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.”