As a filmmaker there’s nothing quite like seeing that first rough cut in post-production. You wonder what it will look like. You wonder if the years you’ve spent pulling it all together was worth it. A film is not a play where things can generally be adjusted because you change your mind about something. As Bill Sampson said in All About Eve, “There’s nothing you can do, you’re trapped, you’re in a tin can.” If the 18 minutes of the first rough cut are any indication, First Signal isn’t trapped!
Building a film in post-production is akin to the prefabrication we see today in the construction world. Have you ever seen how a ship is built? Sections are built elsewhere, shipped and then assembled in one location. That’s pretty much how a film is born. Shots are created offsite and assembled in one location according to the script (the blueprint). I have one cardinal rule in post-production, we don’t deviate from the script. The shots are created for the script, not the other way around.
When Justice Is Mind was in post-production, I remember receiving emails from some of the actors wondering if their scenes were being cut. My response was generally always the same, why would I cut something that I wrote in the first place? In the end, nothing was cut. The result was a complete story.
Some years ago I was cast in an independent film. The script was solid and all of us associated with it were looking forward to the end result. Well, the end result was an over-edited product that didn’t resemble the script we were handed a year earlier. A completed film is just that a product—one that must be promoted and marketed.
With the 6th anniversary of Justice Is Mind tomorrow, I can’t help but think of the promoting and marketing I did for that film. I still, whenever an opportunity presents itself, market that film wherever I can – why wouldn’t I? I see so many projects being hyped during the production process just to wither away in post-production. For me post is the most exciting. Not only are you building a product but you are laying the groundwork for its release.
For First Signal that groundwork includes the completion of the first 11 minutes of the film in the next few weeks. Why so quickly? Just over a month prior to AFM is when I start my pitch process for meetings. Although AFM is in November, time moves quickly in post-production and meetings are set about a month in advance. The idea with this footage is to show prospective buyers what the film will look like.
Although First Signal is in post-production, I still had some casting to do – a voice over artist for a newscast. There are so many services for voice over artists, but I found Fiverr to be the best. Although there is just one newscast in First Signal, it opens the film. I needed a voice that “broadcast” as a newscaster and sounded believable. Needless to say, we found that voice.
Last Sunday First Signal wrapped principal photography. The final shot seemed particularly appropriate. It was a POV from Major Sampson (Patience McStravick). With Daniel Groom on camera, Patience guiding his shoulders to mirror her character and myself directing, it was that moment when I remembered the day all three of us met at a Starbucks in January 2018 to discuss First Signal. None of us could have foreseen the journey that was to lie ahead. While pre-production was fraught with fits and starts, the train of principal photography not only ran on time, but finished five production days ahead of schedule.
Shooting First Signal these last few months has been nothing less than thrilling for me. Oh sure, as director you worry about countless things, but when you see the progress and quality being produced from one day to the next, those worries quickly evaporate. Those pre-production matters that sought to derail the train are nothing more than a distant memory. Of course no vision comes to life without a dedicated cast, crew and location partners. Without their tireless efforts First Signal would still be just that—a vision.
The vision for First Signal was nicely magnified by some wonderful press over the last several weeks. WMUR-TV, The Concord Monitor, The Athol Daily News and the Greenfield Recorder all visited set (The Hippo did a great piece that you can find in my previous post). I couldn’t be more thankful for their coverage. It isn’t just about producing a film, it’s about getting it noticed. When you consider the tens of thousands of films that are made a year, having media support, particularly at this stage, is paramount.
Throughout the production process and this past week, I have kept the contacts I made at AFM last year informed about our progress. While one during production was keenly interested in First Signal, another got back to me last night and wants to see some footage as soon as possible for TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). In addition to the festival itself, Toronto is one of the major film markets.
This is what producing a film is all about – distribution. Putting aside getting an actual deal for your film, there are simply so many platforms to distribute and market you really need a distributor to navigate this labyrinth.
