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…
In the coming days I’ll be able to announce that post-production on First Signal is completed. With every inch closer to that accomplishment, I can’t help but think of the journey. It has been nearly three years from concept to competition. In hindsight I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Through all the fits and starts of locations, cast and crew, in the end everything worked out the way I hoped. As of this date the official trailer for First Signal has been selected by three film festivals!
However, another journey lies ahead. Fortunately, it’s a trip I’ve been on before – marketing and distribution. Yes, the plans include film festival submissions, distributor pitches, various screening opportunities and, I hope, some solid media interest in the “First World Universe.” With the world starting to reopen, the key will be to find partners that are interested in working with us. Like I did with Justice Is Mind, you want to work with those that want to work with you. I’ve always believed that distribution should be a partnership of cooperation, not just a take from any given side.
There’s no question that the entertainment industry has been financially decimated. I sadly know several people that have had to exit it permanently because of economic reasons (everyone needs to eat). While it’s encouraging to learn that production is starting to resume in certain parts of the world, some of the restrictions I see being proposed will only accomplish an increase in costs and time with nary a health benefit. Who is going to cover those increases when we are now in an economic depression? The economics of this whole situation is pretty simple. How is a distributor going to price a film when a sizable percentage of the global audience is on unemployment or reduced earnings? What it really comes down to is disposable income and what audiences are willing to spend to be entertained. I sincerely hope I’m wrong and that we see a vibrant return to some sort of market normalcy (I refuse to use the phrase ‘new normal’). As movies have always been a form of escapism, I believe audiences will return sooner rather than later to the theatrical experience.
The remainder of 2020 and a good part of 2021 will be devoted to the marketing and distribution of First Signal. I know the film will find its audience and a solid distributor will present itself. For me, I always try to look at a situation with a spirit of optimism and to avoid those situations that attempt to drag me into some sort of milieu. I’d rather navigate out of a small port with an overcast, than attempt to sail through a busy port in the center of a storm.
I can thankfully say that First Signal isn’t tied to debt covenants or other financial obligations. One of the benefits of being the sole executive producer is that I’m largely only answerable to myself on the financial front. But a film isn’t designed to be made and relegated to a shelf. A film is produced to be seen and enjoyed by an audience. One of the primary responsibilities as executive producer is to insure that my film gets released. If anything a producer has a responsibility to the actors and crew that shared the vision. Because that’s what film is all about – a vision.
While we all enjoy seeing our favorite films on VOD, there’s nothing like the theatrical experience. You enter a vast room with anticipation; that leads to the dimming of lights and the initial roll of the opening credits and the crescendo of a score.
The extended synopsis of Justice Is Mind partially reads “…counsel, family and friends search two continents for answers.” While we aren’t searching for answers, Justice Is Mind is most certainly a two continent production. With editing and special effects taking place in the United States, scoring and sound mixing is happening in the United Kingdom. Having traveled to the UK numerous times I’m enjoying the international development of Justice Is Mind, because that’s where this film is soon going…international.
Last week the film festival submission process began. I have to say the portal Withoutabox is pretty excellent. I loath filling our forms (especially by hand) and that’s exactly what I would have to do for each film festival if Withoutabox didn’t exist. I’ve been using Withoutabox since 2007 when I produced First World. You enter all your key information once, select the festival, pay the fee and Withoutabox transmits your film. For those festivals that don’t use the “secure online screener” you send in a DVD. It’s a great streamline process. Coming from a production background any process that enables a smooth operation is good for me.
We’ve also started to receive significant interest from various film festival and film organizations in India. Of course, this is an excellent development…but now we wait. We wait for the “notify date” after we submit to see if our film, a labor of over two years and two hundred people, is accepted. The one thing I have learned years ago is that once you submit you just have to let go of that submission. I’ve seen a trend with filmmakers promoting on their websites and social pages that they are “In Consideration” by this festival and that festival after they submit. Good heavens…and what happens if you don’t get accepted?
So what do you do while you are waiting? You promote your film any which way you can. In the case of Justice Is Mind, in addition to screenings at sci-fi conventions and law schools, we are reaching out to independent theatres and small chains to exhibit. Simply, you can’t put all your eggs into one basket. Some will argue that you shouldn’t show your film anywhere until film festivals get back to you. Honestly, I don’t know where this misinformation comes from or starts. Most festivals I have come across have stated that while some most certainly like to have the title “World Premiere” they are also interested in films that have some sort of following or foundation. Think about it from their perspective. They have to sell tickets too and it’s infinitely easier to sell a ticket to something that can not only be found by a Google search but has some sort of following and social media presence.
