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Project Greenlight finalist | Short about sex, death, existence, time

Lily in the Grinder

Shabbat Dinner

Comedy short about coming out | Featured in 55+ festivals

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Archive for January, 2014

Ten things I did to distribute Shabbat Dinner

In the space of four weeks, life can change dramatically. It’s hard to believe that it’s been so little time, but looking at my calendar I am forced to conclude that it has.

Yo, watch Shabbat Dinner if you haven’t already! (Did I say that yet?)
Yo, share Shabbat Dinner on Facebook or Twitter and you will get lots of candy in the afterlife!

On December 19 at 8pm I went to a friend’s holiday party on the Upper West Side, staying until about midnight and enjoying spending the last bit of time in a while with my friends. At some point in the party I pulled out an audio recorder I had brought and convinced everyone to sing Amazing Grace for my film Lily in the Grinder. I downed a five-hour energy (it would not be my last of the month) as I got on the subway for the long ride to Williamsburg.

The next five hours was a rapid process of finishing my film. We had just recorded 14 minutes of incredibly beautiful string quartet music a few days prior. The music was written to match the film down to the second, but in recording music, even with a click track, it diverges a bit from the film it was scored to. A change in tone or an upswell doesn’t exactly match a cut. The score is such an integral component of the film, so in those cases, rather than edit the score to the film, I was recutting the film to the score. It was 5:30am and I finally exported the audio and sent it to our audio editor.

At 6:30am I left my apartment for a flight. I arrived in Phoenix a total zombie and was picked up by Nancy Yates, wife of John Yates (Culadasa), my meditation teacher. About 16 hours after that holiday party, I began a meditation retreat. For two weeks, I didn’t speak at all and silently sat, about eight hours per day, focusing on my breath. It was my fourth such meditation retreat, and entirely distinctive in its quality of experience. I found following my breath to be much easier than it used to be (meditation up to that point had been more akin to banging my head against a wall) and started to see my life from a slightly different perspective. It’s funny that the ways in which meditation feels like it is working are often wholly different from the ways in which I notice my mind has changed. Perhaps a topic for another post.) I broke silence for New Years, slipping my roommate a note asking if he wanted to wake up at 11:50 and look for fireworks. It was a nice way to start 2014.

No sooner than one hour after the retreat ended, I was pounding away at the distribution plan for Shabbat Dinner. I worked through the weekend, sending emails on my phone while meeting new friends in Phoenix and staying up late nights to finish coding the website. It felt like my mind could handle it, but I was reminded that the mind is very sensitive after an intense experience like a meditation retreat.

One day in my friend Tracy took us to a warehouse-sized Mexican grocery store in Phoenix, which was pretty much a Mexican person’s idea of what Americans would want in a grocery store: colorful, giant aisles, food everywhere, tacos and burritos and enchiladas and christmas music on the 5th of January. The word started to feel weird and rush around me very quickly and I had to sit down, put my head between my hands, and ask Tracy to bring me some chips with salsa. When I felt better, it was back to work.

My new short film hadn’t gotten into Sundance (which was disappointing, but the odds are truly stacked against us) and Shabbat Dinner was making good money through online VOD sales. What to do when money finally starts to trickle in on a short film? Recognize the opportunity and release it online. We put the film out on the 9th, and a little over two weeks later, it’s got almost 40,000 views. How did I get from here to there? Here’s ten of the ways:

