The development of a film property isn’t just about the actual filming, it’s about creating imagery, branding and a marketing campaign. Long after you type the first word of your script, it’s the first image associated with the story that everyone remembers. How many times do we read about a project in development or one that has long ago been filmed, until we see an image associated with it? First Signal is much more to me than just another film project. It’s about setting the right tone and creating the “world” of First Signal.
Although I had a general idea of what I wanted to see in a promotional poster, I had no idea that Daniel Elek-Diamanta was thinking along the same lines. Daniel, as some of you know, is an accomplished composer. He brilliantly scored Justice Is Mind and Serpentine. Unless he’s not available, he knows he’s always my number one. Weeks ago he agreed to score First Signal. In addition to his talent scoring films, he’s also a brilliant graphic designer. When he sent me a surprise draft of a promotional poster for First Signal it’s like he read my mind (Justice Is Mind?).
I am therefore pleased to present the first promotional poster for First Signal by Daniel Elek-Diamanta! Inspired by the famed Earthrise photo from Apollo 8, with a star field created by Celestia an open source virtual 3D astronomy program, the poster was released today on IMDb and social media.
Also launching today is First Signal’s official url www.firstsignalmovie.com. The site presently points to First Signal’s Facebook page, but will soon be directed to a custom designed website. The footage has already been selected with Daniel working on an introductory score.
Standing out in this industry is a herculean task. Sure, I go to my social media feeds and I see what’s going on locally. But it truly comes down to making a national and international push for a project. I’ve never had any interest in being a “popular local.” For me, it’s about someone discovering my films who lives far away from where it was created.
When Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth back in 2014, nobody on the ship, aside from my mother, knew me or anything about the film. All they knew what was in the daily communique. Those passengers were my most important audience. Thankfully the screening was, I’ll say it, smooth sailing.
I also received word this week that the Department of Defense is formally reviewing First Signal for possible cooperation. As some of you may know, the military has entertainment liaison offices that work with the industry. Although First Signal is science fiction, there are numerous elements to the story that are based in the real world. And like the legal aspects of Justice Is Mind, I think it’s important to insure the military and science aspects are properly vetted.
After dealing with a massive snowstorm the day before, the first day back at the Naval Justice School went well. As this is my fifth time doing the program, these are like class reunions between the actors and staff. But with every new class, we have new actors join the program.
I can’t speak for other regions, but in New England the acting community really is about six degrees of separation. While I may not have worked directly with some of the new actors, the other actors have or are familiar with their work. What struck me interesting with one of the new actors was him telling me about a project of his own that he’s putting into production himself. Sound familiar?
While any actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, etc., wants to be hired, there’s nothing more satisfying than creating your own work. It truly is magical watching your performance, your words and your images come to life. But one does not magically snap their fingers to get a project off the ground. In the end it’s about partnering with good people that believe in bringing the project to life.
In addition to the casting notices going up this week for First Signal, location searches will also begin in earnest. As I mentioned to someone already involved in the project, the way I approach a location is to trade the opportunity to shoot with a mutual public relations and marketing plan. I’ve taken this approach with the films I’ve produced and, with the exception of $100 to shoot in church for Justice Is Mind, it has worked.
The last thing you do as an “independent” filmmaker is ask what their rate or how much they would charge. I promise you, you’ll get frustrated when you hear numbers that are impossible to meet. Worse, you meet them and go broke in the process. You want to work with people and companies that are excited about the project. But that excitement is not without responsibility.
On a set I am the first to arrive and the last to leave. Why? Because it’s my responsibility to insure that I leave a location the same way I found it. Case in point was the conference room we used in Serpentine. In the film, the location was at the FBI in Washington, D.C. In the real world that was the Aquarius board room at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA.
That room worked out great in the film, but it needed to be dressed. I purchased Washington, D.C. images to cover up the posters on one wall and added The Brandenburg Gate during the Cold War era to highlight a certain moment in the story (it was also an Easter Egg for Justice Is Mind). How did the viewer know they were at the FBI? Stock footage the moment before that showed the exterior of the FBI. What’s interesting about that footage is that one of my favorite shows, Madam Secretary, has also used that same clip.
With the script breakdown for First Signal almost complete, look for a casting notice in the coming days. And that military exercise I mentioned last week? Looks like that contract is coming through.
If you’ve seen Justice Is Mind, First World or Serpentine: The Short Program, you know I don’t shy away from using multiple locations to tell my stories. I’ve been very lucky with my productions to secure some unique locations.
Each one of those projects had one or two critical locations. For Justice Is Mind it was a courtroom and MRI facility. For First World it was a presidential suite and a horse farm. For Serpentine it was a figure skating complex. Each of those locations brought gravitas to their stories.
For this new project, my aim is a simple one. Keep the story largely contained to one interior room and one outdoor scene. My goal is both for story and cinematography. With the primary story taking place in a windowless bunker one of my inspirations is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. For those that have seen this classic, the story primarily takes place in an apartment. As that film was first produced as a play, it largely makes sense that it would be confined to one location.
This new story is a prequel to First World and revolves around one particular meeting. While I would obviously love to see First World produced, I also know that it’s a science fiction epic that would require, while maybe not an “epic” budget, certainly one in the seven figures. For this project, the aim is to contain production costs for independent production.
