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.
No, I didn’t make up the title of this week’s post. It was the title of a story that appeared in a Worcester Magazine article “Justice trumps privacy in Justice Is Mind”. Suffice to say I was enormously pleased with the piece. The writer, Cade Overton, really captured not only the essence of the film but how it fits into the real world we live in today.
Marketing a film, particularly an independent one, is not easy by any stretch. You are in a constant state of submitting whether it be to the media, distributors, festivals, networks, events, agents, etc. And as I prepare my notes for an upcoming workshop I’m teaching the end of the month, the three P’s come to mind plan, perseverance and persistence.
From a business plan implementation point of view, this past week for Justice Is Mind went really well. I’ll just say publicly, that two original programming execs got back to me about Justice. These are not only very positive developments, but ones that have been established over time from other projects I’ve been working on. Building relationships like this take time and to add another P….patience. So fingers crossed here.
Pitching a project takes some bit of calculation and planning. By example, Justice Is Mind, First World and my new political thriller will never be pitched to Lifetime. What would be the point? Programming executives receive pitches all the time so the goal, obviously, is to have something that they may be interested in rather than wasting their time. Speaking of, somehow I got onto some list of “producers to submit materials to”. While I only develop my own work (for now), I was getting pitches from writers to produce their comedies. A little research on their end would have shown that’s not a genre I’ve ever been involved in (although I do love a good comedy…oh the days of Rodney Dangerfield!). Thankfully, I found the website and removed my profile.
Speaking of planning, The Wrap this week talked about how digital sales are increasing exponentially amidst the continued decline of DVD sales. I could have told The Wrap about this two years ago after our distributor just stopped selling DVDs altogether. What’s being considered internally now with Justice is the digital distribution side. To be sure, there’s no shortage of platforms and viewing options available. The key, in my view, is to establish an audience for the film first with our theatrical, sci-fi and law school screenings so when the film is available digitally, there is a footprint out there of enthusiasts.
What is of particular interest to me at the moment is the continuous changing landscape of this industry from the development of projects, the financing, delivery and then distribution. There is generally no playbook. Oh the practical still exists of course, finance and shoot the movie and get it to audiences. The sea of change is in the layered platforms of distribution that are pulling revenue and audiences away and towards each other. In the end, it’s about the distribution of rights.
But in the beginning it is to quote Bill Sampson in All About Eve, “Wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience, there’s theatre.”
And so with our Massachusetts premiere coming up on Monday night at The Strand Theatre in Clinton, we return to where the Justice Is Mind project first exhibited with the short film version in 2012. I leave you with a quote from Marlene Dietrich in Judgment at Nuremberg.
“It should be quite an evening.”
With sound mixing complete and color correction underway, I am now focused almost exclusively on the marketing and distribution of Justice Is mind. I also have been finding a little time to write my political feature (up to page 40!) and follow up on some outstanding matters on First World. While it’s always good to have a variety of projects in various stages of development, I firmly believe, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, that focus is important. In my case, Justice Is Mind is front and center on the priority list.
Earlier this week I added a second theatre to screen Justice. The Strand Theatre in Clinton, MA welcomed us with open arms for the short film version Evidence in 2012. Now under new ownership, The Strand welcomed us back to screen the feature. The date – Monday, September 16th at 7 PM. Doors open at 6:15. Ticket prices are $5.50.
Yesterday, working with a filmmaker friend of mine in Ogunquit, ME, I secured our third screening venue at the Leavitt Theatre (date to be announced). My mother and I have been traveling to Ogunquit, ME for over twenty years and the opportunity to screen Justice in one of our favorite resort towns is truly excellent.
Early on in the process of developing Justice, while the film will more than likely find it’s “revenue” home on VOD and other digital platforms, I wanted to secure some sort of theatrical run for Justice even if it means I go “door to door” because we all know that seeing your film on the big screen is what’s it’s all about. But more importantly, it’s not just about giving these theatres your DVD and saying thank you, it’s about promotion. I know I have my work cut out for me as it’s my job to promote the film as much as possible so all parties benefit.
A recent article in USA Today talked about the challenges these independent theatres face in the wake of converting to digital. All three theatres that are screening Justice were built in the 1920s and 30s. There is such grand history in this industry—born from the silent era to the digital one. It’s important that we support them and preserve their history and place in the industry. I can’t help when I walk through these theatres to wonder who else walked these same steps to show their work. This week I’ll continue my “selling” Justice to theatres.
