I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a filmmaker on the planet that isn’t affected by the current world crisis. The one saving grace with First Signal is that it was always scheduled to be in post-production during this time and won’t be finished until May anyway. Color grading and sound mixing is moving right along.
While we all monitor for the opening of the economy (it’s vital this happens as soon as possible), the question is when and how to ramp up marketing and distribution efforts. I will say this, after submitting First Signal a few weeks ago to two film festivals, I have formally stopped until the film is 100% complete. With future submissions I will also require an assurance that a film festival will not default their festival from live to online. I have ZERO interest in premiering First Signal online with a film festival. It will never happen.
I’m not surprised that only seven films took up Amazon’s virtual film fest offer. Unless Amazon’s screening fee was going to offset production costs, why bother. Any filmmaker can upload their film direct to Amazon, why dilute future distribution opportunities with an online premiere.
A few days ago a film festival I submitted to with a December event date, sent this long winded email stating generally that if people don’t feel comfortable attending or their theater isn’t available, they’ll make it online – and won’t refund submission fees. I frankly couldn’t believe the gall. I guess they’ll have to answer to the credit card companies who will chargeback the submission fees to the filmmakers. Having produced many live events, you as the organizer/promoter are responsible to execute what was contracted with the customer. If you don’t you must refund. It’s as simple as that.
I have never been a traditionalist. From publishing to filmmaking, I have always taken an unconventional approach. When I launched my figure skating magazine years ago, I was told it was never going to work as I needed to do this or that or whatever. Whether it was budget related or simply because I had a different idea, I executed the way I could to accomplish what I needed to do. I brought that same approach to filmmaking. When I produced First World and quickly learned that festivals wanted shorts under 15 min long, I found science fiction festivals, unique events and, yes, online (a fledgling platform called Hulu) to present my first film.
My point in all this is being able to pivot. For better or worse the world has changed in the last couple of months. I’m not going to try to roll a square rock up a hill, when I can slide it on rails at ground level to the same destination. As filmmakers we think unconventionally when we create our projects, the same should hold true for marketing and distribution.
Yesterday I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in few years. The first thing he asked me was “How’s the writing going?” I told him about First Signal and a few other things going on. As he runs a successful business in Worcester, I asked him how the salon was. He responded “Busy.” I really didn’t have to ask him that because I know his salon is always busy. He’s been working on building his brand for years.
It took some years to build my brand in figure skating and equally as long as a writer and filmmaker outside of the sport. Building a brand isn’t something that happens overnight. It builds from one project to another. However, we now live in a world where people think that having a large social media following is a brand. Social media, in my view, is great for amplifying what you’re doing in the real world. But without a foundation of something, it’s just likes.
When I started to revive the First World Universe to write First Signal a few years ago, I realized after reviewing all my original material and the media we had at the time, that I created a unique brand. One with its own voice. With First Signal I finally had the opportunity to present this world as a feature film. The first in what I hope to be a series of films in the First World Universe.
With the trailer nearly complete, the marketing train will soon be leaving the station. Once it leaves it can’t come back. While post-production has been going on in earnest with countless notes with the editor, composer and VFX artist, I’ve been working out the marketing plans for the trailer and ultimately the feature. All of us on the post-production team know how important it is for the trailer to present the film. At the end of the day it’s about selling the feature.
As for the First World Universe, I’m just over the thirty-page mark for the sequel. This is the story that takes place before the events in First World. In my view, writing a sequel is no easy feat. You must balance the established characters and their stories with something new. I think one of the most interesting sequels was 2010 from the legendary 2001. Starring Roy Scheider, John Lithgow and Helen Mirren, 2010 created a wonderful “what if” possibility.
In the sequel to First Signal the following dialogue happens in the Oval Office
“Exactly. Now he’s operating covertly and illegally. If you lose and Reager legitimately controls the military and his commander in chief is complicit, history books won’t judge your actions today, because they’ll be none left. It will be the end of civilization.” – Elisabeth Seward, National Security Advisor to President Helen Colton
That dialogue derives from actions around Operation Troy in First Signal.
“General if I sign this. What’s the objective of Operation Troy?” – Helen Colton, President, United States of America.
“Identification.” – General John Reager, Commander, Air Force Space Command
This week I write the draft press release and email newsletter to announce the trailer. As for when the trailer will be released? Sometime in February
Before I started to write my last blog post for the year, I took a moment to review what I wrote this time last year and the year before. In 2017 it was “One project I’m excited for in the new year is the First World prequel I’m writing.” In 2018 it was “The pre-production process of First Signal continues towards a May launch.” For the end of 2019 I can proudly say post-production on First Signal is well underway.
I’ve often stated the word perseverance and what it means to never give up. I see so many projects being announced with great enthusiasm only to wither away. I’ve also stated that making a feature film is a task like none other. It’s about surrounding yourself with people that share your enthusiasm and vision. If it’s one thing I’ve learned this year is that it’s important to work with those that understand dedication and don’t just call it in. That dedication will be released in 2020 for all to see.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions or subscribe to the “New Year. New Me” philosophy. By example, I workout an hour a day seven days a week. I know next week the gym will packed. Over enthusiastic people trying to run a hundred miles an hour on a treadmill when they don’t even enjoy taking long walks. They don’t see results in a month, so they stop coming. They don’t know that to run on a treadmill you first have to learn to walk on one. That means showing up, taking small steps and watching your diet. In the entertainment industry I see the posts “My feature will be produced this year!” or “This year I’m going to star in a film!” Um, well, what did you do three months earlier? Just wait for the 1st of January to arrive? Did you look at your script and see how it could be adjusted to shoot on a budget you could afford? Did you see that part in a film but not submit? Remember in this industry there are no small parts. And more importantly it’s all about risk.
