being read it.
I have long been used to subjective industries. From sports to entertainment, a human being decides your fate. They decide if your performance or project is worthy of an award or the circular file. But the last thing this industry needs is a computer program to evaluate the quality of your screenplay.
This past week in The Hollywood Reporter came this article This New Artificial Intelligence Script-Reading Program Could Find Your Next Oscar Role. It was bad enough when I read a few years ago about some new program being developed that could write a screenplay and now reading about one that decides the fate of a screenplay by a computer? Both can immediately fade to black with no acts.
The absolute bottom line to the entire entertainment industry is the writer. Without writers nobody has a job. A writer comes up with an idea, researches that idea and then writes a story. A good reader sees the nuances between the lines of action and dialogue to properly evaluate a script. If after all the human checks and balances it pasts muster, it is then the responsibility of the director to breathe life into those pages to present a project that can be sold into the market. No computer program can do that.
There’s no question that tens of thousands of scripts are written on any given year and tracking them is a daunting task. We know the process of moving a project from script to screen is a herculean one. But if you start to marginalize the writer through the process of a computer program you are doing this industry a disservice because there is then no motivation to create. Last I checked computers don’t fill the seats of a theatre human beings do.
One of the biggest complaints that producers have is finding quality writers and, in particular, showrunners for TV shows. This is not an industry that works off a stopwatch. It is an industry that continuously yearns for that next creative idea to be championed into production. No computer program can do that.
I know that somewhere today on this “Pale Blue Dot” someone has thought of an idea that will eventually wind up in our theaters or as a TV series, because when all is said and done nobody will be presenting a Best Writing award to a Hal 9000.
This morning I was reading the Hollywood Reporter’s excellent profile on filmmaker Christopher Nolan. I loved his quote, “If you want to make a calling card, you go to Kinkos. You don’t spend three years of your life putting a film together”. That could not be truer when making a feature film.
For the Justice Is Mind “project” it started in 2010 with the script, 2011 with the short, 2012 with the feature and 2013 to the present for the release and general marketing. Simply put, filmmaking is a long tail business. Yes, it’s all very exciting and “cool” to be shooting a film, but these are projects that we are married to for years. By example, my first short film First World was produced in 2006 and released in 2007. It’s 2015 and revenue is still coming in on monthly basis. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the value in a film library. I just have three films in my library, but imagine a company with hundreds of titles all earning some sort of revenue on a monthly basis.
With First World under consideration and SOS United States completed at the script stage, I just passed the 95 page mark on the sequel (yes, I have a title) to Justice Is Mind. The story, is much bigger in terms of scope. Instead of a trial in Massachusetts, we are at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. Am I ready to release the title and logline? Not yet. While I’m happy where the story is going, I always remain “open minded” on direction.
For me writing and developing a story is like playing chess. The pieces of your story might move in a typical fashion at the start, and just when you think I’m going to give you what you want, I’m going to turn it. As Unsung Films said about Justice Is Mind, “And this is when the film changes gear for one last time, turning into a science fiction tale – unexpectedly and viciously.” Yes, there will be a couple of unexpected turns in the sequel. But like Justice Is Mind, the clues start early.
One of the reasons why I admire Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker is because he creates original stories that resonate (I loved Inception). Personally, I’m really over the homogenized films that are created to appeal to the widest possible audience, but don’t tell a story. Seventy years later Laura is still a great film. Likewise with the 1968 production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s what we call long tail!
According to the Hollywood Reporter 2014 box office was down 5% from last year marking the biggest drop off in nine years. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me. I just know from the audiences that saw Justice Is Mind, they want original stories. I understand the economics of why a studio spends $150 million on one motion picture, but imagine dividing that budget by 10? We know there are all kinds of original stories just waiting to be told. In the end it comes down to what audiences want to see and how they want to watch.
Yes, I have gone to Kinkos. To print scripts.
These past two weeks the entire world has been front and center on news surrounding the United States’ National Security Agency and a “whistleblower/traitor” that is now “residing” in Hong Kong. Whatever your opinion is on this matter one thing is certain—someone has pitched a story to a producer, a script is being written and a film will go into production by the end of this year.
In Justice Is Mind one of the tracks in the story is loss of privacy. Our primary character, Henri Miller, makes an elected choice to give up privacy with that decision secured by biometric signatures. Miller’s information is digitized, sent electronically to a foreign company and held in a central library of like “minded” information. Trapped by his own memories, he soon finds himself on trial. But in an age of social media and immediate news gathering, while the law may say “innocent until proven guilty”, let us not kid ourselves. Despite the democracies that we live in anyone charged is guilty first and only innocent after the public says so.
When it comes to marketing Justice Is Mind, I have been working closely with my entertainment attorney Arnold Peter. Sure, we are submitting to targeted film festivals and making presentations to sales agencies and distributors, but the major push for the film will be in the very democracies that have allowed us, the citizen, to sign away our rights of privacy by our own choice. Speaking of choices, I’d love to have Justice screen in Tehran (that probably just got me on a list).
One country that we will be having a presence in is India—the world’s largest democracy. This would not be my first foray into that country. My first short film First World was the only science fiction film to screen at India’s first national discussion on science fiction. It was an honor and a distinction that I will never forget. Presenting Justice Is Mind in India is just as important as the United States as the whole point is to establish discussion around key areas of the film—where does privacy start and stop?
In the digitized and social media world we live in the loss of privacy in the general sense must just be accepted. One of my favorite films, Gattaca, sequences DNA and decides your societal fate. In Justice Is Mind your memories decide your legal fate. Make no mistake, these sciences are largely here in the year 2013. Maybe not as developed as the films they are represented in, but like Star Trek literally invented the cell phone, fiction will be fact soon enough. Get used to it or live in a cave.
When it comes to writing, production and directing a film you want your audience to leave thinking. That’s how a film establishes a long shelf life. That’s how a film finds audiences long after its world premiere. That’s why films like Judgment at Nuremberg, 2001 and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner still resonate today. They had something to say and weren’t afraid to say it. Justice Is Mind is not politically correct. It is designed to elicit conversation and to remind us that our life is largely dictated by the choices we make. And in the case of Justice the choices of…sorry you’ll have to wait until the film is released for the end of that sentence.
Thankfully our democracies still give us the right of choice. And like those that we elect to office to represent us in our respective governments, we want our films to also win in the court of public opinion. Because it really comes down to three words–
WE THE PEOPLE.