The email came in on a Thursday afternoon. A producer from station KABC-AM 790 in Los Angeles wanted me to do a phone interview on Friday with Jillian Barberie and John Phillips for their popular morning drive talk show. The subject was figure skating. The topic was an incident between two skaters at the World Figure Skating Championships in Japan.
I co-starred with Jillian on FOX’s Skating with Celebrities. She was a skater and I was one of the judges. No sooner did we meet on set than we became fast friends off the ice. Needless to say I was very excited to do the interview. First, it was Jillian but second she’s a great interviewer. It was a reunion of sorts as we haven’t seen each other since I moved back east in 2008. The moment the interview started we picked right back up where we left off all those years ago. You can listen to the interview at this link. Those few moments on air with Jillian brought back so many great memories from my time in LA.
As for the world of entertainment, last year I was cast in a documentary titled Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. As you see in this still, it was shot entirely in green screen. In the production these shots will be animated to recreate areas of the documentary for which no photos or film exist. From what I’ve seen, this looks like a brilliant documentary about an important part of American history after the Civil War. The documentary airs on PBS April 9 & 16. To learn more click here.
In just over a month principal photography begins on First Signal. Since I wrote the script in late 2017, it’s amazing how fast time has gone by. It was becoming real enough over the last month when certain props arrived, but when the Air Force Uniforms started to arrive last week it was then that we all could feel the day coming.
I decided to buy the uniforms rather than rent. Not only was it about the same price for the weeks we needed them, I look at the uniforms as a smart investment. First, we’re not constrained to a limited amount of time with them. What happens if we need to reschedule shoot dates past the rental period? What happens if after we wrap we want to do some pickup shots? With this acquisition, the budget is locked down.
With cast and crew complete, final props being created and actors going through fittings, it’s this moment in pre-production where things are fine-tuned and coordinated. One could say we’re rolling out of our Vehicle Assembly Building.
It was early in 1994 when the call came in. The Montel Williams Show wanted me as a guest to discuss the “Tonya/Nancy” fallout. Naturally, I was beyond thrilled, excited and, yes, nervous. But I had just launched a figure skating magazine and was eager for all the promotion I could get.
I remember like it was yesterday the days leading up to my first TV appearance. The call with the producer going over details of the planned show. Their booking of my flight to New York and my hotel. In the end I drove to the city the day before as a snowstorm threatened to cancel flights from Worcester. I couldn’t believe I was in New York as a guest on one of the most popular syndicated talk shows of the time. The taping went great and the rest as they say was history – over 15 years of TV appearances around the sport of figure skating (the total count is around 300). Because they wanted me on that show and because I said yes, it launched my career and created a brand in the process. Someone reading this is now asking how much I was paid in cash. The answer is simple – zero. It was exposure.
Throughout my career the one thing I have endeavored to keep is an open mind. When an opportunity presents itself the first thing I look at is the exposure. Is it going to look good on my resume? Might it lead to something else? Will the footage be worthwhile? Perhaps the most important – will I have a good time. Sure, the compensation package is a consideration. But currency shouldn’t just be measured in dollars and cents. Each “gig” is cumulative. By simple example, many high profile “non-cash” TV appearances led to a $2,500 an episode paid gig as a Judge on FOX’s Skating with Celebrities.
Unfortunately, what I’m seeing in this industry lately are closed minds unwilling to see the big picture. An actor, who I booked on a paid gig last year, recently took to social media to call out a listing they saw about how actors apparently weren’t being compensated. Instead of ignoring the posting they thought it was a good idea to take their “vent” to social media to get like-minded people to agree with them. I have seen other similar postings or have heard of those brought to my attention. These actors believe they’re doing the industry a service when in fact they just expose themselves as nonprofessionals. What’s curious about some is that they are represented by reputable agents. Do these agents know what their clients are doing on social media? Sadly, they don’t think about the possible fallout from defamation or that they have now branded themselves as troublemakers. Believe me when I tell you, producers, casting agents, directors and employers look at your social media before hiring you for a gig or a job. I now understand why some of these folks have painfully thin resumes.
To quote Paul McGill in my favorite book A Woman of Substance, “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.” Whether I’m creating a project or considering the opportunity to work on one, I always look at career “currency” and how it will increase my brand. This is all about leveraging one project after another. The one thing everyone wants in this industry is to be noticed. I think it’s best to be known for ones accomplishments rather than complaints.
I’m now thinking to myself, what if I said no back in 1994? Would my career have launched? Who knows. But one thing I do know is this is an industry of endless opportunities. It also doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time.
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.
The development of a film property isn’t just about the actual filming, it’s about creating imagery, branding and a marketing campaign. Long after you type the first word of your script, it’s the first image associated with the story that everyone remembers. How many times do we read about a project in development or one that has long ago been filmed, until we see an image associated with it? First Signal is much more to me than just another film project. It’s about setting the right tone and creating the “world” of First Signal.
Although I had a general idea of what I wanted to see in a promotional poster, I had no idea that Daniel Elek-Diamanta was thinking along the same lines. Daniel, as some of you know, is an accomplished composer. He brilliantly scored Justice Is Mind and Serpentine. Unless he’s not available, he knows he’s always my number one. Weeks ago he agreed to score First Signal. In addition to his talent scoring films, he’s also a brilliant graphic designer. When he sent me a surprise draft of a promotional poster for First Signal it’s like he read my mind (Justice Is Mind?).
