As we are about one month away from First Signal’s table read on June 16, we had a location confirmation lock with the expansive field we needed. I couldn’t be more pleased with this location. It’s exactly what the script called for.
As this location is on private property I won’t reveal its location. With an outdoor location, private property is better to shoot on. Why? It’s about privacy. While I’m all about someone learning the process of making a film, the actual process of making one is time consuming detailed work. On private property you don’t have onlookers watching from the sidelines and getting in the frame of the shot. But it’s also about taking pictures and posting them to social media, etc. Unfortunately, the wrong picture can ruin an entire film. Anyone that works in the industry knows the general policies that go with on set photography. Most sets have “still photographers” that take a variety of pictures that encompass an entire production.
While additional locations are being scouted, along with numerous other behind the scenes activity, the one thing I’m very cognizant of is the film market itself. There is no better market than Cannes to provide a fresh perspective on where the industry is going. As Alex Walton of Bloom tells the Hollywood Reporter. “International distributors are in need of product, but they’re also incredibly cautious because they’re in need of the right product. There are fewer films, fewer packages and fewer things to buy, so when we approach Cannes now, even compared to five or six years ago, it is with a completely different mindset,” Adds Entertainment One CEO Darren Throop who tells the Hollywood Reporter, “The whole concept of buying a good package on the open market and reselling it to cinema, pay and TV — that whole model has changed. The very foundation of independent film has changed.”
The one thing that has changed in the last several years is the development of franchises and the sci-fi genre has pretty much been a solid bet. As a director my job is to create a quality film that’s ready for the market. But as a producer I am making a bet on the market. It’s an interesting line to balance.
But putting aside numbers, market share and all that comes after the fact, it is the process of making a film that’s the most exciting. Watching the actors and crew bring life to your story is tremendously satisfying. As a screenwriter we spend hours, weeks and months behind a computer coming up with, what we hope, is an interesting story. But it’s seeing that story emblazoned on the silver screen that makes the entire process a worthwhile endeavor.
Part of that process is equipment. Yesterday, I purchased a drone for a pivotal shot at the end of the film. But no sooner did I complete this purchase and I’m suddenly thinking of all the other creative areas we can use a drone in First Signal. This technology has changed so much since we used one in Justice Is Mind. Add to that the cost has come down exponentially. This is why the process of filmmaking is so enticing and exciting. The democratization of the entire process from creating to distributing has changed for the better.
No the title of this week’s post doesn’t refer to a meeting hall, but the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This famed building assembled the Saturn V and Space Shuttle vehicles and will be home to the Space Launch System in the future. Assembly building could also refer to the process of creating a film.
This past week I have been quietly talking to certain actors and crew about First Signal. While I mentioned last week the plan to produce this film in August, I’m purposely being quiet on who exactly is involved until after the fact. Yes, a few actors have already been cast and I started to reach out to crew. Of course it’s exciting to bring a project to light, but there is a method to this “secrecy”.
Those that follow me have probably noticed that I haven’t published one line of dialogue, mentioned a proposed location or stated who is already with the project. For First Signal this is all about building a comprehensive branding and marketing campaign around this “First World” universe. Much like the careful thought and preparation that goes into the assembly of a space vehicle, the same holds true for a film (but not nearly as complicated!).
With the number of films being created due to the democratization of the process of filmmaking, I believe it is imperative to have some sort of solid public relations and marketing campaign tied to your project. I did this with the magazines I published and have carried this discipline to my film projects. I say discipline because that’s what you need when making a movie. Yes, it’s all very exciting when you are on set and actually making a dream come to life, but the years, months, weeks and days leading up that moment is one of careful planning and execution. In particular, the genre of science fiction takes a certain amount of world building to make it original.
Of course what this also comes down to is making a project interesting for a consumer audience. This article in The Hollywood Reporter addressed the gamble films take with a box office release versus selling to Netflix. I firmly believe it was the limited theatrical release we had for Justice Is Mind that led to the majority of press reports and consumer awareness.
Honestly, unless a film has some sort of momentum owing to cast or concept, how do you differentiate one movie from another in the sea of video on demand? Do you hope it’s discovered on VOD or do you give it a consumer marketing push first with a theatrical release? I’ll always believe the latter makes the most sense.
A few months ago I thought seriously about attending the American Film Market (AFM). Aside from the fact that I’m due for a visit to Los Angeles to catch up with friends and colleagues, there’s no question that networking opportunities at AFM are important to anyone in the industry.
