Interview with Daniel Blake Smith

Daniel Blake Smith was raised in a small North Texas town, he grew up expecting to be a Major League Baseball player (As a pitcher, Daniel had a modest offer out of high school from the Cincinnati Reds) but instead he got enthralled with history in College and, amazingly, went on to get a Ph.D and become a History Professor at the University of Kentucky. There, he developed his storytelling abilities by writing books about real people and eventually turning them into even more dramatic characters on stage.

Daniel Blake Smith became a playwright. He loved the immediacy of the stage and working with actors, but he struggled with the relatively narrow audience base that could afford (and wanted to come) to see plays. So he began writing for Television and Film—at first documentaries, and narrative features—even as he has continued to write non-fiction books.

indieactivity: Why did you get into filmmaking and screenwriting?
Daniel: I got into screenwriting and filmmaking as an outgrowth of my efforts earlier on in my career as a playwright. While I was a professor of American history at the University of Kentucky, I began writing historical dramas for the stage. Later, I gravitated to film in order to broaden out to a larger audience – and make more visual—the stories I was telling. Initially, those stories were true ones told in a documentary format.

Films about native Americans—narrated by James Earl Jones—and a docudrama I wrote on Edgar Allan Poe (starring John Heard, Treat Williams and Rene Auberjenois, with music by composer Philip Glass) for the PBS series “American Masters” eventually morphed into a desire to write and produce fictional narrative features. That effort culminated in TEXAS HEART along with several other narrative feature projects in development now—THE KISS, a romantic drama; and BLOOD BORN, a thriller.

indieactivity: How does an indie filmmaker distribute his/her film?
Daniel: If you don’t have big stars in your film or top tier festival buzz (Sundance, SXSW, Telluride, Toronto), you’re probably looking at some form of self-distribution or a distributor (like Indie Rights or Distribber) that focuses on digital platforms—Amazon, iTunes, Fandango, etc. Self-distribution has the virtue of cutting out the middleman, leaving a much larger profit share for the filmmaker but it is TOUGH day labor that not every filmmaker is prepared for.

Whatever route you take, DO focus on social media: start enlarging and deepening your social media presence BEFORE you go into production, then keep and extend your audience with regular updates during production, so your audience is growing and increasingly ‘ready’ for the release of your film. It takes a very robust social media presence—generated by the filmmaker—to drive traffic to the various platforms, where sales and rentals lead to actual revenue.

indieactivity: When does an indie filmmaker need to start planning for distribution?
Daniel: You should be thinking about it when writing your script—that’s part of ‘don’t forget your audience’—so that you can imagine who you’re going to target for marketing the film once it’s made. If you have a really strong concept (and better yet if you have some significant names attached) before you go into production, you can sometimes get a distributor to get behind your film, thus adding more value to your film’s ‘package.’ And that will likely drive more investors to your project and, ultimately, more buzz to the film once it’s completed and ready for the festival circuit.

indieactivity: How do I get my film in theatres with an indie budget?
Daniel: It costs a lot of money for even a very modest theatrical release—at minimum $10K and $50K or more for the pr associated with a real theatrical screening effort, especially anything beyond a single city. If you don’t have that sort of funding available, there are piecemeal ways to crowdsource individual theatrical screenings—especially using Tugg and Gathr.

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indieactivity: How can filmmakers finance their projects?
Daniel: As the great indie filmmaker John Sayles said in his book, THINKING IN PICTURES (which, btw, is one of the best books on indie filmmaking ever), if you know where to get financing for films, please give me a call asap. Trusted rich family and friends—the kind that WON’T be permanently offended if their investment in your movie doesn’t make money—are always worth a try, though the safest personal approach is always self-financing. That is, if you have the funds and your marriage can survive the rocky financial road ahead.

