The date was set weeks ago – January 26. It was the day we were holding auditions for the final two characters in First Signal. From the moment I posted the auditions, I was encouraged by the quality of responses. When the day came the actors didn’t disappoint. I was uniquely impressed that many of them were off book. Impressed, because the sides I send aren’t just the standard two pages you usually receive for an audition (one of the sides even included a monologue). Frankly, I’ve never understood why so many auditions are based off the two page side. It’s even worse when those two pages only have like three or four lines for the part you’re auditioning for. Regardless of what side of the camera you’re on, I don’t believe you can properly ascertain a project based off a two page side.
I have some cardinal rules I follow when holding auditions. First, you send sides well in advance of the audition. Two, you include some background on the character with the sides. Three, and this is perhaps the most important, you don’t change the sides in the audition room (there is one local casting company that does that regularly and it infuriates me–I’ve stopped auditioning for them). For me, it’s about respecting the actor’s time and preparation. As a director, it’s about seeing a quality audition. To learn more about the cast (and some of the crew) of First Signal please visit our IMDb page.
The following day Daniel Groom (Director of Photography), Patience McStravick (Producer and Major Sampson) and I went to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center for our first day of testing. After a successful day of auditions, we were all in good spirits driving up to the Discovery Center as we knew we had the actors we wanted. We now could get down to the business of pre-production. For First Signal, we’re taking extra steps in pre-production to insure, to the best of our ability, a smooth production.
It’s one thing scouting a location, it’s another to film in it. From interesting angles, to lighting, to electrical, there are so many numerous things that go into the pre-production process. Since I knew we were going to film First Signal at the Discovery Center, I’ve had so many ideas come to mind to bring this project to life.
In First Signal the Discovery Center will act as a European air force base. When General Reager arrives we will see a full size replica of Mercury-Redstone rocket. Once inside he passes by an XF8U-2 Crusader Jet. Considering that the First Signal story is rooted in the space program of the 1960s and two of its main characters are in the air force, the Discovery Center is the perfect backdrop.
But it’s not just about what’s best for First Signal, it’s about promoting the Discovery Center itself. Long after the final “cut” is called, the Discovery Center will forever be featured in a film that will be seen for generations to come. Those that know me, know I’m a passionate believer in the space program and all those that make “space” possible. That, in so many ways, is what makes the Discovery Center so special – it’s about discovery.
Many…many…years ago I worked for someone that instilled in me the importance of preparing a solid presentation when making a pitch and a quality “leave behind” (the document you leave behind after a meeting for further consideration). In those early days I didn’t really know what all that meant, but it soon made sense. As they say you only get once chance to make a first impression. That couldn’t be truer in the entertainment industry where everything is about communication and visualization.
Since my last post, three First Signal presentations have resulted in solid location possibilities and interesting cooperation. We shall see where these communications go. But the point is, there are mutual communications.
When I first make a pitch I make every effort to provide as much information as possible with an equal amount of brevity. Why? Because not only is time short for everyone these days, but a pitch needs to offer something beneficial for the party you’re making a pitch to. I also believe it’s important to be clear in what you want and what you can offer in return.
Case in point, I receive at least one pitch a month from screenwriters wanting me to consider their screenplay. Fair enough they don’t know that I only develop my own work, but they could at least do some homework on what I’ve done. It’s pretty clear I’m only interested in science fiction and political thrillers. But what really stuck out like sore thumb with a pitch I received this week, was the fact that this writer didn’t include a phone number, web site, IMDb link or other external links so I could review who they were. This was almost as bad as the actor that submitted to First Signal and said “Google me.” That’s not the way it works.
But what is working beautifully is my DJI Spark drone. Over the last couple of weekends I’ve been to Ogunquit, ME and Newport, RI and have been able to capture some cool photography. I also tested the active track feature with my car. A couple of the scenes in First Signal require a drone shot to follow a vehicle.
So with the vast majority of all the pre-production work completed on First Signal, there is one organization we are waiting to hear from that is considering our presentation for locations and cooperation. They have a department that deals specifically with the entertainment industry.
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.
Last week I had the opportunity to submit In Mind We Trust as a pilot for a TV or Web series. As some of you know, In Mind We Trust is the sequel to Justice Is Mind. When I wrote the sequel a couple of years ago, I think the idea for a series was always in the back of my mind.
The question I had before I submitted was that the pilot might not make sense unless someone watches Justice Is Mind. The response back was pretty straight forward. “…to have a lot of unanswered questions at the end of a pilot script — it opens up the world any mysteries for the series.” Well if there’s questions they want, they’ll get it with this story!
It’s stories this industry wants and needs. Sure we read how the major studios are just focused on tentpoles (I loved Wonder Woman by the way), but the terrestrial networks and OTT services just continue to expand and need programming to fill their schedules. With Apple, Facebook, Vice and others actively moving to original series orders, the quest for stories continues.
The one piece of advice I was given when living in Los Angeles was to always have more than one project ready to present. I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, but it makes total sense. Some may love sci-fi but have no interest in political thrillers. Others may not want something sports related, but are looking for a drama. Well, the latter fit the bill with In Mind We Trust.
Personally, if I had my druthers, who wouldn’t want to see their concept set up at a Netflix or Amazon. When I see the production values of The Crown and The Man in the High Castle (two of my favorite shows), it’s just amazing where the industry has gone over the last several years. But like anything in this business, it’s about time and in the case of a series—staffing.
