Sky Fighter—The Movie
Yesterday I posted a short autobiographical video, and I appreciate that a few folks watched it and had nice words about it.
Message board user Jurassic T. Park asked:
Pretty funny, inspiring, and I guess my ultimate question is are you really reworking and rekindling SKY FIGHTER or is that part of the entertainment?
We’re ready for our call to action to amplify!
Well thank you to Mr. Park, and all my Korean and Korean-American fans.
Yes, I would love to make Sky Fighter. I never stopped wanting to make it—but along the way my big dreams ran into cold hard reality. Here’s what I learned!
At the time we made the short, I was working with a manager and producer to make the feature—in fact, the producer generously came out to L.A. to act as the A.D. on the short.
After the short was complete, we made four offers to lead actors who were sufficiently well-known to have gotten us financing...and all four passed.
By “offers,” I mean this producer—a stand-up guy I really like—made REAL cash offers to the actors’ agencies: we will pay your client X amount, for three weeks, on such-and-such a date, and here’s the script (and the short film), and please give us an answer by X date.
They all said no. (This is, I would think, far more common than anybody saying yes.)
This is the “foreign sales model” of film financing. If you have a producer with a track record—a verifiable history of making things—you make cash offers to attach talent.
Then you take your “package” (script, director, talent, sales tools like the short film, which they call a “proof of concept”) to a film market (American Film Market, Cannes, EFM, Toronto)—and the producer’s film sales representative (any number of a few dozen companies) sells the distribution rights to companies worldwide to raise the money to produce the movie.
If done well, you can hedge your bets in such a way that the film is in profit before a frame has ever been shot.
And if done poorly, you can lose your shirt and piss off all your investors and partners.
It’s a sort of magic trick I don’t fully understand involving investors, tax credits from states and countries (who want films produced in their jurisdictions), and the known value of certain movie stars (“names”).
But basically...the guys in this ecosystem know what certain names are worth, and what certain genres are worth. (They like action and things that “travel” internationally.)
They absolutely must have “names” that mean something in the international market!
This was the first rude awakening I got.
My casting wish list was full of actors I thought were awesome, but they were simply not going to be meaningful to raise money internationally. I had seen them on television shows and indie movies, but they were not bona fide movie stars.
It turned out that the names that did raise money tended to be from franchise films—or have famous names because they were the actual sons or brothers of movie stars. (Call this “the Neil Connery effect.”)
By the way, only the male star seemed to matter for financing. And the guy pretty much needed to be white: black stars did not have an audience overseas. I do not want to attribute racism or sexism to my former colleagues...it dismayed them, too. They all just seemed to accept it as an immutable part of the business.
As the new kid, I was thrilled even to be having this conversation—so I willingly picked names that worked for the model.
After four rejections, Covid happened, the producer left one company and started another, my manager and I parted ways—and I pulled back to work on my writing. (More on that below.)
But boy, did I learn a lot—and I am, truly, grateful to the producer and manager just for letting me have this experience.
My rude awakening #2:
With the foreign sales financing model, you are perpetually saying no to people who want to be in your movie, and getting rejected by the people who you DO want.
It’s like high school!
Yes, we heard from reps pitching us some people who had been in world-famous movies and television shows...decades ago. They would not have raised us any money—and I didn’t want them because they weren’t right for the part.
At the same time, the people we were chasing get so many offers—because they’re famous—they can pick and choose what they want to do.
This was partly my fault because I made a movie that requires young stars. It would have been so much easier if my male lead was in his fifties.
In fact, at one point, older stars were suggested to me, but I said, no, this is a young person’s movie—this script doesn’t work if the lead is 47, not 27.
But man, it was tempting. This financing model is what Lance Henriksen calls his “Romania movies.”
As in: a cash offer comes in, he says yes, the check clears, they put him on a plane, he wakes up in Romania, shoots whatever they ask him to, flies home and never hears from them again.
Most infamously, these are those laughable Bruce Willis action movies seem to sprout like weeds, and everybody’s like, “What’s wrong with him?” Well, Bruce likes money.
It’s just business. And a business that best works with stars who are international icons, whose careers aren’t as hot as they used to be, who like or need money, and aren’t picky about their projects.