I am therefore pleased to present the first promotional poster for First Signal by Daniel Elek-Diamanta! Inspired by the famed Earthrise photo from Apollo 8, with a star field created by Celestia an open source virtual 3D astronomy program, the poster was released today on IMDb and social media.
Also launching today is First Signal’s official url www.firstsignalmovie.com. The site presently points to First Signal’s Facebook page, but will soon be directed to a custom designed website. The footage has already been selected with Daniel working on an introductory score.
Standing out in this industry is a herculean task. Sure, I go to my social media feeds and I see what’s going on locally. But it truly comes down to making a national and international push for a project. I’ve never had any interest in being a “popular local.” For me, it’s about someone discovering my films who lives far away from where it was created.
When Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth back in 2014, nobody on the ship, aside from my mother, knew me or anything about the film. All they knew what was in the daily communique. Those passengers were my most important audience. Thankfully the screening was, I’ll say it, smooth sailing.
I also received word this week that the Department of Defense is formally reviewing First Signal for possible cooperation. As some of you may know, the military has entertainment liaison offices that work with the industry. Although First Signal is science fiction, there are numerous elements to the story that are based in the real world. And like the legal aspects of Justice Is Mind, I think it’s important to insure the military and science aspects are properly vetted.
After dealing with a massive snowstorm the day before, the first day back at the Naval Justice School went well. As this is my fifth time doing the program, these are like class reunions between the actors and staff. But with every new class, we have new actors join the program.
I can’t speak for other regions, but in New England the acting community really is about six degrees of separation. While I may not have worked directly with some of the new actors, the other actors have or are familiar with their work. What struck me interesting with one of the new actors was him telling me about a project of his own that he’s putting into production himself. Sound familiar?
While any actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, etc., wants to be hired, there’s nothing more satisfying than creating your own work. It truly is magical watching your performance, your words and your images come to life. But one does not magically snap their fingers to get a project off the ground. In the end it’s about partnering with good people that believe in bringing the project to life.
In addition to the casting notices going up this week for First Signal, location searches will also begin in earnest. As I mentioned to someone already involved in the project, the way I approach a location is to trade the opportunity to shoot with a mutual public relations and marketing plan. I’ve taken this approach with the films I’ve produced and, with the exception of $100 to shoot in church for Justice Is Mind, it has worked.
The last thing you do as an “independent” filmmaker is ask what their rate or how much they would charge. I promise you, you’ll get frustrated when you hear numbers that are impossible to meet. Worse, you meet them and go broke in the process. You want to work with people and companies that are excited about the project. But that excitement is not without responsibility.
On a set I am the first to arrive and the last to leave. Why? Because it’s my responsibility to insure that I leave a location the same way I found it. Case in point was the conference room we used in Serpentine. In the film, the location was at the FBI in Washington, D.C. In the real world that was the Aquarius board room at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA.
That room worked out great in the film, but it needed to be dressed. I purchased Washington, D.C. images to cover up the posters on one wall and added The Brandenburg Gate during the Cold War era to highlight a certain moment in the story (it was also an Easter Egg for Justice Is Mind). How did the viewer know they were at the FBI? Stock footage the moment before that showed the exterior of the FBI. What’s interesting about that footage is that one of my favorite shows, Madam Secretary, has also used that same clip.
With the script breakdown for First Signal almost complete, look for a casting notice in the coming days. And that military exercise I mentioned last week? Looks like that contract is coming through.
When I was interviewed for ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary The Price of Gold, the memories of the events at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships quickly came back to life. It was my first “Nationals” as an accredited journalist for the magazine I recently launched. Little did I know that a plan was in the works that would forever change the sport of figure skating. That plan resulted in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. For those who want to get a solid unbiased perspective on what happened during that time, I strongly suggest you watch the documentary. Director Nanette Burstein did a brilliant job presenting the story.
As I read the industry trades regularly I heard about a movie in development that was presenting the story as a black comedy. How do you make a black comedy around a planned attack? Why do you center it on the skater that was banned from the sport of figure skating due to either her knowledge of, actions, or some other involvement in this vicious attack on another skater?
The entertainment industry is littered with hypocrisy. I’m sure some producer was well aware of the tens of millions that were captivated then and how successful the ESPN documentary was. But just because there is a perceived market for something, doesn’t mean that it should be produced. This isn’t a story of fiction, this is one of fact. But the film that just came out two days ago not only makes a laughing stock of the sport, but elevates the perpetrator to the sympathy vote. Let me be clear, anyone who is anyone who follows the sport or works in it, has zero sympathy for her. There’s a reason why she was banned from the sport. I don’t care how many accolades, awards or positive reviews this film receives, it never should have been made.
Nancy Kerrigan is a friend. In addition to skating with her a bit on the same ice many years ago, I interviewed her many times. We really got to know each other when we were on Skating with Celebrities and flew back and forth between Los Angeles and Boston. She is probably not only one of the hardest working skaters I know, but one of the bravest.
Here is someone who was horribly attacked just because she was pursuing her dream to be the best. That’s what sport is all about. To be the best and to be honest in that pursuit. There are no shortcuts. There is no easy path. You attack the ice, not your competitor. You beat them on the podium, not on a knee.
