There were many times when I was in the process of making Justice Is Mind I remarked that my experience running a company helped create my first feature film. Producing a film is nothing more than project management and being able to compartmentalize numerous areas of a production. From personnel to the creative, it’s keeping everything in order, on schedule and on (or under) budget.
I can’t tell you how many times I come across filmmakers that are all excited to direct only to see a project fall off the radar in post-production or worse not promoted. When I think about it being a magazine publisher is just like being a filmmaker. Pre-production is the creation of the editorial, production is organizing the editorial around advertising with post-production creating the final product, distribution and promotion. Sounds like a familiar process doesn’t it?
When I was operating my publishing company we were financed on cash flow only after a brief round of investment capital in the first few years. I had to figure out ways to do things that saved money while producing a premium result. I’ve brought this experience to my film work. Back in the day publishing companies would over staff for even the most mundane type of work. No wonder when the financial bottom started to fall out in that industry their top heavy structure caused them to collapse. The same holds true for filmmaking.
Certainly for productions of a substantial budget (like a Star Wars), you need a sizable crew for obvious reasons. But honestly I was on a recent production and was astonished at the ridiculous number of crew they had to film a simple bar scene. First, it was clear that there was no rehearsal. Second, the production of the scene fell on its own weight when the moving of a camera position was a herculean time consuming task. This was not a science fiction production or one that was going to require any special effects in post. This was just a bar scene. I sometimes will go incognito to see how other productions execute. Sometimes I learn things that I take with me, but in the case of this production you learn what not to do (unless you don’t care about a budget).
I think the understanding of small crews came from my experience on set during those early days of publishing when I was frequently interviewed. Sometimes they would come to my office, but I usually would go to a location. Generally, there was just a camera operator, producer/director (who conducted the interview), sound operator and sometimes a gaffer (lighting). On occasion a makeup artist would be present. If there’s anything I learned about being on TV was the importance of makeup. Believe me the horror of seeing yourself on TV without makeup is something you’ll never forget! And with today’s high definition it’s just that, a makeup-less face will overly define everything.
On Friday I picked up the first three VHS tapes I had converted to digital. I have to say I think they came out pretty good. Of course things like this bring back all kinds of memories. It was a different time back then when social media didn’t exist (that wasn’t a bad thing). But when I look back we were always pushing the envelope. Creating targeted direct response commercials that ran during figure skating broadcasts, producing one of a kind themed cruise events and distributing our enthusiast magazines internationally.
If all this sounds familiar with how I produce and market my films, this is where it came from. But one does not execute alone. In all cases it’s about working with a dedicated team that sees your vision.
This past week Justice Is Mind went live on Amazon in Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom and Japan. Since the film was released in 2013, it has been my plan to get the film distributed in as many territories as possible. Considering part of the story takes place in Germany, and as our composer and sound mixer reside in the United Kingdom, it’s great to be able to bring the film to those markets. Also, it’s part of the long term plan to generate as much interest in the Justice Is Mind story as possible as the pitch process continues to further develop the project as a TV series. But, like all things in this industry, it’s about having more than one project in development as things take time.
When I was taking to a fellow filmmaker in England this past week, the one thing we talked about was distribution. As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, as a former magazine publisher I directed the distribution and marketing of my magazines. The process has a variety of similarities. You deliver your finished product to a central source and it’s delivered to the outlets. But as I learned all those years ago, for every middleman there is a percentage given back. Sometimes a middleman is necessary, sometimes not so much.
To quote from Amazon Video Direct’s website “Helping content creators and visual storytellers reach millions of Amazon customers across hundreds of devices with the same distribution options and delivery quality available to major motion picture and television studios.” Why, unless a distributor was acquiring your film for a fee, would you just give Amazon your film to upload? With the tens of millions of customers that Amazon commands, I certainly understand why some distributors require Amazon to be part of their VOD platform mix. But with “platforms like Distribbr, Quivver, and Bitmax – what’s the benefit of going with a more ‘traditional’ distributor over those?”
Honestly, by the time I release my next film, self-distribution may just be the way to go. Unless a distributor brings me a fee and a marketing plan, why would I bother signing away the rights to my film when I can just deal directly with the VOD platforms? I have heard too many horror stories from filmmakers that were all excited a distributor was interested in their project only to receive a fraction of return even though their project was available on countless platforms. It’s sad and frustrating to hear these stories, because I know how much hard work and years of dedication goes into making a film.
As for new projects, the concept poster for my political thriller around the sport of figure skating is now being designed. With the script registered and URL reserved, the general plan is to formally announce the project in mid-late August. Nothing is more exciting than seeing those first images come to life. And for me that starts with the concept poster.
Of course, like building a house, this is the stage where the architectural plans are developed. In my view, a script is an evolving document based on a variety of factors until you lock it down just prior to pre-production when you lay the foundation for what you will ultimately see on the screen.
