A creative genius in Eden Prairie built an organization to make science fiction movies and sell his host of ideas to outside producers
Jeffrey Morris is an unassuming creative genius who has long nourished a love for science and science fiction. He realized as a teenager that his favored place to set stories was in the future, and it seems his time has finally come. A half hour animated version of his cosmos-bending story Parallel Man was well-received at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Now he has fortified his company — FutureDude Entertainment — with CEO Phil Hinderaker, who serves as Jeffrey’s “brain buddy” and rainmaker. Minnesota Business talked with Jeffrey about his past and his plans for delivering the future to a screen near you.
MNBIZ: Why do you want to make futuristic science fiction movies?
Jeffrey: I was a big fan of the original Star Trek as a child, and there was a lot of philosophy in that show. Gene Roddenberry wanted to make a TV series about the 1960s, but the networks didn’t want it, so he decided to make a TV series that was set in the 23rd century about the 1960s. That was fantastic.
I saw that on that spaceship the crew had a Russian. That means we solved the Cold War, which was so scary to me as a child. I look on the bridge of the ship and I see an Asian guy flying it. I see a black woman in charge of communications. I see a half-human as a science officer.
I see these things and I go, “Man, what they are saying to me is that in the future all these things that are happening on the playground where I’m getting insulted for my skin color – these things are going to stop. We are going to get smart. We are going to use our brains and we’re going to help each other. We are going to work together.”
I learned a lot from watching that show. It made me think, “Could I grow up to make media like that, maybe not as farfetched, but a little bit more rooted in reality and our lives to help motivate discussion and innovation and thought?”
MNBIZ: Why did you choose the Twin Cities to launch your film career?
Jeffrey: I knew that there was a potential for entrepreneurship here, which I didn’t feel was going to happen for me in Los Angeles. For another thing, I was excited because Prince was working here. I was interested in working in the film and video industry as a director. Subsequently, I discovered I wanted to write and produce.
MNBIZ: How did you become an entrepreneur?
Jeffrey: At first I worked in graphic design. By day, I did illustration work for brochures, posters, business cards and menus for a restaurant. In the evenings I was a DJ at the Pacific Club in downtown Minneapolis and at a couple of other places.
I knew that I wanted to launch a business, but I didn’t know how to get it off the ground. I ended up calling the Minneapolis mayor’s office because I figured they’d put me in touch with some sort of business development program. I left a message, and five minutes later I got a call from Mayor Don Fraser himself!
I talked to Don and he put me in touch with his deputy mayor, Rip Rapson. Then, Rip put me in touch with people at the University of St. Thomas. Soon I had all these grad students helping me write a business plan for my company. Then, I got the company off the ground. It was amazing.
Once that was done, I started out on a local investment group that put money in. They helped me get started. Then, I also got some help from Bill Rudelius at the Carlson School of Management. He also put some money in as well.
MNBIZ: What was your company called at this time?
Jeffrey: It was called Synthesis. With it I started doing corporate videos. I did a lot of different projects. Along the way, I ended up working for Paisley Park and actually got to work a little bit with Prince directly, which is cool.
MNBIZ: What exactly did you do at Paisley Park?
Jeffrey: I did some choreography work for Prince in a movie called Three Chains of Gold. I also did choreography in another video he did around the Diamonds and Pearls era in the early 1990s. Then, in the late ’90s, he had a dance company, the MPG Dance Group. I did a shoot and directed a commercial for the dance group that aired on MTV.
MNBIZ: You worked with Prince! He was part of your motivation for even coming to this area.
Jeffrey: Yeah. It was really neat.
MNBIZ: Did you learn anything from that experience?
Jeffrey: The No. 1 thing I learned is that you can have a dream and it can be fulfilled. In college I had a poster of Prince on my dorm room wall and I had his records. I would never have thought in five or six years I was going to actually be standing right next to him.