  1. Built relationships with friends, fans, and followers! And I mean real friends here as well as Facebook friends. I sent out an email the morning of the 9th to 3,500 people, many of whom I know well in real life and some who have signed up on my site. The email was direct and clear, asking them to watch and share the film and explaining the importance of their doing so. I try to send as few emails as I can, and make each one count. One technique I used to ensure the message got directly into their inbox was to segment my Mailchimp list into a list of the 350 most active people / closest friends, and use Digital Inspiration’s mail merge tool to send those through Gmail (you get 500 emails per day on Gmail.) That helped get the email straight into their inbox, not in Gmail’s promotions tab.
  2. Reached out to critics. I built a list of film critics and sent the film to them individually, making sure I was aware of their work and understood the context in which they would watch the film. This led to a number of good reviews of the film.
  3. Reached out to LGBT organizations. I spent a week calling about 200 LGBT organizations and speaking directly with them. It was so cool to say only “I made a film about coming out” and hear an enthusiastic “oh! COOL!” From that outreach we’ve had several new screenings around the country and some positive reaction and engagement.
  4. Reached out to LGBT sites. I emailed, called, and Facebook Messaged a ton of people who run LGBT sites, giving them a preview of the film and asking them if they could share it. This led to our first big break, a post on Joe My God, which led directly to a reblog from Towle Road. It’s often like this: you can’t necessarily control who picks you up and how, but what you can do is increase the odds.
  5. Built a sweet website that works. I’ll say upfront that even though I did my best to share the website url,, people found the YouTube URL and shared that one instead — so this cuts both ways. I wish people had been more into visiting the film on its own website, which has a live director Q&A that goes directly to my cell phone, a feature that allows them to enter their email address and be reminded to watch the film in 3 days (since many people first encounter the film at work), a link to my other films, and more information about the creation of the film. So I’m left with a two-fold conclusion: host your site on a major platform for maximum discoverability, and build a website if you can that allows you to customize the experience for those who want it. It’s like building your own theater!
  6. Tweet the shit out if it. I tweeted…the shit…out of Twitter. I tweeted about the film and shared each new post with my followers, retweeting and responding to anybody who talked about the film. I targeted about 400 top LGBT tweeters and sent the film directly to them, resulting in over 500,000 people worth of retweets.
  7. Tumblr! Don’t ignore Tumblr! Pre-teens and teens are on Tumblr, and the anonymous and super-sharable nature of the site makes it perfect for sharing a film virally in the audience I wanted to target. I found every GSA and “gay teen” blog on Tumblr I could, and sent them the film using the “submit” feature. Before its internet release, the film had mostly been seen by gay men over 40. Now, there are countless articles about it on Tumblr with reblogs, comments, and some incredible engagement.
  8. Facebook! Facebook shares accounted for most of our viral engagement. It’s a sharable film, short and funny, and people really responded. We posted everything to our Facebook page
  9. Advertising! Yes, advertising, the dirty secret of promotion. We took out ads on YouTube and Facebook, not spending a ton of money (a total of about $300…money goes far in ads.) We used the ads to encourage people in target demographics to like the page. I also used Facebook to target my friends who had been sent the initial email, so that after reading the email on a Thursday, Facebook ads kept encouraging them to watch it throughout the weekend.
  10. If you read between the lines above you might see that the secret to promoting a film is that there is no secret. Make as good a film as you can, spend as much time and money as you can afford, and be genuine and open in your dealings with those on the web. PR is just a lot of work. Although I guess if you’re friends with someone at Upworthy, you might have a little bit less work cut out for you.

In the three days leading up to the promotion of Shabbat Dinner, I slept four hours. It was wonderful work, but it was hard, grueling work. That, along with some decisions I made on the meditation retreat, have sent me in a slightly different direction moving forward. In 2014, I want to work collaboratively as much as possible, and solo as little as possible. It’s difficult to do with a big vision and no budget, but I prioritize being in something like this as a team so highly. There’s nothing like sharing a workload, a passion, and the joy of seeing people engage with work.

I’ve also decided to release my next short film, Lily in the Grinder, primarily online, not relying on festival distribution to get the film out there. It’s remarkable that in 50+ film festivals, about 4,000 people saw the film, and we added 10x that number in just two weeks. Thanks all for being a part of this ride, and I’m excited to see what comes next! <3 Mike


Did you know you can watch Shabbat Dinner for free online? :-)


It should be noted that this isn’t referring to any specific events at Sundance but is just a reflection of feelings on networking I’ve had in the past:

The mind observes its own thoughts and draws conclusions, its observations as much stories as anything else.

We come to meet others, to join in a collective, to support and sustain and provide passion to mission to make the world a better place.

We come for ourselves, seeking to attain further and greater. We look around at the successes of others and feel a pang of frustration and anger, a yearning for another reality, and a power in knowing success is possible.

We feel terrible. Networky. Small and petty and vindictive in having shown up just for ourselves. We push the thought away, but thoughts push back. We’re still happy to be here, to be among others like ourselves.

We share a look and make a connection. A real connection. A smile on our face, it’s not a fake. We can see it’s not a fake. Somebody, we think, I would actually want to be friends with in real life. It’s hard to know what that means.

Networking, we think, is making real connections. Not worrying about what you can do, but connecting with people and the rest comes in the future. We are overwhelmed with the beauty of this world, of the people alongside us, holding hands side by side on this journey. Beer or laughs or board games. We feel at home.

Somebody says something. That thought “I want that” comes back in and we despise it in that moment. The glow that suffused the room sharpens to a cold clarity. “I hate these people” we think.

And sometimes we look back at the trajectory of this life and we see that living between those moments of small annoyances have been true friends we love. We see the moments that didn’t lead in that direction have fizzled quickly. We promise to ourselves to be truthful in our dealings with others, to be good.

But of course it’s not what we promise. It’s what we later decide we have done.

Shabbat Dinner comes out!

Two years ago, in a friend’s apartment and with almost no money, a small ragtag group of people shot a film I had written eight weeks earlier. Our small kickstarter campaign finished one day before the shooting began. It was only meant as a little dramatic piece for an application to film school, but it ended up being something much more, as audiences really seemed to connect with the stories and characters.

One week ago, motivated by the film’s success, we released it onto YouTube. You can watch it, along with a live director Q&A and some other cool features, at (or on YouTube.)

As a throwback, here are some articles I wrote about the making of this film:

And if you’d like to see what we can accomplish with a bit more money and time, check out the trailer to Lily in the Grinder, a short film I directed this past May.