When you join a gym you risk not having the body of Adonis after six months. But you know what? After those six months you may have lost twenty pounds, feel and look better and no longer crave that evening pint of ice cream. When you write a script you risk not having it ever produced. But after you adjust for a budget you can afford, you could soon find yourself in post-production. When you decide to be an actor you don’t start as a star. You submit and submit and submit. You accept the roles you can, no matter the size, because that can lead to a starring role.
That happened to one of the stars of First Signal. He was my first choice, but I cast another actor who lived closer to our shooting location. The actor I originally wanted didn’t dismiss the project when I offered him a background role. He stayed interested. When the actor I cast flaked off and ghosted me, I offered the part to him. He breathed life into this character that I never thought possible.
This is an industry not only about accumulating experience but dedication and enthusiasm. If you have experience and are known to be dedicated and enthusiastic, you will be top of mind when a project comes to being. This just happened to me when I was contacted by a production company for a project coming up for a few days in January. It might not happen in the end, but at least I was contacted (with no agent involved).
Believe me I don’t look at this industry through rose colored glasses. We all have those days where it seems like we aren’t gaining any traction or making any progress. But I do believe if you stick with it and are persistent those chances improve tenfold.
See you at the premiere of First Signal in 2020!
As post-production continues on First Signal (we are on target for an April completion), I’ve been developing the marketing plan for the film. With the majority of independent films there’s no studio marketing department, no retained agency or staff. Marketing is another skillset that filmmakers need to develop. Thankfully during my years of publishing magazines, and my own consulting business, marketing is something I’ve been doing for years. I had some excellent mentors in my early years.
I firmly believe that an independent film needs a central online destination. Building a website used to be a task that required a special set of design skills. Thankfully that is no longer the case. Wix is my preferred platform. If you know how to click a mouse, type copy and upload a video, you can have a website in no time. I no longer use their templates, but rather build my sites from scratch. Case in point my own personal website and First Signal’s.
While I was marketing First Signal through AFM’s platform, I came across one filmmaker who was promoting their project to attendees. This was not an inexpensive film. It had some known actors from the 80s and 90s. When they posted to check out the website, all the visitor found was the dreaded “under construction” notification. It was never fixed throughout the entire market. You spend all that time and money making a film, talk about a lost opportunity to introduce it. I can’t begin to tell you the thousands of films that are marketed through AFM—all looking for a home. As time is literally money at these film markets, you only really get one chance at a first impression. One critical component of first impressions is the trailer.
This past week I started to write the trailer. A trailer is perhaps the most important calling card of a film. Yes, a poster introduces the film, but a trailer brings it to life. As First Signal is what I hope to be a series of films in the “First World Universe,” getting it right is vital. In two minutes the goal is to condense the story, without giving it all away and to convince your audience to see more. There’s certainly no pressure to deliver!
While writing a trailer is challenging, it’s one that I do enjoy. It challenges me to look past the linear script and film and see how it can be presented to (hopefully) thrill audiences.
As screenwriters we all start with an idea. We look blankly at a white page on our monitors hoping it speaks to us. Our hands at the ready on the keyboard. Our notes, if any, to the side for glance. Then suddenly, the following happens:
Intro Logo/Intro Score: The Ashton Times
“This satellite intercepted a signal that originated from Lagrange Point Two.” VO General Reager over Milstar satellite.
July 20, 1969. The 49th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – “we came in peace for all mankind.”
Although at 4 years old, I was too young to remember the historic event of the Eagle landing on the Moon, I fondly recall the later Apollo missions in the early 1970s. Those grainy black and white pictures being transmitted from the Moon to our television sets was a remarkable achievement. Indeed, it truly was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In those days the world watched in wonder as the impossible was achieved, not once, but several times.
When you think of the new technologies, sciences and discoveries that resulted from the space program of the 1960s and 70s, it’s clear that a giant leap was achieved on numerous levels. You can’t bring together that many scientists and engineers and focus them on a single end goal without achieving breakthroughs that were literally out of this world. Of course, another result of the space program was the motivation it gave to so many.
In my case, I developed an interest in astronomy which led to my passion for science fiction. When I combined these interests and wrote First World in 2006, I had no idea where that journey would take me. In the film world it led to the production of the short film version of First World in 2007, followed by Evidence and my first feature film Justice Is Mind. In the real world, I have been fortunate to see the space shuttle Atlantis land at Edwards Air Force Base, Discovery and components of the Apollo program at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the Enterprise at The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and Freedom 7 at John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
In the world of entertainment, two of my favorite TV series that involved the Moon are UFO and Space: 1999 with my favorite sci-fi movie being War of the Worlds (1953). But over the last several years “Hollywood” has produced some excellent must see films. I could list many, but my two recent favorites have been Hidden Figures and Arrival. Two completely different films, but with compelling messages of the possible when faced with the impossible.
As for possible, progress continues on First Signal. With Daniel Elek-Diamanta designing our first promotional poster, the look of First Signal is beginning to take shape. With more location scouting planned over the next several days, I have no doubt that the right location will soon present itself. When a launch is planned, all the conditions need to be right. I don’t want to settle on a substandard location just for the sake of keeping a schedule. Not only do I need to be excited as a director, but I want the actors and crew to feel equally motivated with their surroundings.
From finishing the latest class at the Naval Justice School to National Guard role playing exercises at Joint Base Cape Cod, the last six weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. But perhaps the most anticipated was last weekend’s auditions for First Signal.
Every film has its origins. First Signal can trace its back ten plus years ago when I wrote First World in 2006. After three screenplay nominations, the production of a short film version, over twenty screenings at sci-fi conventions around the world, that project was at the twelfth hour of funding with a production company attached only to see the economic collapse in 2008 hit the entertainment industry like a rocket explosion. Anyone that was around at that time and working in the industry knows what it was like. But in the end it’s called survival.
