S.O.S. United States. The call went out by the SS United States Conservancy this week and was answered by media around the world. From The New York Times, to The Telegraph to CBS, the famed ocean liner SS United States may be auctioned by the end of the month and scrapped unless a buyer, developer or investors save America’s flagship. As the conservancy’s Executive Director Susan Gibbs stated to CBS, “We have never been closer to saving the ship and never closer to losing her”.
After World War II, the United States government realized the value ocean liners could bring when Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were converted into troop ships during the war. Partially funded by the government, the SS United States keel was laid in 1950 and was launched in 1951. A technological marvel, she projected American pride around the world and shattered speed records during her sea trials sailing through the ocean at 38 knots or 44 miles per hour. She won the eastbound and westbound Blue Riband for speed records in 1952 and still, to this day, holds the westbound title. So advanced were her propellers and steam turbine engines, they were classified Top Secret until the 1970s. In the event of war, she could quickly be converted to a troop ship for 15,000 soldiers.
Of course, with jet travel literally taking off in the 1960s, the SS United States along with the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were withdrawn from service. While the Queen Elizabeth was lost in a mysterious fire in Hong Kong, the Queen Mary is still with us as a museum ship in Long Beach, California. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Queen Mary on a few occasions. That liner still projects to this day a symbol of an era that should be remembered, not scrapped.
I have long wanted to write a story that revolved around an ocean liner. A story that also enveloped the complexities of world governments and the atmosphere of the Cold War, but set in the present. In SOS United States we learn that the “world’s fastest ocean liner” is heading to New York and may, or may not, have a nuclear device on board. Modeled after the SS United States, the ship is called the SS Leviathan. In the real world the SS Leviathan was originally called the Vaterland until it was seized by the United States government after World War I and became the flagship of the United States Lines; the same line that would eventually build the SS United States. It was maritime engineer William Francis Gibbs who renovated the Leviathan and who went on to design his dream ship the SS United States. Entirely self-taught, he devoted himself to this singular passion.
And now that same passion has been picked up by his granddaughter Susan Gibbs. Her tireless efforts, determination and commitment to save this ship reflects the best in America—pride.
Stated Gibbs, “It’s our shared history as a nation.”
SS United States
“I want anti-establishment.” That line by Diana Christensen (wonderfully played by Faye Dunaway) in one of my favorite films Network could easily sum up the state of the film industry. But before I go into my thoughts on the past week, particularly around all the news surrounding Sundance, there was a moment that gave me some pause.
I received an email earlier this week from someone who desperately wants to be a screenwriter and who mentioned they were envious of me. Envy is a very dangerous emotion in this business, because I promise you someone is always doing something more than you. We are all guilty of having it, but, honestly, you just have to focus on your own mission and believe in it. Anyone who has followed my career knows that I am anti-establishment. My advice was pretty straight forward. Read lots of great screenplays that have been made into movies. Register your work. Enter some contests and then either seek to produce your own work (like I do) or look to get it optioned (like most do). What’s the secret? There is none. You just have to work hard, believe in yourself and develop a network of people you like and trust.
On the path of anti-establishment, by now most have figured out that I’m more interested in having Justice Is Mind screened in theatres than worrying about film festivals. While I think festivals are great, they have not been our release strategy. For the amount of money you spend on submission fees (with no guarantee of acceptance), I’d rather put that into marketing to bring people into a theatre and to secure press. Our result in 2013? The 8th highest rated independent film released and the top 50 in independent box office for that year. I’d say that’s a pretty good result for a film that is being self-distributed at this point.
With the Sundance Film Festival front and center this week we all wonder what will happen to the under 200 selected films out of the 12,218 that were submitted (Justice was submitted but as we already had our world premiere last August that disqualified the film). Could the news have been anymore gloomy this week from the establishment? “For Movie Producers, a Golden Age Fades” – Wall Street Journal. “As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity” – The New York Times. “Sundance: Festival Suffers From Too Much Brooklyn” – Variety. “5 Cold Truths From an Uninspiring Sundance” – The Wrap. When only a handful of films at Sundance get picked up for distribution and the acquisition prices don’t seem to cover the production costs, I would say it’s time to rethink putting all your eggs into that establishment basket.
As a former journalist I understand The New York Times position. Films “picked up for distribution” have to fulfill contractual requirements of a theatrical run which means more and more are actually renting theatres in New York (four walling in my view doesn’t count as a theatrical run). But I don’t agree with The Wrap at all. There are not too many indie films being made, the marketing key is to make sure that audiences and the media know about them. That’s what I have done with Justice Is Mind. I present to theatres. I present to the media. And the “Justice Network” is pretty rabid about social media. The proof was in the effort. Of course we are far from done and will be announcing a variety of new initiatives shortly.
There’s no question that the entertainment industry is going through change. This change is rightly so pushing the boundaries of the distribution and media system. Filmmakers, to quote Howard Beale in Network, “I want you to get mad!”. Not mad angry but mad determined to circumvent an establishment that is sometimes less than welcoming to new voices. My job as a filmmaker is to get my work “scene” and if that means I bypass “tradition” and go direct to the market – the audiences – that’s what it means.
“The World is a Business.” – Ned Beatty, Network