First Signal is complete! What started as an idea in 2017 is now a completed feature film. The satisfaction of completing a film is like none other. When you consider the number of people and technical matters that go into the process, it’s project management bar none. While there are always difficult moments to overcome, as filmmakers we always come out on the other end wanting to do the process all over again. For when a film is complete, it truly is a piece of art. Not one that you hang on the wall, but one that you project on it.
The completion of First Signal arrives with additional film festivals that have accepted the trailer. I’m delighted to report that the trailer has won Best Trailer at the Crown Wood International Film Festival and Tagore International Film Festival. The trailer was also a finalist in the Prague International Monthly Film Festival. These early accolades create a wonderful foundation as I submit the feature film for festival consideration and implement the marketing and distribution plan.
This all comes of course as the entertainment industry is trying to right the ship in a sea of unprecedented uncertainty. Theaters are just now announcing plans to reopen at reduced capacity, production is slowly restarting and film markets have gone temporarily virtual. As for the latter, I’m registered for the Marche du Film that’s starting on Monday. I was looking forward to attending my first Cannes in person, but virtual will be fine for this year’s market. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “After all tomorrow is another day.”
I count myself lucky that we have been able to successfully navigate the post-production process of First Signal given the present situation. Although we had already planned to be in post-production during this time, one doesn’t plan for a worldwide upheaval that literally shuts down the world. Throughout this vortex, it was the dedicated post-production team of Daniel Groom, Daniel Elek-Diamanta, Adam Starr and Tim Haggerty that made the completion of First Signal possible. One member of our team went through a multi-country ordeal to get home and literally sent the final files the day before he was leaving. During the actual production of First Signal a couple of members were going through some very trying personal matters. It’s those types of efforts that give credence to, the show must go on!
The entertainment industry is resilient. We always find a way to overcome obstacles. Because if there is one thing the public wants, it’s entertainment. They want to escape into a story, experience new characters and visit their worlds. Since the dawn of theater neither war, famine, plagues or “out of this world” experiences have brought an end to this industry. If anything, it makes us work harder to do that one thing we all enjoy doing…
For years I have followed the film markets, but none so closely as the American Film Market (AFM). As an independent filmmaker and screenwriter, I think it’s important to stay informed on the latest trends and news. As we are “indie” it’s too easy to operate in our respective vacuums without the benefit of new voices. That ended last week when I attended AFM in Santa Monica, California.
As this was my first AFM, I followed their how to work AFM guide. Several weeks prior to the start of AFM, I researched companies that might be interested in hearing more about my projects. I curated a list and then sent an email of introduction that included a brief (title/logline) of my projects for consideration of a meeting. By the time I arrived in Santa Monica, I had several meetings confirmed. In addition, I made sure my Cinando profile was completed along with the MyAFM section of AFM’s website. The completion of my profiles and subsequent postings in MyAFM conversations resulted in a few companies reaching out to me for meetings.
My industry badge granted me access for four days that began on Saturday. But as the director in me wants to get the lay of the land prior to “arriving on set,” I landed in Los Angeles on Thursday and picked up credentials on Friday. I knew that the start of the market for me on Saturday would mean putting on my acting hat. The days and weeks of memorizing the loglines and synopsis of my projects along with talking points was soon going to be put to the test. As an actor, I wouldn’t think of arriving to set without knowing my lines, attending a film market is no different. If you don’t take the time to know your own projects, why should anyone else take their time? As attendee’s schedules are booked up well in advance, AFM is all about maximizing time.
The Lowes Hotel is entirely converted for the market (you can’t enter the hotel without the proper credentials). When you enter the lobby you are soon greeted by representatives of the industry trades with the dailies, see throngs of attendees going to and fro and banners representing the myriad of companies that are bunted on the multi-floor balcony railings. What were hotel rooms before the market, are now offices. You have arrived at AFM.
Over the course of two days, meetings with producers and production companies in the United States, Canada, Germany and Romania resulted in positive experiences. Then there were the various film commissions from Russia, Georgia and Japan that also asked for meetings. On Saturday night at the official carousel cocktail reception, casual conversations resulted in meeting two producers with substantial credits (there was a specific request for China related stories – First World anyone?).
But what I do want to stress is that you can’t go into the market thinking “what can you do for me” it’s more about “what can I do for them.” Think about it, is the screenplay I have going to be a good fit for “X” production company or producer? One company I met with wasn’t interested in science fiction, but wanted to see my political thrillers. In the reverse, one producer was very keen on developing science fiction franchises and requested information on the “First World” universe. In both those cases, they asked for scripts. It pays to have a variety of projects to offer.