Oceanus: Jeffrey has been obsessed with the notion of living underwater ever since he was a kid in Arizona, where he read every book he could find about space, the weather and —of course— the ocean.
MNBIZ: That’s great. So, Synthesis continued?
Jeffrey: Yes. I basically ran Synthesis through the mid-’90s. Then in 1994 I had a project about Mars that was optioned by director Ridley Scott.
MNBIZ: How did you get connected with him? He’s famous for directing a bunch of major movies, from Alien and Blade Runner to The Martian.
Jeffrey: I wrote a pilot for a TV series called Utopia, which was about a colony on Mars. I wanted to do the first realistic view of Mars — dust storms, dangerous conditions, severe cold, radiation and all those things. We wrote a two-hour movie script. Through a connection, I was able to get it to Ridley Scott. He read it and he liked it. He said, “I want to do this.” I was like, “Wow! This is awesome.” This was the first big thing I’d ever written.
He was working on another movie called The Hot Zone, which was based on the best-selling book about the Ebola crisis, a viral epidemic. Jodie Foster and Robert Redford were to star in it. However, in the ’90s, there was a lot of this copycat mentality. Another studio would say, “Oh, they are making a virus epidemic movie over there. We need our own.” So Warner Brothers ended up creating a competing film to Hot Zone called Outbreak, with Dustin Hoffman.
What happened was — in order to beat Outbreak — Scott’s people started rushing. The cast didn’t like the script and Jodie was like, “I’m not going to be in this film because I don’t like the script.” Then, Robert Redford said, “I’m only here to work with Jodie.” They both left. It basically destroyed Scott’s company. He had to close it down and that’s when he launched his new company, Scott Free, which is the one he uses now. Our project went down the tubes with that.
MNBIZ: It was killed by a virus.
Jeffrey: However, it was really on the strength of that association which led to gaining the funding for the pilot of a television series. This is one of the mistakes I made in my career. I raised this money, and if I had known better I would have actually made a movie instead of making a TV pilot. My goal was to try to bring long-term ongoing television production to Minnesota. I had this idea for a science-fiction TV series called Endeavour. I raised about a quarter million dollars to get this thing off the ground. We shot it on 35mm film. I had some great actors, some of the best actors in town.
It was a story about a test pilot in the future — a kind of family drama, action-adventure show. What happened was Hollywood was interested in me as a director, but had no interest in working in Minnesota. They said, “Well, if you want to come out here to L.A., we’ll hook you up and everything, but you’ve got to dump all the people you are working with. Your investors, the whole deal, dump them.” I thought, “I can’t do that. It’s not right.” I turned it down, which was difficult, but I did.
MNBIZ: You kind of succeeded in showing quality to people, but you didn’t succeed with that particular project.
Jeffrey: No, I didn’t. I ended up shutting the project down. The investor took the write off on it. Anyway, it did teach me some things. That project was really a transition, because I was trying to do a story that was set in the future. I was trying to make the science realistic. It got their attention.
I had some people around town who were like, “That’s really interesting.” The Science Museum began to ask me to come to speak. That turned into a relationship between 1995 and 2011. I also got invited to do some work with St. Paul Schools and then some private schools. I realized that there was something viable in all of this. I ended up setting up my own nonprofit.
MNBIZ: What was the name of it?
Jeffrey: Project Universe. I founded that in late 1998 and it continued through 2005. That was my primary focus. That company became a contractor of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I went out to NASA to talk with the planetary scientists about some of the ideas or stories that I had. Then they asked me to work with them, so I ended up working with the Outer Planets Program at NASA in Pasadena for quite a while.
MNBIZ: The idea of FutureDude, when did that emerge?
Jeffrey: I founded my company in 2010, and it was originally called Morris FutureWorks. It is still the official name, but then my FutureDude blog became successful, so we changed the name to FutureDude and then to its current name, FutureDude Entertainment.
MNBIZ: Tell me about your blog.
