Pt. 2 with Thomas Michael Mulligan covers the New Hope Film Festival and gives sound advice to others who might want to hit the festival circuit!
Visit the New Hope Film Festival here.
And learn more about Thomas Michael Mulligan by visiting his site.
In This Episode
- 00:10 – Cirina introduces Thomas Michael Mulligan, a successful actor, and producer. His latest short film, “The Witching Hour,” recently won Best Period Short at Silver Docs!
- 06:22 – Thomas and Cirina talk about how vital sound is when making films.
- 13:16 – Thomas explains how New Hope Film Festival upgrades its sound equipment for the best screening experience.
- 20:09 – Thomas discusses his involvement in SAG-AFTRA and how he became one of the first few to join.
- 27:58 – Follow Thomas Michael Mulligan on his social media accounts, and visit his website thommichaelmulligan.com to learn more about him.
This is Cirina Catania. I am back for part two with Thomas Michael Mulligan. He’s an actor, writer, producer, with a really amazing career over the last few decades, just a very few, not a lot, not as many as me, because I’m older than he is. But he’s been very successful, and he’s got some great advice for you guys. So part two now, Thomas, I want to talk about your film festival journey, not just for your films, but also because you started, you’re the co-founder of the New Hope Film Festival, right?
So tell us about that. What is the New Hope Film Festival?
The New Hope Film Festival started over a breakfast conversation back in late 2008 or early 2009. And Doug Whipple, who was a friend in Pennsylvania back in New Hope, I had been introduced to Doug prior to that by a friend; we knew his family. And Doug had written a screenplay from a book, a novel he wrote called Shadow Fields. And my friend said, “Would you be willing to talk to their son, Doug, and help you with the script?” And that’s how Doug and I used to be friends over the phone and really hit it off. And then, when I go back to New Hope, I would help him work on the script and develop it. And this one time I went back, and we’re having breakfast, and I was talking about how hard it is, and you’ve been around the century-long time. It’s not easy, and it’s not easy getting work; you’re always looking for work. And I was joking with Doug saying, “We’re on the W-list,” and Doug said, “What’s the W-list?” They’re like, “Tom Who?” “Tom Mulligan,” “Tom who?”
Everybody that is in the creative side of the business feels like that at one point or another. You feel like that, that’s okay. It’s okay. You’re allowed.
It’s not like the D-list, but anyway. But it is commiserating, and I said, “Look, I’ve done stuff. I’ve done some good things, but friends still know me in the industry, but I’m not a household name or anything like that. I’m not an A-list actor.” And we started talking about film festivals, but it was like, “But I live in California.” So I got to work and a week later, Doug called me up and said, “Hey, Tom, I went to my attorney and incorporated the New Hope Film Festival. Let’s do it.” So Doug’s background was 12 years on Wall Street, Wharton School of Business MBA, incredibly nice guy, an incredibly brilliant guy. So he had that side of it, and I had this side of it. I know the industry. I know film festivals. And we spent the next year over the phone together. And we launched it in July of 2010, basically how you got started now we just completed our 10th year.
Congratulations. Did you have any idea how much work that was going to be?
Yes. Because I’ve been around festivals. Let me put this out there too. I think a lot of people don’t realize, and they may think festivals only work as the month before the festival starts. Festivals’ work is full year-round. And we just started getting submissions on August 5th for 2020. Films and scripts are already coming in. And this all the other behind the scenes work that Doug and everybody back there have to do. It’s constant. It takes a huge amount to run a really good festival, as you know, and organize it right and make it work really well.
So when do submissions close for New Hope for next year?
It will close to the end of February 2020.
Okay. So filmmakers have until February, and where do they go if they want to look into? I’m going to ask you now while I’m thinking about it.
And then they just search for New Hope Film Festival and then submit to you from there.
Well, instead of big parties and all that stuff, we put the money in stuff.
I love that, that’s very considerate.
Look, I’m an actor and filmmaker. I would love to see my name or my film in Variety. That’s something that we do, and we had a long discussion about it when we first started it back at the beginning. They were saying, “Well, is this going to be worth the investment? It’s a lot of money. It’s very expensive to take a full page in Variety.” And we said, “Let’s try it.” And filmmakers seem to like the idea that they’re going to be announced in Variety, and it comes out during AFM in November, American Film Market. I think that’s a pretty, pretty cool element that we added.
That’s really smart. That’s very, very smart. So festivals have, I believe, a personality if you would describe. People are always wanting to know how I can get my film in there? Is my film right for that festival? How would you describe the kinds of films that have been most successful at the New Hope Film Festival in the past?
