With First Signal now accepted in eight film festivals, I am pleased where the project is going so far. We have had a couple of wins and finalist positions for the trailer which makes for a nice build up to the festivals considering the feature length version. Time will tell where the festivals will take us along with other theatrical and special event screenings.
The point of festivals and screenings is to develop interest in First Signal that goes beyond those that saw the film in a theater. It is about word of mouth and, hopefully, some choice media placements to develop a following for the film, so when the film goes to VOD, there’s a waiting audience. Like the journey of most films, that is the plan. What’s not in the plan is losing control of the film in a bad distribution deal.
For some years, I have heard from numerous filmmakers that after they sign a deal with a distributor or sales agent, they receive little to no money from sales of the film despite the grosses. In more instances than I can go into here, they sometimes wind up in court. The Dallas Buyers Club matter was relatively high profile, this article in Deadline hit the nail on the head and the collapse of Distribber had indie filmmakers taking solid note.
The last three contracts I reviewed were so heavy in the favor of the distributor/sales agent, that I could not see any path to profitability, yet they would hold the rights to my film for over ten years. Translation? Once I sign the rights away, I won’t have the rights to exhibit my own film. In each of my last three calls, they all talked glowingly about First Signal, promising encouraging sales estimates and things they can do for the film. But when pressed to offer those estimates (that I know are only estimates) and details in writing, they somehow were not available. Worse, on two occasions, the contracts stated they would have the rights to any sequel I write and work products. Was there ever a minimum gurantee? No. Was there a fancy computation of proposed acquisition price for a sequel that didn’t benefit me at all? Yes. Would I ever enter one of these contracts without some sort of minimum guarantee or entertainment lawyer reviewing my contact? Never. I generally remember this “atmosphere” when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. In the end I went with a wonderful digital aggregator that I will mention shortly.
Unless you are just making a film to put on a shelf, a film requires a distribution plan. It requires a plan that has some sort of path to profitability and/or the ability to leverage the film towards a larger project (sequel, etc.). There is nothing sadder when I hear from a filmmaker that has been taken by one of these companies. The years and capital they have spent to bring their projects to life only to be tied up with nefarious distribution expenses, horrid customer service or legal doubletalk. The last thing anyone wants is to get into litigation (one of the filmmakers I talked to was preparing to file action against his sales agent). Even more insulting two of the three companies I talked to stated that they would require Executive Producer credits. Let us be clear, I don’t care what industry you work in, nobody likes a coattail rider. You do not have the right to ask for a top credit on a film just because you are offering a contract. Period. Nothing is this world is free, most certainly not an Executive Producer credit to make you look like a prolific producer. I know Hollywood is all about smoke and mirrors, but I only tolerate that act on the silver screen not in the boardroom.
There is a silver lining to all of this. Yes, there are great sales agents and distributors. Yes, they do pay their filmmakers. But sadly, there are enough in the other camp that simply require substantive due diligence along with a crack lawyer to protect your interests. You may have heard the saying “Caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware. That could not be truer than in this industry. At the end of the day, we must just do our homework.
One area of this industry that has been part of the silver lining are the digital aggregators. If you have a film, want to see it on a variety of VOD platforms BUT also retain your rights, I highly recommend FilmHub. I’ve had Justice Is Mind with them since 2014. If you are looking for no upfront fees, payment every quarter and excellent customer service, then FilmHub just might be your answer. Will I place First Signal with them? It honestly depends on a variety of factors, as we are in the early days of the release plan. Our next steps are festival, theatrical and special event screenings that will commence in the 4th quarter of 2020.
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.
I’m pleased to announce that Justice Is Mind will screen on March 24 at Cinemagic in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. As some of you may remember we worked with Cinemagic on our New Hampshire premiere last December. I could not be more appreciative and thankful for their support of Justice and independent film.
Whenever we announce a screening it is a mobilization of the army of supporters that have made all our screenings possible, from our cast and crew to the numerous enthusiasts we have been building over the last year. No sooner did I announce the screening than friends of mine in Sturbridge sent notice to their friends and so on. Simply put the marketing and exhibition of a feature film is not a one person show. So with our press release out and our Facebook event page set up, the process now begins to present the screening to the media and local businesses.
Today also marks another milestone. I finished the business plan for SOS United States. Thus, I have more work cut out for me as I look to secure investors in that project. Someone asked me the other day about First World and how that is coming along. Believe me, that’s not a project I have forgotten about. In fact, I’ve started to revisit it with some concept art and plan to start presenting that project again as early as next week. Certainly with China showing real progress in their space program, the timing for the story is certainly better. And that’s what it all comes to in this business – timing.
In the trades we read about the films being green lit, but not so much about the long journey to get there. For example, the acclaimed Black Swan took ten years to make and the long journey of Dallas Buyers Club has been well reported.
There’s no question that there’s a variety of literal chaos going on the industry. I try to keep up with the latest by reading a variety of trade publications but in the end you just have to go along with what you think is best. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, there is no perfect formula. It doesn’t happen that way in this business. Producing a film, even studio material, is a speculative venture at best but we do it because we love doing it.
As we venture into our tenth theatrical screening of Justice Is Mind, I am reminded about all the wonderful screenings we have had and the support they have received. These are not easy feats to achieve. They take more work than you can imagine. But in the sea of storms the industry waxes on about, there is a calmness that takes over a screening when a film starts to roll on the big screen.
“My three Ps: passion, patience, perseverance. You have to do this if you’ve got to be a filmmaker.” – Robert Wise