Before I spend some thousands of dollars to attend (or on anything), one does have to be practical about it. Will there be a return? In my view, “Hollywood” is a year round industry and “pitching” isn’t married to a film market. But markets are something I’ve been tracking for several years and when The Hollywood Reporter starts its day 3 daily with the headline, “AFM Dealmakers in Revolt! ‘There’s Nothing for Us’”, I’m glad I didn’t make the trek.
I predicted that when Hulu came online that VOD would be the future for independent film. Now in 2017, Amazon and Netflix are the saviors of independent film. Television, whether terrestrial, cable or VOD, has taken so many A and B+ actors out of the independent film world to the more lucrative TV industry. So what’s left? Well, to quote from The Hollywood Reporter’s day 3 daily, “A lack of big-name, must-have projects is leading to plenty of grumbling at the market, with some buyers wondering if this year marks the ‘death knell’ for the indies. Says one frustrated insider: ‘It’s B-, C- and D-quality stuff’”.
If you read the dailies from the film markets you know the hundreds, if not thousands, of films that are looking for some sort of home. Something to recoup the investment that has been put up for someone’s dream. This is an industry of dreams envisioned and dreams realized. It’s important, for obvious reasons, that we keep the dream alive.
In my view the dream will be kept alive with a good story. Plain. Simple. To the point. Star driven independent films only do one thing, drive up the cost of the film with no guarantee of return at the box office. That’s fact, not fiction.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind my goal from day one was to produce it myself (with investors of course). Sure, I presented it to some production companies, but the feedback was unreal. There is this assumption that after you do all the hard work you somehow need their help. Here is a recent email I received from a production company, “I didn’t had the chance to look in details at the project as they seem to be in too early stage for us. Don’t hesitate to keep us posted when you will have a budget, cast, financial plan.” Putting aside the horrid grammar, the question begs to be asked, “And I need you why after I’ve done all this work?” The answer is simple, I don’t need you.
Producing a film is not rocket science. You just need a good script and capital. Done. Yes, it is that simple. The “rocket science” comes up if you’ve never produced because there are countless details you need to know, particularly when it comes to post-production (sound engineering anyone?). It also can get involved if you decide to use a named actor and have to deal with the myriad issues around that. Seriously, at the end of the day a filmmaker just wants to see their dream come to life. Having produced four films (3 shorts and 1 feature) and seeing them come to life on the silver screen is a feeling like none other.
Tomorrow I start to write this new feature with the same production aim as Justice Is Mind. The title of this new feature may have the word First in it, but thankfully it will be the fifth.
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.
As Jodie Foster told The Hollywood Reporter this past week, “The hardest part is getting the green light, getting the movie going.” From financing, locations, crew and talent, moving a project to green light status is a major undertaking. Reading the dailies coming out of Cannes this week there is a host of industry adjustments. From distributors looking for new ways to grab audiences, to Amazon launching a YouTube like service .to the availability of A list actors when so many are committed to “superhero” movies. Yet again another era of change in an ever changing industry. But at some point you just have to throw caution to the wind and do it.
A few days ago I crossed the 60 page mark in the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. My aim is to have a complete first draft by the end of June. I’ve already started to reach out to a couple of key people I’ve worked with over the years on availability later on this summer.
For me it comes down to visualizing not just the film but the market in which it’s going to exist in. This is why I always write a business plan as part of the development process. Bottom line, I need to know there’s a market for the story and/or a target demographic. For Justice Is Mind it was older audiences and a few films that fell into the type of audience I was going after—Fringe meets Law & Order in a Gattaca setting. With SOS United States the story is set in a contemporary world of conflict between nations and shadow governments that can best be compared to Seven Days in May meets Clear and Present Danger.
But with this new story I’m writing, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that the sport of figure skating has a base of enthusiasts and participants that can be marketed to. For me it comes down to not just creating “another skating movie” but one that builds off that base with a story that revolves around a decade’s long Cold War mystery that culminates at the world figure skating championships. What it really comes down is marketing to an alternative audience.
As producer Charles Cohen told The Hollywood Reporter regarding the niche he targets, “It’s a mature audience that’s seeking an alternative to the typical Hollywood production — your big tentpole picture. People who are crying out for Marigold Hotel or Philomena or Brooklyn. Films that harken back to the ’60s and ’70s, which deal with real issues.” I could not agree more. As I learned with Justice Is Mind audiences want an alternative.
