Since I registered for AFM (American Film Market) it has been a whirlwind of activity. From setting up personal and film profiles on MyAFM and Cinando to arranging meetings in advance, there seems to be no shortage of things to do as I prepare to leave for Los Angeles on November 1.
The one thing I’m looking forward to is learning something new. In an ever changing industry, I think it’s important to know where things are going. That doesn’t mean that I latch on to the next big thing. But it does mean that you have to be aware or at least open minded to change.
It’s easy for the casual observer to think that all innovation in the entertainment industry originates out of Los Angeles. Indeed, “Hollywood” is the entertainment capital of the world, and while proximity to the city certainly has its advantages, innovation truly comes from the four corners of the world.
Here in New England (Massachusetts to be specific) we have some terrific talent on both sides of the camera. Probably because I’ve lived here most of my life, I find it easier to get projects off the ground. But there are times when I have discovered that while we have solid talent, the pool is limited. Knowing that, sometimes it takes a bit longer to put together the right team.
When I saw First Man yesterday I was reminded what originally brought me into the world of film – the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Director Damien Chazelle assembled a dynamic team that wonderfully brought this historic story to life. Not only did Ryan Gosling deliver a solid performance as Neil Armstrong, but visually Chazelle created a film that brought the viewer back to those iconic moments in time.
Talking about teams, there is no team greater than those that work at NASA. During Apollo, it took “400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians to accomplish the moon landings.” It was a time when nothing seemed impossible. Those that say the moon landings were a hoax are just ignorant fools that suffer from denialism.
As I prepare to present my projects at AFM, one could say, in a small way of course, that it’s my very own Apollo. It’s about putting together the right team for the next project.
August 18, 2013. Five years ago today I was in Albany, NY for the world premiere of Justice Is Mind. The idea for Justice came to me in 2010 when I came across a 60 Minutes story about Thought Identification “mind reading.” I was researching mind reading “computers” when I was writing the sequel to First World. Yes, I finished writing the sequel. But no sooner was my Final Draft software cooling down and it was fired up again to write Justice.
I’ve often written about the development of Justice. The endless pitch to producers and financiers started at the script stage. Then I produced a short film version Evidence to develop interest in the project. After a couple of theatrical screenings and media the financing came together to produce the feature. Let me just say that 2012 was a whirlwind of a year. But in the end, over 10 crew, 100+ actors and 15 locations came together. Even post production into 2013 went relatively smoothly. Justice enjoyed a limited theatrical run, screenings at law schools, science fiction conventions and an international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth (yes, that was a highlight!). The film is now available worldwide on VOD.
When you’re an independent filmmaker the completion of a feature film is a milestone that should be enjoyed and celebrated. As I see with so many in this industry, they worry incessantly about the next project when working on the current one. There were only a couple of occasions during Justice when a few people tried to get out of commitments because of an audition or other project they wanted to be part of. I’ve always believed in giving your maximum to every project you’re involved in. You worry about the next one after the fact.
It’s one thing to attend a film premiere for someone else’s project, it’s entirely another to attend one for your own. For nearly two years after our world premiere, so many of us attended the screenings together. For a while we were like a traveling road show! These weren’t film festivals, they were theatrical screenings. There is nothing more gratifying as a filmmaker than seeing your film on a marquee next to mainstream “Hollywood” productions. You work like hell to make the film, but seeing it in the market is in one word – gratifying.
A feature film isn’t about the “cool” photos behind the scenes of making it, it’s about creating the world around it so when it’s released there’s a place in the market for it. An acting friend of mine last year coined the phrase “the milk carton movie” for those films he was involved in that never saw the light of day. There were essentially “missing.” I couldn’t even fathom making a movie that sits on a shelf waiting for someone else to decide its fate. Film festivals are fine enough if you get into the top tier from an awareness point of view, but as a filmmaker you don’t see ten cents of box office from them. More importantly why would I want to share the public relations spotlight with other films? I remember only too well when we had a screening for Justice at a major university and, unknown to me, there was a small film festival in town that weekend. A reporter said to me they only had so much space and simply couldn’t accommodate everyone. Well, thankfully our screening went well because it was marketed internally and had some scientific personalities attending. That was a lesson to be learned.
As I now venture into the world of First Signal, I look back on the days of Justice Is Mind with great fondness and realize what’s possible when the right team comes together. I’ll never forget what one of the stars of Justice said to me at our last theatrical screening in March, 2017 “This never gets old.”
No, it doesn’t.
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.
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.
I remember the mission I was on when I wrote First World in 2006. It was a commitment and passion to learn the craft of screenwriting, research a project and then, to quote this recent article in Script magazine, “write the hell out” of it. Those early efforts resulted in three screenplay nominations and the production of a short film version that screened in several countries. Indeed, I was on a mission.
We live in a world of instant gratification. But that world is a fantasy in the entertainment industry. Someone at some point at some place at some time dedicated years (or decades) to make their project a reality.
Just this week the tireless efforts of the SS United States Conservancy seems to have led to a deal to save the majestic and historic SS United States ocean liner. The redevelopment of the famed liner will be announced in New York City this week. Anyone that has been following their efforts knows this has not been smooth sailing. Thankfully an impassioned plea by the Conservancy to save the ship from the breakers a few months ago brought much needed worldwide attention and donations to the storied liner. The same passion and commitment holds true in the entertainment industry.
After I wrote Justice Is Mind I remember the endless pitches, presentations, blind alleys, dubious investors and bad advice. But it was at one point during the process that I remember going through the same thing in publishing a decade plus prior when trying to raise capital for that venture. That deal clicked at one point just like Justice Is Mind did. But in both cases there was a commonality – I produced these projects myself with investors. That’s the direction I now take.