When I think of what Nancy had to go through mentally and physically after that tragedy it still defies any sort of explanation. It was bravery bar none. It’s one thing to overcome a physical setback, it happens all time in sports. But to have it compounded with a planned attack on you so your adversary has a better chance to win, that person should never be allowed to shine again—particularly in a film that presents her sympathetically.
There are so many interesting true stories that could be told in figure skating. One has to ask, is this the only story the sport has to offer? I’ll confess I only watched the first hour of this “non-skating” film and clicked off the screener. Enough was enough.
The real story is about Nancy Kerrigan. How she steadfastly pulled herself together after the tragedy and went on to enjoy a successful skating career. At the end of the day she took to the ice in the rink, not in in the glass.
On Friday The Skating Club of Boston hosted Celebrating an Icon about “the life and extraordinary achievements” of Thomas J. McGinnis. Indeed, it was a night to remember.
When my friend, business partner and mentor passed away in July, many of us in the skating world and beyond were mourning in our own way. While I knew Tom’s life was filled with decades of accomplishments, he was relatively humble in what he achieved for himself while steadfastly promoting others. As the consummate coach, Tom was always imparting his knowledge and insight to those of us in his world.
Shortly after the invitation to attend the event, I was asked to announce and commentate. Of course, I was happy to oblige. I heard during the weeks leading up to the event who would be attending and generally what the evening would entail. There was going to be an on-ice tribute followed by a video presentation.
When I was practicing the script during the day, it was impossible to not be filled with emotion. I took a break and went into some of my archives and looked at old issues of the magazine that we used to publish. Seeing Tom’s name on the masthead and looking at select pictures of us at events I remember stopping to reflect on what those years were like. Tom loved the glamour of the sport, the stars that it created. Throughout our years of publication, I always strived to create a sense of glamour, particularly with the events we produced. He loved the reception we had in New York City when the magazine named The 25 Most Influential Names in Figure Skating.
But it was Friday night that brought us all home to celebrate Tom’s life and to share our memories. The skating world is like a family of many relatives, close and distant. But Friday marked a family reunion, one that Tom would have loved.
I know it was hard for many of us to keep our emotions in check on Friday. For me, there was a moment during the commentary when I almost lost it. The final performance was by coach Stephanie Cooke who was once a student of Tom’s. Before her performance she asked that I read her tribute to Tom. I didn’t make eye contact with her until the passage, “I hope to make him very proud.” When we looked at each other the emotion of the moment caught us both. I said to myself OMG she has to skate and I need to talk…get it together! I swear in that moment, I heard Tom say “breathe.” Of course I took his direction!
After the on-ice tribute we retreated upstairs to a video presentation (click this link to watch on YouTube). After the video many offered their personal stories of Tom throughout the years. They were all different, interesting and came from the heart. They painted a picture of someone who was larger than life. We were all proud to be part of his canvas.
The takeaway from the evening was obvious. All of us are now imparting Tom’s coaching and words of wisdom to others, as it should be. Tom left this world a better place, and we are all better off for knowing him.
My thanks to The Skating Club of Boston for producing Celebrating an Icon.
Thomas J. McGinnis
Although fall doesn’t officially start until the 22nd, for most of us in New England, it starts after the Labor Day weekend. While I like the summer, I love the fall. It’s also the time of year when I tend to be the busiest.
This week starts another class at the Naval Justice School. In addition to falling back into my character as a Special Agent of NCIS, I’ll also be directing the mock-trial program on site for the agencies that retained us. I have to say this is one acting job I always look forward to. As the majority of the same actors have returned from the previous class, I think the same can be said for all involved.
What makes this a unique gig for actors is the ability to play a character for 11 days. As these are role-playing parts, once you have the situation memorized it makes for a great opportunity to really bring a character to life. The atmosphere of the school alone is what makes it engaging as a performer.
As for law and engagement, I learned this week that Kinonation, our distributor for Justice Is Mind, secured another outlet with Udu Digital. From their email to me, “Udu is an ad supported (AVOD) streaming service available on the Roku media player that’s used by over 13 million people every month in the US.” It’s always nice to see another outlet picking up my first feature film!
And feature film is what the fall is also about. With the Toronto International Film Festival in full swing it’s always interesting to see what deals are struck. One film that did great was Chappaquiddick with a $20 million commitment. As a Massachusetts resident most of us know of the story chronicled in this film. It will be interesting to see how this film does in the state versus the rest of the country. At the end of the day the Kennedy name is nationally known. So that alone will carry some of the marketing.
But name and marketing will be key with one other film that is gaining substantial traction at the festival. That would be I, Tonya starring Margot Robbie. While the film has been well reviewed, it has been reported that the film arrived to the festival without distribution. Of course that may have already changed, but the real question is this – what are the commercial aspects to one of the darkest moments in figure skating history?
In addition to being at the event in Detroit in 1994, I know some of the players involved (Nancy Kerrigan in particular). I was also interviewed for ESPN’s The Price of Gold documentary in 2014 about the incident. Part of me says this story has already been told…countless times. Is this the only story that figure skating can tell or could this mean a broader interest in movies around the sport? It’s impossible to tell at this point. And, you guessed it, I’m monitoring these developments because of Serpentine.
