Six months ago, I stood on a stage in the mountains, brandishing a hockey stick, announcing (in a rather dramatic and long-winded-though-not-nearly-as-long-winded-as-I-am-on-the-podcasts fashion) that I didn’t believe in my flick’s ability to earn out after ridiculous marketing costs were attached. I told folks my weird little opus wasn’t commercial enough to punch through the din of a thousand other theatrical releases. I said I was tired of spending ridiculous amounts of money to make the audience aware the film was coming. I said I wanted to try something else.
Naturally, some old codgers in attendance fucking freaked. One idiot said I was “imploding”. Seriously: this fucker who makes his living taking the studios to task stood up for the studios (the studios that weren’t being attacked at all) because he felt I wasted his time at the screening.
Imagine that: impositioning a guy in the movie biz by simply having a screening at a film festival…
And the Chicken Little who said I was imploding filed his diatribe less than an hour after the screening and post-show ended – meaning he didn’t really think about or process what I was saying at all because he was in too big a rush to be more pithy than accurate or interested. I often wonder how much that dick got paid to do his job so poorly. This hack jumped up and down screaming like I was a kid he caught smoking a cigarette on his neighbor’s lawn. Not even HIS lawn, his neighbor Hollywood’s lawn: “GET OFF MY FRIEND HOLLYWOOD’S LAWN, YOU SCUMBAG KID!” he seemed to say, facts be damned. “THAT’S HOLLYWOOD’S LAWN AND I LOOK OUT FOR HOLLYWOOD’S LAWN WHILE MY GOOD FRIEND HOLLYWOOD IS AWAY! HOLLYWOOD IS MY FRIEND, AND HOLLYWOOD DOESN’T WANT YOU ON THIS LAWN, SO I’M GONNA CALL THE POLICE!”
That chump lost his edge: he’s got no nose for a story anymore. He wants what he writes to be true because that’d mean the movie biz and the way in which we get our entertainment are still the easily-definable concepts he comprehends and recognizes from… oh, twenty fucking years ago. Surprise, surprise: he’s yet another uncreative, stuck-in-the-past, old white man who just wants things to be the way they used to be. If this was a movie, he’d be Clint Eastwood and he’d redeem himself by Act 3. Since this is real life, this sad fucker wrote his piece (or rather said his peace) and moved on, satisfied I was done for – finished at Faber, even. Homey fancied himself the Dean Wormer of Sundance, but here’s what he missed while he was so busy blogging about my double-secret probation…
See, when you stand center stage at America’s premiere film festival and make a statement of any kind for art or for the DIY way of making films, the hack who tells himself he’s covering the movie business is never gonna hear you; he’s only programmed to hear shit like Leonardo DiCaprio or Amy Pascal – the same bold-face names he writes about all the time, flapping his fins for a fish in the mouth because that’s what this limited fucker chooses to cover: not the show in Show Business, just the boring-ass fucking business aspect. He reports numbers and who’s making what. He’s Agent Smith from The Matrix: all ones and zeros (but let’s be honest: largely one big zero).
When you do what I did at Sundance, you’re not imploding: you’re inspiring. Be the first to say what all frustrated filmmakers are thinking and guess who pays attention?
Saying what I said at Sundance didn’t shut doors, like homey suggested it would. Instead, it got me invited onto many more lawns. What he saw as an implosion was really a simple reinvention: almost a commercial for Kevin Smith, 2.0. And that commercial worked: in the last six months, I’ve inked deals for a book and two television pilots, started an online radio station, lost 70 pounds, renewed myself as an artist and revitalized my career just in time for me to opt out of the movie biz altogether after Hit Somebody – my next (and last) film.
That night on the Sundance stage, I was brandishing the last stick Wayne Gretzky ever held as an Edmonton Oiler. You don’t come out swinging a hockey stick unless you intend to score. And the score was expansion: the Red State USA Tour was also used to explore the size of the growing SModcast audience. Listeners and fans were already paying to come out and see us do untraditional media live (the Q&A’s and Live SModcast recordings), maybe they’d support us with an untraditional release of an untraditional film that they very nearly financed themselves. So at nearly every stop on the RED STATE USA Tour, I’d ask the audience how many in attendance were there because of ads they’d heard on any show at SModcast.com. And even though I’d done tons of radio, TV (and even a bunch of print publicity), 90% indicated it was via the podcasts.
We made close to one million bucks from 15 screenings, including $160,000 from the Radio City Music Hall show (which gave us the tenth best per-theater average of all-time). Add that million to the nearly $5 million in foreign sales to date (including Canada – which never feels foreign to me), VOD and Home Video deal, and streaming. Guess where that puts our four million dollar film?
