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…
This past week Justice Is Mind went live on Hoopla. To quote from their Facebook page, “hoopla digital partners with public libraries across North America to provide online and mobile access to videos, music and audiobooks. Enjoy thousands of movies, TV shows, videos, music and audiobooks that library card holders can borrow from their public library.” As I wanted to get Justice Is Mind into libraries at some point, our placement on Hoopla just took care of that across the United States.
When I say some point, I talk about a possible DVD for Justice Is Mind. Yes, on the back burner, is the possibility of making a DVD for Justice. I say possibly, because anyone that’s involved on the distribution side of the industry knows that profits in this sector have sunk like the Titanic (particularly for indie-films). Just go into any Wal-Mart and see the studio quality films in the $5 bin or even more market reality when you see a studio film at a dollar store for well a dollar. Because digital distribution doesn’t really involve a manufacturing component, it’s simply easier to execute on a domestic and international level. But believe me there are costs involved for VOD. Let’s just say that closed captioning in languages other than English gets a bit pricey.
There was a pretty good article on IndieWire this week titled “You Can’t Bulls—t’ And 6 More Revelations On How To Market An Indie Film.” I could not agree more with this statement “Even in the age of VOD, nothing beats the theatrical experience.” As I saw with Justice Is Mind in terms of audience and media placements, nothing does beat a theatrical experience. Simply, when you gather a group of people into a room to see a film it becomes a shared experience. There wasn’t one screening of Justice in which attendees didn’t ask questions or discuss the film after in the lobby.
When I set out to write a new screenplay I’m already thinking of how the project will be placed in the market. What angles does it have that I can pitch to a theater, distributor, school or convention? First World was a pretty straight forward science fiction film. But as a psychological sci-fi thriller, Justice Is Mind is a bit of a genre hybrid. But the one common theme was the ethics around mind reading and it’s possible, if not probable, ramifications on society.
While some in the industry complain that there are too many movies being made, I believe there’s never enough. Because there are always those hidden gems that one can discover and promote. The gem in the world of distribution is in fact VOD. When you have library after library of films available to stream instantly, they certainly take up less space than a DVD! But don’t get me wrong, I do love my DVD collection.
It’s these new platforms like Hoopla that offer a terrific new avenue of options to Amazon and Netflix (Justice is on Amazon). More importantly, and call me old fashioned, Hoopla works with libraries. When you have traditional publishing working with digital publishing, the experience can only be a positive one because it yet again gives the customer that one thing they want – choices.
Being a filmmaker, I’m an avid reader of the industry trades. From The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and IndieWire to several email newsletters (SSN Insider is my favorite). In general, I look to get a feel for the industry and where it may be going. As I’ve written about in earlier posts, navigating this industry is like being on the bridge of a ship and deciding what port to sail into. The choices are numerous and in some cases smartly promoted. One of these choices was a film festival.
I attended my first film festival back in 2007 when First World was nominated for best screenplay out of over 80 submissions at the California Independent Film Festival. Having placed in the top 5 for this contest it was a total thrill to attend, network and then hear the title of my first screenplay announced as a finalist in a theater. I didn’t win the Slate Award but it was honor enough to be nominated. It was at this festival that I realized I had developed a new trade.
In this industry it seems just natural that you start to pick up new trades. You may start as a writer or an actor and before you know it you may be producing and directing your first short film. You start to get into some festivals, perhaps some theatrical exhibition and then score some media. Soon thereafter you realize you want to make your first feature film. Every level of this industry takes time and patience and despite what one might read in the trades, none of this happens overnight.
One thing that never happens overnight is film financing. It doesn’t matter what your station is in the industry. Film financing, in particular, is very nuanced. As for my projects, I’ve fully funded some and have had investors (public and private) in others. In one case I used crowdfunding. Larger projects, if they can attract the right talent, can also achieve pre-sales. But that’s being challenged owing to certain bankable “A” list availability to commit to a project before one scene is even shot. But one area that I’m particularly excited about is equity crowdfunding. There have been numerous articles on the subject, so I would do your own searches. That being said, it offers filmmakers yet again another option–and port?
With First World, In Mind We Trust and SOS United States in various stages of review and development, the one thing I have committed to is producing the first ten pages of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating as a promotional vehicle. As some may recall, I made a short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence. The point of that short was to not only develop interest in the project but to bring together an initial cast and crew to insure that various aspects work.
What are the primary challenges with this new project? A figure skater that can do a couple of triple jumps and can act. No matter how it has been done before, using a double for either the extreme close ups of a jump or distance shots just doesn’t work. A skater has a particular way they stand on the ice along with body type. The other part of this short is developing some new techniques to film a skating program that truly captures the grace, style and power that a skater projects. In essence I want the audience to experience the program not just see it.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of course is developing an original story. As I enter the closing of the second act to this political thriller, I remember where I was at the time when writing Justice Is Mind. At this moment I’m literally living with the characters and all the plots and subplots. But rather than taking the easy way out on their resolution, I will let the story sit for a few days and let the story speak back to me.