But while I deal with the traditional side of the process, I am also dealing with the contemporary digital side and evaluating the best route timing wise on when Justice will appear on certain platforms. Every filmmaker has a different agenda and different goals. Mine are pretty simple, maximum distribution for maximum return. I think that approach makes the most sense and lord knows there are all kinds of ways to get there. I’ll just say this, keep a solid POV on your wallet.
I came across one “distributor” this week who said, seriously, if you pay us $30,000 we will get you into some theatres and handle your promotion and accounting. Another, even more insulting, for $2,000 we give you one day in our theatre and for an additional $1,500 we can promise you a review in a leading newspaper (damn you bought off a journalist!). Scary the kind of ventures and vultures that are out there. Sounds like the “consultants” I came across in publishing that promised you “at the checkout” magazine placement. Ahhhh the promises and representations in this business. Thank you I’ll just pick up the phone and call the theatres direct and save myself all those kickbacks in the process.
While digital distribution makes the world of independent filmmaking possible from a return point of view (I like my monthly deposit from Amazon for my short films!), there is nothing more accepting than being in a theatre that is going to screen your work. This is where the business started and this is where the work needs to be seen.
On a closing note, this story just published in The Atlantic magazine “Could the Government Get a Search Warrant for Your Thoughts” could not be more timely for the upcoming release of Justice Is Mind.
Time to make some history.
T-minus 21 days.
It was last Sunday and I was uploading footage to various websites along with programming our press release and email newsletter for a Monday, April 22 event – for the first time in the history of Justice Is Mind we were releasing footage from the film. While the January release of the trailer was well received and picked up by numerous platforms, this was an actual part of the film. With a running time of 2 hours and 33 minutes, there were obviously lots of scene choices. But a few weeks ago I selected a few different areas that I thought would be most interesting to viewers and posted it as question on our Facebook page. What did they want to see? The arrest of Henri Miller.
From a marketing and public relations point of view, releasing a clip was not only important to keep up the momentum of the project but to demonstrate to the outside world that Justice Is Mind was indeed in progress. It was shortly after my press announcement to various sites that post trailers and clips, did additional opportunities start to present themselves. In fact, one major site I wanted Justice Is Mind listed on finally got back to me and pointed me to a digital aggregator they use for the majority of their trailers and clips. The verdict was in—with this clip Justice Is Mind was being taken seriously by industry leading websites.
Getting to this point has not been easy. The endless days of sitting at my computer researching the industry, the countless emails and mining telephone contacts, this is what building a business is all about—hard work with no shortcuts. As an independent filmmaker this is what it is. You write the script, secure the funding, shoot the picture (honestly, that’s the easy part) and market the film. Unless you have mid to major studio involvement to assist in all these areas, that’s it in a nutshell.
And with the release of the clip came the atmosphere of the scene. As one of the actors in Justice commented, “…had that Dynasty thing going on”. The guess was spot on. One of my favorite TV shows of all time was Dynasty. While the Millers in Justice are not nearly as rich as the Carringtons in Dynasty, this was the atmosphere I was hoping to convey. In the clip we see successful, wealthy people in black tie at a first class establishment in peril, conflict and deception. Who doesn’t want to see that!
Many years ago I was introduced to one of the leading writers of Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest for a television series I was looking to pitch. For anyone in my age group forward we all remember the power those shows brought to network television. The characters were specific, the dialogue was deliberate and the scenes were grand. I learned more from working with that writer during those few months in how scenes and storylines were crafted than anyone else in the business. She didn’t pontificate on what not to do like so many of these ridiculous condescending seminars I see being promoted. She took the essence of an idea and transformed it for audience appeal. Talk about inspiring! I’ll never forget that week out in Los Angeles when we went to pitch meetings at Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney and a few others. While the project wasn’t picked up the experience was more than I ever could have hoped for. Yes, as you have surmised, there are plans for the Justice Is Mind project.
As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day and that mantra certainly is true in the world of filmmaking. To this moment, Justice Is Mind has been nearly a three year plus project—from concept, to short to the coming feature. And like the business that made up the monolithic Denver Carrington, the oil wells in filmmaking are the distributors that reach your audience.
With the post production phase of Justice Is Mind moving along according to schedule, my job now, in addition to managing the entire post production phase (yes, still directing!), has turned to marketing and distribution. Most independent filmmakers don’t have these departments, so what we rely on are trusted sources and contacts inside the industry and our own real world work experience. But in the end, as President Truman made famous, “The buck stops here.” When producing a film, every buck counts. And quite of few of those bucks go to film festival submission fees.