As filmmakers we are operating in an ever changing industry. Being adaptable is critical. I do my best to keep up with industry trends through the trades and certain websites (like Slated and Film Specific). This past week I read a very interesting article in Salon by one film producer I admire Lynda Obst (Contact, Sleepless in Seattle, The Siege). During her meeting with Peter Chernin she quoted him as saying, “I think the two driving forces [of what you’re calling the Great Contraction] were the recession and the transition of the DVD market.” She continued his quote, “It was partially driven by the recession, but I think it was more driven by technology.”
This was no surprise to me since our distributor stopped selling DVDs two years ago. I learned money could be made when I had First World on hulu (now it’s on Amazon..and yes I get paid a monthly check). While I’ll always continue to be a steadfast promoter of the importance of film being seen in theatres, technology continues to evolve and offers tremendous new opportunities for filmmakers.
As filmmakers we all believe that our project deserves the best. Indeed, if we aren’t going to champion our own project who is? But like the title of this post, Dickens’s novel was met with mixed reviews. In the world of entertainment, it’s all about the review, the acceptance of our work. And part of that world revolves around being accepted into a film festival.
IndieWire always has excellent, if not practical, articles that solidly pertain to the world of independent filmmaking. Fair Trade for Filmmakers: Is It Time For Festivals To Share Their Revenue? suggested that film festivals pay filmmakers to screen their films once accepted. Frankly, I think this is an excellent idea. Filmmakers need to get paid for their work. There are investors somewhere and probably actors and crew waiting for their cut of the pie. Of course the argument by the film festivals is that they barely get by financially (some sort of Hollywood-like accounting?) and are offering a platform for a filmmakers work to be seen. As one poster ignorantly claimed, “the solvency/insolvency of a festival itself is actually irrelevant if their very existence is almost entirely dependent on insolvent films and insolvent filmmakers.” But trust me the argument for and against is as old as the three act structure of a screenplay (and, yes, I still believe in the three act structure!).
However now I will be practical, every business venture has risks and filmmaking is no different than any other industry. What it comes down to is producing a solid product (and that has nothing to do with budget) and steering clear of bad advice. 1) You don’t put all your eggs in the distribution basket by ONLY submitting to festivals. Whoever told you to do that doesn’t know how distribution works. 2) After you submit to festivals, you don’t post on your website what festivals you submitted to—seriously a local filmmaker did that. So then what do you tell people when you haven’t been accepted? 3) Festivals are a marketing and public relations platform. Know how to write a press release. If you can write a script, you can write a press release—just apply the three act structure and you’ll be fine.
I was talking to my entertainment attorney a couple of weeks ago to catch up and to get a sense of what’s really going on in the industry beyond the trades and rhetoric. The one thing he told me is that the industry is pretty much all over the place. Nobody knows where the next great film is going to come from and the world of distribution is continuing to change. What we do know is that audiences are simply yearning for quality films.
While the cost to produce has come down with technology, that has had consequences to companies that support the system—the VFX industry is at a crossroads. When you have a film like Life of Pi win the Oscar for best visual effects, but the company that created the visual effects (Rhythm & Hues) goes into bankruptcy (MPC worked on and shared the award with Rhythm & Hues), something is seriously wrong with the economic picture. Who’s “write”? As Addison DeWitt said in All About Eve, “ Too bad, we’re gonna miss the third act. They’re gonna play it offstage.” Like festivals and the distribution chain for filmmakers, this is another critical part of the industry that is in an evolutionary state.
Putting aside the headlines and debates, for me seeing the trailer for Justice Is Mind on TVGuide.com this week just continued to confirm the acceptance of independent film on a stage that largely was the province of studio level or “mini-majors” projects. Yes, as independent filmmakers we are in charge of our own destiny, but that also means navigating a constantly changing industry and the great expectations of one group—the audience.
P.S. On a side note, I want to thank NASA for offering me a social media credential to cover the SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) launch at Kennedy SpaceCenter this past week. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it owing to some other commitments, but I look forward to the next opportunity. My congratulations to NASA and SpaceX for a great launch!
With Justice Is Mind now edited in a rough cut up to the 1.25 hour mark, there is nothing more satisfying as a filmmaker than to see the story come together visually. Oh sure, I wrote the script and the film has been shot, but seeing it in action brings the project to another level of reality – a completion date.