It was First World that gave birth to Justice Is Mind. The psychological sci-fi courtroom thriller with mind reading at the center of the story. When I was writing notes on a sequel story to First World, it was the development of a mind reading computer called CENTRAL (Computer Encoding Neuro Transmission and Library) that found its way into Justice Is Mind. In Justice the computer program was called FVMRI for Functional Video Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The rest, as they say, is history when Justice Is Mind was produced in 2012 and released in 2013. My goal since 2006 was to create a new sci-fi franchise around the “First World” universe. With First Signal the aim is to do just that.
Like Justice Is Mind, I wrote First Signal with the intention of producing it myself. Sure, one can pitch to “the industry” and wait…and wait…and wait. Or, take the bull by the horns and get it done. The key is to find enthusiastic actors, crew, location partners and a host of others to see the vision through. To say I am pleased with the auditions from last weekend would be an understatement—I was thrilled.
But first and foremost I want to thank actress Patience McStravick for inspiring me to write First Signal. If it wasn’t for our conversations last fall during our time at the Naval Justice School about a story that largely takes place in one room, I doubt this project would be where it is today. Then it was her introduction to talented filmmaker Daniel Groom. Patience starred in his film They Don’t Know (highly recommended!). With Patience and Daniel on board, First Signal was moving forward.
Auditions commenced last Saturday at the Nashua Library in Nashua, NH and then moved to The Verve Crown Plaza in Natick, MA on Sunday. Some I cast in my past films (and were good friends), some I recently worked with between the Naval Justice School and National Guard. Others I didn’t know. But prior to all this, some parts were already cast. There are times as a director you just know you can offer a part to someone without an audition.
Kim Gordon as the President of the United States was my immediate first choice for this role. Her portrayal as District Attorney Constance Smith in Justice Is Mind was brilliant. I wrote the Major Ellen Sampson role specifically with Patience McStravick in mind (Patience is an Army veteran as well).
But there was one actress that I wanted to bring back to the “First World” universe. It was in 2006 and I was getting ready to produce the short film version of First World. The short called for a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. An actress by the name of Lindy Nettleton submitted. She arrived at the same time actor Jeffrey Phillips did who was auditioning for the role of the President. They both read for the parts together outside an elevator bank at the hotel I was staying at while I recorded it on my Palm Treo! During their reading I truly thought they were heads of state (Jeffrey also appeared in Justice Is Mind as George Katz). Although I stayed in touch with Lindy throughout the years, I had no idea if she would be interested in reprising this role after a decade plus. When she said she would play Allison Colby I was beyond elated! First Signal was coming full circle.
But the circle was complete with last weekend’s auditions. I could not be more excited to work with such talent. I invite you visit to First Signal’s IMDb page to learn about the talented group of actors in this project. For those that know how I promote, you’ll be learning more about them the weeks, months and years ahead.
This past Friday I finished my fifth class playing an NCIS Special Agent in the Naval Justice School’s mock trial program. When I first started in this program back in December 2016 I was simply cast as an actor, given background information to learn and literally jumped into the deep end of the pool. For those of you that have been following this blog for the last year, you know how much I enjoy this assignment. It’s important work. Not just for me as an actor, but for the school, the students and the military.
Now that I direct and supervise this program for the government contractor the responsibility level elevates. It’s not just important that I do my job as an actor, but I need to insure that others are doing their job as well. As a director my goal is that they present a strong performance on stage and off.
This round was particularly special for me when a recently retired NCIS Special Agent joined our group as an actress playing an “NCIS Special Agent”. Obviously, she brought a wonderful perspective to the part and was a joy to work with. But when she presented me with an “official” NCIS challenge coin, well that just made this round all the more exciting. But rewarding for me came at the end when I was getting ready to leave on Friday. One of the students walked up to me and thanked me for the work I did. Likewise, I thanked him for his service and the work he is doing. In the end, that’s what this is all about.
But as for out and about, it wasn’t all business. I had time in my schedule to visit the Audrain Automobile Museum to see their latest exhibit. If you find yourself in the Newport, Rhode Island area, I highly recommend a visit.
In regard to visiting, I will be at the Joint Base Cape Cod for a National Guard training exercise on April 6-7 and 10-11. To quote from the registration link for those interested in being a Casualty Role Player, “The training exercises will simulate an emergency response to a manmade or natural disaster including a structural collapse and/or nuclear, biological or chemical incident.” I will be there in a production capacity. To learn more, and to be considered as a Casualty Role Player, please visit this link.
It’s hard to be believe that auditions for First Signal will soon be here. With auditions set for April 14 in Nashua, NH at the Nashua Library and April 15 in Natick MA at the Verve Crowne Plaza, we have some great talent scheduled.
With First Signal being the first installment of what I hope to be a franchise in this “First World” universe I created a decade ago, the challenge is finding the right actors for the right parts. I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with some wonderful talent. Actors that are not only great at what they do on camera, but a joy to be around when the cameras turn off. That’s vital when casting a film. Because long after the last “cut” is heard and the cameras are turned off, it’s on to promotion and marketing.
From actors I’ve cast in past projects to learning about new talent in the region, since the notice went live I’ve been very encouraged by the quality of the submissions. However, for this project I’ll be reaching out to additional sources for certain roles. The goal of the table read isn’t just to hear the script, it’s also about casting possibilities for the feature film itself.
The character of Cedric Yonah is particularly important to the overall story. Not only does the actor need to be great at his craft, but he also must have a certain look. I can almost say that I’ve received enough quality submissions for all other characters, but I’m still looking for this one. This isn’t exactly “The search for Scarlett” but let’s just say the search is ongoing.
This reminds me of the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. As I understand from the development process, director Robert Wise didn’t want to have a recognizable actor walk out of the spaceship as it wouldn’t have been believable. But it had to be an actor with gravitas and a certain look. The casting of Michael Rennie as Klaatu/Mr. Carpenter was brilliant.
Casting is not an easy process. I remember the three hundred plus submissions for Justice Is Mind. While I was fortunate to find some of the leading roles from the short film version Evidence, there were numerous parts that I needed to cast. In as much as you want to see a quality audition, it’s also about how you get along with the actor during that brief time. I do believe it comes down to the sixty second impression.
