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…
There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t come across an article or two that offers advice or tips of the trade or some other moniker about steps to “success” in the industry. I come from the point of view that what works for me, might not work for others and visa versa. Because this industry is built on creatives, we all tend to think differently and have different approaches to accomplishing our goals.
There was a pretty interesting article on IndieWire this week about screenwriting. I generally agreed with most of it except for one key point. First, I absolutely agree with Francis Ford Coppola about knowing your ending or at least having a fairly solid idea of where you want the story to wind up.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind I pretty much knew where I wanted the story to end – a confrontation between father and son that nobody saw coming. For SOS United States it ends where it starts – albeit with a decisive decision by the President and Prime Minister. For me, I generally need to know where the highway ends because that’s what a script is—a road trip.
However, I absolutely disagree with Oliver Stone about not putting time into a script and just writing a treatment. A treatment or even a simple pitch might work for certain agents, production companies or studios where someone like Stone is a known entity, but a properly written script shows the talent of the screenwriter. Some people are very good story tellers, but writing a script is a completely different animal. Also, and I could easily be wrong here, I have yet to see a festival or contest promote, “And the best treatment award goes to….” Yes, I do write a treatment of sorts when I start to put together a story, but it’s never more than five pages and certainly not a document I’d ever show someone!
But perhaps the most valuable piece of advice was from Mark Duplass. It is a point I have ruthlessly exploited myself when it came to First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind – “Teach yourself to be more than a writer.” I love to write. I love to come up with story ideas. I’m pretty proud of my three screenplay nominations (hopefully more down the road!). But I had to prove myself – someway, somehow.
Over the years I got to know a lot of talented actors, cinematographers, special effects experts, etc. My years of experience running a publishing company with a distribution operation obviously helped enormously when “running” a film. So I taught myself theatrical and VOD distribution. I talked to theatres, Hulu in their early days, and others. Nobody will care what I make if it doesn’t get seen. And to drive an audience to a building or a website it comes down to marketing and public relations. If you can write a screenplay you can write a press release. If you can direct an actor you can pitch the media.
Mark Duplass’s quote really sums up my career to date, “My advice is, go ahead and write the best script you can make. Your favorite script. Don’t even think about creative limits. Don’t even think about budgetary limits. Then, go write something that can absolutely be made for under $10,000.” In my world, that would be First World ($2 million+) to Justice Is Mind (>$25,000).
Now streaming – Justice Is Mind.