“Not paying enough attention to the script.” I couldn’t agree more when I first read that statement attributed by Arnon Milchan of New Regency on The Tracking Board. Time and time again I read in the trades, or general consumer press, about the issues a film has faced because of the script. In so many of these cases it seems that a script was rushed to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation. But as I posted this past week on Facebook, no amount of A list actors can rescue an ill-conceived script.
The article that Milchan was quote in revolved around the dearth of the mid-budget movie. I fondly remember the variety of movies that studios used to distribute in mainline theaters that didn’t revolve around a comic book, endless sequel or rehash of something we already saw (like the latest Star Trek and Star Wars films). But thanks to determined filmmakers, great films like Trumbo, Spotlight and The King’s Speech are being made and, honestly, always will be. It’s just a matter of finding the right audience to support it from financing to distribution.
As I come up towards the end of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating, there is the continued promotion of either projects completed or in development. In my post last week I talked about my “special relationship” with the UK. A few days after my post, I was nicely surprised when Daniel Elek-Diamanta sent me a re-imagined look for the SOS United States concept poster. While I wanted the first concept poster to reflect the vintage era of the ocean liner, this one presents the same view but with a contemporary look. When developing a new project, it’s all about promotion and this concept poster really captures it!
In the world of filmmaking, particularly as an independent filmmaker, it’s all about promotion and getting the word out. It’s about exploring every avenue of distribution and pitching your project. We all look around to see what other filmmakers have done to promote their projects, but what works for one film may not work for another. But there are some distribution avenues that are just a no brainer – Amazon.
When Amazon announced their new Amazon Video Direct program I could not be more excited. Although First World was available in the United States for some years, I now had the ability to have it in Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria. Last week it went live in those countries. Yesterday, I uploaded all the necessary digital assets for Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind (the feature is with a distributor). The process was painfully simple to reach an audience in the tens of millions.
But when I saw someone post on their Facebook page, “I fear my work will get lost in a sea of titles and get drowned out by larger studios.” That’s a defeating position to take. Once it’s live on Amazon it’s just a matter of external promotion through social media and other channels. Amazon operates on an algorithm of suggested films. All it takes is a few people to find your project on Amazon and it will just continue to grow. While there are other VOD platforms popping up every day, they rely on the filmmaker to bring the audience whereas Amazon already has the audience. Yes, you’re in a sea of films. But I’d rather be in an ocean than a puddle.
Yesterday I finished the draft of the first act of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. For me the first act is always the hardest. This is where you are “world building”, introducing your characters and setting up the story to eventually “turn” into why you’re telling it in the first place.
In SOS United States it’s the revelation of a potential nuclear bomb on an ocean liner heading to Boston. In First World, it’s the revelation of the classified mission of the Apollo space program. In Justice Is Mind it’s the revelation of a memory that cannot be immediately explained. In this new screenplay I’m writing, it’s the revelation that the skater’s family is somehow linked to a multi-decade Cold War mystery. From these revelation points, each of these stories moves into the next act.
Personally, I enjoy what’s called the “second act” the most. This is where I like to see all kinds of involved character developments and subplots. Of course, as screenwriters, we are inundated with one article or expert after another stating either the rigidity of the three act structure or the opposite. My stories tend to run about four acts. I do believe in a mid-point or splitting of the second act. In Justice Is Mind the true mid-point is when Henri Miller’s kindergarten teacher reveals something from his past that sets the course for another character to act while the main story continues toward its conclusion.
As a screenwriter I don’t believe in following a prescribed set of rules per see. But that being said, you do need a beginning, middle and end. Is this three acts? Four? Sometimes five? That’s really up to the writer and the story they are telling. In my view, some require less while others more. How I learned to write was pretty straight forward. I read the screenplays of my favorite films (some more popular than others). The one common thing they all had was a resolution, an ending that if a sequel was never made the story could exist on its own.
Being a filmmaker is a multi-disciplined endeavor. From continued marketing of First World (short) to Justice Is Mind, to presenting the feature film version of First World and SOS United States for development, to pitching Justice Is Mind as a TV series, the process is an endless one. And while I enjoy those aspects of the process, writing a screenplay keeps up my creative energies.
While I reference the word discipline, the other is also patience. Writing a screenplay, getting it produced and distributed is a multi-year process and isn’t for everyone. I remember coming across a documentary filmmaker a couple of years ago who told me flat out he hated the distribution process and that he just wanted it “done” to move on to the next project. We all look forward to our next project, but if your previous one fizzled in distribution, I don’t see how that helps future projects.
This is why you just need to stay a course. It’s not easy by any stretch. Some days are smooth sailing and others you just want to abandon ship, but in the end it’s about staying at your post and seeing your ship back to port.