These meetings are also about building relationships for the long haul. All the meetings and interactions I had were positive, with the exception of one. In that case, it didn’t take long for me to realize that one was just playing the posture and poser game (he didn’t even have a business card). Yes, while AFM is all about meeting the right people and developing a network, you do have to be judicious on who you interact with.
But here’s an interesting twist of fate. Years ago I pitched Justice Is Mind to a distributor that passed on the project. For AFM, this company reached out to me about First Signal. When I was meeting with them and Justice Is Mind came up and their original pass, they presented a new division for digital distribution and asked me for a screening link. As for First Signal, the number of companies looking to get involved at the script stage is a market trend. This is an industry about product and intellectual property and that’s exactly what AFM is all about.
Now it’s about the follow up. The continuation of introductions, conversations and presentations that started at AFM. One thing that’s always excited me about this industry are the possibilities of what’s next. Because for this filmmaker, there will be a next AFM next year. As for AFM, a special thanks to Jonathan Wolf, Managing Director at AFM, for creating a welcoming atmosphere for first time attendees and his informative presentation at the AFM Orientation.
After AFM I had the opportunity to visit Eastern Costume. I was introduced to Eastern by the costume supervisor on Madam Secretary regarding Air Force Uniforms for First Signal. Another special thanks to Ian Brown, Military Technical Advisor, for a three hour tour. Whatever you need for your film, Eastern Costume has it!
Of course, my trip to Los Angeles wasn’t all business. I had some great reunions with friends along with some requisite touring. Seeing the Endeavour Space Shuttle and the King Tut exhibit at the California Science Center was truly exciting. But my favorite place to visit is the Griffith Observatory. From the wonders of science and space to its expansive views of the city, it was wonderful way to spend my last night in the city at…
…the top of the world.
In the entertainment industry it is the “one sheet” that advertises and promotes a film. In an instant the release of a one sheet sets the tone for a film that could be weeks, months or years from release. It is a form of media that should be carefully thought out. While it’s impossible to convey the entire story in a film poster, it should at least project a certain atmosphere.
When I was in post-production with Justice Is Mind my goal was to conceive of a poster that would represent the general story. With an MRI image in the background we see two sides of Henri Miller. One looking forward in the present world and the other looking backwards into World War II. I had the general concept in mind when we were shooting so I had Vernon Aldershoff, the actor that plays Henri Miller, photographed accordingly.
With Serpentine, the story revolves around a figure skater caught up in a Cold War mystery. With a sheet of ice as the backdrop, a skater is centrally framed in Red Square to convey the premise of the story. For SOS United States, the image of two F35’s flying in proximity to a cruise ship, dramatizes the accompanying tag line that says it all.
There are times when the production of a one sheet has to be as accurate as possible. First Signal was one of them. While the science fiction aspect gives one a certain amount of creative freedom, some things need to be right. The Moon to Earth vantage point was modeled after the famed “Earthrise” picture taken from Apollo 8. But it was the star field that needed to be accurate. Thankfully, Celestia, a 3D astronomy modeling program, was available (Special thanks to Daniel Elek-Diamanta for creating the poster and finding Celestia!).
Right after I registered for AFM, I was wondering what I could create to represent my various projects. While they each had their own branding and collateral (depending where they were in the production pipeline), I realized that I didn’t. Those that know me and my projects know what I create, but there is a whole industry universe out there that doesn’t.
I am therefore pleased to present the one sheet for The Ashton Times. Designed by my longtime colleague and friend Adam Starr, it is designed to promote and illustrate the type of works I create. For the last couple of weeks it has been included in my industry communications and promoted on MyAFM and Cinando. As we are an industry of image, I think it’s important to create what we can to present our projects in the best possible light.
It seems fitting that I’m preparing to leave for AFM during the anniversary week when Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 2014. That screening proved to me that you don’t have to be a major or mini studio or have A or B list actors in your film to have a marketable project. Indeed, you only need one thing…
…a good story.
In this industry it’s all about building a brand. It’s when to say yes to a project and when to say no. And while we all like to get paid for our services, there are some things that transcend remuneration and that’s awareness. When I’m approached about a project my first consideration isn’t money it’s about building my brand. I always ask myself if this project is going to help build towards something bigger down the road.