For me, I would have been thrilled to make a “Romania movie”—so long as I could also make it good.
Rude awakening #3: Stars do not want to work for a first-time director. (And yes, even though I made a short, I’m a first-time director.)
I was so naïve! When I was first talking to my producer, I was like, “How about Chris Evans?” And he was like, “Hell yeah! I’ll pay Chris Evans ten million!”
What I didn’t realize: Chris Evans gets offers for ten million all the time.
The agents for Chris Evans are in the Chris Evans business. They are protecting and curating Chris Evans to be a sustainable business for years to come. They do not cannibalize that business to put Chris Evans in simply anything to grab the cash.
There’s also the matter of what Chris Evans himself wants to do—and stars choose projects based on the director.
That, I totally get.
It must be so scary to work for any director and put yourself in his or her hands!
If it’s Scorsese, it’s easy to feel confident: “Okay, Marty says to do it this way, I don’t really get it, but he’s Marty Scorsese. I TRUST HIM.” (It’s also pretty awesome bragging rights to be in a Scorsese film.)
Getting a hot young star to work for a first-time director is a huge magic trick. You need a personal friendship, a big-time producer, a piece of material that is irresistible—maybe all of the above.
So let’s move on to the biggest reason why Sky Fighter didn’t go forward...
That one was on me.
It just wasn’t good enough. I did not have the skill or the craft to make it what it needed to be. It had cool ideas, and some good moments—but it was structurally flimsy.
It was a blessing in disguise that the film was not produced—because that film would not have helped my career. It might have ended it!
The script I have now is probably the fourth draft of the fourth page-one rewrite.
This one will be a good movie. It might even be a great one. It’s still not perfect, but what really works is the relationship between the characters. The rest I can finesse.
It is, alas, not a particularly fun script to read—certainly not as fun as I would like. That’s because all the space stuff has to be described, and it just gets dense on the page.
I have two other problems:
One is creative: Sky Fighter is just not high concept. It’s cool, but is it cool enough?
That’s the reaction I got to the short from within the industry: “Yeah, pretty good...but not great.” As in, “Liked it, didn’t love it.”
At the time I made the short, I didn’t realize I had to prove the concept, only prove the director (moi)—because I had a producer, and the goal was mostly to convince him that I could be trusted to direct.
So people see the short and they go, yeah, “That’s well done”...but they’re not quite sure what the movie is. It’s certainly not “grounded,” being set in a future space war.
And probably the various retro 1980s flourishes that I put in there, out of affection and budget realities—the title, set, VFX and synth score—don’t connect with them.
The second problem is that the film is either a super-inexpensive big budget film—or a very expensive low-budget film.
For me, it’s a cheap expensive movie: we shoot the live action on (mostly) one set in three weeks, and the rest is VFX.
I get people asking, “How much do you need?”
And the only honest answer is, “Well, what do you want it to look like?”
If you want it to look like an episode of The Expanse (great for television), we can do it for $2–3M. If you want it to look like a Star Wars movie, then give us $10–15M.
The people who could make the Star Wars version (desirable) want the talent attached: they’re not going to take this to their bosses “naked,” because it’s just too weird. But really, they’re asking, “Can I put this on 3,000 screens?”
I actually think the answer is yes—but they don’t see it that way.
For these people, it’s a failure to sell it to Netflix.
On the other hand, the people who could finance the Expanse version—for whom selling to Netflix would be a triumph—are concerned because it looks like it’s going to be way too expensive. They’d rather make yet another horror movie about teenagers trapped in a house, than risk a bottomless pit of spaceship VFX needs.
In either case: it’s about attaching talent (stars).
And to do that, I need a producer to make offers...so how am I going to get a producer?
Well, I can cold-query them (send an email)... I can win a short film contest (not gonna happen with sci-fi)... I can go back to some people I already know... I can sell something else, and use the heat from that to get another look?
Something will happen.
I do have various irons in the fire—I just don’t talk about them here, or on social media.
But I do enjoy doing this website, in part because it might raise my profile enough to attract producers and partners who would believe in my vision.
As for Mr. Park’s kind offer—if you want to help me, just keep reading and watching. And if you feel inclined, drop a link on social and say, “This guy’s writing interesting columns.”