Beyond that, going after people who see a genuine thematic connection to the story you’re telling in the film, can sometimes generate potential investors. We didn’t try it with Texas Heart, but because there’s an important subtheme regarding autism, it might have proven useful to reach out to those in the autism community. This sort of thematic connection works much better with documentary films. Finally, if you can connect with managers (agents are, of course, much more elusive—they want to MAKE money off of you, not help you FIND money for your films), they often also produce movies and have contacts with financiers.

indieactivity: What films have you written?
Daniel: THE KISS, writer/producer (with Elizabeth Anne Martin) 2017; BLOOD BORN, writer/producer (2017)  (click on ‘films in development; scroll down for the short on which the script is based); SKY HIGH: THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF ‘WILD BILL’ CALDWELL, writer/producer (2016); TEXAS HEART, writer/producer (2016); LIFE AFTER, co-writer (2014).

indieactivity: What are the films that you have made?
Daniel: TEXAS HEART, writer/producer 2016; IMPACT—AFTER THE CRASH, writer/producer (feature doc), 2015 (festival circuit and regional PBS); ENVISIONING HOME, writer/producer (feature doc) 2012 (festival circuit/regional PBS); KENTUCKY—AN AMERICAN STORY, writer/producer 2010 (feature doc narrated by Ashley Judd; regional PBS); TRAIL OF TEARS: CHEROKEE LEGACY, writer 2006 (narrated by James Earl Jones ABC); FEBRUARY ONE: THE STORY OF THE GREENSBORO FOUR, writer/producer 2005 (Independent Lens, Emmy nominated); BLACK INDIANS: AN AMERICAN STORY, writer 2001 (narrated by James Earl Jones; festival circuit); EDGAR ALLAN POE: TERROR OF THE SOUL, writer 1995 (docu-drama starring John Heard, Rene Auberjenois, and Treat Williams; music by Philip Glass; PBS AMERICAN MASTERS series)

indieactivity: What is your concept on collaboration?
Daniel: I love collaborating with other writers, producers, directors, and actors. If you’ve brought the right team together with a shared interest in doing whatever is best for the film (not necessarily for their own career arc), you’re well on your way to a great experience and an excellent film. Collaborating, though, does not mean consensus on everything or going along to get along. It means cultivating an environment where creative minds can (and do) disagree on story, character, dialogue, direction, the ‘look’ of the scene, etc. Someone has to be the final arbiter (and that’s nearly always the director) but good creative friction on a set (which grows out of a spirit of genuine collaboration) usually leads to a very good film.

indieactivity: How do you find the process of filmmaking as an indie filmmaker?
Daniel: The process of making a film as a low budget indie is a tale of two cities. In one city there’s a spirit of ‘let’s make a movie together and make it the best it can be’—a love of cinema and telling stories on film. There’s also another city where every choice and decision is perceived through, and often controlled by, tough, painful financial limitations. I love living in the first city; I am a sad, reluctant inhabitant of the second one.

indieactivity: Describe your recent work, or film, from pre-production to Marketing?
Daniel: In TEXAS HEART, we struggled to pull together sufficient financing even to make the film and even then had to shoot it in Mississippi where we could take advantage of filmmaker-friendly tax incentives. But we had a good story and colorful characters so finding strong talent was not really hard—actors, even accomplished ones, want to act and they really spark to juicy roles. We flew most all of our leads down to Mississippi and, along with some highly skilled local actors, put together an ensemble that really came together.

It was a tough 3 week shoot where more than a few decisions were governed by money but we got it done on time and only slightly over budget. Alas, like many other indie productions, we cannibalized some of our post production funds simply to finish the shoot. But we successfully prevailed on some of our investors to make another contribution to help us fund post production and what little marketing we could afford. Marketing, unfortunately, got (mostly lost in the shuffle simply so we could send out a finished, polished film to the festival circuit.

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indieactivity: What are your future goals?
Daniel: I’m trying to keep telling stories on film with other projects (THE KISS and BLOOD BORN) high on my agenda. Finding financing, though, continues to be an issue. I’m also a book author and I’ve just finished a novel, MR. WONDERFUL, which, not surprisingly, can be made into a really interesting film. Hmmm.

indieactivity: Tell us about what you think indie filmmaker need in today’s world of filmmaking?
Daniel: You need a clear, passionate artist’s vision of what you want to do, based on stories you feel simply MUST be told, married to an equally important dispassionate BUSINESSPERSON’S vision. (They call it Show BUSINESS, for a reason). If you follow the vision of both of these elements, you’ll be successful.

indieactivity: Briefly write about your career?
Daniel: I began storytelling as a professional historian—getting a Ph.D. in American History at the University of Virginia, and then as a history professor at the University of Kentucky. Writing history books was my first effort at seeing the compelling nature of true stories. I learned I was good at this kind of story telling, but especially wanted to find the dramatic elements in those stories, so I gravitated to theatrical plays, and documentaries, and finally narrative feature films. You can check out my work—books and film, documentary and narrative—on my site:

Indieactivity Features TEXAS HEART

Daniel Smith’s journey to Texas Heart; crafting a compelling tale of change

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indieactivity: What is your film about?
Daniel: TEXAS HEART is a thrilling, heartfelt crime story about a former mob lawyer on the run who finds redemption by saving a young autistic man accused of murder. The film began as an informal, unexpected moment a few years ago when I reconnected with a childhood friend, Nick Feild. Once we discovered the huge storytelling potential of our shared and vivid memories, it turned into a lively and exciting writing collaboration and ultimately a very serious film project.

indieactivity: Tell us about the festival run, marketing and sales
Daniel: Our festival run focused on ‘audience-friendly’ fests with which, we felt, our film would resonate: Oxford (MS), Albuquerque, Durango, Austin, etc. Given the fish-out-of-water focus of the film (with Erik Fellows playing the lead character, Peter Franklin, the mob lawyer stuck-ass in a forgotten Texas town), we wanted our poster work and marketing to reflect the relatability and universality of a certain sort of small town redemption story. And it worked. We won best pic at Albuquerque and Durango and served as the featured film at Oxford where we had a sell-out crowd. We also scored nicely after our LA opening at the Arena Theater with Gary Goldstein’s strong review in the LA Times. More recently our film had its international premiere this summer at the Shanghai Int’l Film Fest. Our distributor, Indie Rights, sold the film to China and this was a good way of showcasing the film there. Currently the film is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango, Vudu, and all other major digital platforms. It was released as a DVD in October 2016 and is available via Amazon, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and Target.

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indieactivity: Do fill in the ‘Dramatic Feature’ below
– Director: Mark David
– Producers: Daniel Blake Smith, Richard Feild, Mark David, Daniel Wood, Per Ericson
– Budget: $200K
– Financing: Private equity plus tax incentives from state of Mississippi
– Production: December 2014, shot in Mississippi
– Shooting Format: Alexa
– World Premiere: Arena Theater, Los Angeles June 2016
– Awards: Best Picture, Albuquerque Film Festival and Durango Int’l Film Festival
– Website: Texas Heart Facebook and Texas Heart Website

indieactivity: Give the full Official Synopsis for your film?
Daniel: Logline: (Thriller) A corrupt Miami attorney fleeing the mob (after losing a case for them) seeks refuge in a small, forgotten Texas town where he stumbles upon a powerful reason to do good.

TEXAS HEART tells the story of PETER FRANKLIN, a crooked lawyer who’s caught up in a loveless existence, loses a critical case for the mob, and runs off to hide out in a backwoods Texas town. There, after changing his name to Frank Stephens, he quickly encounters a compelling story involving a young man, TIGER MILLS, who’s falsely accused of killing a beautiful girl, ALISON BLEVINS. Tiger, despite being ‘mentally challenged,’ nurses a private love for Alison who meanwhile is dating Tiger’s younger brother, ROY, a good-looking, testosterone-driven football star on the local high school team. After an angry fight with Roy, Alison goes missing but compelling evidence (including the girl’s blood-stained clothes found in Tiger’s truck) points to Tiger.