However, what I still don’t understand is how simple submission instructions aren’t followed. When I submit for a project I make sure I follow the instructions to the letter (why wouldn’t I?). If you refuse to follow submission instructions, how are you going to be during filming? I kid you not I received a submission that literally said here is my IMDb link and Google me. Sorry, if you can’t submit a required headshot, resume and link to your reel you just get relegated to archive.
But this is just part of the development process. Every project takes on a life of its own. I always find it interesting where a project gets its start. First Signal started at the Naval Justice School. But Justice Is Mind actually got its start when I wrote the sequel to First World and was researching mind reading technology. Thus my discovery of the 60 Minutes story from 2009 on thought identification being developed at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Four years after that story Justice Is Mind screened at CMU.
This morning I finished up the notes for the prequel to First World. The next step is to place it in Final Draft and iron it out. That’s generally the process I use when writing a script. I write out the scene structure and dialogue in Word first. I just find it 10x easier to make quick adjustments in Word before formatting in Final Draft. But when I take that next step in Final Draft that’s when the final story starts to take shape.
I’ve written a variety of scripts over the years. Some produced, some waiting for a deal, but this is one that I specially wrote to produce independently. In the end I’ve stayed with three locations and what will be a liberal use of stock footage. But unlike First World, I think this story has given me the opportunity to really create a solid backstory for two of the main characters. It also examines a presidency in crisis along with an out of control military leader.
As with Justice Is Mind, writing an original story is not easy. We receive our initial round of inspiration but then it’s up to us to figure out the rest. What I always aim to do is to have a beginning and ending in mind. Sure it may change some along the way, but if I have in mind the beginning of Act I and the ending of Act III, then I’m good to start. In my view an Act II should always be what I call “the mess” because that’s what the characters are trying to make sense of and resolve.
This story has a solid protagonist and antagonist. It was my goal to give each side not only a reason for their actions but the ability to carry them out. As a writer we wear many personality hats to create our stories. Many is the day when I thank God I’m working alone because I talk my dialogue out. I don’t think the strange looks from my cats qualifies as the need for being institutionalized, but if a neighbor randomly heard me talking like my characters I’d probably be visited by some sort of federal agency.
Once the first draft is done later this week I’ll be sending it to the actress that inspired me to write it. For me, it’s pretty easy to write a character when you model it on the actress that will play it. However, for the rest of the characters involved, one of my plans is for a table read. I never did that for Justice Is Mind owing to a variety of matters, not the least being the size of the cast, scheduling and time constraints. In the end that worked out fine. But with this project as the majority of the action takes place in a conference room and a field, it’s important to get the character interaction just right.
Last week I hit page 30 on this prequel story to First World. The title and logline came to me about halfway through this initial draft. With notes for the next two acts generally outlined, I’m aiming to have a first draft completed in January.
It’s always interesting how these new projects start. The idea came to me in September when I was at the Naval Justice School (NJS) talking with a couple of the actors about developing a new story. For the last two weeks I’ve been back at NJS with most of the students returning for this next class.
For me it comes down to motivation. If I’m not motivated to write a story, it just won’t be written. I firmly believe that environs make all the difference. When you are around other creative types and engaged in the kind of work you enjoy doing, it’s amazing how ideas start to generate with collaboration bringing new opportunities.
Of course it’s one thing to write a screenplay, it’s another to produce it. This one is being written in the same fashion as Justice Is Mind, to produce independently without pitching to the industry. While there’s obviously nothing wrong with the industry pitch, that process goes in fits and starts. Hot one day, cold the other. Ask anyone in this industry and that’s just the way it is—if you take the traditional route.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s one thing to produce a feature film, it’s another to promote it. I have to know if I’m OK devoting the next 2-5 years of my life developing and promoting a project. Justice Is Mind was literally a five year commitment. From screenplay (2010), short film version (2011), production of the feature film (2012), release of the film (2013) and marketing (2013-2015). I still promote Justice of course, and I continue to pitch the sequel, In Mind We Trust, as the basis for a TV series.
The “First World” project is about developing a franchise. It always has been. But commitment is important in this industry. It’s not just about making the film, it’s about staying with it for the long haul. As I learned with the short film version of First World and Justice Is Mind, you never know where a project can take you. It was a series of pitches that saw First World have a premiere in India at their The First Ever National Discussion on Science Fiction and Justice Is Mind having its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth.
The creation of a new story is always an adventure, a journey into the unknown. Believe me when I tell you, it’s a trip worth taking.
Writing an original story is by no means an easy process. There are times when I think and rethink various elements to make sure they flow. Does this transition from that transition make sense? Am I carrying the story forward and adding something with each moment? Even though I’m writing fiction, I always ask myself would people act and respond this way in “real life”?
But at one point it starts to click. For this story it happened around page twenty. While I have the general outline for act one, two and three (Yes, I believe in the three act structure), it’s the journey these characters take that will make the story what it is.
But one thing that is easy, is creating worlds that are larger than they appear or you have the budget for. With every film I’ve produced (and some commercials), I always use stock footage. From the White House in First World, to Reincar Scientific in Justice Is Mind to the FBI in Serpentine, it’s a simple purchase from one of the stock footage houses.
Most stock footage is very affordable. However, there are times when it can get pricey. Case in point was footage from the Nuremberg Trials after World War II in Justice Is Mind. In addition to the footage, I also had to obtain it at a certain aspect ratio. But in today’s modern world of filmmaking, it’s amazing what’s available if you just look for it.
As this story largely takes place in one room, it will be stock footage that takes us out of the scene to illustrate certain moments of the story. Why ask the Department of Defense if you can film a B-2 taking off from Whiteman Air Force Base if you can just acquire the footage for $79.
I remember after Justice Is Mind was released, I was asked by someone in the industry if I went to Logan International Airport in Boston to film planes taking off. I remember jokingly responding that it was a real pain in the ass to get over all the fences and position myself with a cameraman at the end of the runway. I think they thought I was serious. Oh well.