Russia. Spain. Taiwan. First, the email came in from a colleague if I could assist a filmmaker in Spain to register his film in the United States. That was followed by a university in Taiwan that wanted to license Justice Is Mind. As the week drew to a close a distributor in Russia approached us about a VOD for Justice in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
In the world of filmmaking “chain of title” is critical to establish a variety of documented steps of ownership rights to a film. As a former magazine publisher, I’ve been working with copyright matters for years. Sadly, I’ve seen some projects that don’t take this matter seriously. If you don’t have a properly established chain and necessary releases, it can severely complicate matters when it comes to dealing with a distributor. The chain starts with registering the script. Believe me it’s worth the fee.
The next chain of events this week came when I was contacted by a university in Taiwan that wanted to have Justice Is Mind for their library. Obviously, I was flattered and directed them to the variety of download and streaming options for the film. I even pitched them to screen the film like we did at some domestic universities here in the United States. It will be interesting to follow this development. Perhaps it could serve as a model for international university screenings.
On Thursday we received an offer for Justice Is Mind from a distributor in Russia that wants to distribute our film on a variety of VOD platforms in that part of the world. While I’m still reviewing the agreement, unlike some other recent distributors that approached us, this one appears to be pretty buttoned up. This is when I go back to my magazine experience and a phrase from President Reagan “Trust but verify” when it comes to foreign companies. I don’t say this because of the United States/Russian connection that Reagan was referring to during the Cold War, but from a business point of view with independent verification aka “due diligence.” Because once you sign on the dotted line and transfer the film assets, it’s done.
What has been very interesting for 2015 is how much the film industry has changed on the global stage. Everything from financing to production to distribution has literally taken a 180 degree turn. Some will say for the better, some for the worse. It all depends on your point of view. Film Specific had an interesting take on all of this last week. Their webinar can be found here. But if there is one thing that prevails in all of this it’s marketing. Yes, I’ve written about this before. In my view it’s marketing on all fronts, from presenting new projects to potential investors such as SOS United States and In Mind We Trust, to the continued marketing of established projects such as First World and Justice Is Mind. As I’ve said before, consistency is key for the long term.
Of course while all this was going on, I was patiently awaiting the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I remember sitting in a theater in 1977 and seeing Star Wars come to life. Was it that moment that I wanted to be a filmmaker? I don’t know. All I do know is that with all the issues the world is facing right now it’s great to see a film that brings everyone together in a unifying force to enjoy a medium that the world over appreciates.
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.
Picking up where I left off last week, having been given a trial subscription to Variety Insight and Vscore, I highly recommend it. It’s a wonderfully comprehensive service and does, as the name suggests, offer a wealth of insight. Like IMDB, Vscore rates popularity of actors across a “variety” of sources. From TV, film, awards and social media, an actor’s entire career is given a score.
This weekend I started to write the business plan for In Mind We Trust. While I’m modeling it after my plan for SOS United States, I did take a review of my original business plan for Justice Is Mind that I wrote in 2011. Needless to say some updates are in order.
When I wrote the plan for Justice Is Mind, it called for no theatrical release and signing with one distributor for VOD. So what changed? Theatres are embracing independent film (thus our theatrical release) and that distributor I was going to sign with changed its revenue model so now the payout to filmmakers is literal pennies based on minutes viewed. Terrible for the filmmaker but gangbusters for the distributor. Needless to say, they aren’t distributing Justice Is Mind.
Putting aside the story itself for a moment, In Mind We Trust is a unique film from the point of view of the characters. In addition to bringing back the majority of the stars, co-stars and some featured characters from Justice Is Mind, new starring, co-starring and featured roles now exist in In Mind We Trust. The goal is to attract some “named” talent to these parts for marketability.
While the industry has changed from a distribution point of view, and while you can get distribution with talented although largely “unknown” actors, the fact does remain that named talent does bring sales and marketing cache to a project. In addition, it also opens up additional distribution opportunities. However, as we have all seen, there is simply no guarantee of success one way or another. That being said, it’s about complimenting these roles with actors that would bring some gravitas to the characters without taking away from the overall story. In other words, not just putting in “so and so” to say we have “so and so”.
From the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Senator Caraway, General Blair and Hilma Miller, there are some great opportunities for named talent to be part of In Mind We Trust working alongside some of the actors that brought Justice Is Mind to life. Indeed, I can just imagine the marketing and public relations possibilities of such a pairing!
The goal, of course, is to put together a plan that’s not only attractive to financiers but making sure it reaches the right parties. This is the process that can take some time. Indeed, it took over a year to find the investors that saw my vision for Justice Is Mind. The great thing about In Mind We Trust is that Justice Is Mind has done well in the marketplace. It proves that there’s an interest in the original story that I’m looking to expand upon with the sequel.
I’ll still never forget that day when I stumbled upon that famed 60 Minutes broadcast on “thought identification” that eventually led me to writing Justice Is Mind. As some of you know, I was actually researching mind reading technology for a sequel to First World. Who would have thought in 2010 I would be sitting here the last couple of months in 2014 and writing the sequel to Justice Is Mind.
