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.
On Thursday I returned from my second attendance at the American Film Market (AFM). By all accounts, it went well. This year I was accompanied by Daniel Groom, First Signal’s director of photography and editor. He was also representing his own feature film Alternate Ground.
My attendance at AFM in 2018 was generally a fact-finding trip and learning how a film market works. Yes, I had meetings, but it was more to promote projects in development, like First Signal, and to represent my first feature film Justice Is Mind. It’s important to note that AFM is not a film festival. Yes, AFM has screenings, but they are mostly for buyers and sales agents. AFM is one of a handful of film markets around the world. Simply put, these markets are where deals are done for independent filmmakers.
Preparing to attend a film market is the same as pre-production on a film – preparation. You research who you want to meet, make a pitch and hope for a meeting. Like an actor preparing for a part, you rehearse, memorize and have talking points. If you can’t articulate your own film, it’s hard to expect sales agents and buyers to take any interest. In a curious twist, I was in a meeting when someone wanted to present their film regarding locations they were looking for. Oddly, they couldn’t really present the logline or what the general concept was.
I would say my last meeting at AFM was the probably the best one of the market. First, they were specifically looking for films like First Signal. I met with the principal of the company and two representatives. In their suite, I was able to make a complete pitch for First Signal. From development, production to goals for a series of films in the First World Universe. I stressed the importance of marketing and kept an open mind on their points, some of those points being working with them to plan for a rollout in upcoming markets.
There is another point that’s stressed at AFM and that’s professionalism. From scheduling meetings in advance to how to introduce your projects when you don’t have a meeting scheduled. All in all, my experience was positive. But here I was in a booked meeting with a sales agent when another filmmaker arrived, interrupted my meeting and pretty much insisted the agent give them a few minutes. The agent mentioned they were in a meeting, but this filmmaker didn’t care. I just looked at this filmmaker blankly taking it all in. When the agent returned and apologized, the first thing I said was you don’t need to apologize for someone else. I’ll just say this—it’s all about first impressions.
In the end, AFM 2019 was a great market for what I was representing. This industry is rapidly changing from an economic point of view. The differences between 2018 and 2019 were apparent and stark. It’s truly about being adaptable and going with the flow. Having worked in the publishing industry, I’ve seen the advent of digital change. I knew some years ago that VOD/streaming was going to truly be the primary revenue driver for most independent filmmakers. That reality is now here.
But as you will see from my pictures, my trip wasn’t all business. From the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, to the Queen Mary, Griffith Observatory and the USS Iowa, I always enjoy my visits to “Hollywood.” I also discovered a new navigation app called Waze. Given the traffic challenges in LA (although I think they’re worse in Boston), I highly recommend it!
In this industry there is always the word “next.” For us creative types we yearn for the next project to be better than the last. Whether it’s an acting performance or directing your next film to higher acclaim, it’s about exceeding things you’ve done not simply repeating yourself. Of course I speak for myself, not others. Some are content with just another gig. There’s nothing wrong with steadiness and consistency, but for me there needs to be an improvement.
Every year I seek to accomplish at least one project that I’ve never done before. On the acting front there was a PBS documentary that was shot entirely on green screen. That production recreates a post-civil war America. From the outtakes I’ve seen, the creative is simply stunning. That show will premiere next year.
On the filmmaker front, I continue to prepare to attend the American Film Market in November. As I’ve never attended a film market before, it will be an interesting experience and one that I’m looking forward to. For me, it’s about hearing new voices and expanding my network. While I’m most certainly a creative, my business side needs to know where an industry is trending.
I was reminded just yesterday of how far the industry has come over the last several years. In the morning I received my quarterly statement from Justice Is Mind’s distributor. There is that feeling of accomplishment when you know your film is being watched domestically and internationally. But resting on one’s laurels is never a good idea as this industry changes like New England weather.
When I pushed First Signal back to spring due to scheduling conflicts, it gave me some serious time to reflect. Justice Is Mind went so well on so many levels, my next film simply has to exceed it. If I’m going to invest my time, money and name it has to execute at a certain level. I haven’t invested what I have to date without being committed to the project, but I found myself settling on certain matters when the better part of me said, “Why are you doing that?” Thankfully, I listened to my other self to make changes going forward (it helps being a Gemini).
Yesterday, I attended the Ghost Ship Harbor event at the USS Salem. My friend Sheila and I had a great time at this well produced night of fright. Yes, I screamed more than she did! The production values alone are worth the trip…if you dare.