Unlike a movie that can be staffed pretty quickly, a series requires an unprecedented amount of personnel. Just take a look at the end credits of a show or their listings on IMDB. These aren’t just one off projects like a movie, these are, if the show succeeds, long-term commitments. But before any of this is even remotely considered, it comes down to the story itself.
When I think of the number of mind-reading, privacy and intelligence agency articles being published on a regular basis, I certainly think In Mind We Trust has as good a chance as any of getting a review. Thankfully, the concept has already gone through some market testing with Justice Is Mind. From a theatrical release to media coverage and VOD, anyone looking at this project can already see it’s more than just words on a page.
Tomorrow I formally announce the premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program and encore screening of Justice Is Mind for March 6. Yes, that means it begins with a press release, email newsletter and rollout of the marketing and public relations plan. This is when I substitute my director’s hat for that of distributor. In the world of being an independent filmmaker, wearing multiple hats is what’s it’s all about. My last bit as director on Serpentine are the nuances around the color correction that will be completed this week.
With our return to The Strand Theatre, I can’t help but reflect on the last several years. If I count both films, we are talking about over 220 people that have had some sort of part in bringing these projects to life. As I’ve often mentioned to fellow actors and filmmakers, the completion of films, their premieres and other associated milestones don’t happen regularly and should be embraced and enjoyed when they do. It’s very easy to read the trades and see the results of the end product, but for anyone that has produced or directed, I promise there was a long road to that point. For Serpentine, this has been a one year plus project. What started in January 2016 with the firing up of Final Draft will be seen in a month on the silver screen.
But what March 6 will represent to me is what’s possible in the real world of independent film. I say real world, because there wasn’t a seven figure budget involved in these projects (or even six ). In the real world it’s about collaboration to make a project possible. It’s also about working with those that share your vision. It’s about pushing the envelope to the edge with the resources you have to see it come to life on the silver screen.
Speaking of the silver screen, I was reading this article in the Mirror about the new golden age of picture houses. I fondly remember the world premiere of Justice Is Mind in 2013 at the Palace Theater in Albany, NY that was built in 1930. As for the Strand Theatre it was built in 1924 as a vaudeville theater. There’s something about their vaulted ceilings and ornate designs that make any screening in these venues a memorable one. The trend mentioned in the article can allay any fears about VOD ending the need for theaters.
As I’ve often stated, both theaters and VOD can easily co-exist and well they should. The industry didn’t come to end when TV was invented or when VHS came to market. In fact, they enhanced the industry. They created a secondary market for additional returns. But now it’s Amazon, Netflix and others that are in so many ways leading the industry for independent film. Who would have thought an online platform would finance a film only to have them first distribute it theatrically before landing on their platform. It’s just another example of how this industry modernizes itself without losing sight of where it all started.
But sometimes modernization comes with needed adjustment. I was delighted to learn that IMDb.com is shutting down their discussion boards. The boards were mostly a cesspool of hate filed bitter comments by faceless trolls. While the consumer review section enhances a film, the discussion boards did nothing for the experience. For a company like IMDb it’s about manpower, monitoring and deleting hate filled posts, baseless facts and lord knows what else. Oh but when they did delete, the poster cries like it’s their right to do whatever they want wherever they want. It’s not censorship it’s about defacing a property that is not yours. Try walking on to the property of your next door neighbor and shouting your opinions from the top of your lungs. You would be rightly arrested. You want your right to free speech? Go to your own Facebook page (even they have terms and conditions), start a blog, yell from your property or better yet just go to the public town square and see if anyone cares. Because until you put your name to it nobody does because you don’t exist.
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.
With the crew coming together and over 100 actor submissions this past week, pre-production on Serpentine is moving along. With Northstar Ice Sports confirmed along with a private residence, the last location I’m working on is a conference room that will serve as an FBI meeting. Filming dates have gone out for one of the last days in October to the first few in November. To say there are a thousand details when putting together a film is an understatement.
When Justice Is Mind formally went into pre-production in May of 2012 I had three months to organize what ultimately became securing 15 locations via trade arrangements, 100 plus actors and a crew of over 17. Thankfully every star in the universe lined up correctly and those that worked on the project went above and beyond the call of duty. But make no mistake about it, there were issues that came up. Things that needed to be dealt with on a day to day basis. There’s no such thing as a perfect world in filmmaking but resilience and innovation has always been the key.
The one thing that I always find rewarding about this process are those that come out wanting to help. For First World it was the securing of a horse farm, for Evidence it was being allowed to film in a house, for Justice Is Mind it was the LAST MINUTE securing of an MRI center, for Serpentine it was an ice rink. As a filmmaker the one thing that drives us all forward is enthusiasm. Nobody is saying you have to come to set with pom poms and break out into a cheer, but there should be the want to create and be part of something. To quote the IMDb videos, there are “No small parts”.
What I have learned over my twenty years of experience is that everything we do in this industry is cumulative. Some parts are small, some are starring roles. Some parts pay extremely well, some cover gas (maybe). But when you put them all together it’s what you call a body of work.