Well, I would say the categories are arthouse features, full documentary, short docs, animated films, music videos, pilots, webisodes, things like that. A well-done film, whatever genre it is, is really well done, well written, and well-acted. And the biggest thing that I want to put out, the biggest issue every year, is sound.
Sound is the biggest issue. And the two major things are sound levels and hollow sound. Like, for example, you and I are in the scene, you talk, your sound is at one level, I talk, and then the sounds at a totally different level. So what I always tell filmmakers is yes, focus on the sound. I have friends that are disagreeing. No, no, you’re gonna have to pay for it at some point. If you’re not going to pay for it now, you’re gonna pay for it in post-production.
So I would say get a really good sound because you could have a wonderful story and script and act beautifully lit and if it sounds bad, it takes something away from the film. So that would be my biggest thing. And I would say a lot of films we get in have sound issues. We will let filmmakers know and say we really love your film, but it needs this, and most of them fix the sound, but some of them don’t want to. They say, “No, there was no sound issue.” “Okay, well, we wish you the best, with the film,” and then that’s it.In filmmaking, there’s a saying, “if you're not going to pay for it now, you're gonna pay for it in post-production.” Click To Tweet
Good sound designers and mixers are hard to find. Actually, it used to be easier in the time of the large films and when everybody was making studio films. And now that a lot of people are in the independent arena, you’re making films for less money, you know the sound is important, and you have to go out and find people that have the kind of experience that we used to want to have when they were at the studio. I’m looking for somebody right now. It’s hard. It’s really hard to find really professional sound guys.
I think part of the problem is that it’s a double-edged sword, in my opinion. The fact that pretty much anybody can make a movie now, because people are making movies on cell phones, right? So this whole dynamic of making your movie, no budget, low budget, micro-budget, no money, anybody can make a movie. And it’s true, but how good is it going to be?Now that a lot of people are in the independent arena, we’re making films for less money. Click To Tweet
It still takes some kind of talent to know how to shoot it. Even on a cell phone, to shoot it right, get the angles right, get the lighting right, there’s still a lot of aspects to it. Anybody can make a movie, but you get what you pay for it.
I agree. It’s all about a good story, and I agree that the sound is so important because if you have a bad picture, you can somehow fudge that, you can figure out how to put something on it to make it look like you did that on purpose. But if you can’t understand it, and if it doesn’t resonate audibly, then you’re really in trouble. I’m not saying you should shoot bad because it’s wonderful when everything works, but yeah, I agree with you on the sound.
I was in a film a couple of years ago, a short film, there were two people, I was one of the leads, and the guy showed up that they got to do sound, and I saw the equipment he had and were shooting outside. And I said to my friend, “Well, this is gonna be bad. It’s a windy day.” Anyway, it turned out the sound was horrendous. Luckily, they took it to a post-production house, but it costs them about 1500 dollars to fix it when they probably could have gotten somebody really good in sound for about half that cost. So as I’m saying, luckily, it was fixable, but they had to pay to get it fixed.
Did they have to dub over some of the dialogue? Did they have to loop it? I mean, what did they do?
Yes. Well, first of all, the sound was really bad because the levels were off and it was so windy. It sounded windy, and it was a mess, that’s all I can tell you. And I didn’t think it could be fixed, but they took it to a good post house, and they were able to fix it, but it costs, I think it was like 1500 dollars to fix this out.Excellent sound is a big deal. You could have a wonderful story, script, lighting, and acting but if it sounds bad, it takes something away from the film. Click To Tweet
Yeah, that’s tough because the sound designer is going to have to work with studio sound versus sound on the production sound on the set, which has a room tone that doesn’t match what you had in the studio. And also, I don’t think- you as an actor, do you think it’s as easy for you to get a really good performance when you’re looping?
Well, there’s nothing like the in the moment performance, which I think you would probably agree with, right?
So when you have to go and do it, all you can do is try to get back into that moment. Although I try as best I can to be back at that moment, it definitely would make it a little bit tough if you have to do that. Now on The Witching Hour, we went upscale. I got a friend of mine, Ryan Bishop, in LA, who’s a big producer up there. I said, “I want to do this movie. I want to do it really well.” He brought everybody that worked on it either worked on studio films or TV series. And this is was like, we shot it in two days, on a Saturday and Sunday, at the Silver Dream Factory in Anaheim, a sanding set studio. And the sound guy, I forgot which show he was on, anyway, it was so good. We did not have to do any ADR. The sound from the set was perfect, but we paid for it. We paid everybody really well. They didn’t get what they normally get, but they still got paid extremely well. And we got what we paid for. We got a beautiful movie with great sound and great lighting and everything else. So we paid for it.