It was back in 2011 and I was casting the short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence. The starring character of Henri Miller was pivotal. He had to have an air of sophistication and mystery, while also being an “everyman”. As a director, you are auditioning for me the moment you walk into the room. And god help you if you submitted a headshot from the last century or to quote a colleague of mine, “generously photoshopped” the way you want to look. Neither was the case with Vernon Aldershoff. He looked like his headshot and was the look I had in mind for the character of Henri Miller. Of course, the next question rolling through my head was, “Jesus, I hope he can act.” Well, the rest is history. He starred in both the short and feature version of the film.
This past weekend I attended his surprise 50th birthday party at a golf club. While Vern was playing golf with his son Dmitri, who played his on screen son Gary Miller, Vern’s wife Jackie turned the clubhouse into a Hollywood theme along with posters of Justice Is Mind and a step and repeat (red carpet). On the golf course I heard that Dmitri faked a hip injury to get Vern to bring him back to the clubhouse. As I see Vern and Dmitri pull up to the clubhouse in the golf cart, Dmitri is going through the only act of injury with Vern buying it. I wanted to yell “Cut!”. Let me just say that Dmitri’s acting was beyond excellent. Talk about a long take! But the look on Vern’s face when he entered the clubhouse and realized he had been taken was priceless!
During the celebrations Vern was talking to family and friends in attendance and referenced how much the entertainment industry is about rejection, but that it only takes one person to say yes. In regard to Justice Is Mind, that person was me. But in as much as I said yes, it was also Vern and the countless others that said yes to me and to an untested project.
The Justice Is Mind project is now over five years strong. Through the writing, production and distribution, so many of us have become friends and have kept in contact. Yes, I’m looking forward to working with many of the actors and crew from Justice on my next project. In fact, with one project I’m working on now I don’t even know if auditions will be necessary. Why? Because I plan to offer parts and positions to those I’ve worked with previously. I don’t need to worry about on screen chemistry or whether or not these folks get along.
When I read these stores on IndieWire about Tribeca and Cannes that discuss distribution and the market, I am reminded about the challenges this industry faces. But nothing is more challenging than casting the right actors or securing a solid crew. I don’t care how great the screenplay is, without them breathing life into it your project goes nowhere.
Of course you always bring new people into the fold. That’s what this industry is all about. Meeting new people and expanding your horizons. It’s an industry of risk and chances but more importantly opportunity. If you look at my projects from First World, to Evidence to Justice Is Mind, you will see some familiar names.
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.
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.
Although Justice Is Mind has been on Amazon Prime for over a year, last night was the first time I saw it on a TV half the size of my car (My Pontiac Solstice even appears in the film). While I’ve seen the film countless times on my computer during the production phase, and at every theatrical screening, seeing it in this context was a new experience. I may be a bit bias of course, but the quality of the picture and sound was probably the best I’ve ever seen it. When I think of the numerous QC (Quality Control) checks we had to go through, seeing it in this format brings another round of applause to the cast and crew and the technology of VOD.
As a filmmaker, I’ve worked with Amazon for years. They are by far, in my experience, the most filmmaker friendly of all the VOD services. In addition to paying on a monthly basis, their algorithm technology ensures that customers that may be interested in your film are made aware of it. Of course, I’ve been marketing First World and Justice Is Mind on a regular basis to drive traffic to our listings on Amazon and other VOD platforms. Simply put the old adage of “if you build it they will come” doesn’t work, it comes down to marketing.
Regarding marketing and distribution, there was an interesting article on IndieWire this week about self-distribution. Having been a magazine publisher, distribution for me is second nature. But I know way too many filmmakers that hate it. Look, I get it. You just wanted to make your film and it took every resource you knew to accomplish that. With First World and Justice Is Mind now released, there’s just a regular program to keep the conversation going in whatever venue, media outlet or platform I can reach. But now, I’m back to the foundation building process with In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind, and SOS United States. Making a film is like building a house—it all starts with a foundation.
As for the foundations of the industry, there is some serious seismic activity going on. From Variety’s “Why Good Films Are Failing at the Box Office in Awards Season” to the Hollywood Reporter’s “Harvey Weinstein on the Awards Season Crunch: “Everybody Cannibalized Each Other,” one has to wonder what state the industry will be in a year from now from a business point of view. That business starts with economics when someone, or some company, funds these visions. As I’ve stated before, I’ll state again, it does come down to a return on investment. I’ve never understood why the industry cannibalizes itself for an award at the expense of profitability. In all seriousness, I personally don’t care what film wins what award, I’m just interested in the film itself.
