He was big and he was loud and he was on a roll. First he introduced himself as, “That fat guy that got thrown off the plane. And he made, Clerks once,” references to an incident last February where he was asked to leave a Southwest Airlines flight by the captain who felt his girth put other passengers at risk, and to his 1994 breakout indie hit. More self-deprecating humor followed.
“I came into the world of indie film right when Disney bought Miramax,” Kevin Smith said. “People were critical of Disney for buying this weird indie house, so Harvey (Weinstein) said, ‘I’ll show you, I’m gonna go out and buy the worst indie piece of s— there is and make money on it…’
“And that’s when he bought Clerks.”
“In the ’90s we (independent filmmakers) went to the studios and said, ‘We don’t need your help to make our films – get lost!” he continued, “until we need to sell them our films, and then we desperately need your help.”
“Today, we’re telling the studios, ‘We don’t need your help to make them and we don’t need your help to distribute them because we’re doing it ourselves,” he said.
With that, the enigmatic writer-director of Clerks had laid down the preamble for a rousing, 80-minute panel discussion on the new avenues independent filmmakers are exploring, not to get their films made, but to get their films seen.
Titled, “Sky’s the Limit: Entrepreneurial Media and Indie Innovators,” the session confronted the increasing unlikelihood, this year’s results at Sundance notwithstanding, that an independent filmmaker who is able to raise the funds to make his or her film will be able to win a studio distribution deal. All but abandoning hope for such a scenario, Smith and three other leading edge panelists were relentlessly upbeat in their presentation of the latest alternatives to big distribution deals filmmakers are using to reach audiences.
The setting was the annual Produced By conference co-presented for the first time by the Producers Guild of America and the Association of Film Commissioners International. The weekend-long event, which for the first time merged the conference with the film commissioners yearly trade show, AFCI Locations, was held earlier this month at the Walt Disney Studios. In addition to 27 seminars featuring more than 100 speakers from the top echelons of the industry, the event included more than 300 exhibits by film commissioners from around the globe.
Early on, the conversation focused on the importance of managing expectations and understanding change. Smith talked about the heart-stopping moment of realization he had while looking for funding for Red State, his new political-horror film about Christian fundamentalism: “It was the day, Harvey and Bob (Weinstein) passed on making Red State, and it’s a $5-million movie and I thought, ‘Oh shit, there’s something in the air.
“I realized my business model (no longer) matched the business model of the studios. I was going to them and saying, ‘Why do we have to spend so much money to distribute the movie?’ Because I realized Harvey and Bob would need to put $10 million into distributing Red State, and that wasn’t going to f—ing work. I can keep the movie cheap because I know how to do that, but I can’t go to NBC and say, ‘Give me a commercial on Letterman for five bucks… c’mon man, do me a solid,’ because they don’t do that.
“That fairytale story I used to live where your movie gets bought by one of the best distributors and they put you in a chunky run of theaters, and then it goes to home video and you get your next job…. That’s over.”
With that, Smith took a breath and the other panelists got a word in edgewise. They were:
Adam Chapnick, CEO of Distribber.com, a flat-fee distribution service that places independent films on digital sales platforms such as iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and cable Video on Demand (VOD) and allows filmmakers to keep 100 percent of the revenue.
Nolan Gallagher, CEO of Gravitas Ventures, a distribution company, which since its formation in 2006 has placed more than 1,000 films on VOD platforms. Gravitas has relationships with sufficient cable and online VOD outlets, such as Comcast, Charter, Cox, Time Warner, Netflix and Amazon, that films it distributes are available in 100 million homes.
Charlie Corwin, the co-founder and CEO of Original Media, which produces unscripted television shows such as Miami Ink (TLC); Swamp People (History Channel); and Storm Chasers (Discovery). Corwin also produces independent films, many of them highly regarded, including, The Squid and the Whale, Half Nelson and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.
Facebook marketing executive John Fougner was also on the panel. He cited his company’s research data that claimed a $650,000 Facebook ad initiative would boost a film’s opening weekend gross by $4 million, but the suggestion fell flat in a room where most of the 400 in attendance seemed intent on learning about marketing efforts that would cost a fraction of that. Indeed, only Corwin picked up on it later when he said it brought to mind the adage, “86.5% of all statistics are made up.”
