I used to be an Indie filmmaker.
For a few glorious months back in 1993, I was an indie filmmaker.
Then I sold my flick.
That’s when I started becoming a business man, too – which sucks, because I was never into that shit; I just wanted to tell stories. But if you hope to continue getting money to tell those stories, it helps to know the business of show business. And now I have words in my head I never wanted to learn: monetization, amortize, four-quadrant.
Red State cost $4 million to make. A little under $4 million, actually. We were able to do that because everyone cinched their belts, dropped their quotes way low, or didn’t get paid at all. A group of artists – FILMMAKERS, all of ‘em – went without or with less, to make it happen. Not a paycheck-player in the bunch; every one of ‘em natural po-lice.
And one day on set, watching all these beautiful people pull together to make this ugly little story, I started thinking about what would ultimately happen to our love-child Red State. It was a labor of love – one we hoped someone would buy when it was finished. But how much would they buy it for?
I’d only ever sold a film one time previously, but that one time was all it took. Clerks was made for $27,575 and sold for $227,000, seventeen years ago. What could a $4 million dollar flick go for? Happy, Texas sold for $10 mil at Sundance twelve years ago, but those days are long gone. Buried sold for $6 million last year, so I started figuring that the best Red State could get in this economy would be the same: about $6 million.
What would happen then? Like, let’s say Lion’s Gate picked up Red State. Lion’s Gate spends an almost standard $20 mil to open any flick (which is lower than the industry norm; LG is actually one of the more frugal studios, spending less on marketing than the majors). So now, my flick doesn’t cost $4 million anymore, it costs $24 million. It’s gotta make $24 million to break even and start seeing profit. But the studio/distributor doesn’t get all that box office, so assume the studio only gets back half of that announced box office figure. Suddenly my little $4 million dollar movie has to make $50 million JUST TO BREAK EVEN. Like… what happened? Instead of spending all that money trying to make the movie, it’s spent on trying to convince people to come see your shit.
And where’s that $20 million go? It’s called “P&A” – prints and advertising. But the print portion of that equation – physically creating the reels of film that make up the movie – is pretty low: it costs between two and three grand to make five or six reels of a motion picture (the costs of a digital print are lower, but not as many theaters project digitally yet, so we’ll be making more film prints than digi-prints). So let’s say you make a thousand prints: you’re looking at $2 to $3 million dollars.
That leaves $17/18 million of the P&A to account for. Where’s that big chunk going? TV Commercials, full page newspaper/magazine ads, billboards and bus stop ads, thousands of mini-prints of trailers, press junkets, airfare…
But this far along in his career, why would you even spend money to market any Kevin Smith flick to the casual or ardent ViewAskew/SModcast/KevinSmith fan? What’d be the point, right? If you’re remotely a fan of that shit, you’re already aware of whatever it is they’ve got coming, because Fatty McNoFly never shuts up about it. And he’s had lots of practice.
In 1995, we opened ViewAskew.com – a website that consisted of lots of Clerks and Mallrats pics, sound bytes and mpegs, with a shit-ton of text by me, and perhaps the most important feature, and the one that would change my life…
On that message board, back in 1995, I was essentially Tweeting. We called it “posting” in those days, but it’s the same idea: someone who liked what I did for a living could ask me questions and I could respond. It was direct contact with the audience, along the lines of a post-screening Q&A.
Back then, Peter Jackson and I were the only filmmakers treating the web seriously, responding to folks who dug our stuff. And while Peter Jackson eventually concentrated less on the web and more on wowing audiences with his Oscar-winning epics, I opted to concentrate more on the web, wowing audiences with my creepy omnipresence and inability to answer questions in less than two sentences.
And by Dogma, we started to notice something: I had a Dead-head thing going on with my audience. There were four films, interconnected, that lots of folks caught up with on video. And the folks who’d notice and dig on the interconnectivity were mostly web-babies: the generation born online. They’d hear you could talk to the fat guy who made those flicks and those commentary tracks right at his website, where he holds court, talks shop and hawks merchandise. They’d find out it was not only true, but that the Clerks-guy would also throw mini-film festivals of flicks he and his friends made; or that you could go to his comic book store and see people from his movies. And it was no coincidence that the box office for the flicks grew exponentially as the board membership jumped into five and six figures.
But rather than be embraced and appreciated by the powers that be, that audience was always dismissed or minimized. I’d see trailers or posters for our flicks that didn’t resemble the movies at all, and any time I said “My audience is gonna hate this…” I was told “Your audience is already coming, no matter what. We’re reaching BEYOND your audience this time…”
All the marketing materials, you see, had tested positively in a mall: studios pay marketing firms to bring movie trailers to malls and ask set demographics to yay ‘em or nay ‘em. That’s about $5k to $10k, depending on how long you want to grab samples – samples that don’t include actual Askewniverse fans, who always reported being turned away for answering affirmatively to the question “Have you ever seen Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy?”
