As Jodie Foster told The Hollywood Reporter this past week, “The hardest part is getting the green light, getting the movie going.” From financing, locations, crew and talent, moving a project to green light status is a major undertaking. Reading the dailies coming out of Cannes this week there is a host of industry adjustments. From distributors looking for new ways to grab audiences, to Amazon launching a YouTube like service .to the availability of A list actors when so many are committed to “superhero” movies. Yet again another era of change in an ever changing industry. But at some point you just have to throw caution to the wind and do it.
A few days ago I crossed the 60 page mark in the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. My aim is to have a complete first draft by the end of June. I’ve already started to reach out to a couple of key people I’ve worked with over the years on availability later on this summer.
For me it comes down to visualizing not just the film but the market in which it’s going to exist in. This is why I always write a business plan as part of the development process. Bottom line, I need to know there’s a market for the story and/or a target demographic. For Justice Is Mind it was older audiences and a few films that fell into the type of audience I was going after—Fringe meets Law & Order in a Gattaca setting. With SOS United States the story is set in a contemporary world of conflict between nations and shadow governments that can best be compared to Seven Days in May meets Clear and Present Danger.
But with this new story I’m writing, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that the sport of figure skating has a base of enthusiasts and participants that can be marketed to. For me it comes down to not just creating “another skating movie” but one that builds off that base with a story that revolves around a decade’s long Cold War mystery that culminates at the world figure skating championships. What it really comes down is marketing to an alternative audience.
As producer Charles Cohen told The Hollywood Reporter regarding the niche he targets, “It’s a mature audience that’s seeking an alternative to the typical Hollywood production — your big tentpole picture. People who are crying out for Marigold Hotel or Philomena or Brooklyn. Films that harken back to the ’60s and ’70s, which deal with real issues.” I could not agree more. As I learned with Justice Is Mind audiences want an alternative.
Perhaps the biggest news this past week was Amazon’s new Video Direct Service that takes direct aim at YouTube. I’ve been working with Amazon’s CreateSpace and through our distributor for Amazon Prime for several years. Amazon, in my view, is one the best places independent filmmakers have to showcase their work to a wide audience (they also own IMDb). Unlike some of these “curated” platforms that you barely hear about, Amazon’s algorithm approach puts the decision firmly in the hands of the consumer.
But there’s another thing that Amazon also gets right and that’s its approach to theatrical screenings. They know that a quality theatrical screening makes all the difference to just another VOD release. Having had a theatrical release for Justice Is Mind it also helps enormously with press and building an audience. While I’ve been a proponent of VOD for years, the film industry is steeped in the tradition of the theatrical release and rightly so. As a filmmaker, there is nothing more exhilarating than seeing your movie on the marquee and having it come to life in a theater.
To be a theatrical marketer you just have to do what I do when I go to the movies these days—you find someplace to sit in the lobby and look at theatergoers. I’ve worked in consumer marketing in one form or another for over twenty years and it just comes down to patterns. First, as a magazine publisher and then as a filmmaker. In the former, I targeted the fans of a particular sport (age didn’t really matter), but in the latter it’s a demographic.
Since I wrote First World back in 2006, and produced a short film version in 2007, I’ve known for some years that attendees of the science fiction convention circuit generally skewed in my age group (I was born in 1965). So when I wrote Justice Is Mind in 2010, I thought it would generally appeal to an older audience who may have counted TV series like Law & Order as their favorites along with films like The Andromeda Strain and the more contemporary Gattaca. The theatrical release of Justice Is Mind proved my theory when the majority of those that attended our screenings were 40+ and evenly split between men and women.
Of course, when you’re writing a screenplay it’s all guesswork isn’t it? Despite the best laid plans you really have no clue how it’s going to do. Yes, studios and some filmmakers do test screenings, but unless you are going to poll the entire country you just have to hope your film will find an audience through your marketing plan. But one demographic that is doing exceeding well are older audiences. Before there was Netflix, Amazon, and even Blockbuster, we went to the movies. Seeing a movie in a theater was an experience you weren’t going to get on television. I’m not discounting the importance of the younger generation that of course goes to the movies, but the generation I’m in is a bit more predictable – they want to see great stories come to life on the big screen.
As for great stories, I saw Trumbo this week and just thought it was a brilliant film. For me, I’ve always been interested in stories that revolve around the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Cold War. Throw both of those interests in and I’ll be the first to buy a ticket! Trumbo did not disappoint. Considering the ground it covered in 124 minutes, the story really captured a time in Hollywood and a political climate in the United States all those decades ago that I believe we are feeling now in the 21st century. You know what they say about history, it has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
As an article in The Wall Street Journal stated this week, there is a booming business in grown up films. When the $600,000 budgeted film Grandma returns $7 million in box office, that’s a serious profit and a business model that works.
These past two weeks the entire world has been front and center on news surrounding the United States’ National Security Agency and a “whistleblower/traitor” that is now “residing” in Hong Kong. Whatever your opinion is on this matter one thing is certain—someone has pitched a story to a producer, a script is being written and a film will go into production by the end of this year.
In Justice Is Mind one of the tracks in the story is loss of privacy. Our primary character, Henri Miller, makes an elected choice to give up privacy with that decision secured by biometric signatures. Miller’s information is digitized, sent electronically to a foreign company and held in a central library of like “minded” information. Trapped by his own memories, he soon finds himself on trial. But in an age of social media and immediate news gathering, while the law may say “innocent until proven guilty”, let us not kid ourselves. Despite the democracies that we live in anyone charged is guilty first and only innocent after the public says so.
When it comes to marketing Justice Is Mind, I have been working closely with my entertainment attorney Arnold Peter. Sure, we are submitting to targeted film festivals and making presentations to sales agencies and distributors, but the major push for the film will be in the very democracies that have allowed us, the citizen, to sign away our rights of privacy by our own choice. Speaking of choices, I’d love to have Justice screen in Tehran (that probably just got me on a list).
One country that we will be having a presence in is India—the world’s largest democracy. This would not be my first foray into that country. My first short film First World was the only science fiction film to screen at India’s first national discussion on science fiction. It was an honor and a distinction that I will never forget. Presenting Justice Is Mind in India is just as important as the United States as the whole point is to establish discussion around key areas of the film—where does privacy start and stop?
In the digitized and social media world we live in the loss of privacy in the general sense must just be accepted. One of my favorite films, Gattaca, sequences DNA and decides your societal fate. In Justice Is Mind your memories decide your legal fate. Make no mistake, these sciences are largely here in the year 2013. Maybe not as developed as the films they are represented in, but like Star Trek literally invented the cell phone, fiction will be fact soon enough. Get used to it or live in a cave.
When it comes to writing, production and directing a film you want your audience to leave thinking. That’s how a film establishes a long shelf life. That’s how a film finds audiences long after its world premiere. That’s why films like Judgment at Nuremberg, 2001 and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner still resonate today. They had something to say and weren’t afraid to say it. Justice Is Mind is not politically correct. It is designed to elicit conversation and to remind us that our life is largely dictated by the choices we make. And in the case of Justice the choices of…sorry you’ll have to wait until the film is released for the end of that sentence.
Thankfully our democracies still give us the right of choice. And like those that we elect to office to represent us in our respective governments, we want our films to also win in the court of public opinion. Because it really comes down to three words–
WE THE PEOPLE.