Yes, there are plenty of “exposure only” opportunities. There are many times I’ve said yes to these types of projects because I knew it was going to be another building block on my brand. I knew by doing it, I was either going to get some great exposure, tape for my reel or some other solid representation of my work that I would be proud to promote. But of course not all these projects are the same. Like those with a narcissist director who is only interested in promoting their own agenda while ignoring those that helped along the way (they’re called actors and crew).
When I set out to produce a project I’ll be the first to say that sometimes they don’t pay much, but what the actors and crew get in return is sizable promotion in addition to a copy. From traditional to social media, if someone is going to throw their hat in my ring, it’s important that I bring them as much promotion as possible. Everyone knows the deal from the start and you are either on the same page or you aren’t.
As some have noticed, I tend to work with the same people. We see this all the time in the industry. A producer or director that has their reliable stable of actors and crew they can count on. Of course, we always expand our network with each project. There were some outstanding actors I worked with last month at the Naval Justice School that I hope to work with in another project.
I believe this is why when some projects are announced (particularly independent films) most of the key parts are already taken. It’s not because a director isn’t interested in new talent, it’s because limited resources means they need to be able to count on tried and true talent on both sides of the camera. This is where building a reputation is just as important as awareness. Some years ago it was a culmination of awareness and reputation of national TV appearances that eventually led to a starring role on a network TV show.
If you’re going to choose one of the hardest industries to break into, I think it’s important to build your brand to be known for something. Because once you are known for one thing, you can build it into another.
In the entertainment industry there are the readers. Those individuals who are assigned to read screenplays. Whether you are at a studio, agency, network, production company or film festival, there are the readers. They are on the front lines of evaluating your script. I was a reader for a film festival a few years ago. From reading screenplays that you can see on the silver screen with an Academy Award nomination to those that would be best served as fodder for a litter box, the net of the result is that a human being read it.
I have long been used to subjective industries. From sports to entertainment, a human being decides your fate. They decide if your performance or project is worthy of an award or the circular file. But the last thing this industry needs is a computer program to evaluate the quality of your screenplay.
This past week in The Hollywood Reporter came this article This New Artificial Intelligence Script-Reading Program Could Find Your Next Oscar Role. It was bad enough when I read a few years ago about some new program being developed that could write a screenplay and now reading about one that decides the fate of a screenplay by a computer? Both can immediately fade to black with no acts.
The absolute bottom line to the entire entertainment industry is the writer. Without writers nobody has a job. A writer comes up with an idea, researches that idea and then writes a story. A good reader sees the nuances between the lines of action and dialogue to properly evaluate a script. If after all the human checks and balances it pasts muster, it is then the responsibility of the director to breathe life into those pages to present a project that can be sold into the market. No computer program can do that.
There’s no question that tens of thousands of scripts are written on any given year and tracking them is a daunting task. We know the process of moving a project from script to screen is a herculean one. But if you start to marginalize the writer through the process of a computer program you are doing this industry a disservice because there is then no motivation to create. Last I checked computers don’t fill the seats of a theatre human beings do.
One of the biggest complaints that producers have is finding quality writers and, in particular, showrunners for TV shows. This is not an industry that works off a stopwatch. It is an industry that continuously yearns for that next creative idea to be championed into production. No computer program can do that.
I know that somewhere today on this “Pale Blue Dot” someone has thought of an idea that will eventually wind up in our theaters or as a TV series, because when all is said and done nobody will be presenting a Best Writing award to a Hal 9000.
I remember the mission I was on when I wrote First World in 2006. It was a commitment and passion to learn the craft of screenwriting, research a project and then, to quote this recent article in Script magazine, “write the hell out” of it. Those early efforts resulted in three screenplay nominations and the production of a short film version that screened in several countries. Indeed, I was on a mission.
We live in a world of instant gratification. But that world is a fantasy in the entertainment industry. Someone at some point at some place at some time dedicated years (or decades) to make their project a reality.
Just this week the tireless efforts of the SS United States Conservancy seems to have led to a deal to save the majestic and historic SS United States ocean liner. The redevelopment of the famed liner will be announced in New York City this week. Anyone that has been following their efforts knows this has not been smooth sailing. Thankfully an impassioned plea by the Conservancy to save the ship from the breakers a few months ago brought much needed worldwide attention and donations to the storied liner. The same passion and commitment holds true in the entertainment industry.