Shabbat Dinner is featured on the front page of Huffington Post Gay Voices now. Here is the article, cross-posted from HuffPo with the standard Upworthy-style headline, “A Boy Comes Of Age With His First Kiss”:

“Shabbat Dinner” is an award-winning short film from director Michael Morgenstern that portrays a boy’s first kiss with the son of his parents’ friends during Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest which begins on Friday night.

Having debuted at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and screened at an additional 53 film festivals around the world, “Shabbat Dinner” is a complex exploration of a teen’s sexuality and Jewish culture. The success of the film has generated a social media campaign using the hashtag #WhenIToldThem and invites fans to take part by sharing their own coming out story.

“My biggest goal was to make a film for teens going through this kind of experience and tell them that they are not alone,” Morgenstern told The Huffington Post. “I’ve been inspired by the tremendous effect this sort of media has on society at large; when people understand and can laugh along with characters, their demographic becomes less threatening. I see the film as a conflict between two people struggling, through great difficulty, to be (and discover) who they are, and four people doing their best to avoid having to say or notice anything truthful.”

Check out the short film above and visit this website for the possibility of a live Q&A with the director. Additional information is also available on Facebook and Twitter.

Love Morgenstern’s work? Check out the trailer for his new project, “Lily in the Grinder.”

(Originally posted on May 7, 2013)

Check out my interview with author Brandon Shire about my attempts to get Shabbat Dinner out to LGBT youth and its launch as a Pay-What-You-Want model.
You can watch the movie at Article cross-posted from Brandon’s blog:

Shabbat Dinner - Gay FilmWelcome Michael Morgenstern, Writer and Director of Shabbat Dinner, a short film about gay youth. You can see the film online. It is a pay-what-you-want with 10% of the profits going to the Ali Forney Center which combats LGBT youth homelessness. (See the trailer below.)

Brandon: I really liked your film. Tell us what motivated you to create it.

Michael: Well, I’d been working on a TV pilot for years about growing up gay in Los Angeles at age sixteen. In the nineties, it wasn’t what it’s like now. There wasn’t a world for us–everyone who was out was older. As I worked on it, I was continually re-motivated to work on the script by all the articles in 2011 newspapers about gay teen bullying and suicide. Every time I read one I was powerfully affected to do something to reach these kids.

Brandon: How hard was it to make?

Michael: Every part of making a film, even a short one, is a challenge, and we set out diligently to find actors, locations, and a crew. I looked for theater actors, reasoning it would be easier to find an established and talented actor who was successful on stage and looking to get into film than it would to find an already established film actor. I sat down with my friend Matt, who listened to the character descriptions I gave him and came up with ten actors for each character. Then I looked up all their agents and called them. About sixty to 100 calls later…no joke…we had most of our actors.

Shabbat Dinner - still- chris-danBrandon: How did you go about finding the young actors, especially two who were going to play gay teens?

Michael: For the teens’ roles, I went to a few acting teachers I knew and posted a bunch of times on Facebook, and eventually found my way to Dan Shaked and Chris London, who were absolutely wonderful. The whole cast was wonderful.

Brandon: The reaction to the film on the circuit has been very positive. Did it start out like that?

Michael: Our first few festival submissions received rejections — late submissions of an unfinished rough cut to the bigger fests, which are hard to get into even with a finished film and applying at the right time. Then I got into the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and after that, acceptances began to trickle in. When we were announced as part of Frameline, the trickle became a stream and I began receiving invitations left and right. I got so many that I made a shortcut on my computer so with six keystrokes I can email out the screener video.

Brandon: Is this film geared toward LGBT teens or adults? I know one of the scenes in it has caused some controversy.

Michael: As far as I’m concerned, this film is for teens. I made it to reach kids who are struggling with issues around coming out and being accepted for who they are (and not just with regards to their sexuality.) I was approached very early on by some educators and people who run organizations that deal with Gay-Straight-Alliances and schools, and I reached out to a few others. People who watched the film were very excited to see it, but inevitably when it came time to present the film to a committee, it was deemed too racy or sexually explicit. I offered to remove the controversial scene — I wasn’t thrilled to do so, but in the end I’d rather the film get seen. It wasn’t enough, and I think that even without that scene the film opens up too many doors about religion and identity, and the safer decision for an educator is not to show it.

I know that it will impact teens, though, and that the images that educators might consider objectionable or questionable will not be so to the majority of teens…but until the film wasavailable online the only way to high-schoolers has traditionally been through educators. I’m sure there are many educators out there who would be interested in the film, but I haven’t met them yet.

Brandon: Can you give us a hint about what you have coming up next?

Michael: Oh, man…lots. I directed two music videos that were a lot of fun, which were released a few months ago. I’m directing an abstract short film that I wrote about death and temporality. The talent involved, between the cinematographer Judy Phu, the composer Jonathan Russ, and the cast, who we’re not ready to announce yet, is so strong and I’m really thrilled to see this shoot happen. I’m also writing two features and planning a few other music video projects. If readers are interested, they can sign up for my mailing list (I don’t send too much, I promise!)

You can contact Michael on Facebook or Twitter, and connect with the page for his new film on Facebook.

Watch the film at!