Writing the sequel to Justice Is Mind has been an experience. Up to page 25, with a mountain of notes, it has been interesting revisiting characters I haven’t really thought much about since I wrote Justice Is Mind back in 2010. Sure, I dealt with the characters when filming the feature but by that point the script had been written, vetted and ready to go. I don’t’ believe in on set rewrites unless a scheduling emergency comes up that forces an adjustment. In my view, you write a screenplay with a sense of quiet and imagine the characters doing this and that. A film set, by design, is a noisy experience and really isn’t conducive to writing creatively.
Naturally, I’ve had more than a few inquiries on what the sequel will be about. Without giving away too much, the sequel picks up three months after the original story. Yes, there are familiar characters from the original, but already I’ve introduced a few new characters. The one thing I do before I set out to write a screenplay is to have an ending. Justice Is Mind always had the ending it did. I’m not saying I’m so rigid that I would never change an ending, but having one at the start, for me, provides a light at the end of the tunnel to work towards. And, thankfully, the title of the sequel came to me a few days ago.
Regarding Justice Is Mind, I’m pleased to announce that we are also now streaming on IndieReign! This brings us to four platforms that are streaming the film with additional platforms coming online soon. This is why the time has come to write a sequel. Justice Is Mind is not only in the market, but throughout our screenings and the comments I’ve heard there are a variety of parts that resonate with the audience. In fact, there were two audience members from two different screenings that said the comments they did that caused the direction I’m taking for the sequel.
This also represents a new time for First World and SOS United States. I’m actively presenting both projects to interested parties for development. The one thing I try very hard to do is to not get lost in all the noise associated with this industry. It’s very easy to get absorbed about VOD, SVOD, this trend, that trend, A list today, C list tomorrow, etc. In the end it comes to one word and one word only – equity. Whether you are producing a low budget feature like Justice Is Mind or something in the few millions like First World, part, or most of the equity (translation cash), must be put up before a project will proceed. As I mentioned last week, all movies start with the screenplay. Where they go from there is up to the market.
I’ve always enjoyed both the creative and business side of the entertainment industry. I find it just as much fun to write a cool scene as it is to negotiate a screening and pitching it to the press. I guess there is another word that is applicable to my work.
This past week I was preparing a presentation for SOS United States and started to reflect on what I have produced and directed over the years. From plays, to commercials, to corporate videos, short films and feature films, it has been one hell of a journey so far. I remember back in the 1990s when I produced my first direct response commercial and being glued to the TV just waiting to see it air for the first time. The next day I went into my office (early) to look at the fax report from the call center to see how many placed an order for one of my magazines. I fondly remember my excitement then as I do now every time Justice Is Mind embarks on a new journey.
In a few months I’ll be on an ocean liner in the middle of the Mediterranean Ocean screening Justice Is Mind on the Queen Elizabeth. Yes, this is a tremendously exciting opportunity for the film and as cruise travel is my favorite way to travel, all the better! But in all honesty, it has always been about bringing Justice Is Mind to the widest possible audience.
Justice Is Mind was produced in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and while local, regional and national audiences have been wonderfully supportive, the second phase of this four year project has been to present Justice Is Mind to an international audience. When I was publishing magazines I was always looking for new avenues to distribute, filmmaking is no different. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, filmmaking is a journey to new worlds and new audiences.
Of course the one constant, the one continuous journey in all of this, is capital. The capital to produce and the capital to pay back your investors from distribution. When you read the entertainment trades, blogs and related sites (Slated, etc.) they talk about the countless various structures of film finance. But there are a couple of constants in all this coverage, 1) everyone is looking for funding, and, 2) every deal is different. From the studios to the independent filmmaker, cash is king.
How many times do we read that such and such a film was financed by the most unlikely of investors? Trust me I had no idea that my best friend and her husband would be my investors in Justice Is Mind. Nor did I think that 20 years ago a figure skating coach would back my dream to launch a figure skating magazine. So what common thread did these financiers have? A passion for the intended product. Don’t get me wrong, they are business minded but at the end of the day they believed in the project and wanted to see it come to life.
On my quest to secure funding for SOS United States and First World I look for those that may have a passion for the subject matter and are entrepreneurs. There’s no question that filmmaking is a risky venture, but isn’t any business? Unlike a business that may not make it and has to close its doors (or shut down their website), a completed film is a product that can be marketed and sold.
Now boarding. The journey to new worlds.
As we are coming into the final four weeks until the world premiere of Justice Is Mind, I have been reflecting over the last few days on how this entire project started and the journey to this moment.
It was 2010 when I was writing the sequel to First World when I began researching the “possibility” of mind reading machines for part of that story. Learning of fMRI procedures and discovering the 60 Minutes Thought Identification program, Justice came to life through my passion for courtroom dramas (Judgment at Nuremberg, Witness for the Prosecution) and science fiction (Gattaca and Fringe). I also love the procedural format (Law & Order).