While Dial M for Murder is one inspiration, another is Fail Safe. The scenes in the Pentagon’s “war room” worked on a variety of levels. What I particular liked was the rear projection that was used to display the military crisis between the United States and U.S.S.R. Because this type of “special effect” was produced while the movie was being photographed, it saved time in post-production.
With a good amount of my research completed, I’ll shortly start the writing process. The fall and winter months are my favorite time to write an original story. Believe me, it’s the cold weather that will set the mood for this piece!
This story will revolve around a particular signal intercept and how certain government and military officials are responding to it. To give you an idea of the conflict in this story, I’ll borrow a quote from Valkyrie, “This is a military operation. Nothing ever goes according to plan.”
It’s not fashionable for actors to not learn their lines. Your number one job requirement when cast in anything is to learn lines. If you refuse to do that, please find another occupation or avocation.
When I read this interview with Bill Nighy (one of my favorite actors) that is has become “fashionable” for actors to not learn their lines, I always wonder where such nonsense started. Seriously, how do you execute a film (forget a play) when an actor doesn’t have their lines down? This is akin to a Director of Photography not interested in operating a camera.
Over the years I have unfortunately come across actors and performers that think it’s OK not to be prepared. Being unprepared is not only disrespectful to those in the cast and crew that have done their homework, but as a director I’ll never cast you in anything.
As a writer/director I do have to count myself lucky with the actors I have cast in my films. Out of the four films I’ve produced, only two of the actors arrived to set without having their lines memorized to say nothing of having read the script.
In one of my short films I was very excited to work with a particular actor who was also a producer/director. I was incensed when not only didn’t he have his lines memorized, but laughed it off in the process. Didn’t he care that there were about 15 people on set that saw this behavior? It was during that moment that I was reminded of a student film I was in the year before. One of the actors I had a scene with made a big deal that actors need to know their lines. I kid you not when our scene started he didn’t have his lines memorized at all. He thought it was cool. I was having none of it. Needless to say when he submitted for Justice Is Mind his submission was deleted.
This being said, ALL the actors I worked with in Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program had their lines brilliantly memorized. For those that have seen Justice you know it was a dialogue heavy production. The courtroom scenes alone were basically one monologue after another. Their preparation and professionalism made the production a smooth one resulting in an on time and under budget finish. Professionalism (which has nothing to do with union status) goes a long way.
However, responsibility also falls to the director as well. Whenever I put a film into production, I always make sure the actors have received their scripts well in advance. Isn’t that my job? To give actors the tools they need to succeed? I can’t blame actors for not having their lines down if I don’t deliver them in a timely fashion.
Case in point I was approached this past week to be in a film that was shooting this week. Before I committed the director confessed they were still “tweaking” the script and it should be ready shortly. What the hell does that mean? Do I get it the day before? Or day of! Needless to say, I declined to be involved. I’m sorry, if you can’t get your act together on the production side, you’re asking for a disaster on set. Honestly, this isn’t rocket science.
Although fall doesn’t officially start until the 22nd, for most of us in New England, it starts after the Labor Day weekend. While I like the summer, I love the fall. It’s also the time of year when I tend to be the busiest.
This week starts another class at the Naval Justice School. In addition to falling back into my character as a Special Agent of NCIS, I’ll also be directing the mock-trial program on site for the agencies that retained us. I have to say this is one acting job I always look forward to. As the majority of the same actors have returned from the previous class, I think the same can be said for all involved.
What makes this a unique gig for actors is the ability to play a character for 11 days. As these are role-playing parts, once you have the situation memorized it makes for a great opportunity to really bring a character to life. The atmosphere of the school alone is what makes it engaging as a performer.
As for law and engagement, I learned this week that Kinonation, our distributor for Justice Is Mind, secured another outlet with Udu Digital. From their email to me, “Udu is an ad supported (AVOD) streaming service available on the Roku media player that’s used by over 13 million people every month in the US.” It’s always nice to see another outlet picking up my first feature film!
And feature film is what the fall is also about. With the Toronto International Film Festival in full swing it’s always interesting to see what deals are struck. One film that did great was Chappaquiddick with a $20 million commitment. As a Massachusetts resident most of us know of the story chronicled in this film. It will be interesting to see how this film does in the state versus the rest of the country. At the end of the day the Kennedy name is nationally known. So that alone will carry some of the marketing.
But name and marketing will be key with one other film that is gaining substantial traction at the festival. That would be I, Tonya starring Margot Robbie. While the film has been well reviewed, it has been reported that the film arrived to the festival without distribution. Of course that may have already changed, but the real question is this – what are the commercial aspects to one of the darkest moments in figure skating history?
In addition to being at the event in Detroit in 1994, I know some of the players involved (Nancy Kerrigan in particular). I was also interviewed for ESPN’s The Price of Gold documentary in 2014 about the incident. Part of me says this story has already been told…countless times. Is this the only story that figure skating can tell or could this mean a broader interest in movies around the sport? It’s impossible to tell at this point. And, you guessed it, I’m monitoring these developments because of Serpentine.