Finally, I wrap up this week’s post with a great piece of artwork from Daniel Elek-Diamanta. This is the sound wave from Justice Is Mind, Daniel’s first composing gig. He wanted a unique wallpaper for his computer. I’d say he struck the right chord!
On Sunday my friend and business partner Thomas J. McGinnis passed away after a long illness. For so many that knew him he was our North Star. A light that guided us throughout our careers.
Back in 1993 Tommy took a chance and believed in my vision for an international newsmagazine for the sport and art of figure skating. It wasn’t just his financial support that breathed life into this venture, it was the stature he commanded in figure skating and the numerous personalities and “stars” he introduced me to.
I’ll still never forget that day. Here I was at a skating conference to give a presentation on what I planned to do. No sooner was it over when Tommy came up to me and said “Do you need an investor?” As a fledgling entrepreneur, I certainly did! Of course I knew who Tommy was. You couldn’t be involved in skating without knowing the name. Simply, his was a name that yielded grace, style and importance.
While so many judged my ability to pull off this venture, Tommy never questioned it. He used to tell me he knew a star when he saw one. I didn’t quite know what he meant at the time, but it didn’t take long for the magic that was Tom’s coaching on and off the ice to have its effect on me. He was filled with wonderful witticisms. One of the earliest bits of advice he gave me was, “Be available, but not too available.”
Over the ensuing years, and with my other business partner Lois Elfman, we built a multi-million dollar media company that eventually saw the title available in over 60 countries. For years it was the world’s largest for the sport. Indeed, it was a venture we were all proud of. I fondly remember the days when Tom would visit the office or call. No matter who I was on the phone with, they were quickly placed on hold. This was Tommy calling and I was available!
Sadly, in 2004, we lost the company in a brutal hostile takeover from a predator investor who bought up our securities and foreclosed. In one day, a decade plus enterprise was over. Over 20 of us lost our jobs. Worse, Tommy lost his investment. My God, how do I make that call? What do I say to this man who gave so much? Who believed in me?
When I made the call his first response was, “How are you?” How was I? How was I. With the emotional turmoil that Lois and I went through the months preceding, someone asked how we were. That was the type of person Tommy was. He was a coach. He knew that not every performance ended in a gold medal. He knew there were just as many difficult days as there were great ones. He knew the peaks and valleys of life. He imparted all this knowledge onto his students.
After the company, Tom and I were frequently in touch as friends. There were so many things we would joke about. I always wondered how old Tommy was. His response was as accurate as it was witty, “I’m older than you and younger than Dick Button.” OK! As for Dick Button, it was Tommy who introduced me to him at Skates of Gold in 1993. Tommy knew everyone!
Very few of us know the impact someone has had on us until an end is coming. Tommy’s investment bought me an education in the real world. I’ve often remarked that I wouldn’t have been able to produce a feature film had I not had the experience of running a company.
Over the last few days I’ve been looking at Tommy’s emails to me. I can’t help think of the kindness and generosity this man imparted to me and so many others. Never a judgement, but a lesson. Never a criticism, but encouragement. Let’s say I’ve shared many the tear. To be frank, he was the father figure I looked up to and admired. Someone who I could talk to and not be afraid.
Tommy’s words of wisdom and support continued when I put Justice Is Mind into production. One of his emails read, “Mark, how wonderful. Best wishes for success” and on one of our screenings, “Mark, well done! Congratulations and wishing you the best in success.” Making a feature film is not easy by a long shot, but knowing that Tommy was there wishing for the best was just another element that made that project go in the positive direction that it did.
When I announced my return to figure skating with Serpentine in 2016, Tommy wanted to be involved. He must have figured out that I do my best writing in the morning when he once responded, “You are an early riser. I thought the stars appeared only at night?” It was wonderful to add his name as an Executive Producer. It was like we had come full circle in our work together. When the Associated Press syndicated a story about Serpentine Tommy’s response was quick, “A hot property.”
In April I brought him a copy of Serpentine. I knew his health was failing. But he wanted to stay engaged. It was hard seeing a man so full of life slowing slipping from this world. There were many things we talked about. I left that day feeling sad. Waving goodbye to a friend I wasn’t sure I would see again.
A few days passed and an email came in from him, “Enjoyed Serpentine very much. T.” That email meant the world to me. A couple of emails after Tommy told me about his devastating health news while also promoting a friend who was appointed to the presidency of the Julliard School. That was Tommy, always thinking of and promoting others. Our last email exchange was when I was updating him on some plans for Serpentine. His response “Great. Tom. XXX”
I did see Tommy about two weeks ago when he was in hospice. I thanked him again for our friendship and for believing in me. I held his hand and told him not to worry about anything.
While Tommy loved to be around stars and create them, indeed he was The Star. The rest of us simply orbited around him. For those of us that were fortunate to come into his orbit, we were his students whether we realized it or not. From on ice to off, Tommy had a knack for discovering and nurturing talent. It was a rare gift. To turn a phrase from Auntie Mame, he invited us to his banquet so we never starved.
I will miss my mentor and friend. A voice in my life is now gone. But with Tommy’s performance and tutelage in this world transferred to another, perhaps it’s time we score his life while he was with us.
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.
