What I love about screenwriting is the research that goes with it. When I wrote First World I learned about the Apollo space program, the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, the Roswell incident and how parts of the United Nations operate. For Justice Is Mind it was the science of mind-reading (“thought identification”), reincarnation, and complex legal issues from the introduction of evidence based on new science to the construction of a criminal trial. Whenever I write science fiction, I think it’s important to have it rooted in plausibility or at least have it explained with a sense of realism (Star Trek is great for that).
The basis for my political thriller SOS United States has always been around this premise – the possibility that an ocean liner may have a nuclear device on board. Where did the idea come from? I’ve always been interested in the Cold War and count Fail Safe and Seven Days in May as two of my favorite movies of the time. Add that interest to my passion for ocean liners and SOS United States was born. It was my mother that first got me interested in ocean liners in the 1970s with our membership in the Titanic Historical Society (Yes, Titanic is one of my favorite films).
With premise in mind I started my research. The ocean liner in my story needed to be fast, luxurious and military-like. It didn’t take long to discover the SS United States. Built in 1952 the luxury liner “was designed as part of a top-secret Pentagon program during the Cold War, which stipulated it could be quickly converted from a luxury liner into a naval troopship in the event of a war.” Needless to say I found my ship. And found her I did. Since the SS United States was retired in 1969 she has been laid up all over the world and is currently docked in Philadelphia. More than once the ship was almost scrapped.
In my original notes the idea was that some company purchased the SS United States and refurbished her. But I quickly discounted that as unrealistic. Instead, I researched the United States Lines and discovered their early flagship the SS Leviathan. With that name, and the original blueprints of the SS United States, a company built a “state of the art” luxury liner, equipped with offensive capability to defend against pirating with a maximum speed of over 50 MPH. I guess my original notes proved to be something more than an idea.
Last week in New York City, Crystal Cruises, a luxury cruise line, “announced it will save “America’s flagship,” the SS United States, and embark on the enormous undertaking of bringing the ship into compliance with the latest standards, and returning her to oceangoing service.” While I figured some sort of redevelopment plan would be put forward, as was done with the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, the fact that the SS United States will actually sail again as a luxury liner just proved once again that if you stay true to your mission with persistence and patience the impossible can become a reality. My congratulations to the dedication of SS United States Conservancy to save and preserve the ship and to the visionary leadership of Crystal Cruises to see the SS United States return to the high seas.
Suddenly the world premiere of SOS United States on the SS United States just became a little more possible. I remember sailing on the Queen Mary 2 in 2007 and saying to my mother how grand it would be to have one of my films screen on an ocean liner. After years of planning and determination, Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth on October 29, 2014.
I remember the mission I was on when I wrote First World in 2006. It was a commitment and passion to learn the craft of screenwriting, research a project and then, to quote this recent article in Script magazine, “write the hell out” of it. Those early efforts resulted in three screenplay nominations and the production of a short film version that screened in several countries. Indeed, I was on a mission.
We live in a world of instant gratification. But that world is a fantasy in the entertainment industry. Someone at some point at some place at some time dedicated years (or decades) to make their project a reality.
Just this week the tireless efforts of the SS United States Conservancy seems to have led to a deal to save the majestic and historic SS United States ocean liner. The redevelopment of the famed liner will be announced in New York City this week. Anyone that has been following their efforts knows this has not been smooth sailing. Thankfully an impassioned plea by the Conservancy to save the ship from the breakers a few months ago brought much needed worldwide attention and donations to the storied liner. The same passion and commitment holds true in the entertainment industry.
After I wrote Justice Is Mind I remember the endless pitches, presentations, blind alleys, dubious investors and bad advice. But it was at one point during the process that I remember going through the same thing in publishing a decade plus prior when trying to raise capital for that venture. That deal clicked at one point just like Justice Is Mind did. But in both cases there was a commonality – I produced these projects myself with investors. That’s the direction I now take.
