Dean Devlin on Why Legion M is the Future of Film Distribution

Bad Samaritan

The director of Bad Samaritan and producer of Independence Day finds hope in fan-owned entertainment company.

As we march closer to the Summer movie season, we begin to hear those familiar grumblings of superhero and sequel fatigue. We all love the MCU, but does every film studio in Hollywood have to fight and trip over each other to establish their own spandex franchise? What about the mid-budget film? What about the character-driven thriller? Where do we turn for those delights of yesteryear?

For Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison, the answer to those blockbuster blues is found with the fans. They found their faith in the enthusiasts and obsessives who devote their passion and their income to the varied genres of cinema. In 2016, they founded Legion M, the first fan-owned entertainment company.

Sparked from the same spirit that produced Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Legion M allows fans to invest in the style of cinema that best represents them. They previously partnered with NEON on Colossal, as well as Kevin Smith and Stan Lee for their Face-to-Face VR interview series. Now, they’re preparing to launch Dean Devlin’s Bad Samaritan.

Dean Devlin has spent decades in the trenches of blockbuster entertainment. Producing such films as Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Patriot. Last year he directed the global disaster film, Geostorm. The man has a better understanding of the pros and cons of multi-million dollar Hollywood investments than most. The fact that he has formed Electric Entertainment and partnered with Legion M as a means of independently distributing his latest film should get all of us to take notice.

I had a long chat with Paul, Jeff, and Dean over the phone. During a break from hustling between pop culture conventions, these three creators were eager to share their excitement for this potential shift in industry thinking. We discuss the necessity of new modes of distribution, the skepticism they once faced, and why Bad Samaritan is a perfect film for the Legion M brand. Dean has encountered his fair share of frustration within the studios, but he remains hopeful for the industry as a whole.

Here is our conversation in full:

When you hear that Legion M is the first entertainment studio that allows the fans to be investors, and part of the creation of their film, what does that exactly entail? What does that mean to you?

Paul: Yeah, sure. So we started the company two years ago, and we are quite literally owned by fans. And I don’t mean like Jeff and I are fans. Of course we’re fans. But our whole thesis is that an entertainment company that’s owned by fans has a better chance of success than an entertainment company that’s owned by Wall Street.

So two years ago there were new securities laws enacted as a result of the Jobs Act, which passed six years ago, but it took the SEC four years to write these rules and make them available. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but basically what it allows is equity crowdfunding. So a lot of people will hear about Legion M and think of Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and to a certain degree we’re following that path, but it’s next-level. Because historically, with Kickstarter for example, when you’re backing a project or backing a company, you’re typically getting some form of reward. It may be a coffee mug or a t-shirt or something like that. In our case, it’s actual equity. So it’s more like doing an IPO, but it’s a startup IPO. After announcing the company, we were one of the first ever to use these new securities laws.

Since the very beginning, we’ve always been owned by fans. And what that means for us is that we see the company first and foremost as a community. A community of passionate entertainment fans. We find the people that join our community are Comic-Con attendees or film festival attendees, and those are the people that we’re recruiting to join our movement. So we started it two years ago. We’ve had two record-breaking rounds of finance. We don’t require people to invest to join, so anyone can join. It’s free to join. But if they do decide to invest, the minimum investment is only $100.

That’s another big difference. Typically, startup entrepreneurs that are looking for investors are looking for a small number of investors to put a large amount of money in. And our goal is to unite one million fans. If you look at our logo, it’s a Legion M with the bar over the M, which is the Roman numeral for one million. We want to unite one million fans to create a really cool entertainment company. And if everyone just put $100 in, and we reach that goal, we’d have $100,000,000 to invest in projects and back amazing creators like Dean to create content that would have a million people emotionally and financially invested in them.

So that’s our plan. We announced it two years ago and it’s been amazing so far.

Hollywood has worked one specific way for a long time. How much resistance was there to this concept?

Jeff: I think that was one of the big questions coming into this. How receptive would Hollywood be to this kind of idea? And I think that, if you look at what we’ve done in the first two years, it’s shown that Hollywood’s been amazingly receptive. We bat way out of our league. I mean, if we were a small entertainment company with Paul and Jeff as the heads of it and we had a couple million dollars, which is the amount of money that we’ve raised, I don’t think that we would’ve gotten as far as we have. But we’ve had projects with Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis and Stan Lee and Kevin Smith and Nicolas Cage.

