I wasn’t going to officially weigh in on the Kevin Smith/Red State distro debacle. I figured my Twitter would be enough for people who cared to find out my thoughts. And then I listened to the audio of Smith speaking after the Red State premiere, and I realized that what Smith had to say about the state of indie films wasn’t just wrong, it was hurtful to the many good people working in indie film today. Kevin Smith, in short, is full of shit.
At the beginning of his 25 minute rant (which you can listen to at Shock Til You Drop), he talks about how crazy the cost of marketing a movie is today. He’s right - a film’s marketing is usually at least equal to the budget; for lower budgeted films it can be double, triple or even quadruple the cost of making the movie. That’s kind of nuts, and it isn’t like major studios are engaging in particularly interesting marketing; huge chunks of that money get sunk into TV ads, which remain to this day the most effective way of getting people out to see your film.
Coming from a studio picture, Cop Out, Smith saw that happen first hand. But he then takes that complaint and, using either ignorance or unfair sleight of hand, applies it to the indie film world. He makes a pronouncement that he could sell the 4 million dollar Red State to a company for maybe 6, and then they would have to spend 20 million in prints and advertising (P&A) to open the film. Now, he says, his 4 million dollar movie actually costs 26 million, and to make that money back you have to essentially double the expenditure. His basic conceptual math is correct, but he goes way off the rails at one point:
Why the fuck would it cost 20 mil to open Red State?
The problem here is that Kevin Smith knows only two models of film distro: big studio and fake indie. He has made two big studio films - Mallrats and Cop Out - and everything else he has ever made has come out from Lionsgate, Miramax or the Weinstein Company. Miramax was a fake indie when he came in; Disney had bought it (and Lionsgate essentially acted as a front for the Weinsteins on Dogma). The Weinstein Company operated like a minimajor when he released Zack & Miri (times have changed over there). Bascially both Miramax and Weinstein Co use scaled down versions of the major studio distro model, which is spend to open. Smith quotes Harvey Weinstein mocking the way the majors overspend to get an opening weekend, but it isn’t like Weinstein was releasing his movies in secret either (until now. Sorry, Company Men!).
Then Kevin Smith went on a rant about how if he was getting into the business today he wouldn’t even bother. He doesn’t see the point in making a movie if it would be so hard and expensive to get it released.
I want you to take a step back and realize where he’s saying this. It’s Sundance, the Mecca for independent films. There are movies that are playing Sundance that will never get released at all, sure, but there are many others that will be bought. And while you’ll read about the purchases made by Fox Searchlight and Paramount and the minimajors, there are lots of other films that will be getting picked up by small distributors, that will be worked hard across the country and will be seen in many cities by many people. Not as many as saw Cop Out, yeah, but plenty of people will see Uncle Kent or Septien or Terri or Like Crazy or Another Earth.
It’s offensive to these filmmakers, the ones who are truly working hard at the margins, to say that it’s not worth getting into the business today, and to say it at the festival that celebrates and supports them. These people aren’t looking to build comic book stores or sell action figures of themselves, they’re looking to make films and maybe get them seen by some people. They’d love bigger budgets and wider releases, but they want to make movies that appeal to their own sensibilities and not to the mainstream, so they accept that they won’t be doing 1000 screen runs.
But for me the coupe de grace was the way that Smith pretended that his Red State distro plan - he’s four walling the film this spring, meaning he’s renting theaters and taking all the admissions himself - is anything new. Or anything that is outside of the world of modern indie releasing. Ask the filmmakers behind Repo The Genetic Opera about this, since they did exactly the same thing that Smith is ‘pioneering.’ And they didn’t even pretend it was that big a deal, knowing that the roadshow/four wall tour idea goes back decades, right to the very birth of cinema.
Smith paints all distributors alike, and he makes the hardworking small guys seem like shady creeps. He seems to not understand that plenty of great movies get released every year without a 20 million P&A expenditure. Does Smith think Magnet is going to spend 20 mil releasing Troll Hunter? Did IFC blow 20 mil on Enter the Void? Does he believe that Drafthouse Films spent anything even close to 20 million releasing Four Lions, which has played in some of the most offbeat, non-art house markets in the United States?
IFC, Magnet, Variance, Drafthouse Films and many others are all distributors playing with the low budget indie release model and finding new revenue possibilities and new ways of building awareness beyond blanket TV ad buys. If Kevin Smith wanted to really do the Red State release right and do something for independent filmmakers, he would have hooked up with one of these guys, or any of the other forward-thinking, hard working distros out there. Red State will do well enough - there’s a Kevin Smith audience that will come to see him no matter what - and he could have brought that success to a distro who could have then used it to bring up new filmmakers and release bold visions.
But instead Smith, who turned the entire premiere of the film into a circus, wants to perpetuate his own myth, creating a Kevin Smith Against The System narrative that’s mostly untrue. Does anyone believe that Harvey Weinstein WON’T be involved in the October release of Red State? Whether it’s official or not, Weinstein Co people will be working with Smith to book theaters and take care of business; take my word on it that booking 1000 screens (his website has announced he wants to make 1000 prints) isn’t something you do over a weekend, and the amount of red tape surrounding it is monumental.
So to me this is all bullshit. The road show of Red State is just another Kevin Smith speaking tour with a movie tacked on. His attacks on the state of indie film distribution come either from ignorance or a willfull misrepresentation of the facts. And should there be a major release of Red State in October, you can guarantee it won’t be Smith and his cadre of asskissing Smodcastle buddies putting it together by themselves.
The bummer is that the Red State release will do pretty well, which will make it look like Smith has a point. The reality, though, is that Smith has a rabid (and frightening - ask Steve Weintraub at Collider about the anti-Semitic emails he got from Smith fanboys when he dared call bullshit on the Red State auction hoax) fanbase who will be activated simply by his podcast and website. But that’s because Smith spent two decades in an existing distribution system; it isn’t like you can make a movie, four wall it and sell out Radio City Music Hall without advertising. You would need to build a base (which, by the way, is what Repo also did in advance). Smith’s false David and Goliath narrative psyches his fanbase up, and they’ll shell out potentially 60 bucks a ticket to see the movie and hear him talk, but the real test will come in the October release. Great Kevin, you sold out the Sydney Opera House twice without doing any advertising - let’s see how you do on a 50 state wide release without any ads. When your hardcore fans have already seen it. This isn’t a realistic distro model for anyone EXCEPT someone who has already found an audience.
The Red State premiere was a moment where Smith could have really struck a blow for independent film releasing. Where he could have worked with a company like Magnolia, who is altering the very face of film distro with their VOD windows. Where he could have struck a deal with a company that would, in the long run, benefit other indie filmmakers. Instead he’s created another temple to himself.