Jeffrey: It started in 2012. My wife, Kimberly, — and now my business partner — was telling me I had to get into social media to build a fan base. I read a lot of blogs, but it frustrated me because any blog that would talk about science-fiction movies would dump in horror films and fantasy films. It became a catch-all genre.
Well, I’m not a horror person and I’m not a fantasy guy either. I thought I’d create a blog that takes the best of what I’m learning about science with the best movies and books and other interesting stuff. By the time we got to three months into the blog, we’d already had tens of thousands of hits.
I picked the term “FutureDude” because I wanted to popularize science. If you look at Carl Sagan, he was trying to bring science to the masses to make it easier for everyday people to understand it. Similarly, I want to tell stories to bring science to the masses.
FutureDude is about the human future for me and the future of our planet and our potential as a species. I don’t believe technology and science are the answer to all of that. I think they are tools and I think they are part of it.
MNBIZ: By showing future possibilities, it makes it seem real to people and therefore possibly achievable — just as Star Trek had a harmonious cast.
Jeffrey: Yes, absolutely. The only danger is that a lot of people may think these visions of the future are very negative. Movies like Terminator or Mad Max — these are post-apocalyptic. As a matter of fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a movie with a vision in the future that’s positive. Typically, it’s just very, very negative. I think that reflects people’s view of reality, that things are headed to some very bad dark places.
One of the things that I’m working on is an IP (intellectual property) that has a positive vision of the future. It will deal with China and America in a new space race, because of a new technology. After initially being competitors, they end up working together in the course of the story. It’s going to be very realistic. I’m hoping to actually involve the real Chinese Space Program with the story. We’ll see what happens.
MNBIZ: I understand the business model for FutureDude Entertainment has been evolving.
Jeffrey: Yes. We started out initially doing what was called trans-media, where you take an intellectual property, and you launch that intellectual property across various platforms at the same time. You say, “All right, I’ve got Superman, so now I’m going to release the Superman videogame, Superman movie, Superman toys and all this stuff the same day. I’m going to do this big.”
It was something that was happening a few years ago that seemed like an interesting way to approach these things. The truth is, I’m not sure it’s working as well as people thought it would, this idea of launching IP. In a lot of ways, it was almost a backwards way of doing what was done with merchandising in the past.
Parallel Man movie poster
MNBIZ: So you approached Parallel Man using the trans-media model?
Jeffrey: Yes. I had developed an intellectual property catalogue with 25 different ideas. Parallel Man was one of the ideas in it that we thought would work with a broad science fiction audience similar to a Star Wars.
We decided to launch it as a comic book series, as a mobile device game, and also as animation. We did all three of those things over the past year, and we released them here recently.
Parallel Man was an idea I developed with a cowriter named Frederick Haugen. We were joking around about parallel universes, then we were like, “What kind of story could we create about parallel universes where it was a big romp?”
We did an outline for a story, which changed over time, and then took it to a fantastic artist named Christopher Jones. He is Twin Cities-based, but he happens to be a renowned comic book artist who has drawn for Marvel and DC. He just did a Batman series that was well received, and he did Young Justice. He understands the world-building side of it.
Then I had a team of artists who were interns from MCAD, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. They took our designs for Parallel Man and turned them into computer graphics.
We used those computer models to help us do the comic book. Then, the animators took it and made a cartoon out of it. That’s the way you’re able to use it in different parallel tracks. We made a seven-issue comic book series and got distribution through Diamond Comic Distributors. They distribute Marvel and DC and all the great comics. We did a lot of advertising in those, and we sold Parallel Man to stores around the country. We also did a deal with a company called Comixology, which did the digital distribution of Parallel Man.
Now we have it in print, we have it digital, and then we had animation.
I directed the animation, and was able to get three celebrity actors to do the voices of the characters in the animation. They were John Cho, who is in Harold and Kumar and Star Trek. I had Ming-Na Wen, who did the voice of Mulan and was in Joy Luck Club. Then Lance Reddick, who was in The Wire and Fringe.