Putting together the puzzle that was created during production, is now the purview of our editor and the rest of the post production team. This is where the tone and style of the film come to life. We’ve already decided on a color scheme and I’m pretty close on what I’d like to see for a score. While I’m overseeing post-production, I’ll be working on branding and other marketing aspects. Yes, making a film is thrilling, but seeing it come to life in the consumer market is where it matters.
In closing, thank you to all those that have supported this project. Your support over these months have made First Signal possible.
This past week I have received some curious inquiries on why I checked in on Facebook to the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island a couple times this week. Over these next few weeks the school is conducting mock trials as part of their student training. I’m playing an NCIS agent. When you consider my interests in the military (the Navy in particular) and having written and directed Justice Is Mind, you can imagine my enthusiasm in being part of this project.
This is not like a stage production or even a film. In those mediums you generally stay in character for a set period and memorize a script. There is no script here. Instead, you are given a substantive background on your character and their actions during a particular time period. And, like any legal proceeding, you are given a variety of statements and other evidence to take in and, yes, memorize to the best of your ability.
In one example, I was in front of a class of students who asked me countless questions over an hour relative to the case. By example, “What were your impressions when you interviewed X” “When you interviewed X about X, what did they say?” Again, there is no scripted answer. Of course, the key is to be consistent in your statements as the students can reference what you say.
I believe these role play opportunities are some of the best training actors can have. Not only do you have to create a world for this character, but background elements as well that fit into the narrative facts of the story. I’ll say this, it has helped that I’ve done live television and public speaking in the past. With this opportunity, I’m speaking to anywhere from five to fifty of various military rank as well as civilians. The atmosphere itself compels you to take the process seriously. There are, however, some moments of levity and the staff and students at the school are very welcoming and supportive. You can learn more about the Naval Justice School at this link.
To put this in an entertainment context, most have heard of the TV series JAG and the movie A Few Good Men. But as those projects had a Director this has a Captain that directs the process. It’s been pretty cool learning what an NCIS agent really does. On another movie note, I can’t help but be reminded of the court martial scenes in The Caine Mutiny.
As for entertainment, Serpentine is in post-production with the same team that delivered Justice Is Mind. At this stage of the process, while they are doing their work, I’m planning the marketing program and distribution plans for the film’s release in early 2017.
The one thing I learned when publishing magazines is that your distributors, in all their forms, are your partners. Produce a good magazine and it will sell. Likewise, the same is true for a movie. But all this requires marketing on a day to day basis. A case in point, would be our last United States theatrical screening at the Chatham Orpheum theatre in September. It was a partnership between their theatre and Justice Is Mind. We both had one goal, sell as many tickets as possible and generate press. Not only did we have a great turnout and positive press, we also established a great post screening working relationship.
I’m delighted to announce that the Chatham Orpheum Post Production Services delivered our first DCP of Justice Is Mind last week! Some of you may be wondering what a DCP is. To quote Wikipedia, “A Digital Cinema Package (DCP) is a collection of digital files used to store and convey Digital cinema (DC) audio, image, and data streams.” While we always had our theatrical DVDs, now we have another theatrical option with DCP.
While I have yet to come across a theatre that can’t play from a DVD, it’s great that we now have a DCP option as the majority of theatres across the United States have converted to a digital format. I don’t profess to be an expert on this tech, but theatres do like to have this option. That being said, when Justice Is Mind was released in 2013 better than ½ the theatres we screened in still had not converted to digital. In the end, this just gives us another option. My special thanks to the Chatham Orpheum for their great work! To learn more about their DCP services please visit their website or email them at this address.
If the cyber-attack on Sony and subsequent pull of The Interview from the major chains demonstrated anything, it is that theatres are your partners and communication is key. While VOD is of course important, I still believe in the release model of theatrical distribution first followed by VOD. I think trying to marginalize theatres is a mistake. I read this past week about a film that got into Sundance, didn’t receive a distribution deal they thought was worth anything and is now is trying to fund a theatrical release by renting theatres and “then fans can pay what they want to see the film”. Aside from not agreeing with four walling (renting) for a variety of reasons, a pay what you want is a horrible precedent to set. In all our theatrical screenings, audiences paid whatever the general ticket price was for that theatre and market.