Perhaps the biggest news this past week was Amazon’s new Video Direct Service that takes direct aim at YouTube. I’ve been working with Amazon’s CreateSpace and through our distributor for Amazon Prime for several years. Amazon, in my view, is one the best places independent filmmakers have to showcase their work to a wide audience (they also own IMDb). Unlike some of these “curated” platforms that you barely hear about, Amazon’s algorithm approach puts the decision firmly in the hands of the consumer.
But there’s another thing that Amazon also gets right and that’s its approach to theatrical screenings. They know that a quality theatrical screening makes all the difference to just another VOD release. Having had a theatrical release for Justice Is Mind it also helps enormously with press and building an audience. While I’ve been a proponent of VOD for years, the film industry is steeped in the tradition of the theatrical release and rightly so. As a filmmaker, there is nothing more exhilarating than seeing your movie on the marquee and having it come to life in a theater.
In the entertainment industry there are the readers. Those individuals who are assigned to read screenplays. Whether you are at a studio, agency, network, production company or film festival, there are the readers. They are on the front lines of evaluating your script. I was a reader for a film festival a few years ago. From reading screenplays that you can see on the silver screen with an Academy Award nomination to those that would be best served as fodder for a litter box, the net of the result is that a human being read it.
I have long been used to subjective industries. From sports to entertainment, a human being decides your fate. They decide if your performance or project is worthy of an award or the circular file. But the last thing this industry needs is a computer program to evaluate the quality of your screenplay.
This past week in The Hollywood Reporter came this article This New Artificial Intelligence Script-Reading Program Could Find Your Next Oscar Role. It was bad enough when I read a few years ago about some new program being developed that could write a screenplay and now reading about one that decides the fate of a screenplay by a computer? Both can immediately fade to black with no acts.
The absolute bottom line to the entire entertainment industry is the writer. Without writers nobody has a job. A writer comes up with an idea, researches that idea and then writes a story. A good reader sees the nuances between the lines of action and dialogue to properly evaluate a script. If after all the human checks and balances it pasts muster, it is then the responsibility of the director to breathe life into those pages to present a project that can be sold into the market. No computer program can do that.
There’s no question that tens of thousands of scripts are written on any given year and tracking them is a daunting task. We know the process of moving a project from script to screen is a herculean one. But if you start to marginalize the writer through the process of a computer program you are doing this industry a disservice because there is then no motivation to create. Last I checked computers don’t fill the seats of a theatre human beings do.
One of the biggest complaints that producers have is finding quality writers and, in particular, showrunners for TV shows. This is not an industry that works off a stopwatch. It is an industry that continuously yearns for that next creative idea to be championed into production. No computer program can do that.
I know that somewhere today on this “Pale Blue Dot” someone has thought of an idea that will eventually wind up in our theaters or as a TV series, because when all is said and done nobody will be presenting a Best Writing award to a Hal 9000.
No the title of this week’s post isn’t a new TV series, but a character I introduced in Justice Is Mind that is greatly expanded upon in the sequel In Mind We Trust. And with EFM (European Film Market) currently underway in Berlin, Germany, it seemed particularly fitting.
Today marks one year since I wrote the first draft of the sequel. Yes, there have been some tweaks since then, but more of a decision on where to take the project. While Justice Is Mind was produced as a feature film, the next logical direction for the project is to present it as a TV series. I must have had that “in mind” when I wrote the sequel as it sets up the established characters from Justice Is Mind with new characters in a world where mind reading technology has permeated our way of life from the judicial system to immigration to employment and national security.
With Justice Is Mind released to positive reviews and In Mind We Trust written, I’ve been working on the story “bible” for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been down the TV series pitch process before with certain studios and production companies when my agent took out a series I conceived called Frozen Assets. It was essentially Dynasty meets figure skating and I worked with a leading writer of that famed TV show to shape the series. Being in pitch meetings is an interesting process and you really need to have your pitch rehearsed. I knew the sport, but this writer knew the industry. The show wasn’t picked up (figure skating was dying in the TV ratings at the time), but the experience was a real learning curve for me. On a side note my agent almost killed me when we pulled up to the Paramount gate and I said from the back seat of her car, “Jonesy! Hey, Jonesy!”
As for the industry, attention is on Berlin, Germany this week. Unlike Sundance which has turned into a showcase for studio productions and, in my view, lost its purpose as a haven for independent filmmaking, EFM is a unique film market to follow. It presents films from concept to completion. I might add that The Hollywood Reporter does a terrific job with their daily reports.