I’m listening to you, and I’m being reminded of this theory that I have, I would much rather pay people than pay for equipment, and people seem to get that backwards. When somebody asks the cast and crew to work for free, but they’re spending all this money renting equipment, I kind of think that’s a little bit backwards. And I always tell people, take a look at where they’re spending their money, and if they really respect you, they’re going to try to pay you. And people come first in my mind, of course, you have to have good equipment. But anyway, that’s a little aside,
Well, you know actors are the last people to get paid.
That’s just so not fair.
This is my feeling, and I’m going to say this, this is going out in San Diego. Most of the work in San Diego is unpaid, pretty much, especially short films, right? The problem is, there are so many actors and actresses out there. Everybody wants to work, and they want to work on their craft. They want to be in front of the camera. And so it’s like, “Okay, well, this is what’s available.” And you probably know this history, and even those films are extremely hard to get. There’s so much competition, even for non-union, no pay films and features. It’s crazy. So my feeling is going forward, if I can’t pay actors something, then I don’t want to produce it. Now I may choose as an actor to do something free like I did something recently, but there are two really good actors and actresses in it. And the cinematographer is from LA, and he was dynamite that said, “This is going to be good,” so I did it. Because I was working with nice, good talented friends, but, personally, as a producer guy, if I’m going to produce something, and I can’t pay actors, I’m not going to do it. And by the way, my writing partner feels the same way. Like, if we can’t pay actors, we don’t want to do it.
That’s wonderful. So let’s get back to the film festival for a moment. So in New Hope, how hard is it for you? Well, you’ve been going now for ten years, so you’re an established festival. Are you getting enough submissions? Do you need more? Do you want more? Do you have too many? How does that work on your end when you’re screening?
Well, of course, we would love to have more submissions. I mean, let’s put it this way, we’re doing well enough to keep the festival going. We’re not privately funded. But then his family put the initial funding in. And most of the money very honestly goes back into the festival. Every year, we try to upgrade our sound and make it better. And our sound is really, really good for the last couple of years. But this past year, we put the extra money into upgrading the sound equipment even better. So we want it to be the best it can be and the best screening. Because the thing is, as a filmmaker, you want to see your film on the big screen, that’s the excitement of it, right?
I know. I even watch trailers for my stuff on the big screen. It’s so wonderful.
That’s the biggest thing. Like I went to talk to my filmmaker and said, “What’s the biggest thing?” “Is this what it’s about? Seeing your film on the big screen?”
I still think that’s true. I really do. So where is New Hope and when is the festival?
Well, New Hope is on the Delaware River. It’s about 40 miles north of Philadelphia, right on Delaware. And it’s got a very long history of the arts, they’re getting back into the 30s, and actually, quite a few people in the entertainment industry even live out there, have second homes out there at home. And so that’s one of the reasons why Doug and I thought it would be a great place for a film festival. And let me say this is interesting too, Cirina, our very first year in 2010, right? There’s the New Hope Film Festival, and we got films, we had filmmakers from 17 different countries come to New Hope, Pennsylvania. And we were shocked, I mean, the first year’s brand new festival, we had people from India and China and Iceland and Ireland. It was crazy. And this year, we had 89 films and 27 scripts from 17 countries.
Nice. So what are the dates of the festival? Do you know offhand this coming year in 2020?
July 17 to the 26th.
Awesome, and I’m looking on the website here. It’s newhopefilmfestival.com, and you can see the 2019 Program Guide, which is kind of cool. It’s always nice when you’re submitting to a festival to look at the program guide from last year. And this looks awesome. I bet this is a beautiful town. Let’s see, and there’s a sponsors and visitors guide.
This town is amazing. The campus of the festival, New Hope, is the campus, and everybody who comes here for the first time falls in love with New Hope. That’s what happened to me in April of 1976, when I drove over the bridge from Lambertville, New Jersey, and drove through New Hope, and I just thought, I want to live here someday.
Bucks County says here. I’m looking at a town in eastern Pennsylvania. Oh, it looks really pretty. There’s something to be said from getting out of town if you live in LA, New York, Atlanta. Just get away from your normal environment. And it’s so creative, isn’t it? To kind of just like to get away and be in a new place with new people?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of people have getaway homes or can come out there for the weekend from New York and Philly, I consider it my second home, and I have a lot of friends there. And actually, back in the 1880s, early 90s, I did a tremendous amount of theater at a theatrical, Theater on the Towpath. And fortunately, it’s not there anymore, but back then, it was really cooking, and I was getting cast in most of the shows. I brought in one time, and I wanted to do Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. A twelve character and one-man show, and I brought that to the owner and producer of the theater, and he loved it, and he’s like, “Let’s do it.” And I got to do that, which was great fun. So yeah, I got a huge amount of screening in that period of my life at that theater.