I can’t take credit for this week’s blog post title. I lifted it from Audrain Automobile Museum’s email promoting their third production of Cars & Coffee in partnership with the Preservation Society of Newport County. Yesterday’s outing took us to the beautiful Chateau-sur-Mer.
This type of production is a win-win for both the museum and the society. First, in a very cool way, they draw traffic to these storied mansions of yesteryear. Second, the auto museum gets the message past their beautiful location on Bellevue Avenue. Needless to say, I highly recommend visiting the museum and the mansions the next time you are in Newport.
I’m not sure who created the idea for this event but it’s a brilliant promotion. Marketing and event production should be seamless and effortless in its look. When the consumer arrives it should just appear that the event happened, rather than feeling forced. When they are at the event it’s a welcoming atmosphere with like-minded people. When they leave, they are looking forward to the next production.
This past week I was talking to a potential new marketing client. Sadly, he was one of these overly analytical types who didn’t want to listen to anyone except his inner ego. He couldn’t understand why his product wasn’t selling. I suppose I could have told him that his inner ego isn’t a customer. I passed on working with him.
While I go for the cars, it’s really the conversations I enjoy the most. I’ve been working on a production idea in Newport and for the first time I mentioned it to a few attendees. Is this market research? Absolutely. If you can’t interest those that live in that world why develop it.
As some may recall, when I had the idea for a political thriller around the sport of figure skating I went to the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston last year. After talking to a variety of insiders and former colleagues, I wrote Serpentine. Serpentine: The Short Program can be streamed on Amazon or the Ice Network.
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.
The media has reported. The DVD has been tested. We have a green board on Amazon. The file has been transferred to the Ice Network. No, this isn’t LC 39 at Kennedy Space Center, it’s the preparation for the world premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program tomorrow night at The Strand Theatre and on Amazon and the Ice Network the following day.
When launch day, or better known in the industry as “release date” arrives for a film, that’s when the story you’ve worked on for so long is transferred to the audience. As Bill Sampson said in All About Eve, “You’re in a tin can.” Of course in this age the tin can reference is more about DCP and DVD.
This past week was just about some final details, finishing up the copy for various email templates and our official press release as part of the VOD launch on Tuesday. The highlight was this article that appeared in The Item. While national press is great for general awareness for VOD, there’s nothing like local press that can drive traffic to a theater. This newspaper circulates in Clinton and the neighboring towns.
Tomorrow night looks to be a star studded affair with many of the actors and crew from both films attending. I have to say I love these reunions. Not only does it give everyone a chance to catch up, but to see our collective efforts on the silver screen. And then there is the overlap. Audiences will see several of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind in Serpentine: The Short Program.
But with each project comes an expanded network and new processes. While Amazon certainly existed five years ago, the opportunity to distribute directly to several countries did not. Since Evidence premiered at the Strand, the number of VOD platforms has exploded. Not only does this mean the need for programming from TV shows and movies, but the ability to rise above the crowd and be heard.
Like Evidence that resulted in Justice Is Mind, the goal with Serpentine: The Short Program is to develop enough interest to produce the feature film version this year to release after the Winter Olympics in 2018. What this comes down to is building an audience and not getting lost in the crowd. When you consider that there are 10,000 – 50,000 films made a year, you can’t wait for an audience that may never find you, you have to tell them where you are.
As the saying goes, when opportunity knocks you take it. But none of this comes without passion, dedication and being steadfast for the long haul. A haul that can seem like forever until the day arrives.
Standby to launch.
I have often stated that there is so much more into filmmaking than making the film itself. While one naturally wants a quality project that maximizes available resources, it’s also about getting the word out. Although social media helps, there is nothing like a media placement that drives awareness and needed attention. Thank you to the Ice Network and Community Advocate for that attention.
This past week Lois Elfman, my former business partner, wrote a great article for the Ice Network. This article was particularly important for a variety of reasons. First, in addition to the article itself, the Ice Network will also be streaming Serpentine: The Short Program after our March 6 premiere at the Strand Theatre. Second, from 1993 – 2004 Lois and I published a figure skating magazine. For nearly a decade it reigned as the world’s largest under our leadership. There wasn’t a skater, official, ISU member nation or skating club that didn’t know about it. But the Ice Network is today what we published yesterday. Indeed, it was an honor to see this article on their site as it reaches the sport on a worldwide basis.
It also important to mention that there was a third party to this story, albeit a bit behind the scenes this time. That would be acclaimed skating coach Thomas J. McGinnis who also was our business partner at the skating magazine. Tommy not only saw the vision I had for the magazine at the very beginning, but for Serpentine as well. Thus his much appreciated Executive Producer credit you will see when the film is released.
A film release not only consists of a marketing plan but a test. This past week I went to the Strand Theatre for a DVD test of Serpentine: The Short Program and a DCP test of Justice Is Mind. While the Strand screened Justice back in 2013 from a DVD, we now have the film in a DCP format. Both tests went great. I’ll say this, out of all the theaters I have screened Justice Is Mind the Strand presents the best picture and sound. There is nothing like seeing your film come to life on the big screen and that thrill was just as exciting with Serpentine.