Finally, I wrap up this week’s post with a great piece of artwork from Daniel Elek-Diamanta. This is the sound wave from Justice Is Mind, Daniel’s first composing gig. He wanted a unique wallpaper for his computer. I’d say he struck the right chord!
Yesterday I attended the annual World War II Saturday at Battleship Cove. While there seemed to be less reenactors than last year, I found it just as engaging and interesting. If I come away with having learned a few more moments during that time in history, it’s well worth the visit.
By example, I learned some interesting details behind the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO). Sure, I was generally aware that the United States and China had some sort of cooperation during the war, but when it’s illuminated it puts it in perspective. That “perspective” continued after SACO dissolved which was followed by China’s civil war.
Speaking of China, Justice Is Mind has been picked up by China Mobile as a flat licensing deal. As I understand from our distributor, it’s now going through censorship and localization on their end. It will certainly be a milestone to break into the Chinese market. One does not need to be a filmmaker or read the industry trades to know that China is one of the leading film markets.
Given the tumultuous state of U.S. box office revenue this year, it’s imperative that these foreign markets are available to filmmakers. For Justice Is Mind and First World our primary foreign market is the United Kingdom. I have also noticed that viewership in Japan is picking up. But one driving force that continues to put films front and center is the importance of a marketing plan.
I can’t tell you how many times the marketing plan for an independent film seems to begin and stop at the industry trades. Never mind when you read the first cut to studio budgets seem to be in marketing. As I have often said you can have the greatest project in the world but if nobody knows about it nobody will care.
As soon as I finish writing a script, I start working on the marketing plan in terms of a target audience. With distributors relying more and more on filmmakers to assist in the marketing plan, there really needs to be one in place before the first scene is shot. With First World it was science fiction conventions. With Justice Is Mind it was law schools and universities that focused on neuroscience. With Serpentine: The Short Program it was the Ice Network. Yes, like the aforementioned, films have their primary target audience then they broaden out from there.
Amazon is a perfect example of that. Someone might have heard about Justice Is Mind from our primary plan, but found the film on Amazon. Their algorithm then points customers to other recommended films. At that point the plan is relatively complete. But it all starts with that primary plan to push consumer awareness then generally continues with social media and other digital marketing tactics on an ongoing basis.
It’s hard to believe that it was five years ago this month that we were producing Justice Is Mind. Yet here we are five years later with new markets opening. The greatest thing about the world of film is discovery. It doesn’t matter when the film was made, it’s about when a customer learns about it for the first time. In today’s world of VOD a film no longer has a shelf-life.
There is that moment in a theater when the words “Feature Presentation” come up just before the picture starts. Certainly as a theatregoer we’re excited to see the film, but as a filmmaker it’s a rush—particularly when it’s your movie. That rush happened for me when Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program screened together at The Strand Theatre in March. Ask any filmmaker and they’ll tell you, there’s nothing like seeing your film on the silver screen.
But for all the accolades that come with making a feature film, there are significant challenges that theatregoers don’t necessarily concern themselves with. The recent articles on Broad Green and Open Road chronicle the times ahead for some. While the capital to produce is there, it’s the net return that’s the issue. Thus consolidation or, in the case of Broad Green, production shut down. In my view it comes down to a reasonable budget with a solid marketing plan tied to distribution. To turn a phrase from Ron Popeil you can’t “Make it and forget it”.
I met with a colleague a few weeks ago who wants to make his first feature film. He’s a talented filmmaker who has made some award winning short films. A short film is one thing, a feature is an entirely other animal. His concerns were numerous—completing the script, managing a crew, finance and distribution. Basically it comes down to taking that leap of faith. You have to believe in yourself and your own capabilities. Yes, you rely on others, but as Luc Besson said you have to be the General of the Army. Look at any film in production from the low budget independent to the major studio release, the entire project revolves around the director. This isn’t to say that the director acts unilaterally, they too have to report to someone or at least adhere to a structure.
As for structure and directing, I’m looking forward to returning as site supervisor for the Naval Justice School’s mock trial program in Newport, RI. Yes, it’s directing of a sort, but it’s just as much as adhering to the structure of their program. What I enjoy about this program is that it’s neither film nor stage, it gives me the opportunity to roleplay a character over multiple days without a set script rather a set of circumstances and situation. As director it’s generally to make sure that the actors have an understanding of this process as it’s not stage or film. There’s no call to action and cut, rather you are in character when in the school. My supervisory role is essentially making sure everyone shows up on time, answer related questions and to follow the rules of the base and the agency that has hired us.
One thing about this industry that I enjoy is the variety of opportunity it affords. Whether directing a film, writing a screenplay or working on a military base, it’s about being well-rounded. The one thing that has helped enormously with my work in Newport was the years I spent doing TV interviews (many live). While there was no script, there was a subject matter and certain facts I had to adhere to. My point is that whatever the work is, it’s about the accumulation of experience because who knows what that next part will be.
I can’t take credit for this week’s blog post title. I lifted it from Audrain Automobile Museum’s email promoting their third production of Cars & Coffee in partnership with the Preservation Society of Newport County. Yesterday’s outing took us to the beautiful Chateau-sur-Mer.