A few months ago I thought seriously about attending the American Film Market (AFM). Aside from the fact that I’m due for a visit to Los Angeles to catch up with friends and colleagues, there’s no question that networking opportunities at AFM are important to anyone in the industry.
Before I spend some thousands of dollars to attend (or on anything), one does have to be practical about it. Will there be a return? In my view, “Hollywood” is a year round industry and “pitching” isn’t married to a film market. But markets are something I’ve been tracking for several years and when The Hollywood Reporter starts its day 3 daily with the headline, “AFM Dealmakers in Revolt! ‘There’s Nothing for Us’”, I’m glad I didn’t make the trek.
I predicted that when Hulu came online that VOD would be the future for independent film. Now in 2017, Amazon and Netflix are the saviors of independent film. Television, whether terrestrial, cable or VOD, has taken so many A and B+ actors out of the independent film world to the more lucrative TV industry. So what’s left? Well, to quote from The Hollywood Reporter’s day 3 daily, “A lack of big-name, must-have projects is leading to plenty of grumbling at the market, with some buyers wondering if this year marks the ‘death knell’ for the indies. Says one frustrated insider: ‘It’s B-, C- and D-quality stuff’”.
If you read the dailies from the film markets you know the hundreds, if not thousands, of films that are looking for some sort of home. Something to recoup the investment that has been put up for someone’s dream. This is an industry of dreams envisioned and dreams realized. It’s important, for obvious reasons, that we keep the dream alive.
In my view the dream will be kept alive with a good story. Plain. Simple. To the point. Star driven independent films only do one thing, drive up the cost of the film with no guarantee of return at the box office. That’s fact, not fiction.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind my goal from day one was to produce it myself (with investors of course). Sure, I presented it to some production companies, but the feedback was unreal. There is this assumption that after you do all the hard work you somehow need their help. Here is a recent email I received from a production company, “I didn’t had the chance to look in details at the project as they seem to be in too early stage for us. Don’t hesitate to keep us posted when you will have a budget, cast, financial plan.” Putting aside the horrid grammar, the question begs to be asked, “And I need you why after I’ve done all this work?” The answer is simple, I don’t need you.
Producing a film is not rocket science. You just need a good script and capital. Done. Yes, it is that simple. The “rocket science” comes up if you’ve never produced because there are countless details you need to know, particularly when it comes to post-production (sound engineering anyone?). It also can get involved if you decide to use a named actor and have to deal with the myriad issues around that. Seriously, at the end of the day a filmmaker just wants to see their dream come to life. Having produced four films (3 shorts and 1 feature) and seeing them come to life on the silver screen is a feeling like none other.
Tomorrow I start to write this new feature with the same production aim as Justice Is Mind. The title of this new feature may have the word First in it, but thankfully it will be the fifth.
Tomorrow is a motion hearing in court. Not a real court. But the mock trial program I’m in at the Naval Justice School (NJS). While I can’t go into specifics for a variety of reasons, it involves my character as an NCIS Special Agent to be informed on matters pertaining to “my training” and certain actions I took. Sorry I can’t say more.
As an actor it gives me the opportunity to create a character. As this is a role playing part, as long as I know my background, there is a certain amount of leeway I can bring to the performance. The goal is to create a realistic environment for the students in the program. Because when this program is over, these students go out into the real world.
Creating worlds is what the fall is all about with the film markets. Toronto just finished with AFM coming up in early November. Some of the discussions that I’ve seen on filmmaking sites talk about the importance of having a teaser to represent a project. I couldn’t agree more. It honestly doesn’t take too much effort to create a sample of what a project could look like. Although I love reading a good script, being able to see some sort of visual does help bring it to life.
As for bringing a project to life, I firmly believe not going broke in the process. Yes, we all want to see our written word come to life, but it seriously isn’t worth emptying a bank account or maxing out credit cards. About a month ago I learned that an indie film that was in post-production hell finally climbed out of it when a producer mortgaged their house to finish it. Seriously.
But whether it’s a teaser, short or feature film, you want to work with actors and crew that do their part. Let me be clear, professionalism has nothing to do with union status and everything to do on how you comport yourself during a project. Are you prepared? Do you know your character? Do you show up on time? Are you contributing to the project or taking away from it?
There are people I’ve worked with on both sides of the “camera” over the last ten years that I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again. If you look at my projects you see many similar names. But sadly, there are those that I just won’t engage with on a future project. Nothing is harder on a production than an actor not being prepared or a crew member not doing their job. Simply, there are too many people looking for an opportunity and to prove themselves in the process.