Serpentine: The Short Program also got the green light from Amazon Instant Video this week. I say green light because that’s literally what happens with the circles on the Amazon platform when everything is cleared to go. We did have one red light as our original poster submission just said Serpentine. It had to also include The Short Program. Starting on March 7 the film will be available on Amazon in the United States, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria.
Finally, I will conclude this post with the importance of art. On Friday night my mother and I saw the acclaimed National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine at the famed Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA. Part of the program included Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 “From the New World” by Antonin Dvorak. One of my particular favorites. The strength, precision and passion in which the symphony played under the direction of Theodore Kuchar presented one of the most exciting symphony performances I have even seen.
I say strength because unless you live on another planet the continued existence of Ukraine hangs in the balance with the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimea to say nothing of the armed conflict on their Eastern border. I simply ask every American reading this blog, how would you feel if another country walked across our border and occupied part of our country? The proud history of the Ukrainian people existed long before the United States was even a thought. While this historic national symphony of a challenged peoples tours our great country, isn’t it time the United States helped restore the greatness of another before it’s too late?
Conduct music not war.
In Serpentine the name of the fictional skating association is The American Figure Skating Federation. In the real world it’s called U.S. Figure Skating. It seems fitting that as I continue work on the domestic and international marketing plans for Serpentine, the United States and Canadian national figure skating championships are underway.
The one major difference between the fictional world of Serpentine and the reality of today’s skating world is that there are no lyrics in Serpentine’s skating music. When I was at World’s last year and heard more than one skater perform to the theme of Titanic with dialogue from the film after the ship sank (with sinking skating performances to match), what do you even say except ‘Who approved this?’ Imagine offering the movie Airport ’77 on a transatlantic flight. Sorry, I just digressed.
This past week I continued building out the marketing and launch plans for Serpentine. Indeed it’s like building a federation of sorts. By one definition a federation is “the action of forming states or organizations into a single group with centralized control.” Given the political climate we can forget “the state” for a moment and just focus on organization. Yes, I strongly believe in centralized control especially when marketing a product. Many years ago it was magazines, now its film. In today’s challenging film market there’s no question that you need a well thought out plan with some sort of hook to market a film.
With Sundance well underway I’m starting to see articles in the trades and consumer press about the new complexities surrounding the distribution of independent films. Yes, there are those films like Hidden Figures that find a growing following. Then there are those like Silence that literally fall silent at the box office. For Hidden Figures the marketing was clear and powerful, the untold story of African-American women “computers” in the early years of NASA’s space program. For Silence there were too many articles about the director complaining about budget and pay.
We are no longer just filmmakers we are marketers. Last week I talked about living in a bubble. While the accolades at film festivals are certainly welcoming and inspiring, it does come down to translation into the real world. In the world of Serpentine, that means the primary VOD platform will be Amazon Prime, with marketing to include all the member nations of the International Skating Union with a primary focus on select other countries.
As planned Serpentine went to picture lock this week. And while that’s certainly a milestone, there are numerous other details that need to be attended to. From completing the visual effects, to sound engineering, scoring and color correction. And then there’s the marketing plan.
As I did with Justice Is Mind, and First World back in the day, I always aim to cast the widest net. When it comes to securing media or perhaps a screening opportunity, the more eyes on a project the better as you never know who may be interested. There’s so much more to filmmaking than the actual mechanical work of creating the film.
Since pre-production on Justice Is Mind back in 2012 I have been receiving email newsletters from various “experts” in the industry. Honestly, there is no magic wand and having a star in your project just doesn’t matter (look what happened this weekend at the box office). Your project will either resonate or it won’t. It will either breakthrough or get stuck. And while there are certainly a set of standards that need to be followed from having a quality picture with a proper aspect ratio, closed captioning and a few other industry standardizations, the rest is really up to the filmmaker. My point is there is no cookie cutter sheet that gives you instant success.
Serpentine is as opposite to Justice Is Mind as First World is to SOS United States. But in all my projects I make every effort to have an audience of some sort in mind when I start to write. Passion projects are great, but given the work that goes in to making a motion picture someone has to appreciate it past your family, cast and crew.
Since First World was released on to Amazon Prime it has seen a sizable increase in traffic. Science fiction is a relatively easy sell. Justice Is Mind is a hybrid of genres with science fiction and fantasy folded into a straight drama. The marketing of that film was a three prong approach with audiences reacting all over the place from science fiction enthusiasts to those that love courtroom films. Audiences have loved it or hated it. But no matter the reaction every click and view just increases the audience. And just this week I learned that Justice was picked up by a Chinese concern. More to announce later on that development.
On a personal note, I’m glad over ten years have passed since I was publishing a magazine in the sport of figure skating. It has given me a perspective well outside the bubble I lived in for over a decade. In general, as I’ve learned, living in a bubble is never a good idea as it warps your perspective.
As for perspective, since I’ll be voting for the first time in the SAG Awards this year, I’ve been watching more independent films than I normally do. Or should I say, than I normally would simply owing to their story. What one has to appreciate is the sheer energy and enthusiasm that goes into making an independent film.
One film I just have to recommend is Jackie. From Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy to the cinematography and story, I thought it was brilliantly executed (although the score gave me pause).
From the World Figure Skating Championships to the Naval Justice School, 2016 has been a whirlwind of a year. And between these events was the figure skating political thriller Serpentine. From script, to production to media coverage, Serpentine has certainly set the stage for 2017.