This type of production is a win-win for both the museum and the society. First, in a very cool way, they draw traffic to these storied mansions of yesteryear. Second, the auto museum gets the message past their beautiful location on Bellevue Avenue. Needless to say, I highly recommend visiting the museum and the mansions the next time you are in Newport.
I’m not sure who created the idea for this event but it’s a brilliant promotion. Marketing and event production should be seamless and effortless in its look. When the consumer arrives it should just appear that the event happened, rather than feeling forced. When they are at the event it’s a welcoming atmosphere with like-minded people. When they leave, they are looking forward to the next production.
This past week I was talking to a potential new marketing client. Sadly, he was one of these overly analytical types who didn’t want to listen to anyone except his inner ego. He couldn’t understand why his product wasn’t selling. I suppose I could have told him that his inner ego isn’t a customer. I passed on working with him.
While I go for the cars, it’s really the conversations I enjoy the most. I’ve been working on a production idea in Newport and for the first time I mentioned it to a few attendees. Is this market research? Absolutely. If you can’t interest those that live in that world why develop it.
As some may recall, when I had the idea for a political thriller around the sport of figure skating I went to the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston last year. After talking to a variety of insiders and former colleagues, I wrote Serpentine. Serpentine: The Short Program can be streamed on Amazon or the Ice Network.
With Marche Du Film (Cannes) coming up, I always find it interesting to learn about the new players while reading about the fate of others. No doubt in the weeks ahead we will read in the trades about the big splash of a new company’s star driven acquisition or the sorry story of others that used to hold court on private yachts. Having been to Cannes many years ago (not for the festival) the location is truly a stunning one to announce a major project.
There is no question that this is an industry of flash. When you have good news to announce you do so publicly, loudly and in grand fashion. The whole point is to cut through the noise to get your project noticed. As I’ve said time and time again, this industry is as much about making motion pictures as it is about promoting them. This is why in so many cases when you see a production budget you multiply it by itself for marketing and public relations.
But then there are the rest of us that aren’t making $175 million motion pictures (at least not yet!). What filmmakers like me rely on is reliable consistent revenue from VOD. While so many players come and go in this industry, we rely on VOD platforms to be there year after year. Although sites like Netflix are in a public relations battle with Cannes, Amazon is playing by the rules and, “was not coming to the South of France “looking to disrupt Cannes,” adding, “You have to approach Cannes on its own terms.”
And while Cannes is one of the world’s greatest launching pads for a film, there are VOD sites like TubiTV that are also making waves. Just this past week the site announced a $20 million outside investment. Justice Is Mind has been on TubiTV for several months and has started to gain some solid traction. I’ve also noticed an increase in traffic for Justice on other VOD sites. All these upticks bode well for the industry as a whole. It shows that consumers are watching across a variety of platforms and it doesn’t matter if they are star driven $100 million plus budgets or films made for under $100K. At the end of the day audiences want to be entertained and they want the choice to be theirs.
But as the industry enters a new season it’s a review of my current projects First World, SOS United States, Serpentine and In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind. Are my websites updated? Do they convey the current status of each project? You know what they say about first impressions, you only get one to make one.
There is, however, a cardinal rule that I live by. I never disclose who I’m talking to and who I submitted to. This is why I declined to respond to a local entertainment publication that reached out to me on one of my projects. This is like when actors announce who they just auditioned for (or what festivals a filmmaker submitted to). I promise you that doesn’t help you get the part any quicker. In fact, it can have an opposite result. The same holds true for behind the scenes conversations. Sure, the trades like to know what’s going on, but confidentiality is paramount.
However, I will say this. The world’s largest oversees mobile player picked up Justice Is Mind from our distributor earlier this year. But until it’s live, I’ll hold on the formal announcement.
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…
As the venerable Hannibal Lecter said, “Shall we say dinner and a show?”
Before we finished working at the Naval Justice School (NJS) several of us agreed to get together to see a play one of our fellow actors was in. Phoenyx Williams was certainly pulling double duty. Playing an NCIS Agent along with me during the day he would then travel back to Providence for nightly performances in the “Post-Electric Play” Mr. Burns (by Anne Washburn). Williams played the “electric” Mr. Burns.
But before the play, we met up for dinner at the excellent Federal Taphouse & Kitchen. Although it was exactly a week since we last saw each other at NJS, it was great catching up with new friends and sharing some interesting stories. I’ll just say this, lots of laughs! Of course the director in me is always mindful of the clock and we were soon on our way to the Wilbury Theatre for a 7:30 show.
Although most of us had been briefed on the synopsis, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. The premise from their website states, “After the collapse of civilization, a group of survivors share a campfire and begin to piece together the plot of “The Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare” entirely from memory.” It started at the campfire and then went on to two additional acts with two intermissions. I have to confess, I’ve never watched The Simpsons.
As a writer, producer and director I’ve certainly created experimental work. But with experimental work comes risk. While the story wasn’t for me (as one of the actors in the play said to me this play is either for you or isn’t), the acting, writing and production itself was excellent. Although I didn’t care for the story, the execution was brilliant and the actors are wonderfully talented. The “fun” highlight was when the actors moved the audience (we were on risers with wheels!). In conclusion, the third act was owned by Williams. He nailed it.