As I dove back further in the First World story and archives, I came across a time in 2008 when certain funding commitments were imminent for the production of the film (it was going to be part of a slate of films with a particular producer). But then the global recession took hold and literally decimated the film industry (particularly on the independent side). At the time it was disappointing, but everything happens for a reason.
It’s interesting how one is turned to a particular story. When the idea came to me during my moments at the Naval Justice School about developing a story in a one location environment, something drew me back to First World. Was it the military aspects of that story? The fact that I’ve already created these characters? Who knows, the one thing I never ask myself is why. I just write.
If you’ve seen Justice Is Mind, First World or Serpentine: The Short Program, you know I don’t shy away from using multiple locations to tell my stories. I’ve been very lucky with my productions to secure some unique locations.
Each one of those projects had one or two critical locations. For Justice Is Mind it was a courtroom and MRI facility. For First World it was a presidential suite and a horse farm. For Serpentine it was a figure skating complex. Each of those locations brought gravitas to their stories.
For this new project, my aim is a simple one. Keep the story largely contained to one interior room and one outdoor scene. My goal is both for story and cinematography. With the primary story taking place in a windowless bunker one of my inspirations is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. For those that have seen this classic, the story primarily takes place in an apartment. As that film was first produced as a play, it largely makes sense that it would be confined to one location.
This new story is a prequel to First World and revolves around one particular meeting. While I would obviously love to see First World produced, I also know that it’s a science fiction epic that would require, while maybe not an “epic” budget, certainly one in the seven figures. For this project, the aim is to contain production costs for independent production.
While Dial M for Murder is one inspiration, another is Fail Safe. The scenes in the Pentagon’s “war room” worked on a variety of levels. What I particular liked was the rear projection that was used to display the military crisis between the United States and U.S.S.R. Because this type of “special effect” was produced while the movie was being photographed, it saved time in post-production.
With a good amount of my research completed, I’ll shortly start the writing process. The fall and winter months are my favorite time to write an original story. Believe me, it’s the cold weather that will set the mood for this piece!
This story will revolve around a particular signal intercept and how certain government and military officials are responding to it. To give you an idea of the conflict in this story, I’ll borrow a quote from Valkyrie, “This is a military operation. Nothing ever goes according to plan.”
Prior to writing First World back in 2006 I would follow the film industry like most of the free world. You would learn about an upcoming film from TV, print or radio and then you would go to the theater and watch the film. From what I can remember most films in the late 70s, 80s and 90s had pretty good attendance in their first few weeks of release. Of course, VHS and DVD added substantially to the coffers and was a welcome lifeline to films that underperformed at the box office.
As I did in publishing over two decades ago, it’s one thing reading a magazine, it’s another learning how that magazine arrived in your hands from an industry point of view. But like that industry’s transition from print to digital, the independent film industry is also going through this same painful process. This article in Variety pretty much summed up the latest Toronto International Film Festival.
It’s one thing when you work in publishing and you’re managing a downturn in paid circulation (thankfully I never had to experience that), it’s entirely another when someone or some company has advanced seven to eight figures to produce a movie and is waiting for a distribution deal to materialize. The magazine has revenue, albeit less, the film has zero. Because there is so much misconception about the independent film industry, let me be clear—just because a film gets into a major film market/festival is no guarantee of distribution. There’s also nothing wrong and everything to gain win self-distribution.
What I firmly believe this all comes down to is budget and marketing. Of course everyone needs to make a living, but there needs to be a reality check on what can seriously be recouped domestically and internationally. It’s no longer about just getting the film produced, it’s about making an effort with a marketing plan to reach a target audience. Marketing takes time. Believe me when I tell you it takes longer to market a film than make it.
I don’t know. Call me old fashion or just a consummate planner. There are some solid lessons to be learned from the magazine industry. I just couldn’t deliver my magazines to our distributor and wait for revenue to roll in, I had to market on a regular basis. I had to bring enough awareness to my magazines to either get a paid subscription or a single copy newsstand buy. This all has to sound familiar if you’re a filmmaker. How do you get people to watch your film or buy it?
Stacey Parks asked in one of her blogs “You Making Money on Amazon?” Every month I get paid from Amazon from my four films running on their platform. Yes, some do much better than others. But there are sales every month. I post three times a week to their respective Facebook pages that auto post to their Twitter accounts and other broadcast functions I have set up. Google Alerts notify me of an interesting article that may warrant a pitch to an editor or, yes, a film financing entity or producer.
This all being said, I strongly believe in the future of independent filmmaking. For me the glass is always half full not half empty. It’s about coming up with a solution to a problem and seeing it through. I always pity the naysayer that says to me, “You can’t do this or that because…” Those are the people you give a wide berth to as you have, a…
Yesterday I attended the annual World War II Saturday at Battleship Cove. While there seemed to be less reenactors than last year, I found it just as engaging and interesting. If I come away with having learned a few more moments during that time in history, it’s well worth the visit.
By example, I learned some interesting details behind the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO). Sure, I was generally aware that the United States and China had some sort of cooperation during the war, but when it’s illuminated it puts it in perspective. That “perspective” continued after SACO dissolved which was followed by China’s civil war.
Speaking of China, Justice Is Mind has been picked up by China Mobile as a flat licensing deal. As I understand from our distributor, it’s now going through censorship and localization on their end. It will certainly be a milestone to break into the Chinese market. One does not need to be a filmmaker or read the industry trades to know that China is one of the leading film markets.
Given the tumultuous state of U.S. box office revenue this year, it’s imperative that these foreign markets are available to filmmakers. For Justice Is Mind and First World our primary foreign market is the United Kingdom. I have also noticed that viewership in Japan is picking up. But one driving force that continues to put films front and center is the importance of a marketing plan.
