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.
It was during the post-production of Justice Is Mind in 2013 that the idea for SOS United States came to me. And like the original idea for Justice Is Mind that was sparked from research on the sequel to First World, as a writer once I get an idea in my head I just have to write it out and see where it goes. When I do write, I think about the story not about the market.
Who would have thought that when I was writing Justice Is Mind back in 2010 that mind-reading technologies, patient privacy and genetic seizure would be trending in the news? Likewise when I wrote SOS United States last year it really didn’t occur to me what the state of the world would be with the United States withdrawing from various hot spots. And with China’s space program advancing at a rapid pace, the science fiction in First World in regard to space travel, is rapidly approaching science fact. But in the end, it all comes down to raising capital.
As I read the trades on a daily basis, there’s always a story about a film that took years to make (Dallas Buyers Club), a filmmaker/actor with award winning credentials who couldn’t get “traditional” financing at the start and resorted to crowdfunding (Zach Braff) or some major production company that misread the market (Senator), but isn’t this like any business? We are inundated with the extremes. The epic failure of one film or the stunning achievement of another. How about what’s happening in the middle? That’s what I look for. Will the trends today hold for tomorrow? What I think we all know is that theatres and VOD are here to stay.
There is one trend that I find pretty unsettling in this industry, but it was this way in magazine publishing too. The “experts” selling their services. Honestly, you might think that sliced bread has just been invented and if you don’t buy a loaf from them you’ll never be part of this industry. Really, what it comes down to is raising cash to produce a film. I’ve written so many business plans over the years. Of course you do the same with this industry and identify a return on investment.
We live in a world of constant change and changing priorities. And this industry magnifies that x10. When I was talking to a producer a couple of weeks ago who releases a good share of their films through one particular studio, they only take on projects that are based on intellectual properties because that’s pretty much what the major studios are backing these days. I read about this in the trades and one stop to your local cinema chain and the proof is on the marquee. But, there will always be independent films. Always.
Yes, my world is about spirited optimism. If someone says no, I just keep navigating until someone says yes. I try very hard to avoid the storms of this industry always thinking, “What does the consumer want?” The consumer doesn’t care about unnecessary industry noise, they just want to see a movie. From day one of distributing Justice Is Mind, my only concern is the audience that is buying tickets (at theatres or online). All theatres and VOD platforms want are paying customers. Promotion and marketing are the key to those customers.