Whether it’s stage or film, this entire industry is an experiment of some sort or another. I applaud anyone that creates an original work and doesn’t try to duplicate someone else’s efforts. I hear time and time again from filmmakers and actors who try so hard to be like this filmmaker or this actor. How about creating your own brand? You can be sure that I want to see what Anne Washburn comes up with next and I’ll be following these actors!
As for next, this past week was also about reorganizing my projects. With Serpentine: The Short Program released, my focus goes back to promoting that project along with In Mind We Trust (the sequel to Justice Is Mind), First World and SOS United States. I say now what I’ve said before, projects do not come to fruition overnight. It takes abject dedication to bring a work to life. Whether that be a play, movie or performing career.
But with every new experience comes a new idea.
There is something to be said about arriving at a theater and seeing not one but two of your films on the marquee. Yes, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. Because it is in that moment that all the work that has gone in to making a film is celebrated.
And celebrate we did. One by one family, friends, actors and crew started to arrive. Some I saw as recently as a couple of weeks ago, others it’s been a few years. But in the moment it feels like it was just yesterday. And heavens knows there were many yesterdays to get to this point!
After a reception in the lobby of the Strand Theatre, I made my opening remarks and then Justice Is Mind began. I was sitting next to Vernon Aldershoff and he said to me, “It never gets old.” No it doesn’t. And seeing the film in its highest resolution in a DCP format was another highlight.
Of course the highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program. This is one project that was particularly close to me for a variety of reasons. The moment the film started I was reminded about my days as a skater, teacher, magazine publisher and the TV work I would do around the sport. But it’s not about me, it’s about the product. One that you want audiences to enjoy.
And it was the next day that audiences around the world were able to stream Serpentine: The Short Program on both Amazon and the Ice Network. So far the numbers look promising and early reviews have been encouraging. But like First World ten years ago, this is an industry of the long haul. Or as we say in figure skating, the long program.
While VOD is a savior to the independent filmmaker, there is nothing like the theater. Because there is that one moment you’re hoping for that can only happen in a theater. To again quote from All About Eve, it was Eve Harrington that said it best, “If nothing else, there’s applause.” And they did when Serpentine: The Short Program faded to black.
The media has reported. The DVD has been tested. We have a green board on Amazon. The file has been transferred to the Ice Network. No, this isn’t LC 39 at Kennedy Space Center, it’s the preparation for the world premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program tomorrow night at The Strand Theatre and on Amazon and the Ice Network the following day.
When launch day, or better known in the industry as “release date” arrives for a film, that’s when the story you’ve worked on for so long is transferred to the audience. As Bill Sampson said in All About Eve, “You’re in a tin can.” Of course in this age the tin can reference is more about DCP and DVD.
This past week was just about some final details, finishing up the copy for various email templates and our official press release as part of the VOD launch on Tuesday. The highlight was this article that appeared in The Item. While national press is great for general awareness for VOD, there’s nothing like local press that can drive traffic to a theater. This newspaper circulates in Clinton and the neighboring towns.
Tomorrow night looks to be a star studded affair with many of the actors and crew from both films attending. I have to say I love these reunions. Not only does it give everyone a chance to catch up, but to see our collective efforts on the silver screen. And then there is the overlap. Audiences will see several of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind in Serpentine: The Short Program.
But with each project comes an expanded network and new processes. While Amazon certainly existed five years ago, the opportunity to distribute directly to several countries did not. Since Evidence premiered at the Strand, the number of VOD platforms has exploded. Not only does this mean the need for programming from TV shows and movies, but the ability to rise above the crowd and be heard.
Like Evidence that resulted in Justice Is Mind, the goal with Serpentine: The Short Program is to develop enough interest to produce the feature film version this year to release after the Winter Olympics in 2018. What this comes down to is building an audience and not getting lost in the crowd. When you consider that there are 10,000 – 50,000 films made a year, you can’t wait for an audience that may never find you, you have to tell them where you are.
As the saying goes, when opportunity knocks you take it. But none of this comes without passion, dedication and being steadfast for the long haul. A haul that can seem like forever until the day arrives.
Standby to launch.
Whenever I secure a theatrical screening, one of my goals is to obtain local press to bring awareness to the event. Sure, there’s the requisite social media engagement and Facebook event. But there’s nothing like securing media placements. This week the Sturbridge Villager wrote a terrific cover story on Serpentine and our upcoming premiere at the Strand Theatre on March 6. Not only did reporter Olivia Richman capture the essence of the film, but my background in the sport and passion for filmmaking.
It is about passion when a theatrical screening is on the horizon. For the thousands of independent films that get made every year only a sliver receive any sort of theatrical release or even one time screening. To fully capture that exposure I always seek to have the events “officially” photographed. I’m delighted to report that David Bruno of David Bruno Event Photography will be our official photographer for the evening.