I’m never one to make New Year’s resolutions. Instead I look at what was accomplished in any given year. For me, there needs to be at least the creation of a new project or perhaps some interesting acting or on camera work. Thankfully for 2016 there was a bit of both.
Of course we had this thing in the United States called a presidential election. But you can’t define your entire existence over who won or lost. Putting aside that it narrows your world and opportunities, the country goes on no matter who wins or loses. The great thing about the American presidency is every four years we change hands (sometimes). As Scarlett O’Hara would say, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
As for another day, post production on Serpentine is moving right along and on schedule. We are into the second draft of the edit and I signed off on the opening credits VFX sequence yesterday. And generally speaking a good amount of the film has been scored. The post-production process of any film (short or feature), takes coordination. Are all the parties on the same page? Is communication flowing from one department to the next? I’ll say this there is a comfort level working with the same parties that brought Justice Is Mind to life.
In addition to Serpentine, 2017 will usher in some personal changes. I renewed my membership in SAG-AFTRA a couple of months ago for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say I see more trips to NYC next year. One of the benefits to membership is being able to vote in the SAG Awards and getting DVD screeners. Like the election, I’ll just leave it as what film isn’t getting my vote.
But for any given year it comes down to moving the needle just a bit in the direction I want to go in. I don’t try to push for the “all or nothing” approach as that can just set you up for disappointment. Do I outline goals for the near year? Certainly. Are they resolutions? No. Frankly, I’ve never understood those that proclaim with all the caps they can on social media at the start of any year that they’re going to quit X or move to Y! Um, how about just do it for yourself whenever and see where it goes. You won’t know until YOU try not when your “friends” approve.
Sure there’s been some disappointments this year. It wasn’t all champagne and caviar. But there’s no point dwelling on the past or those that tried to check all these bags of drama onto my ship (sorry we’re full up!). Like the car accident I was in. As I thankfully walked away, you just move on (cue Scarlett O’Hara again with score).
In closing it was great to see the reach of this blog across the world for another year. Your support of these words is very much appreciated. And to you and yours across this great planet…
Happy New Year!
This past week I have received some curious inquiries on why I checked in on Facebook to the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island a couple times this week. Over these next few weeks the school is conducting mock trials as part of their student training. I’m playing an NCIS agent. When you consider my interests in the military (the Navy in particular) and having written and directed Justice Is Mind, you can imagine my enthusiasm in being part of this project.
This is not like a stage production or even a film. In those mediums you generally stay in character for a set period and memorize a script. There is no script here. Instead, you are given a substantive background on your character and their actions during a particular time period. And, like any legal proceeding, you are given a variety of statements and other evidence to take in and, yes, memorize to the best of your ability.
In one example, I was in front of a class of students who asked me countless questions over an hour relative to the case. By example, “What were your impressions when you interviewed X” “When you interviewed X about X, what did they say?” Again, there is no scripted answer. Of course, the key is to be consistent in your statements as the students can reference what you say.
I believe these role play opportunities are some of the best training actors can have. Not only do you have to create a world for this character, but background elements as well that fit into the narrative facts of the story. I’ll say this, it has helped that I’ve done live television and public speaking in the past. With this opportunity, I’m speaking to anywhere from five to fifty of various military rank as well as civilians. The atmosphere itself compels you to take the process seriously. There are, however, some moments of levity and the staff and students at the school are very welcoming and supportive. You can learn more about the Naval Justice School at this link.
To put this in an entertainment context, most have heard of the TV series JAG and the movie A Few Good Men. But as those projects had a Director this has a Captain that directs the process. It’s been pretty cool learning what an NCIS agent really does. On another movie note, I can’t help but be reminded of the court martial scenes in The Caine Mutiny.
As for entertainment, Serpentine is in post-production with the same team that delivered Justice Is Mind. At this stage of the process, while they are doing their work, I’m planning the marketing program and distribution plans for the film’s release in early 2017.
Last Sunday principal photography on Serpentine, The Short Program wrapped! After eight months of writing and two months of pre-production planning, I was more than pleased with the end result. A special thanks to the cast, crew, location partners and sponsors for making this possible. After taking the past week to organize the video and sound files, the hard drive will transfer to our editor on Monday to begin the post-production process. It’s this stage that turns a puzzle into a completed print.
But make no mistake about this process, as an independent filmmaker you are pretty much responsible for everything…even the weather. And while I believe organization and communication are critical to a successful production, it does come down to both diplomacy and flexibility. A film production, whether it’s a short or a feature, is unlike any other type of business. You start by yourself and then suddenly ramp up. For Serpentine that meant over 30 people and three locations (for Justice Is Mind it meant over 200 people and 15 locations). As a screenwriter there is a thrill like none other than watching your screenplay come to life. Isn’t this why we do what we do?
For me this production was both a reunion as well as working with some terrific new people. It started with the FBI conference room scene at The Verve, Crowne Plaza. When Michael Coppola arrived I was immediately reminded of First World where he played a secret service agent. But it was the night before that I wrote an additional new scene for Michael and Vernon Aldershoff (Assistant Director in Serpentine and Henri Miller in Justice Is Mind). Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was to tell the cast and crew about a new scene when we didn’t even shoot the intended one! I waited to see if we were ahead of schedule and we were. It worked out great.