Isn’t it nice to be around kindred spirits when you’re a creative person?
Totally. Because they get you, I don’t know if you run into this.
I know what you’re gonna say, and yes, all the time.
Okay. Like, “Oh, I booked this job.” “Oh, are you getting paid for it?” That’s like the first question, “Are you getting paid?” In other words, if you’re getting paid, that means it’s good, but if you’re not getting paid, it’s not good. And I run into that a lot.
I think most creative people, we love to get paid. We need to eat as much as anybody else. But we are motivated by our hearts and from our souls and from this crazy creative mind that we have. And it’s hard to describe that to somebody that is not working with that side of their brain. And that’s why I just am so delighted to meet you and talk to people like you because you reinforce how I live my life every day by what you do.
Here’s the thing, at some point, though, you got to make a stand, I think. Like, as an actor, I’ll still do things for free if I love the role, love the project, love the people, and think it has a chance to be good, where I can get some good footage and good credit. But it gets to a point where it’s like a double-edged sword. In other words, we all want to work right. As actors and actresses, we want to work. And when opportunities come, even if it’s free, it’s like, okay, well, this is what’s available now. I’m going to do it. But at what point do you say, you know what? I’m not working for free anymore. Now, I just got an offer for a feature film on the east coast, in Pittsburgh. And they told me, “here’s what we’re doing,” and I said, “You know what? I’m really interested. I’d love to come to Pittsburgh. I love the role; it’s a cool character. But here’s what I need from you.” Now, I’m waiting to hear back from them. Now, they may say no, but they got to fly me out there, they gotta put me in the hotel, and there’s gotta be some other things otherwise I’m not going.
Right. You have to take care of yourself.
So I’m starting to make my stand now. I’m saying, and you think I’m talented, you believe I have a talent. I think I have talent. How good I am? I don’t know, but I feel like I have a talent, and people want that talent. Now it’s time to pay for that talent.
So how do you feel about the Screen Actors Guild and the various unions? Are you in any other unions besides SAG?
No, just SAG-AFTRA, Well, back when I joined in 1981, SAG and AFTRA were separate. So I joined after in 1980, because I got some work on the soaps and you could work. I think you could do two under-fives which I did. And then I was in AFTRA for one year, and then at the end of that year, back then, if you were an AFTRA for one year, and you had done a speaking part on the soap, you could automatically join SAG, which is what I did. And back then, it was $300 to join SAG in 1981. So I’ve been a member of SAG-AFTRA since that time. You probably know this too, Cirina. It’s a double-edged sword because there’s far more non-union work than union work. And I think the figure is 98% of screen actors are unemployed at any given time. So that tells you how hard it is. That’s just the way things are. And that’s why you have to always be at it. You can’t just go at this arbitrarily unless it’s more of a fun thing like, “oh, yes, it’s kind of an avocation.” But if you’re a serious actor, and you really want to do well and do something, you got to be at this all the time to have a chance to be successful. That’s definite.
Yeah, I think the people that treat it like they love it and enjoy it every day of their lives are going to, for the most part, be the ones who are very successful because you take that into the set with you too. If you love what you do, that carries into the set with the cast and with the crew, and it’s all about a big family. I think that’s why we travel in packs. Okay, so last words for people who want to get into the New Hope Film Festival, what advice do you want to give them? I know we covered a little bit of it, but before we go, I want you to just leave us with something to encourage people and tell them what you’re looking for.
Let me leave a number of things. And can I say this as well, I do the awards presented every year at the festival, I host it. And so this year, I wanted people to know and say, Look, I’m not only a festival director, I’m an actor, and I’m a filmmaker. I know every feeling on all three sides. I know what it feels like as a filmmaker to get rejected by 23 straight festivals. I know those things. So we, me and Doug, we take that into account. And I take my job as a festival director very seriously and look at films. And we look at old films, and we talk about films endlessly. Mainly Doug and I and one other person, then we have six, seven other people who have input into films. But I know how hard it is to get into any film festival, it doesn’t matter, it’s hard to get into any festival. A friend of mine just sent a film to HollyShorts up in Hollywood, that’s a major festival. And they were telling me they got over 6000 submissions this year and screened 400 films, that means 5600 films didn’t get in. So think about that. That’s what you’re up against; therefore, you need to try to make the best film you can possibly make in every way and sound. And the other thing is this is on the business side of it. When festivals email, you respond to emails. Like, a lot of times, we’ll send out emails, they don’t respond, or they respond with like, “Well, are you going to be attending the festival?” “Well, yeah, we really would love to visit New Hope.” “Does that mean you’re coming to the screening?” This may sound silly, but be specific because I can tell you right now, people have messed themselves up by, first of all, not responding to emails, and secondly, responding to emails, very wishy-washy. Sometimes they’ll send me something, and Doug would say, “What do you think they need?” I said, “I don’t know, Doug, email them again.” “Well, I’ve emailed them three times already.”
So at that point, you just go, “See you later.”
Yeah. I mean, be diligent. Like I’ve learned from New Hope when festivals send me stuff related to my films, I respond back ASAP, and they respond back very specifically. So that would be part of my advice, too, is when you’re dealing with the festivals. Make sure you respond to emails, make sure you are specific about what’s going on, because that could be a nail in the tire if you don’t, I’m just saying.
Good advice. And one quick question before you go, do you think in terms of distribution, how necessary is it for a filmmaker to even go through the film festival circuit?
That’s a very, very good question. Well, I’ve had friends who have been able to self distribute their films and even make a little bit of money. The whole distribution thing is totally different now, and it’s even changed in the last two or three years. So I don’t think you have to go to the film festival circuit but here’s what’s good about doing film Festivals. You get to see on the big screen, and you get to network with other people. Every year at New Hope we’ve had filmmakers who have met writers who’ve met producers and directors and wind up getting together making films together. It’s a great place to network and meet people in the industry, and maybe you’re in a film, and some producers sitting there have a project coming up, and they see you in the film, and they go, “Oh my god, she’s amazing.” “Oh, hey, by the way, I love your performance in that film. I have this feature film we’re doing. We’d love you to audition for it.” For those reasons, those are really good reasons you would want to go to a film festival. But I have some friends who don’t, and they don’t do the festival circuit. They just go directly to distribution.
I think that’s a little harder for most people, but this is wonderful advice. Thanks for stopping and talking to us while you’re in your car in the middle of a busy day.
No problem, Cirina. Thank you for even inviting me to your show. I love sharing my knowledge. That’s how I put it.
We all wish you the best of luck as an actor, a producer, a writer, and as one of the co-founders of New Hope. We’re going to be watching you. So best of luck, break a leg with everything you’re working on. We’re going to be looking for what happens next with The Witching Hour too, which we talked about I think it was in part one. But this is great. And go roller and ice hockey skating as often as you can.
I just do ice skating now.
All right. I want to see a picture of ice skating. You send me one. All right, Thom, thank you so much for doing this. You have a wonderful day and remember everybody. I always tell you get up off your chair and do something wonderful today. Thanks to OWC for sponsoring this time with Thomas Michael Mulligan and all our wonderful creatives on OWC Radio. You have an awesome day.
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- American Film Market
- D. F. Whipple
- Eric Bogosian
- Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll
- Shadow Fields
- Silver Dream Factory
- The Witching Hour
- Feature interesting stories and personalities. Technique and skill set play huge roles in filmmaking but the soul of a masterpiece lies in the story.
- Spend time formulating the screenplay. It will serve as a guide for the entire production team. It contains the whole story, action, dialogue, and the complete style and vibe of the characters.
- Establish and nourish a community of creatives in the filmmaking industry. Festivals and organizations are great venues for building relationships and networking.
- Hold fundraising events that can help alleviate the financial burden of a project. Websites like GoFundMe and Indiegogo are excellent examples of online fundraising websites that have been helping indie artists in making their projects happen.
- Research and make a list of event lineups within the year and submit your work to various festivals to gain exposure and recognition.
- Pay attention to sound. Sometimes even if the cinematography and dialogue are excellently executed, if the audio isn’t of the same quality, it affects the entire project.
- Don’t rely too much on fixing things in post-production. Strategize your shoots carefully so that when it’s time to do post-production, there aren’t any major setbacks or errors.
- Find ways to save expenses during filmmaking to maximize your resources. For example, there’s an option to rent equipment rather than buy it if you’re still starting out in the industry.
- Choose good actors. Find great talent who can bring out the essence of the story. Talented team members always make outstanding output.
- Check out New Hope Film Festival’s website to learn more about their upcoming events in 2021.