I can’t tell you how many times the marketing plan for an independent film seems to begin and stop at the industry trades. Never mind when you read the first cut to studio budgets seem to be in marketing. As I have often said you can have the greatest project in the world but if nobody knows about it nobody will care.
As soon as I finish writing a script, I start working on the marketing plan in terms of a target audience. With distributors relying more and more on filmmakers to assist in the marketing plan, there really needs to be one in place before the first scene is shot. With First World it was science fiction conventions. With Justice Is Mind it was law schools and universities that focused on neuroscience. With Serpentine: The Short Program it was the Ice Network. Yes, like the aforementioned, films have their primary target audience then they broaden out from there.
Amazon is a perfect example of that. Someone might have heard about Justice Is Mind from our primary plan, but found the film on Amazon. Their algorithm then points customers to other recommended films. At that point the plan is relatively complete. But it all starts with that primary plan to push consumer awareness then generally continues with social media and other digital marketing tactics on an ongoing basis.
It’s hard to believe that it was five years ago this month that we were producing Justice Is Mind. Yet here we are five years later with new markets opening. The greatest thing about the world of film is discovery. It doesn’t matter when the film was made, it’s about when a customer learns about it for the first time. In today’s world of VOD a film no longer has a shelf-life.
July 20 should be a national holiday because it marks an unprecedented milestone in the history of the human race – the day we set foot on the Moon in 1969.
Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to look at their home, the planet Earth, from 238,000 miles away. July 20, 1969 marked the very pinnacle of research, science and mankind’s determination to explore the unknown when Armstrong famously said “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Yet, sadly, there are those ignorant dangerous fools that still believe the manned missions to the Moon were a hoax. Somehow an achievement that exceeded the mysterious building of the Great Pyramids was created by the Hollywood studios. It’s unbelievable to me in today’s day and age that such ignorance permeates our existence. When evidence is there for everyone to hear and see, they turn deaf and blind by deliberate choice. Some of these misguided morons have tried to post their so-called views on First World’s Facebook page. Thankfully it’s called a delete and ban.
Yes, as you can surmise I feel very strongly about the aforementioned. For if there is one thing the Apollo space program taught us was that anything is possible if we remain singularly focused on just such a mission. In the 1960s there’s no question that the United States government was motivated to compete against the then Soviet Union. Say what you want, but that was a healthy competition because the fruits of all those scientists lay in the very technology we enjoy today.
But decades before Apollo 11 there were the steps of over 300,000 allied soldiers that were evacuated from Dunkirk. The Battle of Dunkirk is well known as a substantial turning point in World War II and has been brought back to life by Hollywood.
Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk is most certainly a must-see film. But more importantly it is a history lesson for those that may not know the story. It is a story about what’s possible when faced with the impossible. How do you evacuate over 300,000 people off a beach? The answer was as miraculous as it was obvious—you mobilize a fleet of small civilian boats to effect a rescue.
While I greatly enjoyed Nolan’s version of Dunkirk, if anything because it reintroduced this critical moment in world history to 21st century audiences, I found myself enjoying the 1958 version better. For me it provided a larger backstory as it followed several characters between England and France until they arrived on the beaches of Dunkirk.
But whether you liked the 1958 version over the 2017 entry isn’t important. What’s important is that these films are watched. What’s important is that we learn from history. Who would have thought back in 1940 that the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany (and Japan) would someday become great allies in years to come? For it’s allies that truly unite mankind. Building off that first step on the Moon, modern day space programs are a coalition of cultures.
With Marche Du Film (Cannes) coming up, I always find it interesting to learn about the new players while reading about the fate of others. No doubt in the weeks ahead we will read in the trades about the big splash of a new company’s star driven acquisition or the sorry story of others that used to hold court on private yachts. Having been to Cannes many years ago (not for the festival) the location is truly a stunning one to announce a major project.
There is no question that this is an industry of flash. When you have good news to announce you do so publicly, loudly and in grand fashion. The whole point is to cut through the noise to get your project noticed. As I’ve said time and time again, this industry is as much about making motion pictures as it is about promoting them. This is why in so many cases when you see a production budget you multiply it by itself for marketing and public relations.
But then there are the rest of us that aren’t making $175 million motion pictures (at least not yet!). What filmmakers like me rely on is reliable consistent revenue from VOD. While so many players come and go in this industry, we rely on VOD platforms to be there year after year. Although sites like Netflix are in a public relations battle with Cannes, Amazon is playing by the rules and, “was not coming to the South of France “looking to disrupt Cannes,” adding, “You have to approach Cannes on its own terms.”
And while Cannes is one of the world’s greatest launching pads for a film, there are VOD sites like TubiTV that are also making waves. Just this past week the site announced a $20 million outside investment. Justice Is Mind has been on TubiTV for several months and has started to gain some solid traction. I’ve also noticed an increase in traffic for Justice on other VOD sites. All these upticks bode well for the industry as a whole. It shows that consumers are watching across a variety of platforms and it doesn’t matter if they are star driven $100 million plus budgets or films made for under $100K. At the end of the day audiences want to be entertained and they want the choice to be theirs.
But as the industry enters a new season it’s a review of my current projects First World, SOS United States, Serpentine and In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind. Are my websites updated? Do they convey the current status of each project? You know what they say about first impressions, you only get one to make one.
There is, however, a cardinal rule that I live by. I never disclose who I’m talking to and who I submitted to. This is why I declined to respond to a local entertainment publication that reached out to me on one of my projects. This is like when actors announce who they just auditioned for (or what festivals a filmmaker submitted to). I promise you that doesn’t help you get the part any quicker. In fact, it can have an opposite result. The same holds true for behind the scenes conversations. Sure, the trades like to know what’s going on, but confidentiality is paramount.
However, I will say this. The world’s largest oversees mobile player picked up Justice Is Mind from our distributor earlier this year. But until it’s live, I’ll hold on the formal announcement.
