“I want Spotlight to win” was my Facebook post last Sunday before the Oscars started. While 2016 yielded some excellent films (Trumbo, Bridge of Spies, The Martian and Woman in Gold), there was something about Spotlight that just felt right. Not only was the story itself important, along with the mechanics of quality investigative journalism, but you couldn’t have asked for finer actors either. What was right from the beginning was the screenplay. In addition to winning the Oscar for Best Picture, it also won the first award of the evening for Best Original Screenplay.
As this article in The Hollywood Reporter stated, Spotlight took eight years to produce. But once Participant Media got involved as producer and with Open Road Films distributing, the rest, as they say was history. As Sierra/Affinity CEO Nick Meyer said, “the movie is the star now.” Indeed that star is the screenplay because as Tom Ortenberg said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “The theatrical marketplace is a roller coaster. And anybody who wants to play has to be prepared for that fact.”
For all of us trying to make sense of the volatile nature of this industry, particularly when it comes to a theatrical release, it all comes down to the story. When I released Justice Is Mind into theaters, every one of our screenings was heavily marketed with an angle. We had to have an angle, because although we had a great cast and crew, nobody was a household name. The film had to sell itself. Thankfully, the media and audiences responded and the majority of our screenings were near or capacity audiences (there were no rentals).
But like the real “Spotlight” team at The Boston Globe did those years ago, writing a screenplay takes research and dedication. When I recall the research I did for First World when it came to the space program, the criminal justice system and neuroscience for Justice Is Mind and various workings of the executive branch, military operations and intelligence agencies for SOS United States, that work laid the foundation of the story before I wrote one word of dialogue. Of course we all want to see our screenplays come to life on the big screen, but as we saw with Spotlight, some things just take time. Why rush for quantity when you can have quality? In the case of Spotlight, that quality saw two Oscar wins.
Last week I finished the pitch document for Justice Is Mind as a TV series with the pilot In Mind We Trust already written. The process of getting some industry feedback has already begun. Having pitched a TV series around the sport of figure skating back in 2004, I’m familiar with the process. Of course, back around that time there were about 30 or so scripted series, now there are around 400. While times and processes have changed, it’s still all about coming up with the idea for a story.
As for changing times and figure skating, an idea came to me some months ago about a political thriller with figure skating as the backdrop to the storyline. Of course, it’s been some years since I actually attended a figure skating event. The last “Worlds” I attended as credentialed media was 2003 in Washington, D.C. So with The Ashton Times credentialed, I will be attending Worlds in a few weeks.
Let’s make one thing clear, no matter the state of the markets there will always be films because filmmakers are a determined bunch. As independent filmmakers, we abhor gatekeepers, don’t follow the rules and can generally spot a bullshit artist before they even get onto our radar screen (as a former magazine publisher I’m really good at the latter). Yet, although the industry is changing at lightning speed, there is a still a rigidity to change at the expense of the consumer and filmmaker.
The reports coming out of the American Film Market were beyond telling, “It’s the lightest market in memory” “We can’t keep making films for the same size of budget. It can’t be the distributors taking all the risk. The talent has to learn to bring down their fees and bring down the budget. Take a share of the backend and share the risk” “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
None of this should be a surprise as the market indicators have been there for years. While some brilliant independent films like The King’s Speech, The Imitation Game, Dallas Buyers Club and Woman in Gold have done excellent, this recent story in Variety titled, “Why Are Oscar Contenders Flopping at the Box Office?” reflects a new reality. Simply put, talent needs to take backend risks and budgets need to come down considerably or producers will not finance. The red carpet should represent accomplishment not red ink.
I have always believed that it’s story first. Without a solid story, talent can’t breathe life into it. It’s story that gives you the hook with the media. I proved this for years as a magazine publisher and with Justice Is Mind. Sure there are the literal handful of actors that will garner media attention and move audiences to theaters. And sometimes, like we saw in the aforementioned films (along with recent Bridge of Spies), all the ingredients were there – story, talent and crew. But when you read that there were only 10 “bankable” films out of 2,000 at AFM, you can’t help but feel for those producers and filmmakers that are sitting on completed projects waiting to find a home.
As I’ve stated before I will state again, I firmly believe that a theatrical release is critical. First, the media is more apt to report on a film that’s in a theater. Second, it builds audience awareness. Third, it generates real revenue. Sorry, while I love the art of filmmaking, I’m a capitalist.
My original business plan for Justice Is Mind didn’t even call for a theatrical release. I soon realized not only the value of a theatrical release, but that theaters and audiences want to see something different. With Justice Is Mind they saw an engaging story brought to life by talented actors, filmmakers and crew. It wasn’t some theory that we brought audiences into a theatre with a public relations hook and grassroots marketing, it was a fact. It’s time to do it again.
While I have been presenting my slate of films to potential producers and financiers, my findings have been trending towards one particular project—SOS United States. From real world events around surveillance, cyber-attacks and shadow governments, to various TV series and films that center around political thrillers, this project is resonating the most.
Having completed updates to the script last week, I’ve already started to source locations and marketing partners along with a media plan. While there has been some general interest on the equity side, it may take the same course I took with Justice Is Mind to go from script to screen – crowdfunding.