Adam Chapnick said it was Smith who was “right on the money,” when he talks about independent producers tackling distribution challenges on their own. “He (Smith) is the poster child for what I’m talking about,” Chapnick said. “You come to the end of the festival race and you hand your precious film off to this angel who tells you, ‘We’ll all make millions and you’ll die happy,’ but the angel turns out to be the devil and she stabs you in the eye and turns you over and rapes you. That’s the problem Distribber was made to solve,” Chapnick said.
Indeed, in just a few minutes online, you can register with distribber.com, make your flat-fee payment and upload your movie. In less than a month from that point, Chapnick said, the producer can have his or her movie available on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and cable outlets. “You keep all the revenue from that point forward, as well as the rights,” he said.
“In the new world, the fundamental understanding,” Chapnick said, “is that I, as the producer, am much more in touch with my audience,” than anyone else. “I’m with them all the time, on my blog, on Twitter, on my Facebook feed. I build my audience. My audience is my list and my list is my life.
“No one gets to be the auteur who is hiding out in their room and doesn’t have to do anything but work on their art,” he said. “That doesn’t exist. When you finish your film, the work begins. But the difference is you don’t give away all your rights and you don’t have to hear that baloney about how someday you’ll get a percentage of the net, which is nothing.”
Nolan Gallagher said American: The Bill Hicks Story, by producers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas is a great example of managed expectations, new distribution channels and success.
The documentary about social critic and standup comedian Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 32, played at South buy Southwest to rapturous applause, but in the end, Gallagher said, the studio deal did not come. “That’s when we talked to them about taking control.
“They did a limited release in 22 markets, and we simultaneously put it on video-on-demand platforms making it instantly available in 100 million homes. The VOD availability helped the box office, which turned out to be $80,000, and we think it will make $600,000 from VOD over the next two years. Meanwhile, the investment to do all that was only $30,000,” Gallagher said.
“When Harvey and Bob passed on making Red State,” Smith said, “I thought, how the f— do I survive? If Krypton is gonna explode, where do I send my kid? Then I started thinking about my audience, and what do I bring my audience? Michael Bay’s thing is he can make buildings and robots f— and all that, and Fincher brings quiet resolve. What I bring is I’m the only director who goes out and tells you what happened.”
That realization led him to plan a 13-city tour where he screened the film for paying audiences and spoke and answered questions afterward. “I decided I never want to be separated from the film,” he said. “It was like a rock show every night. I smoked weed ahead of time; I watched the movie with the audience; I heard how to trim it better in places…. This is how Red State needs to play. I need to be with it.”
“I remember Harvey said to me, (he gave me one of those sage-like moments), ‘The movie doesn’t begin and end in the theater.’”
Smith calls Red State a horror film about the religious right. It is due to be released on Oct. 19, the 17th anniversary of the release of Clerks, although exactly how the film will be released is not clear yet. It debuted at Sundance earlier this year and received strongly mixed reviews.
What is clear is that Smith is working on “managing his expectations” about what success means, and how many people need to see his film in order for him to consider it a success.
“I think about my wife,” Smith said. “She could have had any guy, a really good-looking guy, but she didn’t go for that, instead she said, ‘I’m gonna aim just a little bit lower and I’m gonna get a fat guy from Jersey, but I’m gonna be the queen of that world,’ and she’s really happy.”
On his web site, newsaskew.com, Smith has a statement, co-signed with his producing partner, Jon Gordon, that speaks about the business of distributing Red State. It decries “the vagaries of ‘studio math’ – the Byzantine numbers game that sees an uneducated media and public celebrating ‘huge’ openings at the box office while ignoring the obscene marketing costs attached to reach those figures. We believe it’s a pyrrhic victory to simply ‘buy’ an opening weekend by pouring millions of dollars into TV spots, billboards and print ads. As storytellers, why not instead use our creative abilities that resulted in a film in the first place to also creatively SELL that film directly to our public?”
The statement concludes, “Don’t hate the studio; BECOME the studio. Anybody can make a movie; what we aim to prove is anyone can release a movie as well.”
Watch the Red State teaser trailer: