In Justice Is Mind the fictional trial was The Commonwealth v. Henri Miller. In reality Justice Is Mind was primarily filmed in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This past week, Justice Is Mind’s editor Jared Skolnick, who is also an award winning filmmaker, was featured in an article titled “Hey, Hollywood and Bollywood — how about Valleywood?” The story in The Valley Advocate stated that Jared “makes movies in the Valley because this is where he’s from and where he began building his professional network.” The same holds true for me. Even when I was living in Los Angeles in 2007 and cast the two leads in First World in the “Golden State” of California, I filmed the project in Massachusetts? Why? Because this is where I’m from.
Having lived in both New York City and Los Angeles, I can certainly understand the desire to be at the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Having been on a network TV show, a city like Los Angeles can be very exciting when you are working on the high end of the industry. I know numerous actors (some I’ve trained) and filmmakers who have left Massachusetts for the hope of fame and fortune. I firmly believe if you have the desire and will to move to these cities you should. You will never know until you try. For me, I’m glad I had my experience in both these great cities, positive ones from a career point of view, but my creative energy and the launching of all my projects has originated in Massachusetts. It’s not something I set out to do, it just happened that way. My new personal website, www.markashtonlund.com, chronicles the journey.
Case in point, the making of First World and Justice Is Mind. Both of these projects were enormously ambitious between the number of talent involved and needed locations. I had to work in a region where I knew the people and their general enthusiasm about being part of the film. Why film in a location that will require permitting, location fees and local regulations just to look cool, when you can film somewhere else for free working with enthusiastic location partners in exchange for promoting their business?
For me, as I did with Justice Is Mind, once I give the green light to a project I like to move along at reasonable pace in pre-production. Simply put, time is money whether literally or figuratively. As some may have noticed from postings to this blog, I have generally already scouted most of the locations for SOS United States and to some degree for In Mind We Trust.
But as we have seen from the latest film markets, the greatest challenge filmmakers on all levels have is in securing production financing for their projects and a return on investment. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to recognize that it always comes down to equity and what the investor wants. To say there has been an about face in film financing you just have to revisit articles that the trades wrote around the latest American Film Market and then there was this blog post over at Film Specific. But there is one piece to “The Commonwealth” financing pie that keeps films in the state.
This past week there were a variety of reports locally and nationally about the industry. In the Hollywood Reporter there was a story about how the major studios don’t actually pay to make movies anymore they are more facilities, marketing and distribution companies. It has been true for some time. The studios mitigate their risk by partnering with production companies, investment funds, etc. This practice particularly picked up steam when capital was flush pre recession and especially post recession. As the majority of the major studios are divisions of multi-billion dollar companies, risk avoidance is what they now do best.
Here in Massachusetts, there were new reports on the building of film studios in Devens and in Westborough. For any of us in the region that is even remotely tied to the industry, we all remember the grand plans of Plymouth Rock Studios. Having recently just moved back from Los Angeles at the time I knew Plymouth was never going to happen. First, even with the tax credit benefits of the state (and they are nicely generous), there were simply too many empty stages in Los Angeles and unless you signed contracts with the production companies that supplied TV programming where on Earth was the revenue going to come from to support such an ad-venture?
Anyone that has worked with me knows that I am the consummate optimist. I strive to push the envelope until it gives, but in the end I’m a realist as well (I’m a New Englander after all!). When I see with these “studio” projects and the bravado of one person who claims mysterious sources of capital with a “build it and they will come mentality,” I just shake my head. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way in this business or any other business. If you don’t build a solid foundation to a business how are you going to support it?
The one thing we have in the New England region is great talent on both sides of the camera. This talent deserves to be involved in major projects not reaching for the crumbs when a BIG film comes to town. What film projects need is capital. Can you imagine instead of building all these buildings, a few million dollars in capital were raised to produce independent films with varying budgets? Sure as the budgets grow, you need to attach bankable (usually out of town) talent to sell your project domestically and internationally. But that doesn’t mean that after you secure bankable talent at the top (say 1-3 actors) the rest can’t be cast locally between talent and facilities in the region. Imagine a talented actor who is leading an independent film produced for under $50K and the project does reasonably well in sales. As that actor’s profile starts to rise at some point they may be the “anchor tenant” of a larger film. Just like in the studio system days long past, an actor, a cinematographer, a writer all had to start somewhere. The studios had smaller films to test talent before moving them to larger projects.
For anyone that’s produced an independent film you basically need to create a virtual studio to make it work anyway. Someone handles casting, locations, editing, marketing, distribution, etc. Why not seek to formalize it by raising capital to produce films under one virtual roof rather than build buildings and wait for product to come?
With the digital age we live in a virtual studio system is possible. Once enough films get into the distribution pipeline and the revenue stream starts, the foundation is there to eventually build a studio. When I started a magazine I launched it on the dining room table and eventually got an office once we had revenue to support it. It’s not a foreign business concept it’s a practical one.