Further to the above it also simply comes down to organization. By the time the day of the event arrives my aim is to actually enjoy the evening rather than running around at the last minute trying to rectify something. This is why I no longer participate in some third party events unless they are produced by professionals. I recall one science fiction convention I was at five years ago when despite my assurance that they had a DVD projector, screen and speakers set up, they didn’t. Compounding the issue was some volunteer lecturing me that their failure was my responsibility. Understand these words, if you dare to put on the hat of producer it is your responsibility to make sure things run smoothly.
As for distribution, next week I transfer Serpentine: The Short Program to the Ice Network. I have to say it will be great to see Serpentine on both Amazon Prime and the Ice Network. With Amazon being available to over 60 million and the Ice Network reaching figure skating enthusiasts around the world, the VOD distribution plan will bring the awareness this project needs to develop as a feature film.
Of course all these efforts with Serpentine remind me of the days when I first produced Evidence which led to production of Justice Is Mind. In some ways it seems like it was years ago (it was), in others it seems like it was yesterday. Because if it’s the one thing I endeavor to do is to promote my projects at whatever stage they are in. There are regular updates to Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, pitches for development, media and presentations for distribution and screenings.
Over the course of any given week I get Google Alerts on various subjects I track. One of them, no surprise, is for mind reading. When I received an alert for a recent article in MustTech News I pitched them Justice Is Mind for coverage. I was delighted to receive an email from them about a wonderful review they posted yesterday – “A must-watch film for those in love of thrill and science fiction!” That works!
And it’s back to work next week at the Naval Justice School in Newport, RI. I have to say I’m looking forward to falling back into the character of an NCIS Agent and working with some new actors and JAG students. Out of all the performance work I’ve done, this is the most unique. Not only is this a great acting opportunity from a role-playing point of view, but you learn something in the process about how the legal services work in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
Back to base.
I will say one thing about frequent snowstorms in New England. It gives one plenty of time to follow up and organize. This is that time of year when one looks at their weather app not for the sun or rain, but when the next storm is coming. But go to a local grocery store the day before and you might think it’s the second coming, the day after a nuclear attack or other such apocalypse. If you’re visiting from out of the region when a storm is on the horizon, it really is something to see.
As for what’s on the horizon that would be the premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program on March 6 at the Strand Theatre and our VOD premiere on Amazon and other platforms on March 7. It’s a multi-layered marketing plan with a dual local and national push. But if it’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s about the follow up.
Whenever I pitch the media it always starts with an email. This gives an editor or reporter time to consider what I’m presenting. Sometimes coverage comes from just the email pitch. But I’ve found that a follow up call a few days later puts a personal touch to it. In today’s world of the endless pitch combined with the challenge of resources afforded by most outlets, a phone call can make the difference.
I think the one thing everyone can agree on is that we are bombarded by media alerts, postings, email and text on a non-stop basis when we first wake up. What’s important and what isn’t. What gets attention and what doesn’t. I do believe that when you put the personal touch of a call to what you’re presenting, it makes you stand out a bit more than the rest. Just this past week, I had some great conversations with editors about Serpentine and other interesting subjects.
This is the time of year of the awards shows and the film markets like Berlin. As I normally do when the markets are running, I read the daily reports in The Hollywood Reporter. They give a great insight into trends and what is and isn’t selling. It’s always interesting to me to follow a film from concept to film market to theatrical release. This is not a quick process by any means. As I’ve often said, the actual production of the film is the easy, and fun, part. It’s the pre and post production along with the release strategy that is the most time consuming. But being snowed in does give one plenty of time.
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.
I am pleased to announce that Serpentine will have its world premiere at the Strand Theater in Clinton, MA on March 6, 2017! Serpentine will premiere after an encore screening of Justice Is Mind. For Serpentine this will be a first, for Justice Is Mind this will mark our 22nd screening. But it is the Strand Theater that give us our first theatrical break.
It was in 2012 and I was looking for a theater to screen Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind. It was the Strand that gave us the opportunity to screen after J. Edgar. Over a year later Justice Is Mind had its Massachusetts premiere at the Strand. The same model is being employed for Serpentine: The Short Program.
A theatrical screening marks a starting point. A launch pad, if you will, into a greater marketing program. Everything in this industry is timing. It’s about striking while the iron is hot (even though the rink is cold!). For Serpentine the launch will take place between national and world figure skating championships. The goal, as it was with Evidence all those years ago, is to develop as much interest as possible to produce the feature film version this year for a 2018 release. Why 2018? The Olympic Winter games take place in South Korea next year. It’s about riding a wave of popularity post games.
With a running time of just over 12 minutes, we will be presenting the first 10 pages of the feature length screenplay. Serpentine not only features several of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind and First World, but introduces actors making their debut performance. In the world of film it’s all about performance, what we see on the screen and how it comes together behind the scenes.
As for debut performance, it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with an aspiring actress and model. This week I signed with Dynasty Models & Talent for New England representation. Yes, it’s an exciting step as I continue to lay out some personal plans of my own. During my visit at the agency, the owner asked me if I had any words of wisdom for this actress. I first offered her the back story on how I was cast in a TV show some years ago but then went on to say how you have to want to be in this industry more than anything. No matter what you want to do, it takes a one hundred percent commitment and being able to weather continuous rejection. As I’ve stated before, this is an industry of no (or no response). But when a yes does come, it makes you appreciate your hard work all the more.