Reading the reports you can clearly see how the industry has changed the last couple of years. Sales agents want completed films and stars don’t guarantee any sort of success. I think Marc Gabizon of Wild Bunch said it perfectly when he stated in this article, “You see, film is a great business. It’s fascinating, but it’s also dangerous. You can’t forget about the risks, even when you’re successful — maybe especially then. There’s always a risk, but you have to make sure that if you have a flop, it doesn’t topple the whole company. Don’t bet the house on one or two titles.” By flop he was referring to Bradley Cooper’s Burnt.
While nothing is more exciting than announcing a new project, it does come down to risk. As a producer my job is to project a path of realistic profitability. As a director I need to deliver a solid and marketable project.
One trend I see coming out of EFM are the interesting political thriller type projects. This has been a consistent trend over the last couple of years and bodes well for SOS United States.
Whether it’s an investor, theater or media outlet, it all starts with a cold call or cold pitch. I have always taken the position “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Sure we can all hope to be discovered at a “Schwab’s” or positing a proof of concept video to YouTube, but in the end it truly comes down to a pitch and then the presentation.
I have long discovered that it’s easier to pitch the office of a qualified investor than it is to a “Hollywood” production company. Why? A production company is fielding countless projects and they need that one thing to move any project forward—cash. I also have long believed in charting my own course rather than following the same route everyone else takes. Put it another way, I’d rather pull my car up to the front door than park blocks away.
Just this morning I was watching a video on IndieWire by writer/director Charlie Kaufman about his film Anomalisa (impressive wins at the Venice Film Festival). When asked why there was so much time between his projects, the Oscar winner stated freely a variety of challenges and that his film was made outside of the “studio system” and didn’t go the conventional route. The point? It doesn’t matter your credentials, this business takes a steady hand of determination and patience. Kaufman went on to mention that he was on this project for three years (his team also raised some funds on Kickstarter).
As some of you know, my political thriller SOS United States sees the Concorde fly again. Just yesterday an article on Road Warrior Voices revealed a determined group of investors and enthusiasts that may just bring the Concorde back. I’ve been following the steadfast voices behind this movement for the last couple of years. Their resolve, like those behind the SS United States ocean liner, is impressive. And, yes, I will be informing the group behind this hopeful return of the Concorde about SOS United States – with a cold pitch!
From script (2010), to short (2011), to feature (2012) to release (2013), Justice Is Mind has been a five year project. I remember those early days of pitching to the “establishment”. Why not. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do because everyone else is doing it? Sure, a deal can happen. But in the end, producing it independently outside of any system has brought far greater returns on so many levels.
Next week there’s an industry event taking place in Boston. I’m largely planning to attend because of a panel around drones. We used a drone in Justice Is Mind for the climatic end scene, but SOS United States calls for a substantial amount of drone shots. Imagine skimming close above the ocean only to rise up to take in the gravitas of the USS Massachusetts battleship as the President of the United States addresses the nation.
With the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in full swing, I enjoy reading the dailies and the state of the industry. What was a relatively unusual trend is that The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and IndieWire all generally reported that this market may be a slower one due to a conflux of trends; from the availability of cast driven projects to disappointments at the box office from previous festival sales. Truth be told, there is no crystal ball to predict what will resonate with audiences.
But if there is one thing that has to resonate with me, it’s inspiration. If I am not inspired by the subject matter, if I don’t believe in the material, if I can’t envision it on the screen, I can’t get behind it. One only has to witness the disaster that was the latest iteration of Fantastic Four. The film was a forced project for the sake of “rights” rather than passion.
With all my projects they are driven by something that inspired me. Whether it was the Apollo space program for First World, mind reading technology for Justice Is Mind or government conspiracies in SOS United States, it is the underlying material that motivates and inspires me. It’s not enough for me to be a filmmaker, I must be a promoter as well. Because if I don’t believe in the project why should anybody else.
This past week I ran into someone at my gym who has seen my films and he asked “How do I do it?” He was asking about the recent press we had around the second anniversary screening of Justice Is Mind. My response was pretty quick, “Because I believe in it.” I know how Justice has resonated with audiences. I know what their reactions have been after the screenings. But it was also coming up with an angle for the latest media push – second anniversary, positive audience reactions and a sequel in development with In Mind We Trust. It gave the media something to tell their audiences.
