On Thursday one of the most interesting projects I’ve been part of came to a conclusion. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I have been playing an NCIS special agent in the mock trial program at the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island. In all honesty, I can’t remember when I had so much fun on a project. Given a personal event I went through a couple of weeks ago, it was great having this project to stay focused on something else.
The very nature that this was a role play character in “Agent Ashburn” meant that I did a variety of research, from what NCIS actually does, to inspections on Navy ships to certain military procedures and associated lingo. And as the mock trial was about a sexual assault case, I needed to know what was involved in a SAFE kit, trauma, etc. Let me just say this, watching Law & Order: SVU helped!
There were numerous times when the students, whether trial or defense counsel, asked my character questions that generally weren’t in our background information. At some point in time these students will be practicing law in the real military and civilian world. With these mock trial programs counting for a significant part of their grade, I thought believability was important so having an additional knowledge base helped. As an actor it also challenges you to learn something new and to expand your horizons.
Another highlight was working with the other actors. This was most certainly a diverse group of talented people from all walks of life. Imagine fourteen actors who never met put in a room with no WiFi. While I know people that can’t fathom being disconnected, there was, ready, conversation and cards. From the mutual support of our respective characters to numerous card games, the days passed pretty quickly. At any moment a student would come in to take us out for questioning or testimony or the captain overseeing the program would check in and give us some additional background. I haven’t played cards in years, but one of my new favorite games is bullshit.
As for the personal event? A couple of weeks ago when I was driving to Newport my car hit black ice, went into a guardrail and then did a 180 degree turn back into the guardrail. Yes, in an instant I saw my life pass in front of me. While I thankfully walked away unscathed, my car was totaled. The support I received on my Facebook post was unbelievable. Black ice is terrifying, it doesn’t discriminate between a tank or car.
The ten year history with my Pontiac Solstice began when I bought the “Starship Voyager” in Los Angeles in 2006. At the time I was working on a national TV show. Suffice to say more than one well known personality has been in the passenger seat. I drove her across the country and she saw me through a variety of life events. But one thing is a guarantee, she is immortalized in Justice Is Mind.
On a closing note with the Naval Justice School, it’s always great to leave on a positive note expanding your network and making new friends. Something tells me I’ll be working with them again sooner rather than later.
As for Star Trek one of the actors discovered that I was in a Star Trek fan film some years ago and found the link on YouTube. For those that follow Star Trek there is that one word that sums up the status of a character.
As Jodie Foster told The Hollywood Reporter this past week, “The hardest part is getting the green light, getting the movie going.” From financing, locations, crew and talent, moving a project to green light status is a major undertaking. Reading the dailies coming out of Cannes this week there is a host of industry adjustments. From distributors looking for new ways to grab audiences, to Amazon launching a YouTube like service .to the availability of A list actors when so many are committed to “superhero” movies. Yet again another era of change in an ever changing industry. But at some point you just have to throw caution to the wind and do it.
A few days ago I crossed the 60 page mark in the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. My aim is to have a complete first draft by the end of June. I’ve already started to reach out to a couple of key people I’ve worked with over the years on availability later on this summer.
For me it comes down to visualizing not just the film but the market in which it’s going to exist in. This is why I always write a business plan as part of the development process. Bottom line, I need to know there’s a market for the story and/or a target demographic. For Justice Is Mind it was older audiences and a few films that fell into the type of audience I was going after—Fringe meets Law & Order in a Gattaca setting. With SOS United States the story is set in a contemporary world of conflict between nations and shadow governments that can best be compared to Seven Days in May meets Clear and Present Danger.
But with this new story I’m writing, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that the sport of figure skating has a base of enthusiasts and participants that can be marketed to. For me it comes down to not just creating “another skating movie” but one that builds off that base with a story that revolves around a decade’s long Cold War mystery that culminates at the world figure skating championships. What it really comes down is marketing to an alternative audience.
As producer Charles Cohen told The Hollywood Reporter regarding the niche he targets, “It’s a mature audience that’s seeking an alternative to the typical Hollywood production — your big tentpole picture. People who are crying out for Marigold Hotel or Philomena or Brooklyn. Films that harken back to the ’60s and ’70s, which deal with real issues.” I could not agree more. As I learned with Justice Is Mind audiences want an alternative.
Perhaps the biggest news this past week was Amazon’s new Video Direct Service that takes direct aim at YouTube. I’ve been working with Amazon’s CreateSpace and through our distributor for Amazon Prime for several years. Amazon, in my view, is one the best places independent filmmakers have to showcase their work to a wide audience (they also own IMDb). Unlike some of these “curated” platforms that you barely hear about, Amazon’s algorithm approach puts the decision firmly in the hands of the consumer.