Although I wrote a screenplay when I was in grade school (I wonder where that is), First World was my first “professional” effort. Aside from my passion for all things NASA and my love of science fiction, I’m not sure where the initial idea came from. It was in 2006 and I was living in Los Angeles at the time. Before I knew it I purchased Final Draft and just started to write. Many months and drafts later First World was born. Great, I finished a screenplay now what do I do with it.
Just because I was living in Los Angeles it didn’t guarantee any more access than if I was living on a remote island. So I started to submit my screenplay to film festivals and by my shock it was being selected. When First World was nominated for Best Screenplay at the California Independent Film Festival in 2007 I figured I was on to something. Did I win? No. But being nominated was good enough for me.
In so many ways I think it’s good to start out in this industry being a bit naïve. But one does learn quickly. Raising money for a feature film was harder than writing an original story, much harder. But I wanted to at least introduce part of the story to develop interest in the concept. So, I condensed the story and produced a 25 minute short film version with my friend Adam Starr. Since First World Adam has been part of all my films.
After the short was produced in 2007 I found myself presenting it at sci-fi conventions around the world. It soon found itself in India as the only film at the inaugural First Ever National Discussion on Science Fiction. As a magazine publisher, I knew distribution and promotion. This was one area of filmmaking that I didn’t shy away from. Suffice to say I was relentless in introducing this project to anyone that would take the time to read what I was pitching. Some paid attention, most didn’t, but those that did just continued to build awareness for the project. In the end First World screened at 21 sci-fi conventions.
Some years later when the VOD world started to emerge an upstart website called hulu was born. Through my distributor IndieFlix I got First World on the site. There was something quite glorious to see First World run on VOD with ad interruptions. Remember, it’s either advertising or a subscription fee that pays for these services. Filmmaking and the VOD platforms are not a free enterprise!
After the hulu run I placed First World on Amazon’s Create Space. It was a relatively new service, but I was all about experimenting. Soon after Amazon ripped First World from our submitted DVD (yup that’s the way they got it on their system in those days). It took about three months but then it happened…my first payment from Amazon. Every month since I’ve been paid something from Amazon Create Space for First World.
But then something else happened in 2016—Amazon announced Amazon Video Direct. Short of it, filmmakers could now take advantage of the same system that distributors did. All we had to do was enter the required data, upload poster, film, trailer, closed caption file and presto we are worldwide across all of Amazon’s platforms. It took quite a bit of doing, but I was able to render a large enough file for First World.
First World has been on Amazon Video Direct for a year and has generated 464, 172 viewed minutes—translation this short film from 2007 has been watched over 17,000 times in the past year.
Since First World I have gone on to write, produce and direct three other films – Evidence, Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program—all of which are on Amazon Video Direct. But like this article that recently ran about Amazon Studios, I also believe in theatrical distribution. While VOD is a godsend to filmmakers, a theatrical release showcases a film.
Am I still waiting to turn First World into a feature? Yes. But as Evidence brought forth my first feature film with Justice Is Mind, time will tell if that happens with First World and Serpentine. The entertainment industry teaches us patience and that it is ever changing and sometimes volatile. But there is one thing that this industry looks to when considering a project…
As the venerable Hannibal Lecter said, “Shall we say dinner and a show?”
Before we finished working at the Naval Justice School (NJS) several of us agreed to get together to see a play one of our fellow actors was in. Phoenyx Williams was certainly pulling double duty. Playing an NCIS Agent along with me during the day he would then travel back to Providence for nightly performances in the “Post-Electric Play” Mr. Burns (by Anne Washburn). Williams played the “electric” Mr. Burns.
But before the play, we met up for dinner at the excellent Federal Taphouse & Kitchen. Although it was exactly a week since we last saw each other at NJS, it was great catching up with new friends and sharing some interesting stories. I’ll just say this, lots of laughs! Of course the director in me is always mindful of the clock and we were soon on our way to the Wilbury Theatre for a 7:30 show.
Although most of us had been briefed on the synopsis, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. The premise from their website states, “After the collapse of civilization, a group of survivors share a campfire and begin to piece together the plot of “The Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare” entirely from memory.” It started at the campfire and then went on to two additional acts with two intermissions. I have to confess, I’ve never watched The Simpsons.
As a writer, producer and director I’ve certainly created experimental work. But with experimental work comes risk. While the story wasn’t for me (as one of the actors in the play said to me this play is either for you or isn’t), the acting, writing and production itself was excellent. Although I didn’t care for the story, the execution was brilliant and the actors are wonderfully talented. The “fun” highlight was when the actors moved the audience (we were on risers with wheels!). In conclusion, the third act was owned by Williams. He nailed it.
Whether it’s stage or film, this entire industry is an experiment of some sort or another. I applaud anyone that creates an original work and doesn’t try to duplicate someone else’s efforts. I hear time and time again from filmmakers and actors who try so hard to be like this filmmaker or this actor. How about creating your own brand? You can be sure that I want to see what Anne Washburn comes up with next and I’ll be following these actors!
As for next, this past week was also about reorganizing my projects. With Serpentine: The Short Program released, my focus goes back to promoting that project along with In Mind We Trust (the sequel to Justice Is Mind), First World and SOS United States. I say now what I’ve said before, projects do not come to fruition overnight. It takes abject dedication to bring a work to life. Whether that be a play, movie or performing career.
But with every new experience comes a new idea.
A visit to an estate. Military trials at a naval base. A meeting with the Prime Minister. No, this isn’t the plot for a new screenplay (although I have some ideas), but what my last couple of weeks have been like in Newport, RI.
I discovered Newport back in the early 1980s when my mother first brought me down to the seaside city. Touring the mansions and learning about the Gilded Age was something to see for someone who grew up on a farm. It was two decades plus later when I struck a deal with The Preservation Society of Newport County to photograph Nancy Kerrigan at Rosecliff. It’s hard not be awe struck at the majesty of these great “cottages” and imaging the grand parties of days long past.