Margins in this business are squeezed enough for everyone. Do you admit someone to watch a movie in a theatre for $1 when the person behind them was going to pay $10? As my business partner said the other day there is an issue with perception in value. Yes, for VOD, the $1.99 rental is pretty standard. But the economics of that rate for a theatrical screening (via paying what you want) just won’t cover costs. Because what this all comes down to is how do investors get paid back when margins are so thin. It’s just simple economics of cost and revenue.
As I hit the 100 page mark of the sequel to Justice Is Mind this weekend, I truly wonder what the marketplace will be like by the time that film is released.
With just over four weeks remaining until the world premiere of Justice Is Mind on August 18 at the Palace Theatre in Albany, the last bits of post-production are underway. The film is edited, scored, the special effects have been built and two hours of sound mixing are complete. That just leaves that last fifteen minutes to mix then off to color correction with the last action being the pressing of the exhibition DVDs.
Earlier this week I was contacted by another sales agency that is interested in reviewing Justice for distribution and sale. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s really key to have a proper IMDB set-up as that’s how they found me. Now let me be clear on something, the number of independent films seeking distribution is staggering. Yes, every filmmaker wants the best deal for their project, but when a sales agency or distributor comes knocking you simply drop what you are doing and address the opportunity at hand. And don’t make it difficult for them to contact you. I promise you they have other films they are considering and will just move on to the next film. With five agents already reviewing Justice prior to our industry screening, participating in a film market or even showing at festival, I’m very encouraged by this early interest.
Speaking of this week’s activities, I was delighted to learn that my friends, backers and partners in Justice Is Mind, Mary Wenninger and Stefan Knieling were coming up to visit. It was so great visiting with them yesterday. When I showed them parts of Justice Is Mind on my laptop one of the first things they said was, “We really need to thank all these people for their work.” Indeed, as I have endeavored to do throughout the process of the development of Justice, you can never thank people enough for their work and contribution.
Producing a feature film is not easy and it takes long term view for anyone involved in the process. As I’ve said before I’ll say again, shooting the film is the easy part it’s pre and post that has the most challenges. Recently I was at the gym and someone walked up to me and asked “When is the film coming to theatres?” and “why is it taking you so long to finish it?” You know when I hear comments like this, sometimes I just want to scream. Instead, I launched into a filmmaking 101 lecture on how this business works that occupied at least fifteen minutes of his time. I didn’t care if his workout was being affected or if he felt insulted. He asked a question and he got an answer. To create a quality film takes time. By all accounts post-production generally takes about a year, we are doing it in less. More importantly, we haven’t had to reshoot anything.
The one thing that I believe worked for Justice throughout the entire process is that we had a locked script and the writer was on set (me). Where you see films get into “trouble” is when writing is done on set and suddenly a plot hole or continuity issue is created. With Justice there were a few occasions when I had to create a scene due to actor schedules or some other unforeseen situation that came up. But because the actors and crew knew the story so well, everything was pretty seamless. And as a writer, you also need to be flexible to make adjustments when needed.
T-minus 35 days.
The email came in from our special effects supervisor yesterday, “block 6 done”. With one more block to go, the special effects for Justice Is Mind are nearly complete. I can’t speak to how other directors handle their post production work, but I decided early on that the best approach was to edit the film in seven blocks that average about 20 minutes each. As all of us work remotely, we have relied fairly exclusively on DropBox to share files. But sometimes the good old U.S. Postal Service is still needed as part of the delivery process. Simply the number of files involved in Justice are staggering –over 150 hours of film to edit, over 10,000 frames for special effect processing and then there are the special effect sounds (over 200 in one block alone). But with edit files now being locked and sound mixing complete for the first two blocks, Justice Is Mind is well on track for completion. With the last piece of “skyscraper” being the color correction that will take place in June, Justice will have a completed running time of 2 hours and 33 minutes.