With script in hand and my business plan complete the journey began to find the funding. Ask any screenwriter the pitch process is arduous, time intensive and honestly depressing. Simply put, even if you get past the gatekeepers who accept submissions or have your agent/rep submit, you still have to convince your first point of contact (which you always hope is a producer) to, at minimum, option your screenplay. Thus even with some option money in your pocket, you still have to wait to see if they are going to produce your dream…I mean story. I know some screenwriters that are totally fine with that process. They write, get paid and move on to the next writing project. They don’t care if their story is produced. But for me, I want to see all that work move from script to screen. As a writer there’s nothing like seeing your work come to life.
After months of presenting to production companies and hearing things like “it’s not for us”, “we’ve seen similar” (you know what translates to) or my favorite “we’re working on something just like this” (seriously run from those companies and keep your correspondence), the funding came together from two of the most unlikely sources – my best friend Mary and her husband Stefan. Ever since I was in grade school I have dreamed of producing a motion picture and now it was going to happen.
But as I’ve said before, producing a film is not for the faint at heart (no matter what the budget is) and is a business. Mary and Stefan knew I used to run a media company and that I’ve managed direct reports. But while they loved the story, I had a business plan that was “reasonable” and not filled with fluff (there was zero mention of Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch). Just practical numbers on indie films of the same budget class and available distribution data. But I really credit the production of my first short film First World in 2007 to making all this possible as I was able to combine my practical business background to a film (albeit a short one). When I was publishing magazines I handled our newsstand distribution. Film distribution has a variety of similarities – you have to deliver the product, you only get a percentage of the retail price, there are middlemen and each deal is different. After screening at over 20 sci-fi conventions in numerous countries, First World was picked up for distribution by IndieFlix and ran on Hulu for well over a year.
Now a mission control like atmosphere has taken over the project. Justice has left the vehicle assembly building and we are on the crawling transporter to LC 39. Launch control center is manned by our editor, sound mixer, director of photography, composer and other technical personnel. Final operating systems are in place and are being tested.
And while the aforementioned is the atmosphere I’m feeling for Justice right now, it is a tribute to the Apollo 11 space program for on this day back in 1969 our world was forever changed when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon and said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
T-minus 28 days.
With our new sound mixing team at Visionary Sound bringing the “sound of Justice” to life, and with color correction starting shortly, my focus has pretty much turned to the next phase of the project – distribution, marketing and more marketing. Simply put, you can never do enough marketing. In the world of film production, it’s all about laying the groundwork and establishing a solid presence. And these days, that presence is online.
This past week, three emails arrived, one from a cast member about a possible screening at prestigious university in Boston, another titled “Justice Is Mind possible screening” and a third “Distributing Justice Is Mind.” The screening opportunity came from a theatre we screened the short film version at last year. They now have a film festival connected with their theatre and asked us if we would like to screen the feature film—of course I said yes. The distributing inquiry came from a distributor looking for independent features to distribute and found me through my contact information on IMDB. For anyone that has an IMDB listing I cannot stress enough to have a direct email contact. Unless you are repped by CAA, WME, UTA or ICM, it behooves you to have direct contact information. An email account will suffice. Seriously, sign up for IMDBpro it’s worth every penny. To pull a quote from North by Northwest “Roger, pay the two dollars.”
Each one of these contacts was just another opportunity for Justice Is Mind to not only get the word out but to establish an audience for the film. While we are in the very early days of evaluating distribution options for the film, screening opportunities are always welcome. That is the whole point of producing a film—getting it “scene”. Whether it be a film festival, a college, a convention, a theatre, it’s all good and should not only be welcomed but embraced. But make no mistake about it, these opportunities take time, perseverance, patience and cost. In every case you are dealing with new people, a new venue and, in my experience, varying technical capability on the part of the venue. The latter point is really important. Many years ago when I produced an event on a cruise ship, I transmitted to our figure skater guests the list of “accepted media to run on our (ship) systems”. Sadly, one skater ignored it and their program wasn’t played.
One relatively new producer, and successful actor I admire, is Zachary Quinto. We all know him as masterfully assuming the role of Mr. Spock in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies. But as a producer he totally gets it when it comes to the state of the industry and perpetual discussion that filmmakers have to exhibit in a theatre versus VOD.
What Quinto told the Hollywood Reporter in regard to the distribution of his film Breakup at a Wedding fits in perfectly with Justice Is Mind, “You get into the budget of the film and the reach of the movie and the fact that many of the actors in this are up-and-coming, and for some of them, it’s their first feature and there’s no big box-office name to draw people into the theater, but there’s very good quality material and really good acting great humor and good heart, so we wanted it to reach as many people as we could and we felt like the VOD platform was the way to do that.” This is not to say you don’t pursue theatrical, but it’s imperative that you keep you options open. Because in the end it comes down to revenue for your investors and capital for your next motion picture.