Would it be grand if “Hollywood” wanted to take one of my projects and run with it? Of course. But Hollywood as we now know it, because the industry is fragmented and decentralized, is everywhere. Audiences don’t care where or how a film came together, they just want to be entertained. It’s really that simple. It was the same with magazines. I was told over and over again that nobody would take me seriously unless we published out of New York. I lived in New York and worked in publishing (TIME magazine). Sure, it was cool. But expensive. In the end, I published market leading magazines based in Worcester, Massachusetts. Readers and theater audiences don’t care where a project originates from.
There was a certain sense of satisfaction when I returned to Los Angeles in 2013 for the West Coast Premiere of Justice Is Mind. A film, born out of Worcester and filmed primarily in central Massachusetts was screening in the entertainment capital of the world. “Hollywood” is as much an atmosphere as it is a corporate entity comprised of all manner of divisions. All “Hollywood” wants is the audience because the larger the audience the larger the revenue.
For those of you on a mission in this industry, I encourage you to read Jeanne Veillette Bowerman’s article in Script magazine. Above all else you need to be passionate about your work while keeping an open mind on collaboration.
It has become a common practice in the entertainment industry to create “proof of concept” trailers and short films to promote projects past the written word of the script (sometimes there’s not even a script!). With more and more projects looking for attention, a thoughtful concept trailer can most certainly advance a project.
Yesterday morning, Daniel Elek-Diamanta, the composer of Justice Is Mind, sent me just over :30 of music he scored. We’ve been talking about SOS United States for several months and when it comes to composing music, we have always been on the same page. It was like this with Justice Is Mind. In August, 2012 he was sending me samples of music well before one frame of the film was shot. What you hear in the final cut of Justice was largely agreed to well in advance. Suffice to say, it’s a great collaboration and I highly recommend him as a composer.
I’ve been wanting to create some sort of video for SOS United States past our concept poster. The moment I heard Daniel’s sample the idea came to mind. You can view the concept trailer at this link. The general premise of SOS United States is relatively straight forward. An ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean may have a nuclear bomb on board. The only military vessel in the vicinity is the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier during her sea trials.
As I have some preliminary producer meetings this week, the concept trailer for SOS United States is well timed. But that being said, I’m sure the subject of budget, casting, etc., will come up. On the face of it, it looks like the Massachusetts Film Tax Credit is here to stay – for now anyway. But as these producer meetings are happening “across the pond” the UK offers some of the best incentives along with a vibrant infrastructure.
This past week a very rare article was published around an independent film called Papadopoulos & Sons. What was rare about it was the breakdown of financials. Honestly, that short of working for a distributor, these numbers are seldom known, never mind released. There’s a variety of pros/cons for releasing numbers. Yes, box office results are largely public, but VOD, TV, etc. are usually held very close to the chest. In this filmmakers view it’s because the deals for these platforms not only differ for each film, but there are myriad proprietary contracts involved that can limit public dissemination from a competition point of view.
What this article does fully document are the fees involved in film distribution and the realities of revenue that come back to the financiers. This is why being realistic about a film budget is so important. Yes, you want the film to look and sound great with a stellar cast and crew, but at the end of the day it’s about revenue.
This morning I was reading the Hollywood Reporter’s excellent profile on filmmaker Christopher Nolan. I loved his quote, “If you want to make a calling card, you go to Kinkos. You don’t spend three years of your life putting a film together”. That could not be truer when making a feature film.
For the Justice Is Mind “project” it started in 2010 with the script, 2011 with the short, 2012 with the feature and 2013 to the present for the release and general marketing. Simply put, filmmaking is a long tail business. Yes, it’s all very exciting and “cool” to be shooting a film, but these are projects that we are married to for years. By example, my first short film First World was produced in 2006 and released in 2007. It’s 2015 and revenue is still coming in on monthly basis. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the value in a film library. I just have three films in my library, but imagine a company with hundreds of titles all earning some sort of revenue on a monthly basis.