This past week it dawned on me that it has been exactly a year since I announced pre-production for Justice Is Mind. In some ways it seemed like yesterday when I was at a science fiction convention in Maryland with Vernon Aldershoff (Henri Miller in Justice) showing the short film version Evidence. Before I knew it, we were shooting the feature. Now the feature is nearly complete. Time certainly does fly by!
But now my time turns towards our premiere date on August 18 in Albany, NY at the Palace Theatre along with a host of other marketing and distribution initiatives. With sales agents actively interested, film festival submissions starting shortly, screenings at law schools and sci-fi conventions being scheduled and looking at independent theatres to book Justice along with an industry screening, timing all these processes is another task in and of itself. And that’s where another area comes into play—strategy.
Take for example the Liberace “drama” Behind the Candelabra that stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Director Steven Soderbergh told the New York Post in January that the movie was originally planned for a theatrical release but was ultimately produced by HBO instead because the story was “too gay” for Hollywood movie studios; curious as Brokeback Mountain was released theatrically. So now the film is debuting on HBO.
My point is that even the best laid plans sometimes need to be adjusted based on the market (as ridiculous as this may be). Certainly, I don’t agree with the studios not distributing Behind the Candelabra domestically, but HBO does also present a great option as well. Thankfully the United States isn’t the elephant in the room it used to be for theatrical distribution. Important, of course, but foreign markets are growing in prominence and importance. For anyone that follows the film industry we are seeing more and more films released internationally first before they bow in the United States.
For Justice Is Mind we may just see some sort of reverse market release. Of course we proceed with our plans in a timely fashion, but if a sales agent comes in and sells our rights to foreign markets that may dictate a whole new distribution and marketing strategy.
Time will tell.
With Cannes in full swing and Justice Is Mind continuing down the post-production track, it seemed fitting to tour a new film studio this past week. No I didn’t travel to Los Angeles, I drove about 35 minutes to Devens, MA where a $35 million state of the art film studio is being built. Appropriately called New England Studios the phase 1 complex is scheduled to open late summer. With four sound stages, production offices and a mill building, the tour reminded me of stories I read about the early days of Hollywood and those pioneering risk takers.
Filmmaking is all about risk. Whether you own physical assets such as a studio or have sat behind a computer writing a script, you have invested some sort of time and money to live your dream. But unlike other industries, this is a sexy business. Ask anyone that has seen their name come up in the credits in a theatre and the most common word to describe the felling is—cool! But in the end, it does come down to a return on investment.
As Cassian Elwes told The Hollywood Reporter this week, financing a film through a combination of equity, tax incentives and foreign pre-sales provides a “guaranteeable return.” Combined with the powerful allure of the movie business, that makes the film an attractive investment. He went on to talk about the superrich, but you don’t have to be superrich to enter this industry you just need to be thoughtful and have a plan.
Even for a film on the scale of Justice Is Mind I have endeavored to bring a “studio” operation-like quality to the entire production. There is another entire structure to getting a film into the market which we see at film markets such as Cannes. Reading the daily reports coming out of Cannes you can just feel the excitement. Film slates are getting financed (Hayden Christensen’s Glacier Films did well), new film finance companies are being launched and there seems to be some solid buying. Of course then there are the horror stories of films that pre-sold last year that lost, for whatever reason, the top talent that got the project sold in the first place. As I’ve said before, this is not an industry for the faint at heart.
With sound mixing commencing on Justice and the last third of the special effects being built (there are over 200), the end of post-production is certainly in sight. With the film edited, the process of scoring, sound effects, ambiance and mixing is just as detailed a process as any. I could not be more thankful to our post-production team for the job they are doing.