Audiences aren’t stupid, they want to see quality films. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that if someone sees a film in a theater, they will look for it on a platform like Amazon. Of course in “the old days” that conversation was around DVDs. Remember when films would go “straight to DVD”? Now some go straight to VOD. If there is one word that drives this industry and its resiliency it’s innovation. It’s innovation that gives filmmakers and audiences choices on where and how to watch a film.
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.
Whether it’s an investor, theater or media outlet, it all starts with a cold call or cold pitch. I have always taken the position “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Sure we can all hope to be discovered at a “Schwab’s” or positing a proof of concept video to YouTube, but in the end it truly comes down to a pitch and then the presentation.
I have long discovered that it’s easier to pitch the office of a qualified investor than it is to a “Hollywood” production company. Why? A production company is fielding countless projects and they need that one thing to move any project forward—cash. I also have long believed in charting my own course rather than following the same route everyone else takes. Put it another way, I’d rather pull my car up to the front door than park blocks away.
Just this morning I was watching a video on IndieWire by writer/director Charlie Kaufman about his film Anomalisa (impressive wins at the Venice Film Festival). When asked why there was so much time between his projects, the Oscar winner stated freely a variety of challenges and that his film was made outside of the “studio system” and didn’t go the conventional route. The point? It doesn’t matter your credentials, this business takes a steady hand of determination and patience. Kaufman went on to mention that he was on this project for three years (his team also raised some funds on Kickstarter).
As some of you know, my political thriller SOS United States sees the Concorde fly again. Just yesterday an article on Road Warrior Voices revealed a determined group of investors and enthusiasts that may just bring the Concorde back. I’ve been following the steadfast voices behind this movement for the last couple of years. Their resolve, like those behind the SS United States ocean liner, is impressive. And, yes, I will be informing the group behind this hopeful return of the Concorde about SOS United States – with a cold pitch!
From script (2010), to short (2011), to feature (2012) to release (2013), Justice Is Mind has been a five year project. I remember those early days of pitching to the “establishment”. Why not. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do because everyone else is doing it? Sure, a deal can happen. But in the end, producing it independently outside of any system has brought far greater returns on so many levels.
Next week there’s an industry event taking place in Boston. I’m largely planning to attend because of a panel around drones. We used a drone in Justice Is Mind for the climatic end scene, but SOS United States calls for a substantial amount of drone shots. Imagine skimming close above the ocean only to rise up to take in the gravitas of the USS Massachusetts battleship as the President of the United States addresses the nation.
With the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in full swing, I enjoy reading the dailies and the state of the industry. What was a relatively unusual trend is that The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and IndieWire all generally reported that this market may be a slower one due to a conflux of trends; from the availability of cast driven projects to disappointments at the box office from previous festival sales. Truth be told, there is no crystal ball to predict what will resonate with audiences.
But if there is one thing that has to resonate with me, it’s inspiration. If I am not inspired by the subject matter, if I don’t believe in the material, if I can’t envision it on the screen, I can’t get behind it. One only has to witness the disaster that was the latest iteration of Fantastic Four. The film was a forced project for the sake of “rights” rather than passion.
With all my projects they are driven by something that inspired me. Whether it was the Apollo space program for First World, mind reading technology for Justice Is Mind or government conspiracies in SOS United States, it is the underlying material that motivates and inspires me. It’s not enough for me to be a filmmaker, I must be a promoter as well. Because if I don’t believe in the project why should anybody else.
This past week I ran into someone at my gym who has seen my films and he asked “How do I do it?” He was asking about the recent press we had around the second anniversary screening of Justice Is Mind. My response was pretty quick, “Because I believe in it.” I know how Justice has resonated with audiences. I know what their reactions have been after the screenings. But it was also coming up with an angle for the latest media push – second anniversary, positive audience reactions and a sequel in development with In Mind We Trust. It gave the media something to tell their audiences.
And this is what the industry is all about – the audience. I sometimes think this vital attribute is missed by the vacuum atmosphere of festivals. An audience at a film festival is vastly different from one at the local theater. At a festival you are probably a cinephile or industry executive and will see just about anything, but it’s the real world of the local theater that shines light on what an audience wants to see.
As The Hollywood Reporter stated, “Despite a challenging climate for indie film financing” projects are getting done because of valuable co-productions. Indeed this is an industry about partnerships. I learned this when our location partners for Justice Is Mind also became valuable marketing partners. It’s about inspiring others to see your vision.
