“I want Spotlight to win” was my Facebook post last Sunday before the Oscars started. While 2016 yielded some excellent films (Trumbo, Bridge of Spies, The Martian and Woman in Gold), there was something about Spotlight that just felt right. Not only was the story itself important, along with the mechanics of quality investigative journalism, but you couldn’t have asked for finer actors either. What was right from the beginning was the screenplay. In addition to winning the Oscar for Best Picture, it also won the first award of the evening for Best Original Screenplay.
As this article in The Hollywood Reporter stated, Spotlight took eight years to produce. But once Participant Media got involved as producer and with Open Road Films distributing, the rest, as they say was history. As Sierra/Affinity CEO Nick Meyer said, “the movie is the star now.” Indeed that star is the screenplay because as Tom Ortenberg said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “The theatrical marketplace is a roller coaster. And anybody who wants to play has to be prepared for that fact.”
For all of us trying to make sense of the volatile nature of this industry, particularly when it comes to a theatrical release, it all comes down to the story. When I released Justice Is Mind into theaters, every one of our screenings was heavily marketed with an angle. We had to have an angle, because although we had a great cast and crew, nobody was a household name. The film had to sell itself. Thankfully, the media and audiences responded and the majority of our screenings were near or capacity audiences (there were no rentals).
But like the real “Spotlight” team at The Boston Globe did those years ago, writing a screenplay takes research and dedication. When I recall the research I did for First World when it came to the space program, the criminal justice system and neuroscience for Justice Is Mind and various workings of the executive branch, military operations and intelligence agencies for SOS United States, that work laid the foundation of the story before I wrote one word of dialogue. Of course we all want to see our screenplays come to life on the big screen, but as we saw with Spotlight, some things just take time. Why rush for quantity when you can have quality? In the case of Spotlight, that quality saw two Oscar wins.
Last week I finished the pitch document for Justice Is Mind as a TV series with the pilot In Mind We Trust already written. The process of getting some industry feedback has already begun. Having pitched a TV series around the sport of figure skating back in 2004, I’m familiar with the process. Of course, back around that time there were about 30 or so scripted series, now there are around 400. While times and processes have changed, it’s still all about coming up with the idea for a story.
As for changing times and figure skating, an idea came to me some months ago about a political thriller with figure skating as the backdrop to the storyline. Of course, it’s been some years since I actually attended a figure skating event. The last “Worlds” I attended as credentialed media was 2003 in Washington, D.C. So with The Ashton Times credentialed, I will be attending Worlds in a few weeks.
As 2015 comes to a close, it seems fitting to reflect on the past year as we look forward to 2016. The title of my end of year post is not only about the industry but about the movie Spotlight – “The true story of how The Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.” Having been a magazine publisher and now a filmmaker, Spotlight is an unprecedented film that must be seen. Simply put Spotlight presents the importance of investigative journalism as a filmmaking triumph.
On a personal level, I sadly know more than a few victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. On a knowledge level, very few people in Massachusetts didn’t know about this travesty in one form or another. You either heard about it, or knew a victim. But it was the “Spotlight” team at The Boston Globe that brought light to the darkness of so many. Spotlight is more than just another great movie, it represents the power of film and reminds us about the vital role that journalists have in a democracy. They are the voice for the voiceless.
I write passionately about this because when I was a magazine publisher there were more than a few times when I was pressured by the “powers that be” to silence a story by intimidation. I never caved in. I worked for my readers, not for some institution.
2015 has been a great year for film. From Spotlight, Trumbo, The Martian to the return of Star Wars, there was something for everyone. I almost feel sorry for The Academy. They have some really hard choices to make. But what it proves is that independent film, despite industry reports, is alive and well. This year proved, yet again, that original ideas still flourish.
The highlight for me this year was the 2nd anniversary screening of Justice Is Mind this past August. In addition to a reunion of the cast and crew, our 21st screening was another reminder that audiences want to see original works and they don’t care if those involved are household names. They just want to be entertained.
Perhaps the icing on the cake was the volume of media that covered the event from Worcester Magazine to our first international coverage in The Huffington Post. As Pamela Glasner stated in her article, “Justice Is Mind takes on less of a sci-fi feeling and more of a ‘forward-thinking documentary’ feeling.” All these efforts have been part of a long-term marketing plan to continue to introduce the film to new audiences. You can be sure, there are plans in the works for the 3rd anniversary screening.
This past year I continued to polish my political thriller SOS United States and In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind. When you consider the current political climate around the world and advances in mind-reading technologies, both of these projects continue to be well timed. There are significant efforts around both of these projects that I plan to introduce next year.
If there is one thing I learned in 2015 is that you have to continuously reach out to expand your networks because you’ll never know what’s possible until you try. From direct discussions with private equity groups and hedge funds to presenting new projects to relaunching my personal website and some new clients, this has been a most interesting year.
But as Constance Smith says in Justice Is Mind, “I didn’t promise you an easy case.” Nothing in this industry is easy. It is work done the old fashioned way like an investigative journalist. You research, email, telephone and network. As producer John Davis (The Blacklist) told The Hollywood Reporter about what his father Marvin Davis (who once owned 20th Century Fox) taught him, “Get your ass out of bed. Work your ass off. And when you drill 80 straight dry holes, which he did, make sure you drill the 81st, which he would also do and hit the mother lode.”
Anyone that knows me knows that I love science fiction movies. It’s hard to say what are my favorites, but last night I did add one to that list – The Martian. There are so many films that have revolved around Mars, but The Martian really did it right–from a captivating story to real world science. Although there were many aspects of the film I enjoyed, one plot point that I thought was terrific was the cooperation between NASA and the CNSA (China National Space Administration). If you’re on the fence about seeing The Martian jump off and go see it, you’ll be glad you did.
The cooperation between NASA and the CNSA is also a major plot point in First World when China announces its first manned mission to the Moon four years ahead of schedule. When I first introduced the story back in 2007, who would have thought that China’s space program and film industry would be booming to such a degree. At some point in the future I feel it is inevitable, and rightly so, that the United States and China will cooperate on space exploration – especially when it comes to a manned mission to Mars.
With the Toronto International Film Festival concluded and the American Film Market starting in a few weeks, it’s always interesting to see what comes out from industry trends to sales. It was well reported that Toronto was a slow market, but it could be just the opposite at AFM. But what we do know is that audiences will turn out for a great story and a trend can change overnight. So many films that revolved around Mars have fared poorly, but The Martian has reversed that trend.
The one thing I learned some years ago was to have a slate of projects ready to present at a moment’s notice as you never really know what’s going to resonate when you pitch. Case in point was Justice Is Mind. It was packaged as a low-budget independent as opposed to First World which has a multi-million dollar budget. With In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind completed and with some minor updates to my political thriller SOS United States, it’s always interesting to see what project gets attention over the other.
And now on a business note. Like the producer I mentioned last week that gets unsolicited scripts sent for review, this week I received a random instant message from someone I’ve known for years asking me to introduce them to managers and agents. It took me by total surprise, as, 1) I’ve never seen this person’s work, 2) To the best of my knowledge this person has never been nominated or won an award for their screenwriting, 3) It wasn’t personally addressed as “Hi Mark…” at least pretend you know me. My advice is the same as advice that has been given to me, 1) Enter your screenplay in contests. I did this for First World it opened some doors and established credibility, 2) If you want to pitch an actor or their reps just do it. Send a brief introduction with a logline. Some have their own production companies. If you want an agent or manager call them and see what their submission policy is and 3) Personalize your introduction.