And there’s no better example than Bad Samaritan. Here we are with a legendary creator. Dean’s a guy that’s creating pop culture and has been for 30 years. The opportunity for fans, just regular fans on the street, to be a part of Dean Devlin’s next project and David Tennant’s next project, we think, is amazing. And that’s what Legion M is all about.

So Dean, obviously you were part of a round of films that certainly shaped blockbuster cinema, and you’ve worked in that one environment for so long. Why now partner with Legion M? How does Bad Samaritan fit into their model?

Dean: Well, you know, the first film that I ever produced was a movie called Stargate.

Yeah.

Dean: And the money was raised entirely independently. There was no studio involved in the making of the picture. And when the film was finished, every studio in Hollywood basically said, “Science-fiction is dead. Nobody wants to see science-fiction.” It was the prevailing wisdom that science-fiction movies weren’t going to work anymore. So everybody turned us down. And we finally were able to find out that MGM had a hole in their distribution schedule. That they had nothing they could release in October. So they agreed to release the picture, but very half-heartedly. They didn’t believe in the movie at all. And we could tell, because they weren’t going to spend much money to promote it.

So I asked at the time, I said, “Well, can I have all the sci-fi conventions, and can I have the Internet?” And they said, “Sure, do whatever you want at the sci-fi conventions. We don’t care.” And they said, “And what’s this thing called the Internet?” And we literally invented the first movie website on the Internet. There had been fan sites before, but there had never been an official movie website before, and we invented it for Stargate. And then I spent a year going to every science-fiction convention in the country to talk about the picture. Well, when the movie finally came out, we were tracking to be a huge disaster. We weren’t showing up on any of the tracking whatsoever. And we ended up being the largest October opening in history. And it was really a completely grassroots level. We appealed to the fans who we knew like this type of entertainment, even if the studios didn’t see them.

So when I found out about what Legion M is doing, I thought, “This is the ultimate grassroots company.” Studios tend to tell the audience what’s going to be a big movie, but sometimes it’s much better if the audience gets to tell the studio what’s going to be the big movie. So what Legion M just inherently does is it speaks directly to them. And then if they embrace it, then you literally have an army of people to help support your movie.

So when I learned what they were doing, I felt very comfortable with their approach and I thought it was actually instinctually the way I believe the way we should be selling movies. So I approached them, they got excited about the movie, we started working together, and it’s really been a remarkable experience the way we’ve worked together. We’ve now hit several different science-fiction conventions together. We meet every week and brainstorm on ideas. And it’s very out-of-the-box thinking, but it is very much like a grassroots political campaign. It’s, “How do we appeal to people who are inclined to enjoy this type of entertainment? And can we get them to be part of our campaign to spread the word?”

I’ve been going to Comic-Con for almost a decade now, and Hollywood’s presence in the last few years has dwindled. The thought used to be, “If we capture Hall H, we’ll capture the box office,” until Scott Pilgrim came out. It did great at Hall H, but nothing at the box office. But you three still seem to have a lot of confidence in steering, or embracing fandom. You don’t have any anxiety around that?

Dean: Well, I think it’s not a plug-and-play. In other words, it’s not that just because you speak to them they’re going to support you. It’s have you made something they can embrace? And do you have effective ways of getting them to embrace it? Literally, it’s like every other business except the movie industry. It’s trying to create a one-on-one relationship with your customer. And for some reason, the movie industry is the only business that hasn’t nurtured that. Especially when we have these remarkable tools to do that today.

Paul: Yeah, I would agree with that. It’s not just about going out to cons. I mean, that’s an important component of it, and we spend a lot of time there, but we’re also much more than that. I mean, we now have a Legion community of over probably 35,000 people and, as we get closer to the film releasing, we’re already organizing the community into these fun events to go see the film when it opens on opening weekend. We call them Movie Meetups where Legion M community members, if they’re interested, can join up with other Legion M members and their friends and family, and it’s open to the public, and we’ll send out some cool merch related to the film. But it’s an amazing way to see a film. To get together with other like-minded people and other passionate fans and go see a film that you’ve been a part of and that you’re a part of, and then go grab a drink or a coffee or something afterwards.