The film festival market is as mysterious as it is rewarding. Yes, I have a list of festivals I’m submitting Justice to. Some have “final” deadlines that come well before our completion date so we will be submitting as a “work in progress”. But others thankfully fall generally in line with our July 1 completion date. But like I did in magazine publishing I also do in filmmaking, I really don’t like what I call “rules of market”. There is this rule, even though it seems to be unwritten, that films should first be submitted to festivals to see what happens. Sure, I’ll just wait and wait and wait for a decision while my film could be losing momentum. Seriously, I was part of a feature film project as an actor a couple of years ago and the entire distribution strategy was getting into film festivals. I couldn’t believe it. There was never a plan B. The problem with that strategy is that if you don’t get into festivals (particularly the buyers markets) you can find yourself with many missed months of “buck making” opportunities for your film.
With the world premiere set for Justice Is Mind on August 18 in Albany, New York along with an industry screening planned for Los Angeles (date to be announced), there are a host of other screening opportunities for the project outside of the film festival market. First and foremost Justice Is Mind already has a non-exclusive digital distribution deal in place, so with one email and the transmission of deliverables, distribution is done. But that’s just part of the strategy and it’s an evolving one as this article in Sundance demonstrates the nuances of digital distribution. Yes, digital distribution is a science all by itself.
Digital distribution can be very successful for a film, but it helps enormously if you have some terrestrial assistance. What it really comes down to is building awareness through word of mouth and that does come from screenings—theatrical or event. So while I am putting together a list of independent theatres to pitch, the one area that has shown great interest in Justice Is Mind is the science fiction community. This past week I finished up my pitch list of nearly 100 sci-fi conventions around the world to present Justice Is Mind for screening. The interest was successfully tested with the short film version Justice Is Mind: Evidence (another reason to produce a short first—market testing). On the practical front my first short film First World screened at over 20 conventions in numerous countries. As some of you know, the trailer for Justice Is Mind is screening during Boston Comic Con next weekend. Thank you Boston Comic Con!
While I love the glamour, pomp and visibility that come with a festival, I am anything if not practical. As a director I owe it to everyone involved in the project to get their work seen by the widest possible audience. But as a producer, it comes down to a return on investment.
At the end of the day filmmaking is about making bucks to be “scene” again.
With the trailer for Justice Is Mind days away from being released, the plan that I’ve been working on since we wrapped will soon be put in motion. What does that plan entail? I promise you it’s more than posting the trailer to YouTube, Facebook, writing the requisite press release and hoping the world finds you. I wish marketing a film (or anything) was that easy but when you are an independent filmmaker that process is continuous with the goal of standing out from the thousands of films being produced every year.
But when you look at a film festival like Sundance that gets over 12,000 submissions and only screens 119, the plan has to be diversified. Of course we all believe our film is that promised gem among many. As filmmakers we have to think that. Thankfully in today’s age of social media anyone that participates in a project can be a cheerleader in its promotion. A simple post, share or tweet and your audience is building.
There was a very interesting story in The Wrap last week that talked about the future of filmmaking. Bottom line? With the ever increasing number of digital services, networks, cable operators and the like, the one thing they all need for their audiences is programming. As Chris McGurk, CEO of Cinedigm said, “They’re in an arms race for content, and that’s creating a perfect storm for independent film.”
And speaking of audiences, my own movie going experience is much different now. Sure, I’m there to watch the film, but I first take in the audience – specifically age. Audiences are getting older which is great for this project. I didn’t write Justice Is Mind with an older audience in mind, it just turned out that way. With the average age of the actors 40+ at least the product is positioned to appeal to a more mature demographic that…ready…spends money.
The one misconception that I’ve addressed before I think needs to be stated again. A film doesn’t need to be picked up by a distributor and placed in hundreds of theatres to be considered a “movie”. Of course, I’d love to see Justice receive a theatrical release that’s handled (and financed) by a distributor, but as an independent filmmaker I can self-distribute Justice in select markets to build momentum, reviews and audiences. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting a return on investment and it doesn’t matter to me what platform that it comes from. Trust me, seeing your film on Hulu with ads running along with it is a very good thing.
With Evidence heading to additional digital platforms and with the trailer for Justice Is Mind being released in the next several days, the franchise is building. But as the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and things take time. While the editing is ongoing the foundation is being built to market and distribute the finished product.
But like a house, every film has its own construction plan.