With First World under consideration and SOS United States completed at the script stage, I just passed the 95 page mark on the sequel (yes, I have a title) to Justice Is Mind. The story, is much bigger in terms of scope. Instead of a trial in Massachusetts, we are at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. Am I ready to release the title and logline? Not yet. While I’m happy where the story is going, I always remain “open minded” on direction.
For me writing and developing a story is like playing chess. The pieces of your story might move in a typical fashion at the start, and just when you think I’m going to give you what you want, I’m going to turn it. As Unsung Films said about Justice Is Mind, “And this is when the film changes gear for one last time, turning into a science fiction tale – unexpectedly and viciously.” Yes, there will be a couple of unexpected turns in the sequel. But like Justice Is Mind, the clues start early.
One of the reasons why I admire Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker is because he creates original stories that resonate (I loved Inception). Personally, I’m really over the homogenized films that are created to appeal to the widest possible audience, but don’t tell a story. Seventy years later Laura is still a great film. Likewise with the 1968 production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s what we call long tail!
According to the Hollywood Reporter 2014 box office was down 5% from last year marking the biggest drop off in nine years. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me. I just know from the audiences that saw Justice Is Mind, they want original stories. I understand the economics of why a studio spends $150 million on one motion picture, but imagine dividing that budget by 10? We know there are all kinds of original stories just waiting to be told. In the end it comes down to what audiences want to see and how they want to watch.
Yes, I have gone to Kinkos. To print scripts.
It was one year ago yesterday that Justice Is Mind had its west coast premiere in Beverly Hills, California and it was just over a week ago that we had our international premiere on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. In a sea of films looking for attention, my goal since day one with Justice was to make every attempt to stand out from the crowd. Just take a read of the AFM dailies, there are a dizzying amount of films looking for attention and distribution.
I have never been one to follow the crowd. I don’t believe in doing what everyone else does just to be “in” or perceived as “popular”. Conformity has never been my strong suit. Ask anyone that has followed my career from publishing to film, I have always carved a niche for my projects.
I believe the verdict is in on Justice Is Mind. Having been screening the film theatrically for over a year the majority of audiences and reviewers have enjoyed the film. Audiences didn’t care about the “star power” of the characters. They just wanted to see a good story. Honestly, I don’t know why distributors (particular foreign sales agents) don’t understand that as well. On the Queen Elizabeth that was the test. An international audience from all over the world that applauded when the film ended. It wasn’t about the stars in the film, it was about the story in the film. Thankfully, the industry is changing and rightly so.
Unbelievably the trend as of late is that there’s plenty of capital but not enough bankable talent to sell the films into foreign markets. One industry executive quoted in Variety stated “From a financing perspective, it’s never been better. But it’s not about the money; it’s about the talent. The challenge right now in the independent market is getting talent to commit and stay committed”. But films are still being financed. One look at an AFM daily or the thousands of films that are produced every year contradicts that assertion. I think what this comes to is looking for the perfect project. Dear God we know that doesn’t exist because there’s one factor that no actor, producer, director, distributor, sales agent or investor can gauge…the audience.
With the rise of VOD, theaters hungry for films that tell a good story (the building in China is off the charts) and unique screening opportunities (like we did with Justice on the Queen Elizabeth), Justice Is Mind proved that a quality story works in the market from theatrical, VOD and special events. All this without “star” actors. When I was publishing many years ago I was told time and time again that nobody would read my magazines without known writers. Really? That’s why I had the number one magazines in our market. Don’t follow the crowd, make the crowd.
As a diehard fan of cinema from classics to contemporary, I have nothing against “stars” but projects shouldn’t be defined around “A” list talent. We all know that at the end of the day it comes down to what the audience wants.
Perhaps the best advice I ever received was to have a few different projects at the ready because you really don’t know what will resonate at the right time. I have First World, a science fiction epic; Justice Is Mind, a psychological sci-fi thriller and SOS United States, a political thriller. With Justice Is Mind produced and distributed, today I continue to market that film while presenting First World and SOS United States to interested parties to secure production. Tomorrow, I start to write the sequel to Justice Is Mind.