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.
This past week, just as I finished some updates to SOS United States, the American Film Market began. No sooner does it start than this article in Deadline comes out lamenting the “slim pickings” and quoting a variety of industry executives from, “It’s the lightest market in memory. TV is definitely sucking up talent” to “It’s much tougher now to find those projects that have that clear theatrical profile.”
Attaching talent, even in the best of markets, has always been a challenge. But clear theatrical profile? How is that truly defined? Having secured a limited theatrical run with Justice Is Mind that had talented but unknown actors, I often wonder what metrics these “executives” use when measuring a film for commercial appeal. This has always been an industry where you had to think outside the box, particularly when you are introducing something new to the market.
There’s no question there has been a seismic shift in talent from film to TV, that’s why I have positioned In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind, as a pilot for a TV series. Sure, it could be a standalone feature, but it just makes sense to have this option when presenting. I remember many years ago when I attended Mipcom listening to execs wishing they could bring some of the theatrical talent over to TV. This is an industry that shifts like the tides. It’s just a matter of product and timing.
Speaking of product, a couple of weeks ago I was approached by a “distributor” for Justice Is Mind for an “exclusive” deal in a major market. Sure I’m always interested in a new deal, but it has to make sense. No sooner did we conclude our initial call and documents arrived with the most ridiculous terms and requirements I have ever seen. Um, no, I will not reedit the opening and end credits of my film to include a laundry list of producers to make it look like you produced the film. Um, no, I will not upload my film for you to review to a mysterious website that can only be accessed by you after the fact. It was laughable. And if you say you have distributed hundreds of films, you best have a listing on IMDb. Just when you think you’ve seen everything you see something new.
As for timing, I never would have thought that after I wrote First World that China’s space program would truly boom the way it did or that the cyber attacks I present in SOS United States would become so front and center. When I first wrote Justice Is Mind that idea was born by one broadcast on 60 Minutes about ‘thought identification’ and my passion for a good legal drama. Could I have ever imagined the advances in mind reading technology and neurolaw? No, of course not.
In my view it’s impossible to time the market from an industry or consumer standpoint. If you have an idea for a new movie or TV series, just write it and then do everything you can to produce it. In the end, it all comes down to what the consumer wants and the way they want to watch it.
“Let them lead us.” SOS United States.