The one thing filmmakers have now is options.
With the special effects for Justice Is Mind being completed this week, my attention has largely been focused over the last month on the sound design of the film. Yes, while the visuals of Justice are easy to share and enjoy, there is an entire area of the film that is just as important – sound. It’s not just the words that are being spoken it’s the atmosphere around them that defines the mood and feel of the film.
For anyone that has been involved in filmmaking, post-production is a managed process and sound design is part of it. Sure, you don’t have to have that beep on a cell phone, or electronic click of a computer, but I believe it’s that level of detail that sets films apart from each other. I’m also very into details and sound is part of that process. Is the judge’s hammer sound too soft? What tone do we set for this particular character? Sound wise how do we advance the drama and the story?
A film without sound design is like a painting. Sure, it can be visually arresting and you hope there is a compelling score, but have you ever noticed in a film that particular characters or moments have a similar sound? In Justice our primary character is Henri Miller and as the story builds so does the atmosphere around him. Sometimes the sound is silent as the stage is being set for a dramatic build or moment in which you want the audience to pay attention and take notice. This is a process that is just as creative as the editing, score and special effects and just as time consuming.
It is a curious process watching a script come to life. Sure, I directed it and have worked with our editor, special effects supervisor and composer (who is also doing sound design), but this is where you see the creative energy come to life and I haven’t even talked about sound mixing or color correction yet. I’ll save that for another post.
I often wonder if audiences really know what goes into a film from start to market. Personally I love the entire process, but to quote District Attorney Constance Smith, “I didn’t promise you an easy case.” Filmmaking is not easy by any stretch. The level of competition between films is fierce beyond words (just start to look at sales agents’ websites). If you don’t have A or B list actors to anchor your distribution, you better have a compelling story because that’s the only thing that will save you from achieving distribution. I like to think we have a compelling story with Justice. We already have digital distribution in place and our early interest from sales agents and distributors is extremely promising. I’ve sold them on the script, the trailer, clip and visuals, this is why all of us involved in post-production are being a bit manic about the details. Because in the end you have to have a commercial product.
I know some filmmakers that are not commercially minded and in fact have told me they aren’t producing such and such to make any money. Unless you are producing as a calling card for experience, short films are great for this like I did with First World and Evidence, I just don’t believe in vanity filmmaking. Point in fact there is just way too much that goes into creating a film in the first place.
Let me give you some facts. My legal team is in Los Angeles and they are working diligently with me on countless matters; our composer is just outside London, UK; we had a representative (my entertainment lawyer) at Cannes; our post production team is in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and we have, by my last count, just over 200 actors, crew, marketing, location and promotional partners involved in the film. Justice will not just have one big showing then off to a dusty shelf while I wait to hear from festivals. Dear god if that happened I would board one of my Arctrans from First World and quietly leave the planet! What it comes down to is promoting your project to as many people that will listen. Sales agents, distributors, theatre owners, conventions are, by design, used to getting pitches-it just comes down to a compelling story because they need to bring that story to their own audiences to, dare I say it, make money.
But like I did when publishing magazines, money cannot be the first thing on your mind, quality must be the first. For I believe that if a quality product is well presented it will find its audience and share of revenue. It just comes down to doing one thing:
Turning up the volume.
Producing a feature film, never mind writing and directing one, is a project. In this industry you often hear people say, “What projects are you working on?” The word “project” is code for “film”. Let’s be honest, it’s easier to use the word “project” than list out your films at a cocktail party. But here are my projects: Justice Is Mind, First World, titled, but not announced, political thriller and…that’s enough. Suffice to say, both Justice Is Mind and First World are in various stages of development and production. Justice has a short and feature, with notes on a sequel. First World has a short, a feature I hope to put into production with a sequel already written (it’s a trilogy). The political thriller is at the treatment stage with 12 pages of script already written.
There was an article in an industry blog about a filmmaker who was quoting all these projects. I mean, they went on and on and on. Sounds impressive on paper, but two clicks on IMDB and you realize it was just talk because honestly it’s impossible, unless you have a production staff, to be involved in so many projects strictly from a time point of view. For me, less is more. Anyone that has worked with me knows that I focus on the details. It’s easy in this industry to get distracted with someone’s new and exciting project, but if your own project isn’t finished it’s really doing a disservice to those that worked on it.
With Justice Is Mind edited and the score nearly complete, the one area of the project that’s front and center are the building of the special effects. When you see these before and after examples, the quality that our Special Effects Supervisor is putting into them is stunning. But to get to this point, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there are quite a few details that first start with original files being pulled by our Editor, sent to me for review and then processed over to special effects with my instructions for the building.