It was at Northstar Ice Sports that the word scope came into focus. First, I am beyond thankful to Denise Marco, the board and staff of Northstar for this opportunity. By scope I’m talking about the size of the set. It was about making sure all actors, cameras and crew were properly placed to make sure the scenes worked. For weeks I drew this out from the skating program, to camera and actor placements. What may not have seemed obvious to some would be very obvious in post-production.
Reuniting Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier from Justice Is Mind was a particular goal of mine from the beginning. Their on screen chemistry in Justice was what every director dreams of. So when they both signaled their availability for Serpentine I immediately signed them on to the project. As a director, there is also a comfort factor in terms of direction when working with actors that you know will deliver. In advance of our shooting I forwarded a detailed memo on character and scene development for all actors and crew. As time is a serious commodity on an independent film set, I think it’s best for everyone to understand the entire tone and feel of a scene when they arrive.
As a director I don’t believe in grandiose demonstrations of direction to actors and crew just to prove a point. In my simple view of it all, the most that should happen on set are adjustments. There’s no time to teach someone how to act on set. (Side note: On Justice Is Mind one adjustment I gave to an actress was how to say a particular phrase of profanity. I’ll just say this, it’s an American thing in terms of word emphasis and slang).
Our last day of filming was at a friend’s house. It was a fitting end to the production after coming down from two days of intense work at Northstar and the fact that there was only one line of dialogue. As I said to everyone, these scenes are largely atmospheric and what composers live for.
Another highlight of our week was when the MetroWest Daily News interviewed me about Serpentine and sent a photographer to our shoot at Northstar. Not only did they write an excellent article, but created a video as well. You can access both at this link.
Over the next few months I’ll be working on a variety of marketing and promotional efforts as we build towards our February release. During this time look for more stills, behind the scenes images and a trailer.
It’s Saturday morning and tomorrow starts the first day of principal photography on Serpentine, The Short Program. Tomorrow a new world goes from script to screen. The months, weeks and days leading up to the start of principal photography is a journey unlike any another.
One would think that with the number of events, commercials and film projects I’ve been involved with it would just be another exercise, but it isn’t. For me because I always seek to raise the bar from one project to the next, there’s always a unique set of situations that come up. From logistics, to locations to the sheer number of people that are involved.
But honestly, if it wasn’t for the challenges, why do any of this. I’ve never been one to settle for status quo and doing the same thing day in and day out boors me to death. Yes, we all like to have some sort of routine to keep us grounded, but it’s bringing a new project to life that really inspires me.
For those that are involved, when all is said and done, there is not only a credit but a product. A film that can be looked at years, if not decades from now. Something that you look at and say, I remember when. And for those that watch the end result, they know that for a period of time people came together to create something unique, something original.
As some may have seen in the press release that went out earlier this week, tomorrow reunites some actors and crew from First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind along with my earliest days in an ice rink. But just as important it’s about bringing fresh voices to creative works. I believe what makes the process of filmmaking such a unique experience is that combination of the familiar and unfamiliar that yields the best results. It was that combination that resulted in a test video this week that I posted to Serpentine’s Facebook page (click this link to view).
In two weeks Serpentine goes into production. With our locations secured and cast and crew locked, this is the phase in which there are numerous details to attend to. From printing posters, to purchasing a new laptop, American flag and external hard drives, it’s a methodical checking off the list of all the things that are needed to produce a film. For me it’s about organization. I produce dramas not seek to create them in real life.
Past all the aforementioned details, there’s also the creative side, from being in touch with the actors regarding their characters to the crew for various shots and other production matters. Producing a film is a team effort one that requires the cooperation of numerous parties. While the director may conduct the orchestra, you do need an orchestra!
As for the creative side, as we are filming just the first ten pages of the feature length version the end of the month, I wanted to give this short a name. For Justice Is Mind we called that short film version Evidence. For Serpentine it will be called The Short Program. I think this is a fitting title. First, this is a short film. In figure skating the short program is, to quote Wikipedia, “The short program of figure skating is usually the first of two phases in figure skating competitions.” As this short is phase one of the Serpentine project that’s another reason for the name.
Earlier this week I updated Serpentine’s IMDb listing. For this short film alone there are just over 35 people and companies. When you hear someone say it takes a village to make a film, they are speaking the truth! For those that wish to get into this industry, I always tell them to try to visit a film set at some point to see what’s involved.
But the one thing that I will be working on today is our press release announcing that Serpentine is going into production with The Short Program. Anyone that has worked with me on my past projects knows how much I believe in promotion. And when someone signs on to one of my projects, I promote them at every opportunity. Case in point when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. It was always great to include the cast, crew and our partners whenever I could.
The marketing of a film is just as important as its making. Without promotion there is no audience. While today’s world of VOD is great for the independent filmmaker, if your audience isn’t told about your project how can they ever find it? To this day, I continue to promote First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind. When one thinks of the enormous amount of time to develop and make a film, why wouldn’t you promote them regularly? As they say the proof is in the pudding when you see a consistent placement on IMDb along with VOD streams.
But there is one thing I do need to find for this particular production. It was a gift from Tara Lipinski after we photographed her for the magazine I used to publish. It’s been in my basement since I moved back from Los Angeles.