And this is what the industry is all about – the audience. I sometimes think this vital attribute is missed by the vacuum atmosphere of festivals. An audience at a film festival is vastly different from one at the local theater. At a festival you are probably a cinephile or industry executive and will see just about anything, but it’s the real world of the local theater that shines light on what an audience wants to see.
As The Hollywood Reporter stated, “Despite a challenging climate for indie film financing” projects are getting done because of valuable co-productions. Indeed this is an industry about partnerships. I learned this when our location partners for Justice Is Mind also became valuable marketing partners. It’s about inspiring others to see your vision.
It’s hard to believe that the 2nd Anniversary of the world premiere of Justice Is Mind is coming up on August 18. I am, therefore, delighted to announce that Justice Is Mind will celebrate its 2nd Anniversary at Cinemagic in Sturbridge, Massachusetts on August, 18, 2015!
To say time flies by would be an understatement. This is particularly true when you are doing the day to day marketing of a feature film. August 18 will mark the 21st screening since our world premiere. While Justice is available on VOD, there is nothing more exciting as a filmmaker than to see your work on the big screen. And with Justice now also available in DCP (Digital Cinema Package) thanks to the Chatham Theatre, for the first time we may be seeing the film at its highest resolution. I thought our theatrical DVDs were great, but seeing a DCP sample of Justice several months ago was truly incredible.
It’s interesting when you set out to make a film, because you just don’t know what market forces and conditions are going to exist when your film is released. Case in point women in film. Who would have thought that the inequities of women in leading roles in films would be at such a forefront in the media? Thankfully, Justice Is Mind is evenly split between men and women. For me as a screenwriter it just makes sense from an overall “reality” point of view. As Reese Witherspoon told the Hollywood Reporter at the Produced By conference the other day, “I was just reading scripts, and the scripts were sort of diminishing. I just started to notice they were making less movies for women, and that meant less parts for women.” Thus, Witherspoon started to produce films a few years ago.
Speaking of women in film, Mary Wexler, who plays Judge Wagner in Justice Is Mind and is one of our producers, posted a wonderful article in New England School of Law Alumni Magazine about her work as a lawyer, involvement in the film and mention of the sequel In Mind We Trust. Her quote, “Justice allowed me to combine my love of acting and my passion for the law,” said it all for me.
Above all else, filmmaking is a passion. Yes, there is the important economic and commercial side, but at the end of the day filmmaking is just pure fun. For me whether I’ve been on set as a TV personality, actor, producer or director, I’ve loved every moment of it. Now having been fortunate enough to see a feature film of my own produced, and the journey it can take you on, yes, I plan to do this again..and again.
Just yesterday I passed the 30 page mark on the screenplay adaption of Winds of Fall, while some possible producing and financing partners are reviewing SOS United States, First World and In Mind We Trust. This is not an easy industry by any stretch of the imagination and is one of patience. When I read that over 30,000 films were being marketed at Cannes in some capacity or another, thankful for our accomplishments to date with Justice Is Mind doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel.
With the business plan for In Mind We Trust completed, work now begins again in earnest to market my slate of films for development, The one thing I have learned about this industry since I made First World, and during my time as a magazine publisher, is that investment can come from anywhere at any time. They key, as I learned with Justice Is Mind, is to be ready when the time is right.
Christopher Nolan said it best in the Hollywood Reporter a couple of weeks ago when talking about his career, “The thing that happens to a lot of people is that you get that opportunity, somebody says, ‘I really loved your film, what else do you have?’ And if you don’t have anything, or if you’ve just got vague ideas, it’s very difficult to take advantage of that moment, and that moment doesn’t come around again,” he said. “You’ve got to jump on it.” Obviously, I agree.
My feature length screenplay First World worked great to make the short film version in 2006. Yes, that project as a feature is years in development, but the short film version is in the market and the script award nominations have served as a great foundation. Just over the last couple of months, sales of the short film have tripled from this time last year and China is moving along at breakneck speed with their space program. Timing is better now to present. As this article on Hollywood.com shows, some projects just take time to develop.
The idea for SOS United States came to me when I was in the process of managing the theatrical release of Justice Is Mind. I’ve always loved the political thrillers made during the Cold War. The idea of developing a story that pits the President of the United States against the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as they deal with a potential nuclear device on a commercial ocean liner bound for Boston, certain reflects the political and military tensions we see in the world today.