So we have thousands of people already signed up to go do this, and hundreds of people signed up to help us organize those events. This is one thing we really love about the Legion model is it’s good for the film, right? That helps the film if we can have a good opening weekend. But it’s also really enjoyable and fun for the community. We’ve done this before with some of our other films, including a film called Colossal starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, and our community absolutely loved it. It was a total blast. It’s one thing to go see a film. It’s another thing to go see it with a group and talk about it. It just takes the whole experience up a notch.

Jeff: Particularly for a film like this, because we saw the film and we liked it so much that we invested in it, right? So we know that there’s a great product here. But it’s also the sort of film that is so much more enjoyable to go see in a theater where you can get that kind of group energy. And the scares are just that much scarier and the laughs are that much funnier when you’re enjoying it with a crowd of people at a theater. It’s a great movie to watch on your couch six months from now, but it’s going to be 100 times better if you go out and see it opening weekend with a good crowd of fellow Comic-Con people and David Tennant fans and people that are passionate about films.

You’re preaching to the choir there. The theater experience is … that’s my church. That’s where I want to spend all my time. But that experience is also radically changing. And what I find interesting about Legion M and what you guys are doing by getting people invested, you’re also basically signing a contract of, “We’ll have a place for you to watch this in a communal environment.” You are bringing the community together.

Dean: Exactly. Exactly.

But why is Bad Samaritan specifically a perfect fit for this?

Dean: Well, I think the thing is, you think of the bulk of the audience that will show up to this movie are people who want to see movies that are scary. But what could make this movie do slightly better is the fact that it has some real fan favorite actors who are only really known within the fanboy world, like David Tennant and Robbie Sheehan. Now, Robbie Sheehan’s going to be a huge star after the Peter Jackson movie [Mortal Engines] comes out, but right now people know him mostly from doing Misfits, and people know David Tennant mostly from Dr. Who and from Jessica Jones. So that outreach to people who know them is creating an enormous amount of energy. Now, hopefully that energy can become infectious and get more people to come see the picture.

But again, this is an independently released movie, so there’s no studio behind it. There’s no big giant machine. There’s not a huge pot of money for P&A to just buy ads everywhere. So we knew we had to reach people who like genre entertainment and who would actually appreciate the people who are in our film, and Legion speaks exactly to that audience. They speak to people who are the least pretentious audience out there. They unabashedly like genre entertainment. They make no apologies for it. And they are actually aware of the people who are in this film, when maybe general audience may not be.

What exactly does success ultimately look like for Legion? When will you feel comfortable, and maybe you do already, that this model is working?

Paul: That’s a great question. I would say, for us, we really see it almost as a movement. We want to be a force for positive change in the industry. We want to back creative, really original ideas and things like what Dean was saying is … You know, Bad Samaritan’s not a big studio project, right? And we don’t have a problem with the big studios, but they’re doing their thing and they’ve got their machine and they’re cranking out what they do, but we feel like the industry deserves and needs to have more than just that.

Colossal was a great example because it was a wildly original idea and probably not something that a traditional studio would do. Same thing with Bad Samaritan. Backing Dean, who’s well-known and one of the most accomplished producers in Hollywood, but we’re backing an independent project and it’s kind of a personal project for Dean. And it’s got all those elements about it that we like. It’s David Tennant on the verge of breaking out, and Robbie Sheehan on the verge of breaking out. We love that aspect.

But one thing I’ll also add: We want to be that force of change and we feel like we have the power … when fans come together we have the power to support those things. But the other component is, when we started the company, obviously Jeff and I are entrepreneurs and we were very excited about what we were doing and very bullish on the opportunity, but you never know, right? When you put that idea out there, sometimes you might think you have a good idea, but the market or the industry doesn’t agree with you. And I would say two years after starting this, we’re more excited than ever. Two years ago I would’ve told you that’s not possible, but two years in we’re ecstatic. So many components of our business model have not only met our expectations, but exceeded them.