But there’s another thing that Amazon also gets right and that’s its approach to theatrical screenings. They know that a quality theatrical screening makes all the difference to just another VOD release. Having had a theatrical release for Justice Is Mind it also helps enormously with press and building an audience. While I’ve been a proponent of VOD for years, the film industry is steeped in the tradition of the theatrical release and rightly so. As a filmmaker, there is nothing more exhilarating than seeing your movie on the marquee and having it come to life in a theater.
To be a theatrical marketer you just have to do what I do when I go to the movies these days—you find someplace to sit in the lobby and look at theatergoers. I’ve worked in consumer marketing in one form or another for over twenty years and it just comes down to patterns. First, as a magazine publisher and then as a filmmaker. In the former, I targeted the fans of a particular sport (age didn’t really matter), but in the latter it’s a demographic.
Since I wrote First World back in 2006, and produced a short film version in 2007, I’ve known for some years that attendees of the science fiction convention circuit generally skewed in my age group (I was born in 1965). So when I wrote Justice Is Mind in 2010, I thought it would generally appeal to an older audience who may have counted TV series like Law & Order as their favorites along with films like The Andromeda Strain and the more contemporary Gattaca. The theatrical release of Justice Is Mind proved my theory when the majority of those that attended our screenings were 40+ and evenly split between men and women.
Of course, when you’re writing a screenplay it’s all guesswork isn’t it? Despite the best laid plans you really have no clue how it’s going to do. Yes, studios and some filmmakers do test screenings, but unless you are going to poll the entire country you just have to hope your film will find an audience through your marketing plan. But one demographic that is doing exceeding well are older audiences. Before there was Netflix, Amazon, and even Blockbuster, we went to the movies. Seeing a movie in a theater was an experience you weren’t going to get on television. I’m not discounting the importance of the younger generation that of course goes to the movies, but the generation I’m in is a bit more predictable – they want to see great stories come to life on the big screen.
As for great stories, I saw Trumbo this week and just thought it was a brilliant film. For me, I’ve always been interested in stories that revolve around the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Cold War. Throw both of those interests in and I’ll be the first to buy a ticket! Trumbo did not disappoint. Considering the ground it covered in 124 minutes, the story really captured a time in Hollywood and a political climate in the United States all those decades ago that I believe we are feeling now in the 21st century. You know what they say about history, it has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
As an article in The Wall Street Journal stated this week, there is a booming business in grown up films. When the $600,000 budgeted film Grandma returns $7 million in box office, that’s a serious profit and a business model that works.
As filmmakers we draw inspiration from other films, life events or experiences to create. It’s been well reported that Gene Roddenberry was inspired by Forbidden Planet to create Star Trek and that George Lucas was inspired by Flash Gordon (and other films) to develop Star Wars.
For me, the inspiration to create First World came from film and television. Two of my favorite science fictions films are The Day the Earth Stood Still and Capricorn One. Then there is the iconic TV show Space: 1999. Sadly, Capricorn One has been largely forgotten but for anyone who wants to see a good space conspiracy thriller with some great actors and cinematography, it’s a must watch.
As for SOS United States, I’ve always loved a good political thriller especially those from the Cold War. Discovering Seven Days in May and Fail Safe along with my love for ocean liners, I created a political thriller that is starting to gain some traction. With political thrillers on the rise, coupled with current world events, the timing is good.
Of course, for those that have seen Justice Is Mind you know what my primary inspirations were – Law & Order, The Andromeda Strain, Fringe and, yes, Dynasty. In so many ways, the genre mix in Justice Is Mind is reflective of what we are seeing today – especially on TV. As for my inspiration for In Mind We Trust? That would simply be Justice Is Mind and a conflux of current events.
It’s one thing making your film but it’s another getting to market. When the aforementioned films were made they were simply distributed by a studio. Pretty standard in those days. Ask any independent filmmaker and you not only have to be the creative behind the script, but a distributor and marketer at the same time.
Reading about the various challenges filmmakers faced at Tribeca to bring their films to market along with a myriad of interesting comments by Julianne Moore about independent films at CinemaCon, while there is tremendous opportunity to get your film in front of an audience, the navigation of this industry on the distribution front continues to intensify and diversify.
There was a pretty good article titled The Distribution Equation on Cultural Weekly that is worth a review. The big question I would love answered is why would independent films with limited theatricals runs sign with a distributor (for theatrical) if that was going to create a loss against the title of your film? It simply makes zero sense from a business point of view. Justice Is Mind has had 12 theatrical screenings and has grossed $13,357. Our total out of pocket costs were just over $500 (mostly from printing posters). On my end it costs nothing but time to present Justice Is Mind to theatres, write a press release and pitch the media. For me, from a business point of view, it’s much more important to show profitability than perception of “we signed with so and so”. “So and so” might look good on paper but red ink is still red ink.
This past week I pitched Justice Is Mind to another eight theatres. Yes, we have had a great run to date theatrically for our independent film, but why not make the pitch. You never know who’s going to say yes.