But it was the sequel to Justice Is Mind that called to me this past November. I always figured that, “someday I would write a sequel”. But I didn’t know it would develop so quickly. For me, when I get an idea I just need to run with it. The result is In Mind We Trust. With a story that reunites a number of the original characters from Justice with new characters against the world covert surveillance, government power, reincarnation and the horrors of World War II, the screenplay, like Justice Is Mind, is a demonstration of competing genres that I believe work well together. As Unsung Films said about Justice Is Mind, “Mark Lund’s film is a thriller-gone-courtroom-drama-gone-sci-fi. Such extreme shifts in genre should not work. But they more than work in this case.”
Through all this is the navigation of a changing industry and the needs, interests and wants of investors. As I learned from my original investor in my old publishing company, to my backers on Justice Is Mind, these things take patience and perseverance and being ready when the time is right. It’s about staying a course that is true to the projects and to never capitulate.
When I wrote the business plan for Justice Is Mind in 2010 it called for certain assumptions based on what I knew at the time was working, or not working, for independent filmmakers. The plan called for actually “renting” theatres for a limited theatrical run and going with a distributor we already had a deal with (and still do if I want to engage it) to get on certain VOD platforms. The dramatic change in distribution and marketing in three years has been unprecedented.
As of today, Justice Is Mind has enjoyed a limited theatrical run of nine theatres with no rental involved (full disclosure, one was fully sponsored). Rather we are actually being compensated on a split arrangement. We proved the point. A truly independent film can have a theatrical run without a distributor involved. As I mentioned to my investors and producers last week, I’m fairly confident that if we had a distributor involved in these theatres, after their expenses, the run would have been a financial loss. It was the exact opposite for us. With a track record of revenue and attendance attached to the film, we can approach theatres with confidence. We are working on additional theatrical dates for Justice and hope to make some announcements shortly.
In 2010 a distributor I had planned to work with on Justice had a revenue sharing system that I could project from. Since then they have retooled their compensation and minutes viewed has now turned to literal pennies. However, another VOD platform I’ve been working with for just over a year has delivered real cash of over $1,000. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or expert in this industry to see the change in distribution revenue models. A couple of posts ago I talked about the amount of “product” coming into the market. I think this is a great thing. Audiences want more films. But distributors are playing catch up. One distributor (with some limited success) who was introduced to me a few months ago said that the days of them just loading up content to the various VOD providers is gone as even their content has to be approved. Obviously this is not the case for all films, but I’ve been hearing similar coming out of various trade interviews.
This change, particularly on the digital front, has created a ton of new platforms eager to fill the gap. Some have raised millions with new technology to get your film in front of the right audiences while others enable you to sell your film directly off your website. But, in my humble opinion, as they have no track records they need to be watched as well. One we worked with on the short film Evidence (Constellation TV) has since closed after all kinds of positive press, which is a shame because I thought they had a great idea. So what’s my point? Sure, I’m all for new technology and trying new things, but I think it’s important to be part of the established landscape as a fail safe as there’s only so many ways to reinvent the wheel.
We know there are no guarantees in this business. The reports from Sundance concluded that while getting your film into that festival is obviously great there’s zero guarantee of a distribution deal. The Hollywood Reporter’s story on Ron Howard’s acclaimed Rush losing over $10 million was particularly eye opening. And how many stories do we need to read that having “A listers” in your film is no guarantee of anything. The New Yorker summed it up “The trick is that no one knows which films are going to be excellent or genre-bending before they are made, or even before they are screened.”
I’ve always viewed business plans as flexible documents. Yes, you have the product you want to produce and you estimate revenue based on understood norms at the time. But by the time you get to market, the market you may have planned to be part of probably will have changed somewhat if not completely. It all comes down to what audiences want to see and how they want to see it. So as I write the business plan for SOS United States, I look at what’s being done presently with Justice Is Mind.
There are a few things I do know and can predict. There’s a lot of wonderful talent on both sides of the camera. They rely on producers to rise above the noise and have their work seen. I believe in discovering new talent. I know from our screenings this is what audiences want. At the end of the day they want a good story.
When I read a headline in The Hollywood Reporter that states, “Getting an award worthy film into theatres is a Herculean task” I paused for a moment to think about our two theatrical screenings coming up this week in New Hampshire and Maine. This will be Justice Is Mind‘s seventh and eighth theatrical screening respectively (Our 11th if you count our law school and science fiction convention screenings).