All my work resulted in the production of Justice Is Mind. This past week I was reminded about the many theatrical screenings we had for my “freshman” feature. When I look at the pictures of us from those screenings and recall the work and dedication of so many, it’s events like those that make the journey all the more worthwhile. Yes, making a film takes time, dedication and resources, but it’s knowing what you create will far far exceed the time to produce it in the first place.
As for time, today I looked at the past 12 weeks of minutes watched on Amazon. When my three films have been watched for over 120,000 minutes in that period it further justifies what I do as a storyteller and filmmaker. While making a film is exciting, the joy comes in those that watch it.
After seven months of writing and research, along with attending a World Figure Skating Championships this past March for inspiration, I announced my latest project on Friday. Serpentine – A champion figure skater finds herself in a government conspiracy involving her missing mother and a Cold War mystery that culminates at the world championships in Moscow. The official website can be found at this link.
The name of the project came to me the first week I started to write it. In figure skating the word “serpentine” is used throughout a variety of areas from figures to footwork, to spiral sequences and generally consists of an “S” type of pattern. Serpentine is also mentioned in cryptography and as a code word. For this project the title Serpentine links all aspects of this story.
For independent filmmakers it’s one thing to write the screenplay and come up with a title, but then there are numerous aspects that need to be addressed prior to launch – writing a logline and synopsis, building a website, sending the script to trusted sources for review and comment, registering the script with the Writers Guild of America and U.S. Copyright Office and submitting the title to IMDb and other sources (thank you Rotten Tomatoes!). Then comes development and bringing the project to life.
Those that follow me on social media or this blog, know some of the groundwork that I’ve been developing. In as much as it’s important to keep a public face, there are those countless conversations and presentations that go on behind the scenes that are not discussed publicly until they are a done deal. Remember Justice Is Mind’s international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth? That was months in discussion before the approved press release. I could have announced Serpentine months ago, but I wasn’t finished with the screenplay and had to ascertain a variety of areas within the sport to see if I wanted to move forward. But forward we are moving.
I could not be more encouraged by the response Serpentine has received since Friday. But suffice to say the next couple of weeks will be inordinately busy. From developing location deals to securing talent, I plan to post this week for cast and crew. The goal is to produce the short sometime in October with an early 2017 release. If all goes well, the idea is to produce the feature in 2017 with release after the Winter Olympics in 2018.
Does this plan sound remotely familiar? It should. I produced a short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence in 2011. The release of the short in 2012 led to the production of the feature film later that year with a 2013 release. In the case of Serpentine, the plan is produce the first ten pages of the script that introduces the primary characters and storyline.
Before I close this post, I want to thank those that have supported me in developing this story. Your words of encouragement and comments on the project have been greatly appreciated over the past weeks and months.
But foremost in those thanks goes to Adam Starr who designed the concept poster you see below. I have been working with Adam since 2000 on numerous projects. In fact, the first project he did for me was a corporate promotional video for my old publishing company. In terms of posters Adam designed First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind. To learn more about Adam and the story behind the poster, please visit the website.
On the ice. Representing…
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.
This past week I approached the near half way point in the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. And coincidently some great articles recently came out about the process of screenwriting, the spec market and a wonderful piece about Kevin Walker who wrote Se7en (one of my favorites). All three of these articles are a must read for those of us that write screenplays. But some of the biggest takeaways for me was Jason Buff’s INDIE FILM ACADEMY: Reverse Engineering Your Screenplay.
As I have often said, if you ask 100 people an opinion about your screenplay (or film) you will get 100 different opinions. Are you going to take all those opinions and redo your entire screenplay? Of course not and rightly so. But I promise you there are those selling their services that will talk to you like you’re a third grade moron. Why? Because they want to sell you something—their expertise. There are many great experts in this industry, but like all things Caveat Emptor applies “Let the buyer beware”.
I could not agree more with Jason when he wrote “As many successful screenwriters will tell you, there are no rules”. Of course you need some sort of structure in your screenplay. Your characters need to do something in the world you have built for them. I think the important thing to remember is that you are writing for an eventual audience, but it should also be a story that you want to see. I believe that’s where the word “passion” applies. As writers, we are passionate about our stories. If we aren’t, why should anybody else be?
I was a reader once for a film festival and it didn’t take me long to see who had passion and who “phoned it in”. Yes, it’s important to understand what EXT. and INT. mean, when to use (or usually not use) a parenthetical, flashback sequences, intercuts, etc. At the end of the day, the very end of the day, you have to simply assume that someone other than you is going to read your screenplay. Does it flow? Do the characters move from one action to another in a logical progression? That doesn’t mean that they don’t go against their own character, it just means that they move along in the story. Think about it in real life. We all know someone who for some odd reason does something out of character and then falls back into themselves. If it’s one thing contemporary audiences like it’s a twist.
Writing a screenplay, again in my view, should be an enjoyable experience. While it’s certainly not easy creating new worlds and characters, the joy is in that creation — you’ve created something from nothing. At one point in your story you’ll find that the characters start to talk to you. Thankfully, as I’m a Gemini and have a split personality, that Zodiac trait helps!
To quote one of my favorite films “Now, pull your own weight. I’ve taught you the technique, now use it. Forget you’re a hidebound New Englander. Unbend, take part, contribute. Be interested in everything – and everybody.”
“We are each the authors of our own lives, Emma. We live in what we have created. There is no way to shift the blame and no one else to accept the accolades.”
― Paul McGill in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance
There have been many times that I have referred to this one quote from my favorite book. I even used it as a dedication of sorts in my book Frozen Assets. We all have books that we love and in the case of A Woman of Substance it is the character Emma Harte. In essence she grew up with nothing, worked hard, achieved great success against family strife and bulldozed her enemies along the way. It’s Barbara Taylor Bradford’s vivid writing that brings her world building and characters to life. And if you want to see one of the greatest book to mini-series adaptions click this link at Amazon.
And that brings me to the entertainment industry. I have been part of the industry in one form or another for over twenty years. I have made over 300 TV appearances and co-starred on a network TV show. I founded and published the world’s largest figure skating magazine for over a decade and produced a feature film in 2013 (Justice Is Mind), that was the 8th highest rated independent feature film on IMDb that year. Equal to that success was the epic loss of my publishing company in a brutal hostile takeover. That was an experience that I will never forget as it focused me relentlessly on one thing – resolve.
Those of us involved in the entertainment industry know it’s filled with rejections, hopes dashed and dreams that can turn into nightmares. But we also know that when an opportunity strikes it can shine light on your talent like you never thought possible. I’ve had both and, to be honest, it made me the person I am today. I will go to the ends of the Earth (and beyond!) to build a project and promote all associated to help further their own careers and goals. But cross me, take advantage of my work or try to claim it as your own and you will see a combined Emma Harte and Alexis Carrington Colby come out in full swing. It’s not pretty but always well documented. At this stage of my career I can be your best friend or your worse enemy. It’s your choice. Sadly someone this week chose the latter.
What I’m about to write is both a public statement and a warning to writers and creatives the world over. There are opportunists that look for shortcuts. People that don’t want to do the hard work but take advantage of yours. I promise you there are no shortcuts in this industry. Don’t let anybody kid you or tell you otherwise, everything starts with the written word. The writer is the foundation of all things in this industry. Without us actors, crew and the very machine that runs the industry comes to a grinding halt.
Like any independent filmmaker I am always pitching and presenting my work. Last weekend I sourced some agents and managers on Backstage.com. Unless they have a no unsolicited submissions policy, my pitch is pretty straight forward – brief intro of my experience, select loglines and links for more information. In essence a tight query.
Within hours I heard back from one manager that stated, “Thanks Mark. Can you send me a writing sample?” I responded in kind with a variety of links and my script for SOS United States. Now before someone says I shouldn’t have done that there are a few things to remember. First, the script is registered at the WGA (Writers Guild of America). Second, a professional doesn’t steal they review. Some, like an agency that reviewed First World last year, have you sign a submission agreement (fairly standard). Others, it’s just an email. Honestly, in all my experience and what I have seen, trying to get someone to sign a non-disclosure is a non-starter. It doesn’t work and just turns prospects off as it starts from a legal posture. However, in full disclosure, SOS United States has been sent to sales agents and industry representatives for review. Some are still reviewing, some have passed that’s just the way this process works. But what follows with this “agent” needs to be disclosed, because I really think I saw it all until this episode. So in the spirit of screenwriting, I will present it in three acts.
ACT 1 – SUBMISSION
Thanks Mark. How did you hear about us? SOS United States sounds intriguing. I will try to give it a read this week.
I heard about you from Backstage.com under agents and managers. Thank you for your comments on SOS United States. I call it a cross between Fail Safe and Seven Days in May (1964) meet Clear and Present Danger.
Have the studios seen it?
No they haven’t.
Great, we’ll get back to you soon. Thanks again for sending. I am actually from Massachusetts as well. Always looking for stories set there.
Sounds great. What a small world. Yes, we have great locations here in Massachusetts (and a great tax credit).
ACT II – PASSED
While conceptually it is very interesting, I think there is too much going on, too much information and in general it’s not easy to follow. I think you need to streamline the information and simplify in order for this to be effective. A film like the first Wall Street, took something complex and made it easy for most people to understand. I think that should be the goal for you as well. If you decide to work on it, I’m happy to take a look again but right now it is unfortunately a pass for us. Thanks again and stay in touch.
I appreciate the review.
We now pause in our story for the intermission. First, pay careful note to the film that this “agent” mentioned as it plays out when we return to our regular programming. Second, while having a project passed on is disappointing, no writer should immediately jump to their desk for a rewrite just because one person passed. You notice there are no notes with his comment. In all my communications with industry representatives this is where the conversation should have ended. Someone passes, you say thank you and everyone moves on. Brace yourselves as we now return to the program. I have XXXX out the name of the writer and the name of his father, but note again the film that this “agent” referenced and you can fill in the blanks.
ACT III – LAWYER
If you are interested, I might be able to get XXXX (the son of XXXX and a very talented writer) to do a rewrite. It would probably cost around 10k. XXXX is really into shadow governments and has done a great amount of research for other projects that dealt with them. Check him out online. He’s pretty famous. Let me know what you think.
That would be a pass for me. I’m not interested in having my screenplay rewritten by someone else, give them credit and pay for it in the process. That’s nuts! Also, fame in this industry doesn’t impress me. I’ve done enough TV myself.
XXXX has a brand name in film which helps open a lot of doors. I think a draft by XXXX would help it for sure. It would give the project some momentum and strengthen the script. He also produces and directs but he’s not a big enough name to direct something this big. He can also be helpful as a producer. If the script was in shape, we could take it straight to Warner Brothers where we are producing two movies with. But the script needs work.
I’m copying my attorney on this entire trail. This is lunacy. I see approaching you through your listing on Backstage.com was a mistake. You first pass on the project and then come back with a studio name. Like I’m supposed to be all excited. To add insult to injury you name a writer who, by your own admission, can’t get a project like this off the ground. Jesus, you must really think I’m desperate. You are ordered to delete SOS United States from your files. If you feel it is necessary to contact me again, contact Mr. Barry Bachrach.
(who included Barry in the cc)
Whatever dude, calm down. I was just making a suggestion on how I could make your project better. Please don’t contact me again.
Now let’s do some fact checking. First, let IMDb be your best friend. This “agent” has not produced a feature film. That doesn’t matter in the great context of things, but if you are producing something it shows up on IMDb if it’s in production (especially studio productions). Does he have projects in development at a studio? It’s possible, but nothing is listed and it’s the oldest trick in the book to throw a studio name out. I’ve been in studio pitch meetings I know how the process works.
Second, yes, this “writer” is the son of a “famous filmmaker” but is not represented by the “big” agency stated on his IMDb profile (I called the agency and checked) or nominated for any awards in screenwriting (I have been). This “writer” has three representatives listed. After learning that the second representative agency is out of business, I finally did reach his representative by phone with the third listing. The purpose of my call was to let this person know that their client was being represented by other parties, perhaps fraudulently, and to advise them of the situation. After a very pleasant phone call, I forwarded the entire email trail that included Barry’s information. Now, everyone has been notified.
Now let’s also make something else perfectly clear, I don’t know what this “agents” game was, but he lost. This is an industry where opportunists run rampant. They look for people desperate to be part of the industry. I am not one of them and that was this “agents” fatal error.
Let’s, for a moment, look at just how ridiculous this scenario was. It was proposed that I pay $10,000 to an unqualified writer with a famous father to take my idea and screenplay and turn it into something for them. And what’s in it for me? Oh, yes, the wonderful opportunity to be out $10,000 while someone else takes all the glory and credit for my work. You can only imagine the flurry of four letter words that I want to type here.
The one thing you never do in this industry is pay for access. It doesn’t work. This industry is built on relationships. If this “agent” was truly an industry professional the scenario would have been more along these lines, “I like SOS United States and feel it has some promise. What I’d like to do is show it to “so and so” at Warner’s. Just know that they may want to bring in another writer.” But that wasn’t the case. This “agent” was just looking for their own opportunity at my expense creatively and financially.
Should I have vetted this “agent” a bit better? Perhaps. Hindsight is always 20/20. But one never knows what opportunities exist unless you present. That is the risk we all take as creatives.
In the end SOS United States is out there. Did this “agent” delete it? I don’t know. Did they forward it? I don’t know. But what I do know is that with this post and my actions to protect myself legally and through notification to the “writers” representatives, I have documented this action. The one thing this “agent” should know is that I track this industry. Remember, I’m also a journalist. I also have my sources and contacts in the industry and if I get wind of anything, I will turn a quote from Taken.
“I don’t know what you want. But what I do have is a particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over many years. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”
Trivia note: Liam Neeson starred in A Woman of Substance and Taken.
Unless you’ve been living in a galaxy that is truly far far away, inhabitants of the planet Earth are eagerly awaiting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to hit theaters on December 18. We’ve seen the trailers, the stills and countless articles speculating on the story itself, but the latter is truly nothing less than a state secret – and well it should be. This past week on IndieWire even Mark Hamill stated, “I’m Not Even Authorized To Tell You I’m In Episode VII.”
When I was booked on Skating with Celebrities back in 2005 all of us involved in that show, including the studio audience, were sworn to absolute secrecy by an iron clad contract. The show was produced live to tape and then aired in early 2006. Yes, everyone I knew asked me in one way or another who won. Some were downright angry I didn’t confess the results and some were, ready, offended. Like I cared. You don’t risk an entire production and litigation to satisfy one person, who will tell another and so on.
There were so many things I learned on that show that I have taken to my filmmaking work. Like my contract with FOX, the agreements I put in place for Justice Is Mind had a photography and non-disclosure clause. Most were totally fine with it, but it did strike some as overly controlling. My on camera work up until Skating with Celebrities was mostly live so there was no need for a non-disclosure, but you quickly learn the reasons why such things are necessary. Think about it, do you want to risk giving away the ending to a project that has been years in development and lessen its commercial appeal? Even now, I don’t allow clips to be manipulated or edited without my written approval.
We very much live in a “look at me” society with social media leading the charge. Sadly, I see so many posts about submissions, meetings and auditions that I would want to keep off the radar. What if your film doesn’t get accepted? That meeting falls apart? You don’t get cast? At any given time I have more irons in the fire than I can sometimes keep track of (thank god I have my lists!). Unfortunately, premature announcements can derail a deal that may have come to fruition if given enough time.
One such deal that was months in the making was the international premiere of Justice Is Mind on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. Imagine if I had breathed a word of it prior to it being a done deal. Cunard just simply could have said they declined to screen the film, I would have had serious embarrassment written all over my face to say nothing of tarnishing the brand of a film I have worked on for years. In the end the timing worked out great. The deal came through right before one of our screenings. I announced it publicly in May 2014 prior to our screening at the Elm Draught House Cinema.
Perhaps one of the most famous plot secrets was around one of my favorite films Witness for the Prosecution. In addition to director Bill Wilder holding the last ten pages of the film from the actors until it was shot, the end credits of the film features the following “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” Starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, I highly recommend this 1957 classic.
But one thing that’s not secret was discovering that Justice Is Mind was named number two on a user created IMDb list. What film was number one on that list? Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Unless you are living under the proverbial rock, all of us involved in the industry are paying close attention to Cannes. For me, I’m always interested in the business of distribution and marketing because at the end of the day you have to get your film seen. With VOD distribution all the rage, there’s no wonder that Netflix’s Ted Sarandos is being so widely quoted—and rightly so.
As I’ve mentioned in some previous posts, on any given week there are numerous things I try to accomplish for my projects. From pitching, to writing, to editing, to marketing, there’s always something going on. But this week, things jumped ahead.
With Justice Is Mind successfully distributed, my attention has largely turned to my current slate of projects with First World, SOS United States and In Mind We Trust. While I continue to market Justice Is Mind on a daily basis, the goal is to secure the necessary partnerships to bring the next project forward. That goal took several steps forward this week with a great Skype meeting with a producer and his team in the United Kingdom. From my days in publishing, to our recent partnership with Cunard Line for the international premiere of Justice Is Mind on the Queen Elizabeth, I’ve always enjoyed working with colleagues “across the pond”.
The one thing any filmmaker will tell you is that this is an industry of partnerships and collaboration. From the actors, crew, location, marketing and distribution partners, over two hundred people from two countries were involved in Justice Is Mind. For good reason, I keep in touch with most of them. One of those reasons is a new project I’m working on.
My friend Alberto Mercado is a published author and a wonderful photographer. Al photographed Justice Is Mind’s screenings in Sturbridge and Millbury. His photos were such a hit they soon started to show up as headshots on IMDB and Facebook.
A few weeks ago at a party at his house we started talking about the “mechanics” of filmmaking. The conversation was not dissimilar to one I had with my investors in Justice Is Mind back in 2012. Al wanted to see one of his books made into a motion picture. He attended several of Justice Is Mind’s theatrical screenings, including my short film Evidence, so he knew what my capabilities were. But was there a story? Indeed there was. A great story. One that I wanted to tell.
Oddly enough, Al thought I was reading his book A Rose for Essie Mae when in fact I was reading Winds of Fall. In the end, he was glad I read Winds instead. So I am pleased to announce that I have been commissioned to write a screenplay adaption of Alberto Mercado’s book Winds of Fall and to direct the feature. The plan is to complete the script this summer with Al financing the production for either this fall or spring.
Like the funding that came together for Justice Is Mind, the road to the Skype meeting, our screening on the Queen Elizabeth and the journey to bring Winds of Fall to the big screen, you just don’t know where the next opportunity is going to come from. As the late actor Maximilian Schell said, this is an industry of chances.
A year ago this week I was in the final days of preparing for the world premiere of Justice Is Mind on August 18, 2013 at the Palace Theatre in Albany, NY. The film itself was completed and pressed to our theatrical DVDs the week earlier. I knew the majority of the cast and crew would be coming and we were able to secure some local media.
After Justice Is Mind wrapped production on October 13, 2013 we entered the post-production phase. The film needed to be edited, scored, special FX needed to be built, sound mixed, color corrected and a variety of other post production matters. When I considered the number of locations (15), actors (over 120), special FX (170) and a host of other matters, Justice Is Mind was not a “small” feature by any standard. I’ve produced before, but Justice Is Mind was by far my most ambitious project to date. The journey from script to screen may simply result in a DVD or digital file, but for anyone wanting to make their own feature film the details are in the middle and beyond.
Since our world premiere on August 18, Justice Is Mind has had the good fortune to screen in theatres, at universities and science fiction conventions throughout North America. Ambition did not just exist in post-production nor end after our world premiere. The ambition and efforts of so many involved in the project resulted in an independent film that stood out from the crowd.
When you consider that over 50,000 films are produced in any given year, I can’t help but be proud of our results to date. According to IMDB Justice Is Mind was ranked as the 8th “Highest Independent Film Released in 2013”, 42nd “Top US Grossing Independent Film Feature Films Released in 2013” and 48th “Most Popular Independent Film Feature Films Released In 2013”. Over on Box Office Mojo, out of ALL films released in 2013 (including studios), our film finished 538 out of 687. Am I bragging? I’m doing what all major studios and the independents do, I’m promoting. I’m advertising our progress to date. If the majors do this so can the “true” independents that need all the social media and print space we can get. These efforts have resulted in the upcoming international premiere of Justice Is Mind on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth on October 29. I’m also hoping to announce a domestic theatrical screening that’s scheduled for September.
Has this been an easy journey to date? Absolutely not. Even with these results, one still has to deal with a provincial attitude that permeates in an industry that is resistant to change. But there are the progressives. Those that understand about consumer demand. Those that look at the aforementioned results and simply conclude—audiences want to see this film. Consumer demand is front and center when it comes to Video on Demand.
With our Video on Demand launch on VHX in July, Justice Is Mind has just gone up on Reelhouse and will soon be available on other VOD platforms. Celebrating our anniversary week, Justice Is Mind can be streamed at $2.99 or purchased for $5.99 at Reelhouse. Over at VHX you can buy the feature film for $2.99 or our deluxe package of videos (including the feature) for $5.99. Enter the special coupon code ANNIVERSARY on the buy option at Reelhouse or deluxe option at VHX and save an additional $3 for a total purchase price of only $2.99.
Full steam ahead.
I am always the first to arrive and last to leave our theatrical screenings. Last Monday night at the Elm Draught House Cinema was no exception. To quote Commander Straker from the UFO TV series episode ESP, “Yes, I always like to look over a convention hall before a conference.” And what a conference it was!
Shortly after I arrived Justice Is Mind’s star Paul Lussier who plays John Darrow and Mary Wexler who co-stars as Judge Wagner arrived along with Bob Leveille who plays Mr. Oxford in the film. Bob, and his Pizza Post, were instrumental in promoting this screening. A couple of weeks ago he announced a nice surprise for us when he worked out an arrangement with All Points Limousine to drive us around for an hour to celebrate and toast our accomplishments to date. While I’m usually “on alert” making sure the screenings run smoothly, it was nice to relax and enjoy this moment with actors who I now consider friends.
After our drive around town, audiences started to arrive. In total we had around 140 attend. I say around because 133 were paid ticket holders (including myself), but I did see a fair number just walk in without paying. That was a shame, because theatres, like filmmakers, need to generate revenue. But that being said, when I’m watching the film and I see the last scene come up I always wonder how audiences will react. Up came my credit and the audience erupted into applause. As Eve Harrington said in All About Eve, “If nothing else, there’s applause… like waves of love pouring over the footlights.” While I was in the lobby, many came up to me and said how much they enjoyed the film. If nothing else, that’s all a filmmaker needs.
Of course you can’t please everyone. One of our location partners (who I won’t name), greeted me at the beginning and then darted out at the end and wouldn’t even make eye contact. Honestly, the travels of an independent filmmaker are like a dramatic TV show. As Max Schumacher said in Network, “And here are a few scenes from next week’s show.”
With 11 theatrical screenings with an average per screen gross of $1,100+, 8th placed highest rated independent film released on IMDB for 2013, higher education and science fiction screenings around the country, a 12 month ranking on Box Office Mojo of 539 out of 11,474 films and an upcoming international premiere through a multi-billion dollar company (public announcement coming soon), I know we have a marketable and commercial project. We all know this is not an easy industry to navigate and is in a constant stage of change, but I do demand that our voices be heard and that you tune in to our show.
So what are a few scenes from next week’s show? I’m working on “the making of Justice Is Mind” that will be a DVD extra, another review is coming out next weekend, I will be following up with a variety of theatres considering Justice Is Mind for screenings, prep for our international premiere in October, having closed captions created for our VOD release and…
Until next week.
The entertainment industry is all about numbers. What’s your budget? How many likes? How many theatres? What’s your box office gross? As most know, I’m pretty open about some numbers and keep others close to the chest. By example, the budget for Justice Is Mind is under $25,000, our 10th theatrical screening is coming up and over 200 people were involved in the production of the film in one way or another.
This week I was interviewed by a couple of reporters in connection with our March 24 screening at Cinemagic in Sturbridge, MA and some of our numbers were part of the conversation. I was working on a follow up email to one of them in regards to films released in 2013. I suddenly came across a list on IMDB “Highest Rated Feature Films Released In 2013”. To my surprise, I learned that 8,709 films were released in 2013 – eight thousand seven hundred and nine! Those are some numbers.
I’ve previously reported that Justice Is Mind finished as 8th Highest Rated and 42nd top US Grossing Box Office on the similar “independent film” list of 220+ films. I was a bit worried to start the search on THE list for 2013. To my surprise and elation, Justice Is Mind finished 2013 as the 185th Highest Rated and 419th for top US Grossing Feature! Finishing in the top 2% and 5% respectively for our independent film is a true honor of effort by so many. I smiled even more reflecting on an email I received earlier this week when a “film buyer” for a theatre in the Southwest said “Were you looking to four wall a theatre or do a rental? I’m not sure that there is enough commercial potential for us to play your film.” Clearly this “expert” judged the film based solely on the “recognizable stars” of the film rather than running some numbers that would be available to this theatre based on our box office to date. After I responded with our results, media placements and that we don’t rent theatres, I never received a response.
In this industry, like any industry, knowledge is power. I know that phrase is overused but it still rings true. There are forward thinking people in every industry that are willing to take a chance to try something new. And if you don’t think out of the box on occasion you are simply going to be left behind. I remarked to one of the reporters that if we do the best job we can when a theatre takes a chance on us that may pave the way for another independent filmmaker to present their project down the road. You know the old adage, don’t judge a book by its cover. The same thing rings true for films.
We are now in an industry that is producing more and more content because that’s what audiences want. That’s not going to change. To the “gatekeepers” that are restricting entrance to new voices, you know that just creates opportunity for new ventures and forward thinking existing platforms to embrace said voices. Just today I read this story on IndieWire about a documentary that was passed over by distributors until it found someone that believed in their project.
Justice Is Mind – March 24 – Tickets now on sale!