And the biggest one, because we had a lot of people early on that were … As an entrepreneur you always encounter skeptics. One of the most common skeptics was, “Having a million shareholders or having a large community of shareholders is going to be a nightmare for you.” That’s what people would tell us. And we’d always say, “Oh no, we don’t agree. We feel like that’s what we want. They’ll be helpful. We can nurture it and it’ll be an amazing thing to have,” but in the back of our mind, so many people were telling us it would be a nightmare that we’re a little bit like, “Oh. I hope it’s not going to be a nightmare.” And two years in I can tell you unequivocally, it is not a nightmare. It is amazing. And our community … it’s just phenomenal how supportive they are.

We did a screening and had a presence at Silicon Valley Comic Con this weekend, and we had volunteers come out, and they’re so helpful, and they’re so nice, and … Like Dean was saying, these aren’t Wall Street investors. Not to say that Wall Street investors aren’t nice, but these are people that go to Comic-Con. They’re as excited about what we’re doing as we are and they want to get involved. They want to be helpful. And so we’re really bullish on the opportunity. More so than ever now.

Living on film Twitter like I do, there is a lot of doom and gloom talk with the state of the industry. Do you feel like this is a necessary change? Like you had to go this route to get the project out there?

Dean: Oh, without a doubt. Without a doubt. I think we are in big trouble as an industry, and honestly, it’s why I started my own distribution company. I think the direction that Hollywood is moving is not healthy for the long-term existence of the theatrical experience. But I’m hoping that, through companies like ours, and interesting, innovative things like what Legion M is doing, I think what MoviePass is doing, what distributors like A24 are doing … I’m hoping that we’re going to find a way to reinvent the moviegoing experience and revitalize it. Because right now I think the patient is on life support.

Are you hopeful?

Dean: I feel very excited about it. To me, it reminds me of when all the small music labels in the 80s popped up and revitalized the music industry. I think there’s a lot of people who still love movies and they’re figuring out how to talk to other people who love movies and trying to figure out, “How do we get this to be an experience that’s unique?” Yes, it’s lovely to watch your show on Netflix, but there’s nothing like being in a movie theater with a bunch of strangers and having a communal experience.

When I was younger, you used to go to the movies and you’d go and see what was playing. And you’d say, “Oh yeah, let’s go see that one.” Nobody does that today. People go to the movies to see a movie. So therefore, every movie has to have some sort of sense of urgency to it. So, of course, if you’re a studio, a $200 million superhero movie immediately has urgency. It’s an easier bet. Things that have a preexisting life where everybody knows the book or everybody’s seen the TV show or played the video game, has a preexisting life, and it creates that own sense of urgency. But they’re much less likely now to do films that are my favorite films growing up because they don’t know if it will create any sense of urgency, so they don’t want to take that chance.

So we’re going to need other companies that look at it not from a corporate point of view, but look at it from a fan point of view. “What movies do I want to go see in a movie theater?” And I think when you change that perspective, we can revitalize filmmaking.

Jeff: Yeah. I’ll just add, I completely agree with everything that Dean’s saying. And this is why it was love at first sight when we talked to Dean because he’s a fan himself, we love his work from a creative standpoint, but also just as an innovator. He put his finger right on it earlier in the call when he talked about the need to develop a relationship with your customer and the importance of that. And I think what’s really interesting is if you zoom out and take a 50,000 foot view of the industry, the technology and the business models have obviously changed and completely disrupted everything for the last 100 years, and they will for the next 1,000 years, because that stuff is constantly changing. But the two endpoints are the fans whose eyeballs and wallets drive the entire multi-trillion dollar industry, and the people like Dean, the creators that have the talent and the stories to get in front of people. And I think that that’s why we’re so excited about Legion M and that opportunity, because we think that if you can have that relationship, it’s extremely powerful. And that’s why we love working with innovative people like Dean that kind of get that and kind of understand the importance of that relationship.

In a lot of ways, all this technology disruption is wonderful for innovators like us and Dean, because it creates all this disruption. Trying to release your own independent film and distribute it independently probably wasn’t really possible 10 or 15 or 20 years ago and technology has made that all possible. There’s a lot of ills and there’s the way that the big studios are reacting to it, but I think ultimately, over time, there’s more opportunity than ever.

Red Dots

Bad Samaritan opens in theaters on May 4th. If you’re interested in joining an Opening Weekend meet-up, you can do so HERE.

You can also join Legion M HERE, and reserve a spot in their next public offering HERE.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.