Watching this crisis over a missing (and presumed murdered) girl unfold right before him is Frank who is himself hiding out from the mob in an abandoned house across from the Mills. Frank soon faces an agonizing choice: ignore the case in order to remain anonymous and far from the prying eyes of the mob that are still relentlessly pursuing him or reach out and try to save the young man. After a shocking twist in the case, Frank makes a choice that changes everything–for the young man and for himself.

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indieactivity: Development & Financing?
Daniel: This story began when I reconnected with my childhood friend, Nick Feild, from our days growing up in north Texas. We had encountered so many fascinating characters in our small town that we decided ‘we should write a book.’ But then, given my impulse to find a cinematic story to tell, we quickly morphed our many discussions into the makings of a feature narrative film. Over the course of a couple of years we traded notes, phone calls, and script drafts (Nick is a financial analyst who now lives in San Antonio; I’m an expatriate Texan who now lives in St. Louis) until we finally had a solid script. The plot for TEXAS HEART is thoroughly contemporary (and fictional), but many of the characters are based on real people we met and loved (ok, a few we sort of hated) growing up.

Our script done, the next step was finding a way to get the story more easily ‘seen’ than simply through script submissions to various producers/production companies. We settled on putting together the financing to make a really strong promotional trailer for the film. So we co-invested in a modest but very professional trailer, based on our story, which we shot in north Texas in late 2013. We cast it with the best professional talent out of the Dallas area (including an actor who’d played a featured supporting role in the recent Indie hit, WINTER’S BONE) and once it was edited with evocative music we began pitching it to producers and prospective funders. We found that it was far easier to get industry people as well as finance folks to watch a 3 minute trailer rather than read a 100 page script.

We also made the strategic decision to invest some of our own money in the film to be “the first oars in the water,” hoping that by having our own skin in the game first, we’d be more effective in attracting additional investors. It worked. Nick and I probably put up close to 40% of the budget; the rest came from other individual investors who our director, Mark David knew (and who loved his work). The final bit of the financing came from the State of Mississippi (where we ended up shooting the film) which offered a 30% tax rebate production plan. A Biloxi bank collateralized our “Mississippi spend” upfront (which was roughly 1/3 of the overall budget) so we could use that money (as a low interest loan) with which to actually MAKE the movie.

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indieactivity: Production?
Daniel: We had a 3 week schedule in December 2014 for shooting the film, all of it on location in Charleston, MS. Finding the right locations that ‘looked like small town Texas’ took time but we found it in the somewhat rundown town of Charleston. Amazingly (and quite happily for our low budget team), we incurred a total of ZERO location costs! The people of Charleston, as well as nearby Oxford, where we shot some court scenes, were wonderfully cooperative and no one (!) charged us a penny to shoot in any of our dozen or more locations.

We brought in actors that we’d cast via our NYC-based casting director as well as personal contacts our director, Mark David, had. Thus we put together a strong cast that included John Savage (THE DEER HUNTER), Lin Shaye (INSIDIOUS), Daniela Bobadilla (THE MIDDLE), and Jared Abrahamson (HELLO DESTROYER). It was not easy scheduling all the various shoot dates for actors being flown in to MS from LA, NYC, Vancouver, etc.—making life very difficult on our production coordinator—but we got it done, if just barely. (We also had a final scene in Malibu that we shot in January.)

Editing, which began in the early spring of 2015, became an intense but highly productive 6 month enterprise. Intense because we recut the film to make it more of a thriller than the mostly straight-forward drama it looked like in the raw footage. Mark David’s familiarity with the pacing and feel of a thriller like this helped immensely—though we certainly had our share of creative differences here and there. Productive, in that we had to make a couple of calls to investors to increase their contributions (which, happily, they did) to cover some special effects, and additional editors we needed to hire.