I can’t say for certain, but show me another Sundance 2011 film that’s currently in the black and isn’t spending money to do so. Motherfuck what a hack journo writes about shit his feeble melon can’t process: I made sure my investors got their money back in less than a year (nine months, to be exact). That makes you more attractive to future investors – the ones you’ll need more money from, as the last film you intend to make (the one for which you’ll be seeking financing soon) is a period-piece set in the world of hockey that spans three decades.
Removing art or show from the equation for a moment, opinions vary as to whether I’m a good director or not, but you’ve gotta agree I’m a good business man: I always keep production costs low and I have the confidence in what I make to accompany my product into the marketplace, selling without incurring the usual ridiculous marketing expenses. Theatrical release is where the costs have always bogged my shit down – and it was always the only cost not under my control. We made Red State for $4 million, but we’d have to spend minimum $10 million on P&A if we went the traditional theatrical route. You can’t release a film in a vacuum or else folks won’t know it’s there.
But in the last decade, specialized film marketing has become as costly as studio movie marketing: there is no difference. It’s not like Fox will give an indie flick a cheaper commercial rate during American Idol. If you see a commercial for a movie on TV, that means huge chunks of money are already being spent on that film’s behalf, in an effort to hip the world the movie’s coming. Grand idea, but cost-prohibitive to those of us unwilling to spend another wasted nickel reaching out to an audience that just wants to stay home and see the flick at their convenience. I know my audience and I don’t have to spend money to reach them.
Yet for years, I was told by marketing execs that my audience was already coming, so the marketing materials should be aimed at a different audience: the one that hadn’t been to our films before. Look, I’m a capitalist too: I get that all businesses aim for constant growth and expansion. But I never understood disregarding the base (those already coming) simply because we didn’t have to trick them into doing so with pricey commercials. And even though my audience shows up without fail and lays down bucks every time, that audience was routinely dismissed in the marketing campaign; the more desirable dollar, they tried to tell me, was the dollar that didn’t want us – the dollar that had to be sold on the notion of enjoying my shit.
But in the digital age, I can reach a few people on Twitter and the podcasts at SModcast.com have subscription numbers as high as 300k per ep, per week. Call me stupid (or even tell me I’m imploding if you must), but why spend on marketing when you’ve already got an audience chomping at the bit to see your shit, happy to slap down their loot for your art without needing a 30 second, small-condo-expensive broadcasted reminder during Fringe.
My theory was that we had audience enough to cut the ropes, drop the sails, and make for the new world – a world that made use of social media and long-tails. A world where the marketing costs were less than the cost to produce the art itself. Krypton was dying; and I love my art like I love my child, so I threw my art into a rocket on that stage and sent it anywhere else, other than the dying world of traditional theatrical distribution.
Michael Bay has a skill at getting you out of your house and into a movie theater: he’s adept at making cars turn into robots that beat the shit out of each other.
Quentin Tarantinto has a skill at getting you out of your house and into a movie theater: he crafts cinema-of-cool – films so bad-ass, they make you wanna smoke a cigarette in the bathroom next to the Principal’s office.
The only skill I have as a filmmaker – the marketable whatsit I bring to the table that gets people out of their houses and into a movie theater? It’s the talking thing I do after the movie’s over. I’m the only director I know who rushes on stage post-credits with a mic, bellowing “Okay, lemme explain what happened: I got in a fight with John McClane and then that Nazi airline booted me off a plane, then…”
For years, cats like cranky ol’ Mr. “GET OFF MY FRIEND HOLLYWOOD’S LAWN!” would write shit that diminished me as a filmmaker because I didn’t fit into their limited definition of what a filmmaker is. I believed that shit for nearly twenty years. But I’m a grownup now – which means I’ve realized that no jackass who doesn’t do what I do for a living can ever tell me I’m bad at my art. That’s some backwards-ass bullshit right there: s’like a priest giving marital advice to newlyweds. If you don’t ever fuck, there’s no way anything you say about fucking is relevant to the discussion. No artist will ever tell another artist “You failed.” There is no failure in art, because art – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder. No audience is a Borg collective: show 100 people the same movie and they’ll have 100 totally different experiences and reactions, far more diverse and interesting than a thumb pointing this way or that. So when the cranks get to screeching about how I’m doing it all wrong, or badly, or in some way other than I should? I know I’m on the right fucking track. When EW writes you off as a loon, that’s a badge of honor. Why be like everyone else when you can be bold and stand apart? Good or bad, be remembered for doing it your way.