Would it be grand if “Hollywood” wanted to take one of my projects and run with it? Of course. But Hollywood as we now know it, because the industry is fragmented and decentralized, is everywhere. Audiences don’t care where or how a film came together, they just want to be entertained. It’s really that simple. It was the same with magazines. I was told over and over again that nobody would take me seriously unless we published out of New York. I lived in New York and worked in publishing (TIME magazine). Sure, it was cool. But expensive. In the end, I published market leading magazines based in Worcester, Massachusetts. Readers and theater audiences don’t care where a project originates from.
There was a certain sense of satisfaction when I returned to Los Angeles in 2013 for the West Coast Premiere of Justice Is Mind. A film, born out of Worcester and filmed primarily in central Massachusetts was screening in the entertainment capital of the world. “Hollywood” is as much an atmosphere as it is a corporate entity comprised of all manner of divisions. All “Hollywood” wants is the audience because the larger the audience the larger the revenue.
For those of you on a mission in this industry, I encourage you to read Jeanne Veillette Bowerman’s article in Script magazine. Above all else you need to be passionate about your work while keeping an open mind on collaboration.
In Justice Is Mind the fictional trial was The Commonwealth v. Henri Miller. In reality Justice Is Mind was primarily filmed in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This past week, Justice Is Mind’s editor Jared Skolnick, who is also an award winning filmmaker, was featured in an article titled “Hey, Hollywood and Bollywood — how about Valleywood?” The story in The Valley Advocate stated that Jared “makes movies in the Valley because this is where he’s from and where he began building his professional network.” The same holds true for me. Even when I was living in Los Angeles in 2007 and cast the two leads in First World in the “Golden State” of California, I filmed the project in Massachusetts? Why? Because this is where I’m from.
Having lived in both New York City and Los Angeles, I can certainly understand the desire to be at the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Having been on a network TV show, a city like Los Angeles can be very exciting when you are working on the high end of the industry. I know numerous actors (some I’ve trained) and filmmakers who have left Massachusetts for the hope of fame and fortune. I firmly believe if you have the desire and will to move to these cities you should. You will never know until you try. For me, I’m glad I had my experience in both these great cities, positive ones from a career point of view, but my creative energy and the launching of all my projects has originated in Massachusetts. It’s not something I set out to do, it just happened that way. My new personal website, www.markashtonlund.com, chronicles the journey.
Case in point, the making of First World and Justice Is Mind. Both of these projects were enormously ambitious between the number of talent involved and needed locations. I had to work in a region where I knew the people and their general enthusiasm about being part of the film. Why film in a location that will require permitting, location fees and local regulations just to look cool, when you can film somewhere else for free working with enthusiastic location partners in exchange for promoting their business?
For me, as I did with Justice Is Mind, once I give the green light to a project I like to move along at reasonable pace in pre-production. Simply put, time is money whether literally or figuratively. As some may have noticed from postings to this blog, I have generally already scouted most of the locations for SOS United States and to some degree for In Mind We Trust.
But as we have seen from the latest film markets, the greatest challenge filmmakers on all levels have is in securing production financing for their projects and a return on investment. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to recognize that it always comes down to equity and what the investor wants. To say there has been an about face in film financing you just have to revisit articles that the trades wrote around the latest American Film Market and then there was this blog post over at Film Specific. But there is one piece to “The Commonwealth” financing pie that keeps films in the state.
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.
In a little over a week my mother and I leave for the international premiere of Justice Is Mind on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth. Yes, we are both very excited. This will be our second cruise with Cunard having previously sailed on the Queen Mary 2 in 2006. As a “working holiday” the Justice Is Mind schedule is as follows: on October 25th I present a filmmaking seminar to guests with the international premiere on October 29th.
I recently found the pictures from our cruise on the Queen Mary 2. During that voyage I just finished making First World. I remember sitting in the theater watching a movie on the ship and thinking to myself how cool it would be to have a movie of my own screen on an ocean liner. Well, that thought seven years ago will soon be a reality.
And while I think of the many “away missions” we have had for Justice Is Mind with our various screenings, this one will be particularly special as it combines a reinvention. As the ocean liner industry reinvented itself after the arrival of passenger aircraft, so has the motion picture industry. Sure, gone are the days that ocean liners brought immigrants like my great grandmother to the United States from Sweden on the S.S. Sicilia in 1895 or theaters that for the price of one ticket you could stay all day and watch more than one movie. But like those bygone days, they simply reinvented their industry based on experience.
As for reinvention, I used to be a magazine publisher. I would come up with ideas for stories, write outlines and then have a production team create a magazine. Along the way, I produced direct response TV commercials, corporate videos and major events (some on cruise ships). So while Justice Is Mind is being presented on an ocean liner, in a theatre at sea by this filmmaker, it represents what’s possible in an age of transition.
And while the cruise industry is nicely sailing along, the film industry continues to go through so many changes when it comes to production and distribution. With Amazon announcing new original programming and Netflix getting into film production, it’s no wonder that theaters are concerned about their ever shrinking windows and revenue. But you know what? There will always be theaters. It’s just a matter of what they chose to screen and how they do it.
“Hollywood” didn’t collapse when TV was invented and theaters won’t empty because Amazon and Netflix are ramping up production. In my view you can never have enough production because at the end of the day it’s up to the consumer what they want. Sure, we are getting more and more into niche interests, but we also have more choices than ever in terms of where we want to watch a movie. I still go to the theater of course, but for the first time I watched a movie on my new smartphone.
A recent article in The Wrap talked about changing the pitch process to include “big data”. As this data is collected by theaters and VOD platforms, that’s how I pitch Justice Is Mind for screening opportunities. In addition to loglines and press reports, I use data from attendee demographics to internet and social media engagement. Now more than ever, filmmakers have more tools to present their projects.
A new age.