We got a very rough first cut done by June 2015 which Nick and I showed informally in our home town of Wolfe City, Texas (the inspiration for the film’s fictional town of “Juniper”, Texas). The locals loved it but we also saw places to cut as we desperately wanted to get the film as close to about 100 minutes as possible: at this point it was closer to 120.

By August it was down to the desired length and we went into picture lock and hired a first-rate composer in LA, Chad Rehmann, who put together an extremely evocative score for the film. Can’t overestimate the power of a good score in establishing the feel and impact of a film. In September 2015 we finished ADR and by early October we had a finished film at the length we wanted.

indieactivity: Festival Preparation & Strategy?
Daniel: We decided AGAINST even trying to compete at the absolute top tier festivals—Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto—as we simply didn’t have a sufficiently A-list cast nor a truly experimental, ‘edgy’ film to attract programmers at those kinds of fests. Instead, in TEXAS HEART, we had a real ‘audience film’—one that we were convinced moviegoers would love and create strong word of mouth for.

So we decided on a second-tier festival run in places where a story like ours might resonate: Austin, Albuquerque, Oxford (MS), Durango, etc. Winning best picture in January 2016 at the Albuquerque Film Festival and the Durango Int’l Film Fest, then attracting sellout crowds at the Oxford Film fest the next month, got us requests from other, somewhat lesser fests, as well as heightened visibility among distributors we were then trying to choose between.

(Much later—in the early summer of 2017, we had our international premiere at the Shanghai Int’l Film Festival in China.) We employed a film publicist for our LA premiere, at the Arena Theater in June, whose help led to a sell-out crowd opening night. We ran for two weeks at the Arena, propelled in part by a very strong review we got from the LA Times’ Gary Goldstein.

indieactivity: The Release?
Daniel: We had attended AFM in November 2015 to check out potential distributors. We had LOTS of meetings—more than a dozen—as many of the distributors loved our trailer and felt they could successfully market/distribute the film. But there were NO MGs (minimum guarantees) available. That bummed us out initially, but unless you have either a hot genre film (thriller, horror, sci-fi), a film with huge A-list cast, or a film that’s garnered awards at top-tier fests, then indie straight dramas or comedies are simply not going to draw any upfront money.

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So we made a deal with Indie Rights, which focuses on strong low budget (even micro budget) indie films. Their straight-talking, transparent approach—a welcome relief to all the deceptive pitches we’d heard from many distributors at AFM—convinced us to sign up with them. We released the film officially with Indie Rights in June 2016, using our very successful LA premiere and enthusiastic LA Times review to as much advantage as possible. With Indie Rights, the release was focused on getting on to all the major digital platforms—especially Amazon (Amazon Prime in particular), iTunes, Vudu, Fandango, and all the others. In October 2016 we released the DVD on Amazon, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and Target.

indieactivity: Advice from the Filmmaker?
Daniel: First, it’s a cliché but it’s true: in indie filmmaking (and it should be this way in studio films) make sure that the story is king. Nick and I wrote a script that not only mattered to us but that we felt audiences would love. Years ago, when I was attending a WGA conference in LA, Chris Moore, producer of Project Greenlight, Good Will Hunting, American Pie and many more, wisely told us as his big piece of advice: ‘don’t forget your audience.’ A lot of indie filmmakers, caught up in the brilliance of their own ideas and the clever filmmaking shots they’re employing, fail to heed that simple wisdom.

Another piece of advice would be never lose sight of what inspires you in the first place to tell a particular story—because that inspiration, if constantly invoked, will likely lead to a better film and will help you persevere through the many ups and downs that all film journey end up taking. Finally: as we all know, film is a collaborative enterprise, so be careful to partner up with good people with integrity, as well as talent. Sounds simple enough, but a lot of projects come apart because there’s a lack of trust between the partners. Find good people who share your vision and then go for it! Good luck!