Special effects are an integral part of the world of filmmaking. Without them, films just don’t exist. The special effects we see in 21st century films are obviously very cool. On a contemporary note, visually Olympus Has Fallen was really excellent. But let’s take a step back in time to my favorite film Gone With the Wind. In those days it was the matte shot. When you consider what Jack Cosgrove achieved back in 1939, impressive doesn’t even begin to describe those visual effects that still hold up to this day. How the burning of Atlanta was accomplished was truly spectacular.
While the special effects are being built, one of the next areas of the project that I’ve been focusing on is our upcoming August 18 premiere, continuing to develop the list of film festivals to submit to and working towards an industry screening. There is also a list of independent theatres I’m working on to screen and test market the film. This is another area of the project that has to be carefully considered—distribution. The one thing about the world of filmmaking, and probably like any industry, is the abundance of “consultants” that want to tell you how to hone your craft. I have to tell you, wading through these “experts” is a project in and of itself. I’ll just say this, if you are going to consult for a fee in this business you best have accomplished what you are preaching before I part with 10 cents.
For my projects it’s pretty simple. 1) I want to produce, 2) I want my projects to be seen, and, 3) I want to make money. Obviously, a lot has changed in this industry since Gone With the Wind. Filmmaking is achievable today because of technological advances that allow us to create. And after all…
Tomorrow is another day.
With Justice Is Mind now edited in a rough cut up to the 1.25 hour mark, there is nothing more satisfying as a filmmaker than to see the story come together visually. Oh sure, I wrote the script and the film has been shot, but seeing it in action brings the project to another level of reality – a completion date.
Having now set an internal completion date that I believe is achievable the process now turns to what film festivals to submit to. Of course every filmmaker wants to see their work accepted to a festival. There is a certain pride knowing that your work has been reviewed and approved by your peers. Unfortunately, simply owing to the volume of submissions to even the smallest of festivals there is simply no guarantee that it will be accepted. With Sundance receiving over 4,000 submissions and screening just over 2%, the chances are slim that such a high-profile festival will accept your film. But honestly, you never know.
The one thing I do know is that you can’t put all your eggs into one basket by submitting only to festivals and then waiting to see if you’re accepted. First, the majority aren’t buyers markets so aside for some public relations and resume accolades, you still don’t have a distribution deal for your film. That’s why in addition to presenting Justice to sales agents and distributors the fallback plan is self-distribution for theatrical, DVD, VOD, digital streaming, TV, etc. The military isn’t the only industry that understands preparedness. Seriously what’s the alternative, have a film sit on a shelf waiting for the phone to ring? There’s a reason why I post to this blog, send press releases, email newsletters and have an active social media plan, because if I was a distributor and was considering Justice I would simply do a Google search on “Justice Is Mind” movie and when over 300,000 entries come up I figure that just gives our film a bit more of a bump in awareness for a deal.
But whether we are accepted or not to a festival like Sundance, there’s a lot we can take away. It’s been revealed yet again that big name stars don’t translate to big prices or even sales. This has been a consistent trend that I just believes come down to the story…you have to have one. And while certain buys for all rights deals were in the $2-3 million range, reports still say that investors are losing money. Look, I understand the distributor secures rights for the $2-3 million and then commits another say $20 million in prints and advertising, but haven’t we learned anything from the economic meltdown! Why are producers still overpaying for talent. Don’t you want to go back to your investors for your next film? I personally know of one film that was produced in 2008 with nearly $2 million in equity financing with some well-known talent. It was only accepted to Tribeca and never received a distribution deal of any note. I saw it in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart last year. It’s one thing taking a bath on an investment, it’s another to go down on the Titanic.
A film like Justice really isn’t any different except in the numbers. I believe we wouldn’t have secured the talent on both sides of the camera or the locations and sponsors if they didn’t believe in the story and see the possibilities. And what did my investors want to know? They wanted to enjoy the script and to see a business plan with a reasonable return on investment at some point. Imagine.
And while there are economics that sometimes dictate a high-profile name to sell a project, I’d rather see an actor on-screen who I’ve never heard of but delivers a performance of believability and substance. I still believe filmmaking is about telling a story and that word of mouth is still the best advertising you can’t buy.
Having seen a rough cut of the first 43 minutes of Justice Is Mind, the story has now progressed to the FVMRI procedure. In Justice some pivotal moments take place in a medical setting. I can tell you first hand that securing medical-like locations is a herculean task all by itself. It’s not that people don’t want to work with you, there is something else that comes up like a cement wall—HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Yes, the very act that I reference in Justice that doesn’t protect capital crimes revealed during the FVMRI procedure also protects patients in the real world from having their medical information compromised. We all certainly agree that patient records needs to be protected. But in the end, it just came down to assurances that patient information won’t be breached. My continued thanks to the MRI Centers of New England in Haverhill and the Vernon Medical Center in Worcester for your support of Justice Is Mind.