Of course the producers that were part of that article were talking about a national release of their films—a very expensive effort. With each screening of Justice Is Mind I endeavor to secure as many media, social or web placements as possible. Indeed, I was very pleased last week when the Nashua Telegraph published a story titled “Memories on trial in intriguing new film”. The article, written by Kathleen Palmer, was spot on and will add another layer of gravitas to the entire project.
Adding to this good news, was the support we received from the New Hampshire Film & Television Office that published our press release. This kind of media and industry support is critical to independent filmmakers. It was nice to see that these media spaces weren’t reserved just for the “Hollywood” films that come to town. Indeed, there are other voices that need to be heard.
This of course brings me to my next point, I don’t wait around for results. I read an interesting post titled “Don’t Wait For Anyone” that talked about the endless waiting game that permeates this industry. In the world of filmmaking there are some things I’m just not waiting for—like for a film festival jury to decide the fate of my film (particularly one I have a paid a fee for!). Think about it, why, unless it is a buyer’s market, are laurel leaves important when I can program a theatre to screen my film and generate media attention? Also, I don’t four wall (rent). What a film needs is an audience —one that comes to the theatre specifically to see my film. Simply put, as a producer, part of my job is to make sure my investors get a return on their investment. Developing an audience is part of that return.
When I also read in this same article in The Hollywood Reporter that Gravity took four years to make, I am reminded of the arduous task to simply get a feature film made. While it is a Herculean effort to complete a feature film, thankfully distribution is no longer an obstacle to filmmakers as there are simply countless ways to get your film out to the masses. What I have been noticing is a seismic shift in how distributors are handling new projects in the wake of self-distribution platforms that used to be their dominion. As Ted Hope said “The point is now we can reach people with our work… and you don’t have to be chosen. The power is yours.”
But at the moment, we are saddened to learn about the tragic passing of the talented actor Paul Walker who I first remembered in the classic movie Pleasantville. While the immediacy of the news is heartbreaking, we can take comfort in a quote from the great Burt Lancaster, “We’re all forgotten sooner or later. But not films. That’s all the memorial we should need or hope for.”
Don’t wait. Do.
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.
This past week was another milestone for Justice Is Mind – film sales agents wanted to know more about the film. These sales agents represent and sell films into foreign markets and are constantly inundated with pitches from producers. As these agents are preparing to leave for Cannes next week, I was even more pleased as they took time out of their schedules to respond to my inquiry. In fact, it was a bit humbling.
Although I plan to attend AFM in the fall, I wasn’t planning to attend Cannes for a variety of reasons. First, my focus has to be on the completion of Justice Is Mind. As we are in the final stages of post-production, it’s imperative that I stay in communication with the team. This is my first feature film and it just needs to be done right without distraction. The palm pressing, networking and parties will come after the film is complete. That being said, you also have to keep the fires lit and stay top of mind to those that are interested. Thankfully, I soon learned that someone I have worked with for years will be attending Cannes. Thus, Justice Is Mind will have representation and meetings can be scheduled.
What’s interesting about the three sales agents is the diversity of the projects they represent. From Oscar winners, to vertical integration to genre specific, they all work with filmmakers from theatrical, to foreign sales, to broadcast, DVD and digital platforms. And these are just the three that I’m in direct communication with. As our representative will be meeting with additional distributors and agents with their other clients, other possibilities could present themselves.
Of course, at some point a decision will need to be made on who to sign with. There are so many factors that come into play with decisions like this. What rights do you sign off? How long is the contract for? What deliverables are needed? The questions are endless. But once you sign and transfer the rights of your film, it’s done. This is why it’s so important to have people in your network that understand the ins and outs of contracts specific to this industry. Thankfully I have an entertainment attorney that I’ve worked with for years who is not only an expert in the industry, but a good friend whom I trust 100%.
As producer it’s my job to make sure that we secure the best deal possible for Justice. But as director I also have to make sure that the artistic vision is complete to make such a deal possible. Just this weekend, I was transmitting additional pictures for some VFX shots, addressing some processing matters regarding the build out of other shots and listening to the completed score and various sound effects. Again, welcome to the world of independent filmmaking – the wearing of many hats!
What’s also important during this process is to convey to agents that you aren’t a one picture producer. For them, it’s about building relationships for the long term and working with filmmakers not only on the present project but the next project (one of them is also reviewing First World) and the next. But through all the activity this week, there was one development that most certainly brought a smile to my face.
The Hollywood Reporter listed Justice Is Mind.