They say you are only as good as your last performance. While I agree with that to a point, I believe you are only as good as who you surround yourself with. This is an industry not lacking in advice, particularly from those you never asked. In my view it’s about working with those that want to showcase their efforts with you. I’ll just say this, it is not a coincidence that I’m working with a lot of the same people from Justice Is Mind and First World to bring Serpentine to life. This project also marks a reunion of sorts with a former business partner. More on that development later.
As for development, as an independent filmmaker, theaters like the Strand are important for our continued success. That being said, the Strand has established a GoFundMe campaign to restore and upgrade their wonderful marquee. For our screening on March 6 all ticket sales will be going to the Strand (no share of box office). As a filmmaker there is something special when you see your film in lights.
In Serpentine the name of the fictional skating association is The American Figure Skating Federation. In the real world it’s called U.S. Figure Skating. It seems fitting that as I continue work on the domestic and international marketing plans for Serpentine, the United States and Canadian national figure skating championships are underway.
The one major difference between the fictional world of Serpentine and the reality of today’s skating world is that there are no lyrics in Serpentine’s skating music. When I was at World’s last year and heard more than one skater perform to the theme of Titanic with dialogue from the film after the ship sank (with sinking skating performances to match), what do you even say except ‘Who approved this?’ Imagine offering the movie Airport ’77 on a transatlantic flight. Sorry, I just digressed.
This past week I continued building out the marketing and launch plans for Serpentine. Indeed it’s like building a federation of sorts. By one definition a federation is “the action of forming states or organizations into a single group with centralized control.” Given the political climate we can forget “the state” for a moment and just focus on organization. Yes, I strongly believe in centralized control especially when marketing a product. Many years ago it was magazines, now its film. In today’s challenging film market there’s no question that you need a well thought out plan with some sort of hook to market a film.
With Sundance well underway I’m starting to see articles in the trades and consumer press about the new complexities surrounding the distribution of independent films. Yes, there are those films like Hidden Figures that find a growing following. Then there are those like Silence that literally fall silent at the box office. For Hidden Figures the marketing was clear and powerful, the untold story of African-American women “computers” in the early years of NASA’s space program. For Silence there were too many articles about the director complaining about budget and pay.
We are no longer just filmmakers we are marketers. Last week I talked about living in a bubble. While the accolades at film festivals are certainly welcoming and inspiring, it does come down to translation into the real world. In the world of Serpentine, that means the primary VOD platform will be Amazon Prime, with marketing to include all the member nations of the International Skating Union with a primary focus on select other countries.
As planned Serpentine went to picture lock this week. And while that’s certainly a milestone, there are numerous other details that need to be attended to. From completing the visual effects, to sound engineering, scoring and color correction. And then there’s the marketing plan.
As I did with Justice Is Mind, and First World back in the day, I always aim to cast the widest net. When it comes to securing media or perhaps a screening opportunity, the more eyes on a project the better as you never know who may be interested. There’s so much more to filmmaking than the actual mechanical work of creating the film.
Since pre-production on Justice Is Mind back in 2012 I have been receiving email newsletters from various “experts” in the industry. Honestly, there is no magic wand and having a star in your project just doesn’t matter (look what happened this weekend at the box office). Your project will either resonate or it won’t. It will either breakthrough or get stuck. And while there are certainly a set of standards that need to be followed from having a quality picture with a proper aspect ratio, closed captioning and a few other industry standardizations, the rest is really up to the filmmaker. My point is there is no cookie cutter sheet that gives you instant success.
Serpentine is as opposite to Justice Is Mind as First World is to SOS United States. But in all my projects I make every effort to have an audience of some sort in mind when I start to write. Passion projects are great, but given the work that goes in to making a motion picture someone has to appreciate it past your family, cast and crew.
Since First World was released on to Amazon Prime it has seen a sizable increase in traffic. Science fiction is a relatively easy sell. Justice Is Mind is a hybrid of genres with science fiction and fantasy folded into a straight drama. The marketing of that film was a three prong approach with audiences reacting all over the place from science fiction enthusiasts to those that love courtroom films. Audiences have loved it or hated it. But no matter the reaction every click and view just increases the audience. And just this week I learned that Justice was picked up by a Chinese concern. More to announce later on that development.
On a personal note, I’m glad over ten years have passed since I was publishing a magazine in the sport of figure skating. It has given me a perspective well outside the bubble I lived in for over a decade. In general, as I’ve learned, living in a bubble is never a good idea as it warps your perspective.
As for perspective, since I’ll be voting for the first time in the SAG Awards this year, I’ve been watching more independent films than I normally do. Or should I say, than I normally would simply owing to their story. What one has to appreciate is the sheer energy and enthusiasm that goes into making an independent film.
One film I just have to recommend is Jackie. From Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy to the cinematography and story, I thought it was brilliantly executed (although the score gave me pause).
From the World Figure Skating Championships to the Naval Justice School, 2016 has been a whirlwind of a year. And between these events was the figure skating political thriller Serpentine. From script, to production to media coverage, Serpentine has certainly set the stage for 2017.