And this is where I come back to New England Studios. I’m fairly confident this project never would have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for our 25% film tax incentive. Some filmmakers at an industry event in Boston just bitched that producers shouldn’t follow the tax incentives. I say then you need to leave this industry because unless you are financing things yourself, filmmakers need every damn incentive to produce their motion pictures. Thankfully, Senator Michael O. Moore wrote to me and said, “…I will not support any legislation brought before the Senate to cap the production incentive.”
While I certainly hope to someday produce a film on the sound stages of New England Studios, the one thing I was happy to hear is their desire to develop a complete infrastructure of like-minded businesses around the studio. Having lived in Los Angeles, I can tell you there’s nothing like being around the studio atmosphere of creativity. One just doesn’t wake up and become a movie mogul. It takes time, incentive and a conducive structure.
Of course, I couldn’t help but be reminded about one of my favorite sci-fi TV shows when touring New England Studios. In U.F.O. an ultra secret organization called S.H.A.D.O. (Supreme Headquarters of the Alien Defense Organization) has its headquarters 80 feet under Harlington-Straker Studios. With a base on the Moon and support aircraft around the world, their often used statement is apropos to our local film industry and the current state of post-production for Justice Is Mind.
On positive track.
The one thing that consistently amazes me in the world of filmmaking is the creativity everyone brings to the table. This is one of the areas that I enjoy the most. I’m not sure if my post production team will agree with me or not, but after I give my general direction on something, I let them simply create. Imagine. I’ve often heard these nightmarish stories of directors that berate everyone involved to obsessive extremes or worse the other side of it when no direction or organization is given. Once, I had the unfortunate experience of working with a disorganized director as an actor and it was a nightmare (I felt like Captain Kirk on the Enterprise B!). I always aim for a comfortable middle. But at the end of the day it is the responsibility of the director that the vision is executed by all concerned.
As we are entering the final stages of post production, I look at the smoothness of the story our editor Jared Skolnick has created for Justice Is Mind and I wonder if he read my mind on my fondness for dramatic storytelling from Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s. The same holds true for my friend and our special effects guru Adam Starr. I’ve worked with Adam for well over ten years on other projects, and while I will be the first to admit that I used to get a bit hot headed in those early days, it was all for the best of the project. Adam is another one who is good at mind reading (I guess that works well with the Justice Is Mind story). I send off my notes and presto out comes something that would simply rival any top special effects house. Then there is our composer Daniel Elek-Diamanta, someone I have never met who lives in the United Kingdom. When I first listened to samples of his work, I just heard the sounds of Justice coming to life.
Like any industry, you create teams of people you enjoy working with. But no other industry ties that together more than filmmaking. Of course, we aren’t all going to agree on everything and we all have our own point of view on how something should be executed. But once you work on a set you can clearly understand how you see the same people working together over and over again. It’s not so much on the acting side, but on the production side you want to work with people whose work you know and who you trust. Look at someone like J.J. Abrams. He often collaborates with the same team. I’d say that’s worked out OK for him!
But look this isn’t always a bed of roses either with everyone singing Kumbaya. During Justice Is Mind I had the unfortunate job of having to let people go during the production and in post-production (and there was some pre-production drama too). You’re either part of the team or you’re not. Simply, in this business time is money and I don’t have the time to figure out what your issues are. Besides, it’s woefully unfair to those putting in the effort to produce a quality product.
Coming into the last couple of months of post-production I could not be more thankful to the entire team (on both sides of the camera) that is making Justice Is Mind possible. We all know that producing a feature film is not easy. As we have seen this past week, actors like Zach Braff took to Kickstarter because they couldn’t get the deal they wanted, famed director Steven Soderbergh vented on the wild west of filmmaking (has it ever been anything less?) and digital distribution continues to “adjust” the establishment. But through it all you need content and a team that can deliver. And like Captain Kirk and his crew on the Enterprise, it would be pretty cool to board a ship with the crew I’ve been working with the last several months.
U.S.S Justice standby for departure.