This past weekend I hit the halfway point in writing the sequel to Justice Is Mind. While I have the general story all laid out and have introduced a variety of new characters, there are always those moments when writing that you need to think through a particular plot point or how something is going to be done. There is also that point in my writing when the characters start to converge and their respective storylines travel a certain path.
On that path, I’ve had to do a wide variety of research on the CIA, NSA, FISA Court and other institutions as they relate to the overall system of intelligence gathering in the United States and around the world. For those that may have been living off the planet last week, it was hard to miss the ramifications of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s indictment of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It’s clear, there’s a lot of polarization around the Senate’s report.
As a writer my goal is not to have an agenda that points in one direction or another, but to present a story that elicits questions. In First World, as President Kennedy once said, are we destined for the planets beyond? In SOS United States, what happens if we do downsize our military? And last, but certainly not least, in Justice Is Mind where does our right to privacy begin and end? Yes, I write about issues. But I seek to do it in a way that brings constructive questions and debates.
Of course as I write these stories of fiction, I do find it more than interesting that certain plot points are fast becoming a reality. In First World, China has ramped up its planned missions to the Moon. In Justice Is Mind, the ability to produce memories in video form is being tested and commercialized. But what is of particular interest to me at the moment is SOS United States and my postulation about a cyber-attack that brings down the nation’s military satellites and power grid. The fallout of the cyber-attack on Sony Entertainment Pictures, in my view, is far worse than the CIA report for a variety of reasons. Whatever did or didn’t happen within the CIA will never truly be known, but Sony’s data breach is simply unprecedented.
This all being said, we live in an interesting time. But really is this time any different than the decades before? It’s just more prevalent with social media and a 24/7 news cycle. But at the end of the day, it gives writers like me a lot of material.
It wasn’t all writing this weekend. For the first time I read a solid practical “no nonsense” article about crowdfunding on IndieWire in regard to Dear White People’s successful campaign. It reminded me in many ways of how Justice Is Mind came to being. I produced a short film version in 2011 and by 2012 the feature film was financed due to those short film efforts. For the sequel, now that we have established a foundation and audience, I’m fairly certain the plan will include both crowdfunding and some equity.
Another AFM is over. Aside from attendance being up, I’m not sure how much has changed from last year (or even the year before). We all know that foreign sales agents want top talent so they can sell internationally and VOD is disruptive. This “disruption” if you will has been in the works for years. But like the bygone days of magazine publishing when publishers refused to accept the internet, if one thing has changed this year it is that the industry has finally woken up to the reality that VOD is where this industry is and where it’s going for the foreseeable future. At the click of a mouse consumers will decide what they want and when they want it. But regardless of the trends it does come down to telling a story first and, oh yes, on a reasonable budget.
The foundation of every movie starts with the screenplay. In all this “noise” about the state of the industry it still surprises me how suddenly the screenplay becomes a sidebar in the conversations. How many times do we read about this “A lister” or that “A lister” attached to such and such a project. A lot of excitement, press, accolades and then the film comes out and it just doesn’t resonate with audiences…for whatever reason…and never recoups their budget. This is one trend that’s terrible for the industry. While the A lister may go to win an award for best performance, someone or some company is adding up losses. And losses are never good in any business.
But with VOD platforms on the exponential rise, budgets simply need to be adjusted as the DVD market has collapsed. I absolutely agree with AFM’s Managing Director Jonathan Wolf when he said, “We’ve got 50 companies who are in what we call mini-booths, where they only spend $3,900 for the space yet they’re bringing films and having a commercially acceptable experience. If you can make a couple films for $300,000 and sell each for $600,000, you have a business.” My political thriller SOS United States has a budget just north of $300,000.
I read a great story in IndieWire this week titled “Why It’s a Great Time to Be an Independent Filmmaker” by Naomi McDougall Jones. She could not be more right when stating, “I believe there are those who crave what I crave as an audience member; to be genuinely surprised; to have my own prejudices exploded; to leave the theater altered from whom I was when I went in.” These are the same comments I’ve heard from audience members that have seen Justice Is Mind.
Justice Is Mind and Jones’s film, Imagine I’m Beautiful, are apples and oranges in genre, but share the same type of approach to the market. We have a theatrical run, press and VOD. It’s all very doable. But it’s also work done the old fashioned way. It takes time (lots of it), research and effort.
But if there is one new trend from AFM this year that’s a major positive are the new distributors entering the market. With studios focusing on tentpoles they have created a need for the rest of the market. As Cinedigm CEO Chris McGurk tells Variety, “The majority of filmmakers have to be interested in a new model for releasing indie films, and you could not say that two or three years ago.”
And so as I write the sequel to Justice Is Mind and present First World and SOS United States for investment and development, I too believe this is a great time to be an independent filmmaker. It just takes the three ‘p’s I have often mentioned: plan, perseverance and patience.