I first met Robin Ann Rapoport in 2011 when we were both cast in the independent feature film Noah. After production wrapped, I worked to get Justice Is Mind off the ground and started with the short film version Evidence. When Robin auditioned for the part of Margaret Miller later that year, she had changed her look to the point that I didn’t recognize her from a few months earlier (versatility!). After I cast her in the role, I forget who reminded me that we had already worked together. The rest is history, Evidence was released in early 2011 and Robin reprised her role as the intrepid journalist in Justice Is Mind in 2013.
Since Justice was released, like so many of us involved in the project, we keep in touch through social media. When Robin announced that she was going to be in Vokes Players production of Death of a Salesman, I knew I wanted to see her in it. I arrived about 20 minutes before the performance started and suddenly Vernon Aldershoff who played Henri Miller in Justice, Margaret’s husband, showed up! Vern pulls these surprise appearances more often than not. I still remember him showing up at a screening in Plymouth. The weather could not have been worse that day, but sure enough—here comes Vern! Needless to say last night was a great reunion and brought back so many memories.
As for the play? First, Robin portrayed the character of The Woman brilliantly. Having worked with her as an actor and director, I always see a new dynamic range to her performances. I’ve seen lots of plays in my day, but Vokes Players presentation of Death of a Salesman was mesmerizing. Robert Zawistowski’s performance as Willy Loman captivated everyone in the theater. When a performance is so good you forget you’re in a theater and believe you are watching real life, that’s when you know that every note has been hit. Kudos to director John Barrett and his team. And for such an intimate theater, the lighting moved the audiences effortlessly and seamlessly from one scene to another. On a scale of 1-10? 12.
Last week the foundation for my political thriller around the sport of figure skating started to take shape. With the website almost complete and the concept poster in revision, I reached out to some of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind for the short film version of this new production. Unlike the short film version of Justice that represented a couple of key scenes, this short is the first ten pages of the script that sets the stage for the feature length story.
As for staging, tomorrow I pay a visit to the Northstar Ice Sports in Westborough, MA as a possible location for this production. In addition to the executive director being my first skating coach, the operations supervisor was involved in First World. So, yes, it’s a small world!
The one thing about this industry that I have long learned is that it’s built on lasting relationships. Whenever I look to start something new, I always aim to work with those from previous productions. In addition to a level of trust on both sides of the camera, there’s the knowledge that a project can be seen through from start to finish. Of course, it’s also exciting to work with new actors and crew because you never know what one can bring to your production that can raise the bar even higher.
It was back in 2011 and I was casting the short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence. The starring character of Henri Miller was pivotal. He had to have an air of sophistication and mystery, while also being an “everyman”. As a director, you are auditioning for me the moment you walk into the room. And god help you if you submitted a headshot from the last century or to quote a colleague of mine, “generously photoshopped” the way you want to look. Neither was the case with Vernon Aldershoff. He looked like his headshot and was the look I had in mind for the character of Henri Miller. Of course, the next question rolling through my head was, “Jesus, I hope he can act.” Well, the rest is history. He starred in both the short and feature version of the film.
This past weekend I attended his surprise 50th birthday party at a golf club. While Vern was playing golf with his son Dmitri, who played his on screen son Gary Miller, Vern’s wife Jackie turned the clubhouse into a Hollywood theme along with posters of Justice Is Mind and a step and repeat (red carpet). On the golf course I heard that Dmitri faked a hip injury to get Vern to bring him back to the clubhouse. As I see Vern and Dmitri pull up to the clubhouse in the golf cart, Dmitri is going through the only act of injury with Vern buying it. I wanted to yell “Cut!”. Let me just say that Dmitri’s acting was beyond excellent. Talk about a long take! But the look on Vern’s face when he entered the clubhouse and realized he had been taken was priceless!
During the celebrations Vern was talking to family and friends in attendance and referenced how much the entertainment industry is about rejection, but that it only takes one person to say yes. In regard to Justice Is Mind, that person was me. But in as much as I said yes, it was also Vern and the countless others that said yes to me and to an untested project.
The Justice Is Mind project is now over five years strong. Through the writing, production and distribution, so many of us have become friends and have kept in contact. Yes, I’m looking forward to working with many of the actors and crew from Justice on my next project. In fact, with one project I’m working on now I don’t even know if auditions will be necessary. Why? Because I plan to offer parts and positions to those I’ve worked with previously. I don’t need to worry about on screen chemistry or whether or not these folks get along.
When I read these stores on IndieWire about Tribeca and Cannes that discuss distribution and the market, I am reminded about the challenges this industry faces. But nothing is more challenging than casting the right actors or securing a solid crew. I don’t care how great the screenplay is, without them breathing life into it your project goes nowhere.
Of course you always bring new people into the fold. That’s what this industry is all about. Meeting new people and expanding your horizons. It’s an industry of risk and chances but more importantly opportunity. If you look at my projects from First World, to Evidence to Justice Is Mind, you will see some familiar names.
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.