Justice Is Mind. For 2013 – The 8th Highest Rated Independent Film on IMDB. The 42nd Top Grossing Independent Film on IMDB. The 48th Most Popular Independent Film on IMDB. Eight theatrical with two each science fiction and law school screenings, along with over ten feature articles. The verdict is in. In a sea of hundreds, if not thousands of films released in 2013, Justice Is Mind has sailed proudly on its own.
My end of year post in 2012 was titled Hold the Dream and was a reflection on the journey of the “Justice Is Mind” project. At the time I wrote, “…it’s about that group of people you associate yourself with that will not only bring your dreams to life but theirs as well—mutual passion.” Indeed the mutual passion of so many reflected our end of year results.
Where does one even begin to start thanking all those that have made this possible? From the theatres that agreed to screen Justice, to the journalists that wrote great articles, to the audiences that came out, to the industry platforms that recognized our film as a true independent and treated it as such.
But there are those in the Justice family that need to be recognized for without their tireless efforts we would not be ending this year on the great note we have. First and foremost to my executive producers Mary Wenninger and Stefan Knieling. They continued to be there as my friends and financiers of this project. To Vernon Aldershoff, Mary Wexler, Kim Gordon, Paul Lussier, Gail Sullivan, Ken Holmes, Sheila Mandeville and Michele Mortensen. Not just great actors in Justice, but passionate promoters in their own right. And to Arnold Peter, my longtime entertainment attorney and friend who spearheaded and sponsored our west coast premiere and law school tour. Of course, it goes without saying, but it needs to be mentioned again, the crew that built Justice Is Mind. Our editor Jared Skolnick; director of photography, Jeremy Blaiklock; composer Daniel Elek-Diamanta; sound mixer, Timothy McHugh and special effects guru Adam Starr. Of course, a special thank you to Kim Merriam. Every time Justice screens I see her house and reflect on a friendship that has gone back over twenty years. What can I say except this has been an incredible journey for me on so many levels.
There were several times throughout the year when I was told that it takes a village to produce a feature film. In the case of Justice Is Mind, the initial “company” of 200 plus has surely grown to a “brigade”.
I liken the operation of a film to that of an ocean liner. Unlike a cruise ship that sails in generally calm waters, an ocean liner must navigate all kinds of weather. The same is true in the operation of a feature film. While we have had a positive outcome for 2013 and it has been mostly smooth sailing, there has been the occasion when I’ve had to call “general quarters”. But as the cast, crew and “passengers” of Justice know, this captain doesn’t let anything get in his way.
Full ahead to 2014.
As most who follow this blog know, I am tireless when it comes to internet marketing. Whether it be an electronic press release, social media, email newsletters or blog posts. As Justice Is Mind has a couple of screenings coming up, I was searching Google for entries. But when I discovered that Justice was ranked 21st on IMDB as “Highest Rated “Independent Film” Feature Films Released In 2013” and 45th for “Top-US-Grossing “Independent Film” Feature Films Released In 2013” pleased would be an understatement!
This kind of result does not happen overnight. It does not happen automatically. It takes patience and perseverance. There are no shortcuts. It is not a one person operation. If it’s one thing I have learned about writing, producing and directing a feature film having a large ensemble cast helps enormously. Why? Because they are the cheerleaders. They share, post and talk about the film to their network. Unless your film is being produced by a studio with a full-time marketing and public relations department, who else is going to do this type of work?
Justice Is Mind is but one of thousands of films in the current market. As I told a class I instructed on filmmaking, I have to act like mine is the only film in the world pushing for an audience. Yes, I’m selfish that way and so is every independent filmmaker with a project (at least I admit it!) That being said, I always like to try to be as supportive as I can of other filmmakers and their endeavors. This isn’t an easy business and we should work together when possible. But it does come down to manners as well. If you are going to ask me to help you on your film you could start off by asking “How’s Justice going?” Incredibly this week a filmmaker called me and asked how to get their film on IMDB (seriously). This wasn’t a first time filmmaker either. I would have been a bit more supportive had this person been supportive of my work but it was ALL about them. After trying to assist this person for 25 minutes I had a conference call to prep for and ended the conversation.
With our Vermont premiere at The Tiny Theatre on November 2 and our Los Angeles west coast premiere on November 7 at Laemmle Musice Hall, obviously my focus is on these two screenings. Thankfully Justice has a great team on the west coast through the Peter Law Group because screening a film in the entertainment capital of the world is a monumental task. In these last two weeks over 500 emails have gone out to the industry, the press and more phone calls than I can count. And that’s just what I’ve done.
When I call the industry (i.e. Los Angeles), I know how busy they are. I know their time is stretched. Honestly, being pleasant in an email or opening up a conversation by saying how much you enjoyed a particular film or TV show of theirs goes a long way. Call me old fashioned, but I believe when you show respect for someone’s work they are more interested in hearing about your new project. I had a great conversation with the assistant of one of the producers of my favorite TV shows. Will the producer show up to our screening? Probably not. But I’d love for the assistant to come. Why? Because as gatekeepers they have the ear of the producers. They are also the next producers.
Justice Is Mind is entering a new phase. Now formally released with theatrical bookings through January 2014 (more in development), Justice Is Mind will shortly be presented to the industry. An industry that is changing by the day from development, marketing and distribution.