Having now set an internal completion date that I believe is achievable the process now turns to what film festivals to submit to. Of course every filmmaker wants to see their work accepted to a festival. There is a certain pride knowing that your work has been reviewed and approved by your peers. Unfortunately, simply owing to the volume of submissions to even the smallest of festivals there is simply no guarantee that it will be accepted. With Sundance receiving over 4,000 submissions and screening just over 2%, the chances are slim that such a high-profile festival will accept your film. But honestly, you never know.
The one thing I do know is that you can’t put all your eggs into one basket by submitting only to festivals and then waiting to see if you’re accepted. First, the majority aren’t buyers markets so aside for some public relations and resume accolades, you still don’t have a distribution deal for your film. That’s why in addition to presenting Justice to sales agents and distributors the fallback plan is self-distribution for theatrical, DVD, VOD, digital streaming, TV, etc. The military isn’t the only industry that understands preparedness. Seriously what’s the alternative, have a film sit on a shelf waiting for the phone to ring? There’s a reason why I post to this blog, send press releases, email newsletters and have an active social media plan, because if I was a distributor and was considering Justice I would simply do a Google search on “Justice Is Mind” movie and when over 300,000 entries come up I figure that just gives our film a bit more of a bump in awareness for a deal.
But whether we are accepted or not to a festival like Sundance, there’s a lot we can take away. It’s been revealed yet again that big name stars don’t translate to big prices or even sales. This has been a consistent trend that I just believes come down to the story…you have to have one. And while certain buys for all rights deals were in the $2-3 million range, reports still say that investors are losing money. Look, I understand the distributor secures rights for the $2-3 million and then commits another say $20 million in prints and advertising, but haven’t we learned anything from the economic meltdown! Why are producers still overpaying for talent. Don’t you want to go back to your investors for your next film? I personally know of one film that was produced in 2008 with nearly $2 million in equity financing with some well-known talent. It was only accepted to Tribeca and never received a distribution deal of any note. I saw it in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart last year. It’s one thing taking a bath on an investment, it’s another to go down on the Titanic.
A film like Justice really isn’t any different except in the numbers. I believe we wouldn’t have secured the talent on both sides of the camera or the locations and sponsors if they didn’t believe in the story and see the possibilities. And what did my investors want to know? They wanted to enjoy the script and to see a business plan with a reasonable return on investment at some point. Imagine.
And while there are economics that sometimes dictate a high-profile name to sell a project, I’d rather see an actor on-screen who I’ve never heard of but delivers a performance of believability and substance. I still believe filmmaking is about telling a story and that word of mouth is still the best advertising you can’t buy.
With the trailer for Justice Is Mind days away from being released, the plan that I’ve been working on since we wrapped will soon be put in motion. What does that plan entail? I promise you it’s more than posting the trailer to YouTube, Facebook, writing the requisite press release and hoping the world finds you. I wish marketing a film (or anything) was that easy but when you are an independent filmmaker that process is continuous with the goal of standing out from the thousands of films being produced every year.
But when you look at a film festival like Sundance that gets over 12,000 submissions and only screens 119, the plan has to be diversified. Of course we all believe our film is that promised gem among many. As filmmakers we have to think that. Thankfully in today’s age of social media anyone that participates in a project can be a cheerleader in its promotion. A simple post, share or tweet and your audience is building.
There was a very interesting story in The Wrap last week that talked about the future of filmmaking. Bottom line? With the ever increasing number of digital services, networks, cable operators and the like, the one thing they all need for their audiences is programming. As Chris McGurk, CEO of Cinedigm said, “They’re in an arms race for content, and that’s creating a perfect storm for independent film.”
And speaking of audiences, my own movie going experience is much different now. Sure, I’m there to watch the film, but I first take in the audience – specifically age. Audiences are getting older which is great for this project. I didn’t write Justice Is Mind with an older audience in mind, it just turned out that way. With the average age of the actors 40+ at least the product is positioned to appeal to a more mature demographic that…ready…spends money.
The one misconception that I’ve addressed before I think needs to be stated again. A film doesn’t need to be picked up by a distributor and placed in hundreds of theatres to be considered a “movie”. Of course, I’d love to see Justice receive a theatrical release that’s handled (and financed) by a distributor, but as an independent filmmaker I can self-distribute Justice in select markets to build momentum, reviews and audiences. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting a return on investment and it doesn’t matter to me what platform that it comes from. Trust me, seeing your film on Hulu with ads running along with it is a very good thing.
With Evidence heading to additional digital platforms and with the trailer for Justice Is Mind being released in the next several days, the franchise is building. But as the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and things take time. While the editing is ongoing the foundation is being built to market and distribute the finished product.
But like a house, every film has its own construction plan.