The one thing that I enjoy about this industry is discovering new talent. And that truly is what this industry is all about—talent. Because there’s a “talent” in bringing a project to life.
This past week served to be an interesting one not only working with a variety of actors on the set of a movie filming in Boston, but in the selection process for the third outing at the Naval Justice School in September.
When the inquiry came in from the casting company about background work, I was interested because they also wanted to use my car in the film. My first Pontiac Solstice appeared in Justice Is Mind. My second, if it makes the cut, will appear in I Feel Pretty. I particularly liked how they “dressed” my car with New York State tags.
But like the first time I did background work, it’s an opportunity for me to meet new actors and crew. I also wanted to see how they staged and used cars in a large scale production. With the camera setup, it didn’t take long to figure out why the cars were parked across the street.
As a director of course I take this all in on numerous levels. For me it’s like a vacation. I don’t have to worry about anything except showing up and doing what I’m told. Sure I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations, but this wasn’t my ship I was just part of the crew. I will say this, the catering was excellent. Yes, I will judge your production, film or whatever by the type of food you serve. And if it ends with a great cup of coffee, that’s another star in my book.
But booking is where things turned for the next class at the Naval Justice School. As Site Supervisor, sort of like director, I don’t make the final casting decision but I do recommend. As I mentioned to an actor earlier this week, “Those decisions are made in Washington.” It wasn’t gravitas on my end, the agencies that book the actors are based in the D.C. area.
I am always happy to recommend talent for other productions. If I’ve worked with you and the relationship was a positive one, those recommendations come easy. But if someone I know recommends an actor I haven’t worked with, I’ll forward the information if I like what I see with the caveat that I’ve never worked with this person before. This entire industry is a network. You never know who knows who and it is a terribly small world. It is that small world of industry contacts that had me sign with a new talent agency in New York this week.
While I have representation in the Boston market, I’ve been looking for a national reach for a few months. Let’s just say that some of the conversations and meetings have been beyond interesting and make for great cocktail conversation. But in the case of this new agency, we knew the same talent from a show I worked on over ten years ago, FOX’s Skating with Celebrities.
My point is this. It’s important to be nice whenever you can. Yes, there are sometimes difficult if not impossible people in this industry, but no gig lasts forever. This is an industry of moments and you only get one chance to make a first impression.
Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in well over 20 years. I went skating. I realized some weeks ago that if this project was going to move forward, it might not be a bad idea to get my skating legs back underneath me. So into the basement I went and I found my skates in busted box. I was thankful that my cats didn’t use it to….nevermind. To my surprise the boots weren’t bad, but the blades had a fair amount of rust on them. Just as I did in days long past, it only took a visit to “Cooke’s” to get them in relative working order.
It seemed oddly fitting that on my first day back on the ice after two decades my first coach Denise Marco, who normally doesn’t teach on Saturday, was there. Not only is Denise the Executive Director of Northstar Ice Sports but she will be playing Elizabeth Rogers in Serpentine with one of her star students playing Suzanne Wilson.
I remember the days in the late 1970s when my mother would drive me to Denise’s house at 5 in the morning (we lived in the same town) to ride with her to the rink for a 6 AM skate before school. Who possibly could have thought that we would reunite in 2016 to make a movie!
What’s also fitting about the Serpentine project is the number of people from First World and Justice Is Mind that will be joining this production. While this will be a great reunion, there’s some terrific new actors and crew members that have joined Serpentine. My plan is to still formally announce the project by October 1.
As of this moment, there are just about 30 people involved in Serpentine. And this is just a short film. I remember with Justice Is Mind, when all was said and done, that number was just over 200. Producing a film is no easy feat. From scheduling to organizing to execution, it is not for the faint at heart. But what it does require is a commitment. And not a lackadaisical one.
I know of so many that want to be part of the industry but they seek instant gratification or worse fame. This industry is about hard work, consistency, sacrifice and dedication. Each project builds some sort of value for the next. It all has to start somewhere. Did I ever think that those first days on the ice decades ago and that first high school play would lead to being on a network TV show or directing films? We can’t predict the future, but we can plan the present.
As for the present, it looks like a great conference room for our last needed location has come forward. The phrase “Location. Location. Location” is often used in real estate. The same holds true in filmmaking. For me, once the locations are secured, I start to visualize the story from script to screen.
A couple of weeks ago I came across this article on IndieWire about low-budget filmmaking (The comments alone are why I no longer participate in online filmmaking groups). What’s my immediate takeaway from this article? I never buy into a system. Never. Nothing is worse than coming across statements along the lines of, “You have to do it this way because everyone else is doing it that way.” If I thought along those lines I never would have published magazines or produced films.