Although I’ve toured all the mansions, I haven’t visited The Elms since those early days. The self-guided tour is a nice improvement from the live tour guides. It lets you go at your own pace and learn about additional details that time doesn’t permit with a guide. It seemed fitting to my Newport visit that The Elms was built for coal baron Edward Julius Berwind who supplied coal to the Navy. Because back to the Navy it was for the last few weeks.
Last Thursday I finished working at the Naval Justice School as an actor in their mock trial program. This was my “second tour” at the school. While I’ve been fortunate to have a variety of interesting opportunities in the industry, this by far offers not only the ability to act but to learn something in the process.
First, there are generally no set lines per se rather a scenario for your character with action points that must be adhered to. In my view it takes role playing to a whole new level. While there’s a highway and destination for each character, it’s the exits along the way that give the character and the entire scenario depth.
But for me it’s the atmosphere and the importance of the assignment. Yes, I’m working with other actors, but our primary interaction is with the officers, students and staff at the school. In other words this is real life. The students that attend the school are generally all lawyers and graduate from this program for military postings all over the world. Suffice to say we take it seriously. You can learn more about the Naval Justice School at this link.
What was nice about this “tour” was not only working with some of the same actors from the first assignment but meeting some new talent as well. The actors I’m pictured with here at the school are extremely talented. I had the opportunity to see some of them perform their character and they had me believing they were living that person.
Of course I was watching with my director hat on. Because who knows what project I may be working on next or have the opportunity to recommend an actor that is both talented and professional. Just as when I produce my projects, I want to work with actors that understand the word “team” without striving to become the center of attention off stage.
As for talent, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit with Lindy Nettleton who invited me to her play reading group. Lindy, as some of you may remember, played the Prime Minister in First World. I’ll still never forget her audition. She arrived with the actor who was auditioning to the play the President. We couldn’t find a quiet place for their audition, so what did these two professionals do? They got into character outside an elevator bank and read their lines…brilliantly!
Finally, for those of you that are car enthusiasts, I highly recommend the Audrain Auto Museum. A must see!
There is something to be said about arriving at a theater and seeing not one but two of your films on the marquee. Yes, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. Because it is in that moment that all the work that has gone in to making a film is celebrated.
And celebrate we did. One by one family, friends, actors and crew started to arrive. Some I saw as recently as a couple of weeks ago, others it’s been a few years. But in the moment it feels like it was just yesterday. And heavens knows there were many yesterdays to get to this point!
After a reception in the lobby of the Strand Theatre, I made my opening remarks and then Justice Is Mind began. I was sitting next to Vernon Aldershoff and he said to me, “It never gets old.” No it doesn’t. And seeing the film in its highest resolution in a DCP format was another highlight.
Of course the highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program. This is one project that was particularly close to me for a variety of reasons. The moment the film started I was reminded about my days as a skater, teacher, magazine publisher and the TV work I would do around the sport. But it’s not about me, it’s about the product. One that you want audiences to enjoy.
And it was the next day that audiences around the world were able to stream Serpentine: The Short Program on both Amazon and the Ice Network. So far the numbers look promising and early reviews have been encouraging. But like First World ten years ago, this is an industry of the long haul. Or as we say in figure skating, the long program.
While VOD is a savior to the independent filmmaker, there is nothing like the theater. Because there is that one moment you’re hoping for that can only happen in a theater. To again quote from All About Eve, it was Eve Harrington that said it best, “If nothing else, there’s applause.” And they did when Serpentine: The Short Program faded to black.
I am pleased to announce that Serpentine will have its world premiere at the Strand Theater in Clinton, MA on March 6, 2017! Serpentine will premiere after an encore screening of Justice Is Mind. For Serpentine this will be a first, for Justice Is Mind this will mark our 22nd screening. But it is the Strand Theater that give us our first theatrical break.
It was in 2012 and I was looking for a theater to screen Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind. It was the Strand that gave us the opportunity to screen after J. Edgar. Over a year later Justice Is Mind had its Massachusetts premiere at the Strand. The same model is being employed for Serpentine: The Short Program.
A theatrical screening marks a starting point. A launch pad, if you will, into a greater marketing program. Everything in this industry is timing. It’s about striking while the iron is hot (even though the rink is cold!). For Serpentine the launch will take place between national and world figure skating championships. The goal, as it was with Evidence all those years ago, is to develop as much interest as possible to produce the feature film version this year for a 2018 release. Why 2018? The Olympic Winter games take place in South Korea next year. It’s about riding a wave of popularity post games.
With a running time of just over 12 minutes, we will be presenting the first 10 pages of the feature length screenplay. Serpentine not only features several of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind and First World, but introduces actors making their debut performance. In the world of film it’s all about performance, what we see on the screen and how it comes together behind the scenes.
As for debut performance, it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with an aspiring actress and model. This week I signed with Dynasty Models & Talent for New England representation. Yes, it’s an exciting step as I continue to lay out some personal plans of my own. During my visit at the agency, the owner asked me if I had any words of wisdom for this actress. I first offered her the back story on how I was cast in a TV show some years ago but then went on to say how you have to want to be in this industry more than anything. No matter what you want to do, it takes a one hundred percent commitment and being able to weather continuous rejection. As I’ve stated before, this is an industry of no (or no response). But when a yes does come, it makes you appreciate your hard work all the more.
They say you are only as good as your last performance. While I agree with that to a point, I believe you are only as good as who you surround yourself with. This is an industry not lacking in advice, particularly from those you never asked. In my view it’s about working with those that want to showcase their efforts with you. I’ll just say this, it is not a coincidence that I’m working with a lot of the same people from Justice Is Mind and First World to bring Serpentine to life. This project also marks a reunion of sorts with a former business partner. More on that development later.
As for development, as an independent filmmaker, theaters like the Strand are important for our continued success. That being said, the Strand has established a GoFundMe campaign to restore and upgrade their wonderful marquee. For our screening on March 6 all ticket sales will be going to the Strand (no share of box office). As a filmmaker there is something special when you see your film in lights.
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.