From this day forward, every buck that Red State makes is a buck of profit. And we were able to do that without spending money on marketing. People know only one way to release movies anymore: with commercials, billboards, paid ads. But I’m committed to doing Red State pure: I never want to spend money to make money when I don’t have to. All I’ve gotta do is use my special effect and bring the movie with me when I Q&A.
The Red State USA Tour was painted as me trying to charge people $65 to see a movie by cats like cranky ol’ Mr. “GET OFF HOLLYWOOD’S LAWN!” (who were never coming anyway). But you have to be really bad at your job as a “journalist” to not report the simple truth: people were already paying $65 to see me on stage without a movie. Essentially, I conducted the same type of roadshow I’ve been doing (and my audience has come to see me do) for years, and then threw in the movie “for free”. The audience that showed up over the course of those 15 shows understood that – and gave us record-making numbers at our Radio City debut.
My only super power as a filmmaker is that I refuse to let the film end when the credits roll; that’s when I come out and continue the story. For me to try to release Red State theatrically in the dopey old spend-spend-spend-on-marketing approach is a waste of time and money and counter-productive to smart, profitable distribution. I’m done fighting with both arms tied behind my back; who am I, Monty Python’s Black fucking Knight?
So in the spirit of how we’ve always done things on Red State, we’re gonna do our theatrical distribution a bit differently. Only my vanity would dictate spending twice or four times my film’s budget on marketing; good business is going out there with the film myself – as that only costs me time.
After the amazing fun of the Red State USA Tour – where every screening was more like a rock concert than a night at the movies – I realized the best way to sell Red State without spending money was simply to always accompany it in any public screening. Fuck how shit’s usually done: why be a sheep? Or even worse: a lemming, following other lemmings over a financially suicidal cliff, simply because some lazy marketer insists we need commercials on Idol to make money?
Any good business person tries to limit their costs to maximize their profits. If I accompany the film at all public exhibitions, then I can charge what any movie theater would consider a premium, because I’m giving the audience real 3D – me, answering their questions right there in the third dimension – as opposed to that murky bullshit they’re overcharged for this summer. I refuse to buy my opening with millions of dollars when I can accompany the film into the world and return more profits to my investors than fellow Sundance 2011 alumnus Cedar Rapids can return to Searchlight (this is not me slagging on Cedar Rapids – the Fox Searchlight flick that followed us in the Eccles that night at Sundance; like every flick Miguel Arteta directs, Cedar Rapids is worth your time).
Sadly, I’m not Hermione Granger (though my boobs are bigger and I, too, would choose Ron over the troubled Potter kid) and I don’t have a Time Turner, so I can’t be everywhere at once. This means I’m limited in my theatrical release to one city per night… unless we use existing technology to be lotsa places at once.
Like let’s say Red State is showing at your local multiplex. But then right after the movie ends, a live, interactive Q&A with the filmmaker starts, beamed into the theater via satellite. Even if you’re not there in the room, you’re Tweeting questions from your theater and getting responses from the guy on the big screen. And then, after three hours of movie and interactive Q&A? Boom: LIVE PODCAST! That’s four hours of once-in-a-lifetime entertainment for less than $20: a movie, a show, then another show. And y’know how we’ll market it? Via Twitter and my podcasts and in-theater trailers. So it’s not gonna cost us much but time and effort, which makes for lots more profit (the key motivator for all patrons of the business of show).
So that’ll be fun for me and the audience and might actually get people into the theater for something new and different without simply buying their interest via pricey commercials or billboards. But what if it’s not playing in a theater near you?
Don’t worry: I’ve got you covered there, too.
I always considered film critic Amy Taubin a friend. I was pretty sure she considered me a friend as well, as she called me after the Village Voice let her go, asking if I could help her get a book deal. Over the years, Amy hasn’t always liked the films I made, but at least she never made up horse-shit in her reviews. However, in a Sundance 2011 piece she filed with Film Comment, she lost my respect by being as “careless and heavy-handed” at her job (in print) as she insisted I was at my job (in film) by suggesting nobody would’ve bought Red State.
Fact of the matter was there were many outlets that still wanted Red State – even after we announced our theatrical self-distribution plan.
Like Lionsgate, for example.
Lionsgate was where we were always hoping Red State would wind up, before we decided to release the flick theatrically ourselves. Even their modest theatrical marketing costs (the lowest amongst the boldface name studios) were still gonna be too much for our $4million dollar art film. But we were gonna need a partner for Video-On-Demand and Home Video, so we reached out to Lionsgate after Sundance and begged them to be our VOD/DVD/BluRay partner. We didn’t have to sell very hard: mind you, this is the company that released Dogma in 1999. This is also the only company brave enough to theatrically distribute Vulgar (back when such things were still possible). They’ve got a history of nutting-up with weird material.
