Since my last post, First Signal has been accepted as an official selection in the Bucharest Film Awards and Aasha International Film Festival. To date, this makes eleven festivals that have accepted either the trailer or feature. I have to say I’m very encouraged by these early results. While there’s no guarantee of acceptance to any festival, I remain hopeful that First Signal will continue to be discovered by film festivals around the world.
Although I had planned to start screening First Signal independently of film festivals in October, I have put that plan off until 2021 and will wait and see how the film does during its festival run. Since I’ve submitted to additional festivals over the last few weeks that have a United States or world premiere requirement, any independent screening would jeopardize acceptance.
The theatrical market is the lifeblood of the film industry. While PVOD has demonstrated great promise during the last few months, theatrical is the key to success. Without theatrical, certain types of films either simply won’t get made or will be done so with dramatically reduced budgets. Sadly, some states have enacted the most draconian and restrictive requirements for theatres I’ve ever seen, while some (Los Angeles and New York) aren’t open at all. These types of restrictions do nothing except ruin industries while promoting fear to keep people out of indoor gatherings. I’ve never subscribed to those narratives.
The bright side to all of this is that smart states and countries have very relaxed if not completely opened their economies. They smartly treat citizens like adults and not like children. What this means is the obvious, businesses and creative industries will flock to these destination points. We all know enough now to know what is reasonable about events from the last few months. But, sadly, there are those governments that, for some odd reason, what to keep control of their citizens. Those citizens will simply move as no reasonable person wants to live under any form of totalitarianism.
I continue to remain optimistic that 2021 will return the world to normalcy. Some say the world will never be the same again. Some live in a world of such pessimism that optimism is like a foreign language to them. There are those times you have to look far down the tunnel to see a glimmer of light. But when that light is found, I prefer to be with those that share that destination. Life is too short, to waste on those that want to hold you back in their world of darkness.
While I do some repositioning with First Signal’s marketing plan for the festival market, an idea came to mind the other day for an offshoot story that would focus on one of the characters that is introduced in First Launch. This is a character that I introduced in First World, but never fully explored. Between my archive and what I have of this character in First Launch, my aim would be to create a stand-alone story that would expand the “First World Universe” and compliment the sequel.
With First Signal now accepted in eight film festivals, I am pleased where the project is going so far. We have had a couple of wins and finalist positions for the trailer which makes for a nice build up to the festivals considering the feature length version. Time will tell where the festivals will take us along with other theatrical and special event screenings.
The point of festivals and screenings is to develop interest in First Signal that goes beyond those that saw the film in a theater. It is about word of mouth and, hopefully, some choice media placements to develop a following for the film, so when the film goes to VOD, there’s a waiting audience. Like the journey of most films, that is the plan. What’s not in the plan is losing control of the film in a bad distribution deal.
For some years, I have heard from numerous filmmakers that after they sign a deal with a distributor or sales agent, they receive little to no money from sales of the film despite the grosses. In more instances than I can go into here, they sometimes wind up in court. The Dallas Buyers Club matter was relatively high profile, this article in Deadline hit the nail on the head and the collapse of Distribber had indie filmmakers taking solid note.
The last three contracts I reviewed were so heavy in the favor of the distributor/sales agent, that I could not see any path to profitability, yet they would hold the rights to my film for over ten years. Translation? Once I sign the rights away, I won’t have the rights to exhibit my own film. In each of my last three calls, they all talked glowingly about First Signal, promising encouraging sales estimates and things they can do for the film. But when pressed to offer those estimates (that I know are only estimates) and details in writing, they somehow were not available. Worse, on two occasions, the contracts stated they would have the rights to any sequel I write and work products. Was there ever a minimum gurantee? No. Was there a fancy computation of proposed acquisition price for a sequel that didn’t benefit me at all? Yes. Would I ever enter one of these contracts without some sort of minimum guarantee or entertainment lawyer reviewing my contact? Never. I generally remember this “atmosphere” when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. In the end I went with a wonderful digital aggregator that I will mention shortly.
Unless you are just making a film to put on a shelf, a film requires a distribution plan. It requires a plan that has some sort of path to profitability and/or the ability to leverage the film towards a larger project (sequel, etc.). There is nothing sadder when I hear from a filmmaker that has been taken by one of these companies. The years and capital they have spent to bring their projects to life only to be tied up with nefarious distribution expenses, horrid customer service or legal doubletalk. The last thing anyone wants is to get into litigation (one of the filmmakers I talked to was preparing to file action against his sales agent). Even more insulting two of the three companies I talked to stated that they would require Executive Producer credits. Let us be clear, I don’t care what industry you work in, nobody likes a coattail rider. You do not have the right to ask for a top credit on a film just because you are offering a contract. Period. Nothing is this world is free, most certainly not an Executive Producer credit to make you look like a prolific producer. I know Hollywood is all about smoke and mirrors, but I only tolerate that act on the silver screen not in the boardroom.
There is a silver lining to all of this. Yes, there are great sales agents and distributors. Yes, they do pay their filmmakers. But sadly, there are enough in the other camp that simply require substantive due diligence along with a crack lawyer to protect your interests. You may have heard the saying “Caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware. That could not be truer than in this industry. At the end of the day, we must just do our homework.
One area of this industry that has been part of the silver lining are the digital aggregators. If you have a film, want to see it on a variety of VOD platforms BUT also retain your rights, I highly recommend FilmHub. I’ve had Justice Is Mind with them since 2014. If you are looking for no upfront fees, payment every quarter and excellent customer service, then FilmHub just might be your answer. Will I place First Signal with them? It honestly depends on a variety of factors, as we are in the early days of the release plan. Our next steps are festival, theatrical and special event screenings that will commence in the 4th quarter of 2020.
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.