MNBIZ: Could Parallel Man be a live action movie?
Jeffrey: I think Parallel Man is best served as an animated TV show. It’s such a huge story that scale-wise it would cost well over $100 million as a live action movie. Animation is way cheaper because you’re doing it all with illustrations or computer graphics. We are talking to both Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon about Parallel Man as a TV series.
MNBIZ: So Parallel Man was an attempt at the trans-media approach, but you’ve decided to change your business model?
Jeffrey: Yes. We now realize that making comic books is not a sustainable economic model. If you look at a lot of the big comic book companies, their goal long-term is for a bigger play. They want to make the TV show or the movie. They’re doing the comic book because they want to push it to something that’s going to make millions of dollars, billions of dollars.
MNBIZ: Describe your current approach.
Jeffrey: We are developing two tracks for our company. The one side is to make our own films, but the other side is that we want to sell IP. Basically, we’re going to look at our catalogue of intellectual property, and we’re going to go in those two directions with it. That’s what our company is about.
We’re going to create ideas that we’re going to sell to Hollywood or to Europe, and we’re actually getting some interest in China as well. What we’re talking about is packaging IP and then selling it so someone else can produce it. On the other hand, Oceanus is an idea that started off in the IP catalogue, but we decided to develop it further and make it into a project that we’re going to create ourselves.
Behind the scenes of Oceanus, a futuristic film about living underwater.
MNBIZ: How much money have you raised?
Jeffrey: I have raised in the neighborhood of $4 million. In my career, I’ve raised more than that, but for this current project, $4 million.
My goal right now is to establish relationships with people to finance our films. There’s interest in building funds around our work, so we work with a film fund out of Europe or Asia, and then that film fund would back three movies, that kind of thing. I want to produce low-budget films, but it’s really about making very high quality product at a moderate budget. I believe as a director I could do stuff bigger than that, but the point is, the higher your budget, the less control you have to tell good stories.
Jeffrey: Well, because there’s more at stake. If a studio is going to throw $100 million into a movie, they start saying, “We’ve got to get Tom Cruise because we know Tom Cruise has a certain number of fans who will come out for him. We know that if we put this many romantic elements into it, women will want it.” This is their thinking.
MNBIZ: It starts to become an equation.
Jeffrey: It’s an equation, exactly. It’s a committee sitting around saying, “What do you guys think? How many explosions do we have? How many make-out sessions? How many car chases?”
That’s not a movie. That’s a collection of images and events.
MNBIZ: How has the idea of being a film director changed from when you started versus now?
Jeffrey: What’s beautiful about it is that it’s shifted in my favor in a way. In the 1990s, when I first starting pitching stuff, I used to always hear people say, “You’re ahead of your time. You’re ahead of time. This is really great, but you’re ahead of your time.” I’d be like, what does that mean? You’re ahead of your time?
They’d say, “Well, some of these ideas you have, we couldn’t from a visual effects standpoint tell this story. We can’t make it look real for any moderate budget.”
I used to write whatever I wanted. I’d say, “And then the tsunami came and engulfed the city.” I wasn’t really thinking about how you would produce a tsunami. This is where I’ve changed because now as a business owner and as a writer, I do think about it.
Take for example Oceanus — I’m making a movie that I know I’m going to produce for $7 million. When I’m writing the script, I have to write a script that works for $7 million. The truth is, a scene with a tsunami doesn’t fit in a film that’s $7 million.
Instead, I wrote a film that has five characters in submarines. We used small sets where the majority of the action is taking place via computer graphics that do the environment outside. We can do those scenes for thousands of dollars, whereas building big sets and all these actors, that could cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.
You have to think economically.
MNBIZ: So you were ahead of your time. Now, is this your time?
Jeffrey: This is my time. The time has caught up.