When I was a magazine publisher I can’t tell you how many people said early on, you need named writers and designers. As a start-up we couldn’t afford that, so I went the secondary route – we secured unknown talented writers and designers simply looking for an entry into the publishing industry. The result was a ten year company with millions in revenues that had market leading publications. The exact same thing holds true for making a motion picture.
I don’t care if you spent $1,000 or $100 million on a film, it simply comes down to the end product. Because what it all boils down to is getting the right cast and crew to believe in your project. When I was setting up Justice Is Mind there were limited resources, so it was my job as director to not only present the project accordingly but to see it through to the end and beyond. Out of the over 200 people involved in Justice Is Mind, only one crew member left (right in the middle of production), I dismissed one crew member and one actor pulled out right before principal photography. I’d say the percentages were pretty good!
This is not an easy industry by any stretch and is wholly subjective. If you are easily bruised emotionally or always looking for acceptance, the entertainment industry isn’t for you. But as I found with Justice Is Mind there are scores of people that want to make a project shine as much as possible and it has nothing to do with a budget. I believe audiences responded to that shine because they saw the enthusiasm and passion of all those involved. Because that is what this industry is all about passion. And passion begets enthusiasm.
As filmmakers of course we read the trades and look towards “Hollywood” for trends and opportunities. Of course we would love a major studio to come calling, but waiting for the phone to ring often isn’t the answer. The answer, in my view, is to surround yourself with like-minded talented people that see your vision. It’s all about developing a network that’s built from the ground up for the next project and the next and so on.
It takes time and doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s that moment when you are sitting in a theater surrounded by those who believed in the project that all your efforts have been realized and worth every sleepless night.
As I prepare to release a clip from Justice Is Mind, I was reminded again this week that the entertainment industry is yet again going through a transition. With another VFX production house leaving film, state tax credits in flux, online streaming pioneer Hulu up for sale and companies like Tugg and Gathr gaining traction for theatrical release of independent films, the word transition seems appropriate if not nearly descriptive enough of the change sweeping through the industry locally and throughout the world.
In today’s day and age of real time change with social media, it seems like everyday someone is presenting a new way to finance, produce, distribute, market and publicize a film. There is a race to embrace it all, to discover that new magic formula, to make money, to reinvent the wheel of a century old industry. But in the end, you do have to produce a quality motion picture and be cognizant of the real world. I honestly wonder who is involved in some of these new backward film “ventures”. In a leading industry trade this week, some moron actually said with bravado in an overly produced video presentation it’s harder to distribute your film than get it financed. Seriously? And you live on what planet?
Bottom line, if the industry survived United States v. Paramount Pictures in 1948, it will survive anything being thrown at it now. For me, I believe this is one of the most exciting times to be a filmmaker. In our hands we have the power to produce and distribute economically. Our work can be seen by audiences. Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges when evaluating all these new transitional ventures. For me it comes down to being practical. If I’m going to actually pay you, what are you going to do for my film? Don’t give me smoke and mirrors, because I’ll bring one of those large wind machines and you will be…I’ll just say it…Gone With the Wind.
With Justice Is Mind I see the premise of the story itself going through an interesting transition from science fiction to fact. As most know, I was inspired to write the story after seeing a 60 Minutes broadcast about ‘thought identification’. Once I put the feature into pre-production and spoke to Dr. Marcel Just at Carnegie Mellon University (the scientist who was interviewed on the 60 Minutes show), he mentioned that they have been quite “busy” since that 2009 taping and that the science fiction I postulated in Justice could be reality “within seven to ten years.” My reaction was the same as Constance Smith’s in Justice, “Now that’s fascinating Dr.”
But when I read this week that researchers in Japan have built a mind reading machine using MRI technology and the Obama Administration is seeking $100 million to unlock the secrets of the brain, suddenly I’m seeing a favorable “market” transition towards revenue. Naturally, I’ll be sure to send President Obama a DVD screener of Justice Is Mind. You think I’m kidding? I did send Laura Bush a copy of my first book Frozen Assets in 2002 and received a lovely letter from her. To quote a former president, let me make this perfectly clear, it’s not about politics it’s about promotion.
And that really is what this industry has always been about – promotion. From the studio system of yesterday to social media today, it’s all about promoting your film. Thankfully, in today’s electronic world independent filmmakers have those economic tools to promote (For a fleeting moment I’m imaging what David O. Selznick would have done with a Twitter account!).
So while the physical product of film may be made up of stills, we know this is an industry that doesn’t sit still.