If you were on Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter this past weekend, you might have seen some peculiar patrons attending a few Major League Baseball games across the country. People in neon-colored shirts were strategically placed behind home plate, smiling menacingly at the camera every single time a batter was up. Their mouths were pulled into sinister, ominous smiles that were sure to give you nightmares.

That viral marketing invasion was created for the film Smile, written and directed by Screenwriting Master of Arts Alumni Parker Finn, who joined Dodge for a pre-release screening of his debut feature on Monday.

Smile’s origin story goes back to a short film he made in 2019 titled Laura Hasn’t Slept. Before this, Finn was making films with his close friends with whatever money and supplies they could scrape together. Eventually, he decided he wanted to focus more on creating content with a strong performance at its core. He chose the best of many scripts he had written since graduating from Chapman and tapped into his alumni network. A jump scare later, Parker shot the film over two days on Dodge’s Stage B. Eventually, he submitted the finished short to SXSW 2020. It won the Special Jury Award right before the festival shut down in March 2020, and we all know why that happened. 

After that SXSW win, the private and password-encoded Vimeo link to the winning short got out. Studio Executives and Agents were watching and waiting to get this festival-winning director’s contact information. Finn took a leap of faith and put his email in the video’s description. The next day, his inbox was flooded with inquiries.

Finn did not set out to create a small piece of a feature film, so when the many studio executives were pounding on his door asking if he had an idea for a feature-length version, he got to work. His primary focus while developing this new pitch was to create something that would not be looped in with other horrors in the genre.

Paramount bought the pitch and original short to be made into a feature for its new division “Paramount Players,” which focuses on making modestly budgeted films that fit into no specific genre and put them right to streaming. The next big shock to Finn was that his script was greenlit off the first draft in May 2021.

After a film is all shot, studios expect filmmakers to turn in a director’s cut to executives for review at ten weeks. At this point, the film is held together with scotch tape. Not the best way to showcase a film to the people who paid for it. But this didn’t stop Smile from receiving glowing feedback from the executive team.

A few weeks later, Paramount put the film in front of a test audience of 270 people. Audience members were not told what movie they’d be watching. They certainly did not know it would be Smile because there was absolutely no marketing for it out at this point. After the film was over, audience members were given a form with over twenty questions about the film. The only questions that really mattered were the first two: Did you like the movie? and Would you recommend it?

Horror scores lower than other genres in test screenings. Still, to Finn’s surprise, he got a message that night asking if he could hop on a call with Brian Robbins the next morning for a screening post-mortem meeting – you don’t just say no to the CEO of Paramount Pictures. At that meeting, which included the Data Analysts who created a report on the screening responses, it was revealed that the film got exceptionally high percentages. Robbins wanted to put the exact same cut of the film into another theater that week with marketing and distribution heads from Paramount in attendance to see if they should perhaps put this movie into theatres or if the results of the first screening were a fluke. They were not. It scored higher yet again.

Smile was soon spreading like wildfire across the Paramount lot. This film was different. It exceeded everyone’s expectations by miles. Not long after, Paramount decided they were going to give Smile a wide theatrical release to 3,000+ theaters with a full marketing and distribution budget. This movie was going to be big, bigger than anyone in the cast and crew could have imagined. Things like this only happen once in a lifetime.

All of this was happening in April of this year. Top Gun: Maverick was set to come out in May. The marketing team of Smile had a brilliant idea: why don’t we put a teaser of the film in front of Top Gun? There was no other marketing out in the media about the film, not even a widespread trailer or poster. Their goal: a clip that doesn’t give too much of the film away. The expected outcome: something that will stay in people’s minds and have them Google the film after they leave the theater. Their final decision: Rose walks past Carl’s hospital room while he is smiling at her. If you went to see the newest Top Gun film, the teaser was impossible to miss.

None of the actors in Smile knew it was going to get a theatrical release. They still expected it to go directly to streaming. As a surprise, Finn texted Jack Sochet – the actor who plays Carl – and told him that he should go watch Top Gun: Maverick. A few days later, Jack comes back to Finn and is shell-shocked. All the actors in this film were about to have their worlds flipped upside down.

Finn has been writing every single day since he graduated from Chapman. He started as an assistant in the industry, but soon realized that was not the right path for him. Instead, he worked day jobs to leave time for his writing. He says that directing even the smallest projects costs money, but writing is free if you have the time.

Smile was not an overnight success story. There is no one way to stardom in Hollywood. Parker Finn’s story is one in a million. His biggest advice of the night was to find whatever your “True North” is. Whether or not you are in the industry right now, ask yourself if you are following your true calling, what you want to accomplish in life. That is how you make it in the industry – doing what is true to you, not following a trend.

The last question of the night for Finn was if he had any plans to develop a sequel. He said the same thing he told Paramount when he agreed to make Smile after the short Laura Hasn’t Slept: he doesn’t want to repeat anything he has already done in the past. While the character Laura appears in both versions, it is not a remake or a sequel. It is an entirely new entity. Finn said that if he were to make a sequel, it would need to be a new story with completely new surprises up its sleeve.

Smile is now out in theaters!