After I wrote Justice Is Mind I remember the endless pitches, presentations, blind alleys, dubious investors and bad advice. But it was at one point during the process that I remember going through the same thing in publishing a decade plus prior when trying to raise capital for that venture. That deal clicked at one point just like Justice Is Mind did. But in both cases there was a commonality – I produced these projects myself with investors. That’s the direction I now take.
Would it be grand if “Hollywood” wanted to take one of my projects and run with it? Of course. But Hollywood as we now know it, because the industry is fragmented and decentralized, is everywhere. Audiences don’t care where or how a film came together, they just want to be entertained. It’s really that simple. It was the same with magazines. I was told over and over again that nobody would take me seriously unless we published out of New York. I lived in New York and worked in publishing (TIME magazine). Sure, it was cool. But expensive. In the end, I published market leading magazines based in Worcester, Massachusetts. Readers and theater audiences don’t care where a project originates from.
There was a certain sense of satisfaction when I returned to Los Angeles in 2013 for the West Coast Premiere of Justice Is Mind. A film, born out of Worcester and filmed primarily in central Massachusetts was screening in the entertainment capital of the world. “Hollywood” is as much an atmosphere as it is a corporate entity comprised of all manner of divisions. All “Hollywood” wants is the audience because the larger the audience the larger the revenue.
For those of you on a mission in this industry, I encourage you to read Jeanne Veillette Bowerman’s article in Script magazine. Above all else you need to be passionate about your work while keeping an open mind on collaboration.
“We are each the authors of our own lives, Emma. We live in what we have created. There is no way to shift the blame and no one else to accept the accolades.”
― Paul McGill in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance
There have been many times that I have referred to this one quote from my favorite book. I even used it as a dedication of sorts in my book Frozen Assets. We all have books that we love and in the case of A Woman of Substance it is the character Emma Harte. In essence she grew up with nothing, worked hard, achieved great success against family strife and bulldozed her enemies along the way. It’s Barbara Taylor Bradford’s vivid writing that brings her world building and characters to life. And if you want to see one of the greatest book to mini-series adaptions click this link at Amazon.
And that brings me to the entertainment industry. I have been part of the industry in one form or another for over twenty years. I have made over 300 TV appearances and co-starred on a network TV show. I founded and published the world’s largest figure skating magazine for over a decade and produced a feature film in 2013 (Justice Is Mind), that was the 8th highest rated independent feature film on IMDb that year. Equal to that success was the epic loss of my publishing company in a brutal hostile takeover. That was an experience that I will never forget as it focused me relentlessly on one thing – resolve.
Those of us involved in the entertainment industry know it’s filled with rejections, hopes dashed and dreams that can turn into nightmares. But we also know that when an opportunity strikes it can shine light on your talent like you never thought possible. I’ve had both and, to be honest, it made me the person I am today. I will go to the ends of the Earth (and beyond!) to build a project and promote all associated to help further their own careers and goals. But cross me, take advantage of my work or try to claim it as your own and you will see a combined Emma Harte and Alexis Carrington Colby come out in full swing. It’s not pretty but always well documented. At this stage of my career I can be your best friend or your worse enemy. It’s your choice. Sadly someone this week chose the latter.
What I’m about to write is both a public statement and a warning to writers and creatives the world over. There are opportunists that look for shortcuts. People that don’t want to do the hard work but take advantage of yours. I promise you there are no shortcuts in this industry. Don’t let anybody kid you or tell you otherwise, everything starts with the written word. The writer is the foundation of all things in this industry. Without us actors, crew and the very machine that runs the industry comes to a grinding halt.
Like any independent filmmaker I am always pitching and presenting my work. Last weekend I sourced some agents and managers on Backstage.com. Unless they have a no unsolicited submissions policy, my pitch is pretty straight forward – brief intro of my experience, select loglines and links for more information. In essence a tight query.
Within hours I heard back from one manager that stated, “Thanks Mark. Can you send me a writing sample?” I responded in kind with a variety of links and my script for SOS United States. Now before someone says I shouldn’t have done that there are a few things to remember. First, the script is registered at the WGA (Writers Guild of America). Second, a professional doesn’t steal they review. Some, like an agency that reviewed First World last year, have you sign a submission agreement (fairly standard). Others, it’s just an email. Honestly, in all my experience and what I have seen, trying to get someone to sign a non-disclosure is a non-starter. It doesn’t work and just turns prospects off as it starts from a legal posture. However, in full disclosure, SOS United States has been sent to sales agents and industry representatives for review. Some are still reviewing, some have passed that’s just the way this process works. But what follows with this “agent” needs to be disclosed, because I really think I saw it all until this episode. So in the spirit of screenwriting, I will present it in three acts.