So starting Labor Day weekend, you can see Red State in your house for like $10. If you gather up ten friends and watch it together, then it’s like a buck a pop. I used to feel like any release that didn’t include TV spots and newspaper ads was somehow a failure, until I remembered that I don’t make the Avatar or Hangover II type of flicks that demand a theatrical experience in the first place. In Red State, I made a hardcore, mid-90’s indie flick: it’s raw, it’s nasty, it’s funny, it’s strange… and it’d be doomed at the box office if it had to run the traditional gauntlet. But once you realize the game is rigged, you can change the game. If you can’t win at rugby, change it into football. Make up your own rules.
As a filmmaker who’s proud of his now-in-profit art, I don’t care how the audience initially sees my flick anymore: if VOD is the easiest way to get my specialized, non-commercial, non-studio flick to them, I’m happy to pipe it directly into their homes and laptops. I’m a grown-up and I accept that I can’t have everything I want in life all at once; sometimes, as my wife has taught me, you’ve gotta settle for the fat guy.
In this case, I get everything I wanted for this film that I love so dearly… except the traditional theatrical. The good news is I cannot see my way clear to spending all that marketing money just for the vanity of seeing my shit in theaters yet again. For a four million dollar, EC-comic-like, part-horror/quasi-action art-house and out-house exploitation flick about church vs. state, a standard theatrical release is just plain financially illogical.
23 year old Kevin Smith would never dream of foregoing a typical theatrical release because he was one of Harvey’s Boys, from the first wave of Miramaxkateers. But this is Indie 2.0, where the landscape has shifted and the view is completely different than I imagined it would be back in ‘94. There are no flying cars or Bionic Men and Women. Disney sold Miramax and bought Marvel. Indie film has returned (or rather, been returned) to the trenches, so I’m just trying to break the rich habits of studio marketing spending I was lucky enough to enjoy for more than a decade. Because the party is over, the champagne has stopped flowing, and if I want any more cake, I’ve gotta pay for that shit myself.
So in lieu of multimillion dollar spending to build awareness for a one-month-at-best standard theatrical release, the Red State theatrical release aims to be more creative (and less cost prohibitive). And unlike the standard theatrical release, with our approach, we get to pack on extras and frillies (like I said: my directorial super power is the shit that happens after the movie’s over).
So if you didn’t join us during our first theatrical run, you can catch Red State on VOD this Labor Day; and less than a month later, in October, you can see Red State in a movie theater, immediately followed by a rollicking, no-holds-barred live-streamed, interactive Q&A! And when the Q&A is done, we wrap this unique theatrical experience with a performance of HOLLYWOOD BABBLE-ON, featuring me and Red State co-star Ralph Garman! Three big shows for one insanely low price: under $20.
Now, before some old dick like ol’ cranky Mr. “GET OFF HOLLYWOOD’S LAWN!” tries to make a beef with me and theatrical exhibitors in their ongoing war with the studios over the shrinking theatrical window and premium VOD’s role in decreasing box office revenue, let me remind REGAL and AMC, CINEPLEX or any other theater chain that I’m not the enemy. Please don’t lump me in with people trying to take money out of your pockets, Exhibitors. This is a (not-so) new way to make money and fill your empty buildings when there isn’t a Transformer to save you. On a fucking Monday night, no less.
Want fresh eyes and asses in your theaters? Try a one-night-only screening of a movie, a Q&A, and a live podcast: all for under $20 a ticket. The positive feedback you’ll receive from your paying customers alone will be worth it, but the concessions loot you’ll rake in that night will make you richer than the pharaohs (my people like to eat snacks). And if I can make this work? That means anybody can make this work. And that means more people coming to your theaters. Jump into digital bed with us: there’s not enough money going around anymore to quibble over restrictions that shouldn’t apply to a specialized film in the first place. I can sell these events out and make you money without spending money to do so – all while giving a normally slow night a massive shot in the arm. If not, no worries: there are lots of Mom & Pop single-screens out there who’ll welcome us warmly as well.
Now that we’re making it easier and cheaper to see my homage to Quentin and the Coens, take a trip to Cooper’s Dell yourself. See RED STATE – it’s a powerful document of change. It’s certainly changed my life and has helped me shape my world.
And if you can shape your own world? You’ll rarely be disappointed.
Here’s the official Lionsgate press release…
Red State has been loads of fun for me…
Now it’s your turn to join the fun this fall!