I’m never one to make New Year’s resolutions. Instead I look at what was accomplished in any given year. For me, there needs to be at least the creation of a new project or perhaps some interesting acting or on camera work. Thankfully for 2016 there was a bit of both.
Of course we had this thing in the United States called a presidential election. But you can’t define your entire existence over who won or lost. Putting aside that it narrows your world and opportunities, the country goes on no matter who wins or loses. The great thing about the American presidency is every four years we change hands (sometimes). As Scarlett O’Hara would say, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
As for another day, post production on Serpentine is moving right along and on schedule. We are into the second draft of the edit and I signed off on the opening credits VFX sequence yesterday. And generally speaking a good amount of the film has been scored. The post-production process of any film (short or feature), takes coordination. Are all the parties on the same page? Is communication flowing from one department to the next? I’ll say this there is a comfort level working with the same parties that brought Justice Is Mind to life.
In addition to Serpentine, 2017 will usher in some personal changes. I renewed my membership in SAG-AFTRA a couple of months ago for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say I see more trips to NYC next year. One of the benefits to membership is being able to vote in the SAG Awards and getting DVD screeners. Like the election, I’ll just leave it as what film isn’t getting my vote.
But for any given year it comes down to moving the needle just a bit in the direction I want to go in. I don’t try to push for the “all or nothing” approach as that can just set you up for disappointment. Do I outline goals for the near year? Certainly. Are they resolutions? No. Frankly, I’ve never understood those that proclaim with all the caps they can on social media at the start of any year that they’re going to quit X or move to Y! Um, how about just do it for yourself whenever and see where it goes. You won’t know until YOU try not when your “friends” approve.
Sure there’s been some disappointments this year. It wasn’t all champagne and caviar. But there’s no point dwelling on the past or those that tried to check all these bags of drama onto my ship (sorry we’re full up!). Like the car accident I was in. As I thankfully walked away, you just move on (cue Scarlett O’Hara again with score).
In closing it was great to see the reach of this blog across the world for another year. Your support of these words is very much appreciated. And to you and yours across this great planet…
Happy New Year!
Last Sunday principal photography on Serpentine, The Short Program wrapped! After eight months of writing and two months of pre-production planning, I was more than pleased with the end result. A special thanks to the cast, crew, location partners and sponsors for making this possible. After taking the past week to organize the video and sound files, the hard drive will transfer to our editor on Monday to begin the post-production process. It’s this stage that turns a puzzle into a completed print.
But make no mistake about this process, as an independent filmmaker you are pretty much responsible for everything…even the weather. And while I believe organization and communication are critical to a successful production, it does come down to both diplomacy and flexibility. A film production, whether it’s a short or a feature, is unlike any other type of business. You start by yourself and then suddenly ramp up. For Serpentine that meant over 30 people and three locations (for Justice Is Mind it meant over 200 people and 15 locations). As a screenwriter there is a thrill like none other than watching your screenplay come to life. Isn’t this why we do what we do?
For me this production was both a reunion as well as working with some terrific new people. It started with the FBI conference room scene at The Verve, Crowne Plaza. When Michael Coppola arrived I was immediately reminded of First World where he played a secret service agent. But it was the night before that I wrote an additional new scene for Michael and Vernon Aldershoff (Assistant Director in Serpentine and Henri Miller in Justice Is Mind). Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was to tell the cast and crew about a new scene when we didn’t even shoot the intended one! I waited to see if we were ahead of schedule and we were. It worked out great.
It was at Northstar Ice Sports that the word scope came into focus. First, I am beyond thankful to Denise Marco, the board and staff of Northstar for this opportunity. By scope I’m talking about the size of the set. It was about making sure all actors, cameras and crew were properly placed to make sure the scenes worked. For weeks I drew this out from the skating program, to camera and actor placements. What may not have seemed obvious to some would be very obvious in post-production.
Reuniting Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier from Justice Is Mind was a particular goal of mine from the beginning. Their on screen chemistry in Justice was what every director dreams of. So when they both signaled their availability for Serpentine I immediately signed them on to the project. As a director, there is also a comfort factor in terms of direction when working with actors that you know will deliver. In advance of our shooting I forwarded a detailed memo on character and scene development for all actors and crew. As time is a serious commodity on an independent film set, I think it’s best for everyone to understand the entire tone and feel of a scene when they arrive.
As a director I don’t believe in grandiose demonstrations of direction to actors and crew just to prove a point. In my simple view of it all, the most that should happen on set are adjustments. There’s no time to teach someone how to act on set. (Side note: On Justice Is Mind one adjustment I gave to an actress was how to say a particular phrase of profanity. I’ll just say this, it’s an American thing in terms of word emphasis and slang).
Our last day of filming was at a friend’s house. It was a fitting end to the production after coming down from two days of intense work at Northstar and the fact that there was only one line of dialogue. As I said to everyone, these scenes are largely atmospheric and what composers live for.
Another highlight of our week was when the MetroWest Daily News interviewed me about Serpentine and sent a photographer to our shoot at Northstar. Not only did they write an excellent article, but created a video as well. You can access both at this link.
Over the next few months I’ll be working on a variety of marketing and promotional efforts as we build towards our February release. During this time look for more stills, behind the scenes images and a trailer.
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.