ACT 1 – SUBMISSION
Thanks Mark. How did you hear about us? SOS United States sounds intriguing. I will try to give it a read this week.
I heard about you from Backstage.com under agents and managers. Thank you for your comments on SOS United States. I call it a cross between Fail Safe and Seven Days in May (1964) meet Clear and Present Danger.
Have the studios seen it?
No they haven’t.
Great, we’ll get back to you soon. Thanks again for sending. I am actually from Massachusetts as well. Always looking for stories set there.
Sounds great. What a small world. Yes, we have great locations here in Massachusetts (and a great tax credit).
ACT II – PASSED
While conceptually it is very interesting, I think there is too much going on, too much information and in general it’s not easy to follow. I think you need to streamline the information and simplify in order for this to be effective. A film like the first Wall Street, took something complex and made it easy for most people to understand. I think that should be the goal for you as well. If you decide to work on it, I’m happy to take a look again but right now it is unfortunately a pass for us. Thanks again and stay in touch.
I appreciate the review.
We now pause in our story for the intermission. First, pay careful note to the film that this “agent” mentioned as it plays out when we return to our regular programming. Second, while having a project passed on is disappointing, no writer should immediately jump to their desk for a rewrite just because one person passed. You notice there are no notes with his comment. In all my communications with industry representatives this is where the conversation should have ended. Someone passes, you say thank you and everyone moves on. Brace yourselves as we now return to the program. I have XXXX out the name of the writer and the name of his father, but note again the film that this “agent” referenced and you can fill in the blanks.
ACT III – LAWYER
If you are interested, I might be able to get XXXX (the son of XXXX and a very talented writer) to do a rewrite. It would probably cost around 10k. XXXX is really into shadow governments and has done a great amount of research for other projects that dealt with them. Check him out online. He’s pretty famous. Let me know what you think.
That would be a pass for me. I’m not interested in having my screenplay rewritten by someone else, give them credit and pay for it in the process. That’s nuts! Also, fame in this industry doesn’t impress me. I’ve done enough TV myself.
XXXX has a brand name in film which helps open a lot of doors. I think a draft by XXXX would help it for sure. It would give the project some momentum and strengthen the script. He also produces and directs but he’s not a big enough name to direct something this big. He can also be helpful as a producer. If the script was in shape, we could take it straight to Warner Brothers where we are producing two movies with. But the script needs work.
I’m copying my attorney on this entire trail. This is lunacy. I see approaching you through your listing on Backstage.com was a mistake. You first pass on the project and then come back with a studio name. Like I’m supposed to be all excited. To add insult to injury you name a writer who, by your own admission, can’t get a project like this off the ground. Jesus, you must really think I’m desperate. You are ordered to delete SOS United States from your files. If you feel it is necessary to contact me again, contact Mr. Barry Bachrach.
(who included Barry in the cc)
Whatever dude, calm down. I was just making a suggestion on how I could make your project better. Please don’t contact me again.
Now let’s do some fact checking. First, let IMDb be your best friend. This “agent” has not produced a feature film. That doesn’t matter in the great context of things, but if you are producing something it shows up on IMDb if it’s in production (especially studio productions). Does he have projects in development at a studio? It’s possible, but nothing is listed and it’s the oldest trick in the book to throw a studio name out. I’ve been in studio pitch meetings I know how the process works.
Second, yes, this “writer” is the son of a “famous filmmaker” but is not represented by the “big” agency stated on his IMDb profile (I called the agency and checked) or nominated for any awards in screenwriting (I have been). This “writer” has three representatives listed. After learning that the second representative agency is out of business, I finally did reach his representative by phone with the third listing. The purpose of my call was to let this person know that their client was being represented by other parties, perhaps fraudulently, and to advise them of the situation. After a very pleasant phone call, I forwarded the entire email trail that included Barry’s information. Now, everyone has been notified.
Now let’s also make something else perfectly clear, I don’t know what this “agents” game was, but he lost. This is an industry where opportunists run rampant. They look for people desperate to be part of the industry. I am not one of them and that was this “agents” fatal error.
Let’s, for a moment, look at just how ridiculous this scenario was. It was proposed that I pay $10,000 to an unqualified writer with a famous father to take my idea and screenplay and turn it into something for them. And what’s in it for me? Oh, yes, the wonderful opportunity to be out $10,000 while someone else takes all the glory and credit for my work. You can only imagine the flurry of four letter words that I want to type here.
The one thing you never do in this industry is pay for access. It doesn’t work. This industry is built on relationships. If this “agent” was truly an industry professional the scenario would have been more along these lines, “I like SOS United States and feel it has some promise. What I’d like to do is show it to “so and so” at Warner’s. Just know that they may want to bring in another writer.” But that wasn’t the case. This “agent” was just looking for their own opportunity at my expense creatively and financially.
Should I have vetted this “agent” a bit better? Perhaps. Hindsight is always 20/20. But one never knows what opportunities exist unless you present. That is the risk we all take as creatives.
In the end SOS United States is out there. Did this “agent” delete it? I don’t know. Did they forward it? I don’t know. But what I do know is that with this post and my actions to protect myself legally and through notification to the “writers” representatives, I have documented this action. The one thing this “agent” should know is that I track this industry. Remember, I’m also a journalist. I also have my sources and contacts in the industry and if I get wind of anything, I will turn a quote from Taken.
“I don’t know what you want. But what I do have is a particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over many years. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”
Trivia note: Liam Neeson starred in A Woman of Substance and Taken.
In Justice Is Mind the fictional trial was The Commonwealth v. Henri Miller. In reality Justice Is Mind was primarily filmed in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This past week, Justice Is Mind’s editor Jared Skolnick, who is also an award winning filmmaker, was featured in an article titled “Hey, Hollywood and Bollywood — how about Valleywood?” The story in The Valley Advocate stated that Jared “makes movies in the Valley because this is where he’s from and where he began building his professional network.” The same holds true for me. Even when I was living in Los Angeles in 2007 and cast the two leads in First World in the “Golden State” of California, I filmed the project in Massachusetts? Why? Because this is where I’m from.
Having lived in both New York City and Los Angeles, I can certainly understand the desire to be at the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Having been on a network TV show, a city like Los Angeles can be very exciting when you are working on the high end of the industry. I know numerous actors (some I’ve trained) and filmmakers who have left Massachusetts for the hope of fame and fortune. I firmly believe if you have the desire and will to move to these cities you should. You will never know until you try. For me, I’m glad I had my experience in both these great cities, positive ones from a career point of view, but my creative energy and the launching of all my projects has originated in Massachusetts. It’s not something I set out to do, it just happened that way. My new personal website, www.markashtonlund.com, chronicles the journey.
Case in point, the making of First World and Justice Is Mind. Both of these projects were enormously ambitious between the number of talent involved and needed locations. I had to work in a region where I knew the people and their general enthusiasm about being part of the film. Why film in a location that will require permitting, location fees and local regulations just to look cool, when you can film somewhere else for free working with enthusiastic location partners in exchange for promoting their business?
For me, as I did with Justice Is Mind, once I give the green light to a project I like to move along at reasonable pace in pre-production. Simply put, time is money whether literally or figuratively. As some may have noticed from postings to this blog, I have generally already scouted most of the locations for SOS United States and to some degree for In Mind We Trust.
But as we have seen from the latest film markets, the greatest challenge filmmakers on all levels have is in securing production financing for their projects and a return on investment. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to recognize that it always comes down to equity and what the investor wants. To say there has been an about face in film financing you just have to revisit articles that the trades wrote around the latest American Film Market and then there was this blog post over at Film Specific. But there is one piece to “The Commonwealth” financing pie that keeps films in the state.
Tonight, the entertainment industry comes together en masse for The 87th Academy Awards “The Oscars”. Personally, I’m rooting for either The Imitation Game or The Grand Budapest Hotel to take Best Picture. The one thing I always wonder when I see the nominee list for the Academy Awards, is the journey these “projects” took to reach the pinnacle of the entertainment industry.
The Imitation Game took years to develop. Purchased as a spec script by Warner Bros. for Leonardo DiCaprio in 2011 and then going through some “development hell” it finally came out the way it did. Can we honestly see anyone besides Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing?
Developing a film project can take years…many years. The casual observer of this industry only knows what they see in the theatres and the related award shows. But there was someone, perhaps a small group, that had to champion these projects forward. Had to convince a studio, sales agents and related distributors that their project was worthwhile. Had to convince investors to take the long shot that this project would net positive cash flow down the road. There is no gamble bigger than making a feature film, but on the other side there’s nothing more rewarding when it’s completed and seeing it in a movie theatre.
When I wrote First World in 2006 and condensed into a short film in 2007 to promote the feature film concept, I had no plans to write Justice Is Mind at that time. But when the idea came to me in 2010 to write Justice I took what I learned from First World and produced a short, Evidence, to gather interest in the concept. But from day one in writing Justice Is Mind, I wrote with the idea that I would produce and direct this film on a manageable budget.
This week I read a great story on No Film School “Keys to Film Financing: Keep Creativity in Your Heart, but Dollar Signs in Your Eyes” written by the brilliant folks at Buffalo 8 Productions. Their statement, “By getting your first project made and seen you’ll have more leverage your next time around to tell a bigger story and avoid the pitfalls that early stage writers often find in the development hell that permeates economically challenging films,” could not be more true. The sequel to Justice Is Mind is a bigger story and will command a higher budget.
It is impossible to time a film for the market. Simply, even in the best of circumstances, from script to screen can take about two years. But that being said, it all comes to promotion and marketing. And, as my business partner in Justice Is Mind mentioned to me, it’s about having product – i.e. scripts. Because at the end of the day that’s where it all starts.
“In the sequel to Justice Is Mind, acclaimed journalist Margaret Miller now finds herself in the crosshairs of the United States government. Desperate to save her husband Henri…” Announcing the title and synopsis to the sequel…
“It was a dark and stormy night.” That opening phrase by novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton could have been used to describe some recent drama in the local entertainment industry this past week in Boston. For those of you that follow Justice Is Mind on Facebook and this blog, you remember me announcing that Justice was invited to screen the trailer today at an “industry” event in Boston. The event was also supposed to introduce attending actors to “invited” casting agents and filmmakers to “invited” investors. The cost to attend this event? Only $25. For me, this was always simply going to be a networking event with the over 400 people that were scheduled to attend along with a reunion of about 10+ actors from Justice Is Mind that were planning to go.
No sooner did this event gain some traction than did the rumors, emails and investigations ensue. It was like watching a viral episode of Scandal (one of my favorite TV shows). It had all the makings of solid entertainment – scam, fraud, threats, media reports, government agencies, similar “events” in Florida with “involved” people, so-called “attachment” by actors to mysterious films you couldn’t find on IMDB. And now my favorite, a casting associate identified by one gender when in reality was another “to protect their identity”…seriously! If a TV network got a treatment of this story they would probably green light it for a pilot! But this was reality—a reality that has had a lasting effect on the local entertainment industry.
This is a pretty simple industry to understand. If you are an actor, you want to be well known and maybe eventually famous. If you are a filmmaker, you want to get your film financed and maybe make a living at it. But you have to take a “serious” look at these “events” before hard earned cash is parted with. Again, for me it was just a networking event. I could have cared less about the “casting associates” or “financiers” that were “attending”. This trend of casting associates holding seminars has been going on for some time and is really a frowned upon practice in legitimate circles. Why? It’s simple. Any casting associate worth their salt is only going to cast when they have a project to cast. This business of paying to audition for casting agents has to be the worst trend I have seen in this industry. You wouldn’t pay for a job interview, why would you pay to audition or meet a casting agent? You meet them at auditions and trust me if they like you they remember you for future opportunities. As for meeting investors, sure you might find someone in a bar that might be interested in your project. But if I’m going to pick a bar to do that, you’ll see me at the bar of a film festival or at minimum a higher end establishment – hell, it’s all about demographics!
In the end, the event was cancelled by the venue and most have moved on. But not without finger pointing to those that didn’t deserve to be blamed. Again, this was only a $25 event. Lord knows two drinks out in Boston cost more than that. But what it came down to was the industry wasn’t going to put money into the pockets of unscrupulous organizers. End of that story!
Aside from that episode, the week went really well. My friend Mary Murphy was in town to audition dancers for the next season of So You Think You Can Dance. Oh the laughs and stories we shared—and desserts! (I highly recommend the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel). I had a great conversation with my entertainment attorney about having an industry screening event in Los Angeles this summer for Justice Is Mind. And I attended the Berkshire Shorts Film Festival on Friday to see Jared Skolnick’s The Earth Rejects Him (great film Jared!).
And, yes, I spent more than $25.