As for the rough cut of what I’ve seen so far? I’m more than pleased. There is no greater satisfaction as a filmmaker than seeing words you’ve written on paper come to life. With a variety of communications going back and forth between our editor, composer and me this week, the trailer is being edited and the score is being composed. I think it’s pretty safe to say that there are a fair amount of people looking forward to seeing the trailer!
The post-production phase is just as involved as pre-production and production. While the film is being built in the editing phase, there is the entire other side of the business of marketing, public relations and distribution that needs to be planned. Film Independent has a variety of terrific forum videos that touched on numerous aspects of independent filmmaking. First and foremost with the advent of social media tools available, David Dinerstein of LD Entertainment said that filmmakers “have so many tools at their own hand that they’ve never had before to start the process as early as possible.” Continuing on that same thought, Wendy Cohen of Participant Media (Lincoln) stated “what’s this movie’s presence is going to be online is not something that should come at the end…I know this is just extra work for everybody but it has to start at the very beginning.”
With more and more production companies engaging in self-distribution of their films, building an audience early on is just part of the process. As one of the panelists stated, “I think it’s a really exciting time in the independent film space. The studios are doing Batman and Superman and Ironman…I think they’ve left everything else to independent sources of financing.” Obviously I agree with this. But with the advent of all these new tools and technologies available to a filmmaker, it comes down to what’s best for the project. Do you sell all rights, partial rights or self distribute the entire film across all channels? Maybe you sign a DVD/VOD deal but keep theatrical? I’ve known some filmmakers that have sold all rights and some that have sold partial rights. Each has a different story to tell with their respective projects.
In regard to Justice what’s now being planned is a trailer launch event and distribution of the trailer – from posting, media and distributors with an eye on where to premiere the feature film in 2013. I think one of my favorite directors (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) summed it up best when he said:
“My three Ps: passion, patience, perseverance. You have to do this if you’ve got to be a filmmaker.”
– Robert Wise
As I start to work on the distribution plans for Justice Is Mind, I am reminded about the similarities between the film and publishing industry when it comes to distribution. Having worked as a magazine publisher for over ten years, I can tell you definitively they have a lot in common. Both have evolved from their standard methods of distribution to include new and exciting revenue generating platforms. For the last several years I’ve been talking about VOD (Video on Demand) and online streaming as the way to go for independent filmmakers. In fact, I was interviewed about this new method of distribution on New England Film a few years ago. Trust me when I tell you Hulu, Crackle, Amazon, iTunes and YouTube deliver solid revenue to filmmakers. It may not be as sexy as theatrical, but there’s real cash in those downloads.
As publishing has migrated to more of an electronic medium, filmmaking has evolved in the same capacity on both the production and distribution side. Unfortunately, just as I’ve known way too many publishers that were terrified of this thing called the internet, the same holds true for some filmmakers that believe theatrical distribution is everything and that somehow VOD doesn’t validate their work. Of course we all want to see our films in theatres. Who doesn’t? But the reality is that, traditionally anyway, theatrical distribution is perhaps the most expensive outlet for film. When you consider the P&A costs alone, a distributor has to make certain that there is a reasonable chance your film will do well enough to justify their investment. But if your film isn’t picked up for theatrical, it doesn’t mean you can’t self distribute. You can simply call up an independent theatre to see if they can screen via DVD and share the gate. Send a few posters for their lobby with social media and public relations support and you may just have a hit that finds its way to traditional pick up by a distributor. My point is that, like publishing, the film industry has evolved and that independent filmmaking is now more approachable than ever. The goal, in my view, is to make your entire package as attractive as possible so when distributors see your work they know you put some time into making it look as sharp as possible.
Prior to operating my own publishing company, I worked at Time magazine and had a mentor that instilled in me the importance of a solid presentation. I worked for a sales representative at the venerable newsweekly for a few years. She handled some pretty major accounts for the magazine and always prepared these wonderful presentations. I’ll never forget what she said, “Always have a nice leave behind.” Simply, once you leave the room make sure your presentation stands out on its own. I took that axiom to the magazines I published and the films I am now producing. It all comes down to packaging. From the one sheet, website, trailer to the end product – the film. Of course, we are limited by our budgets, but with social media and other online tools why not try your damndest to put your best foot forward? With thousands of films being produced every year, standing out from the crowd is important. Besides, I owe it my investors, cast, crew, sponsors and myself to see that Justice Is Mind is distributed over as many platforms as possible to maximize revenue.
One trend in film distribution that I love is the Day and Date release. Like Margin Call did, why not have your film screen in select theatres the same day it’s available for VOD and DVD? It’s a foregone conclusion that consumers want choices in their entertainment experience on how the content is delivered. Who cares what platform it comes in from as long as it winds up in your bank? Remember content is king and the key to more content is someone has to pay for it.
Will Justice Is Mind have its world premiere in a theatre? Naturally, and a day will be set. But while Justice Is Mind is playing in a theatre someone thousands of miles away may have a date with their tablet watching Henri Miller face his own memory at the trial of the century.