Going after that mythical new audience was costly. Millions spent trying to convince people who wouldn’t like my shit anyway to come pay to see it. Millions spent to beg a disinterested crowd to join our party. And any time I spoke about my audience, I’d get the pat on the head: “That’s cute, Kevin.” The intent to bring me into the mainstream was always flattering, but let’s be honest: what I do in film (or anywhere, for that matter) isn’t for everybody. For lots of folks, my flicks are about cuss words and inept framing; for lots of others, they’re the stories of their lives.
There is no explanation for why we’re drawn to the things we are. After 38 years on this earth, one day I saw the right video at the right moment, and by month’s end, my office wall looked like this…
At the other end of the room is the image that’s come to define my life…
For 38 years, the name Wayne Gretzky was akin to that of Casey at the Bat: they were both sports players I’d heard of. Now, my office is covered in images of a hockey player whose feats I never actually witnessed. Now my language is filled with hockey terminology and strategy, when I’ve never played a minute on ice. Now I have someone I look up to; someone whose work ethic I admire and want to emulate.
I was a playmaker once. First three or four times over the boards, I was making bold moves. And now that I’m heading into the third period, so to speak, of me as a director, I’d like to be bold again. I owe that much not only to the folks who’ve admired my work ethic all this time, but also to the twenty one year old me, who saw Slacker and said “I wanna do that…”
And there, on day four on the set of Red State, I started thinking about how my audience would be marginalized again as all those marketing dollars would be spent on chasing a brand new, broader audience: the Saw crowd. And those marketing dollars would be four or five times the amount that all the generous filmmakers on my cast and crew (who took drastic cuts in salary to work on the flick) ever had to work with to actually make the flick. I was asking the cast and crew to eat gristle when, post-purchase, the choice cuts would go elsewhere.
It just started to gnaw at me. Many cats were breaking their backs to see us hit an ambitiously low budget cap, but whoever bought the flick would then give people who never worked on the movie way more money to simply sell it to an audience that didn’t care about or want it. And after nine flicks, I just couldn’t see my way clear to doing it the old way one more time; not with a budget as low as ours. It felt like it was time to put everything I’ve learned – over nearly two decades in filmmaking, seventeen years of standing on a stage and answering questions with as many cock jokes as I could muster, and almost four years of podcasting to the point of unintentionally creating a network – into trying out something old-but-new.
Besides – who the fuck else can sell their art more passionately than the artist?
I’ve seen lots of folks calling me arrogant and crazy for trying this. Isn’t it more arrogant and crazy to believe my dopey little $4 million horror flick is worth millions more in television advertising? If you believe some of the hate-blogs out there, the movie’s not even worth it’s budget; a complete waste of money. So in a world where I’m like “Okay – rather than trouble you with it further, via the standard, eventual billboards, ads, commercials, I’m gonna just sell it myself to my audience, without spending many more dollars beyond our original budget”, how’s that arrogance or insanity?
And if you’re bugged that I chose to announce it in such a carnival-barker kinda fashion after a screening of my film at an independent film festival where I kicked off my career seventeen years prior? I guess film fans are kinda like sports fans: some care more about the stats than the drama of the game itself. Well, stats will be coming. Meantime, we’re gonna be out here, grinding it out for the fans, putting on one exciting hockey match. Don’t expect NHL-level perfection; expect rink-loads of WHA-spirited passion, heart, fire, edge and scrap. You wanna watch the puck get handled by the elite, maybe Red State is not your game. You wanna see goons slug it out and aging lions go tape-to-tape with renewed passion for The Game in a dazzling display of what they call “old time hockey”? Grab some tickets on Friday morning, when our Red State Tour goes on sale.
Or piss on old time hockey and just come to watch the mayhem.
Help me prove this social-media-self-distribution thing can work. It could be profitable in the process, as it’s not without precedent: y’know who made a fortune releasing his own Christian horror flick?
And my Christian horror flick has way less blood than his – so it should be easier to convince the squeamish to buy tickets. And exhibitors! Remember when busloads of Christians showed up out of the blue for The Passion? Well I’ve got an army too – and unlike those one-timers who came for The Christ, my people come back to see other flicks. And, like me, they spend tons on concessions.
That same audience – the one that’s been growing and expanding (both in numbers and in sweatpants size) since 1995? They are the not-so-secret weapon. You guys are allowing me to try something no studio or distributor would ever permit: release the movie without spending to do so. I can finally make a film and say exactly what it’s earned in real dollars, not estimated figures or shadow math that barely tells the tale.
There was this panel back at South-By-Southwest 1997 that featured the indie dream-team: Linklater, Quentin, Rodriguez, Soderbergh, me…
Someone asked a question about how to secure theatrical distribution. Quentin asked the audience how many people in the room wanted to make films and how many were potential distributors-in-training. There wasn’t a hand up for distributor. Quentin said that the next generation of filmmakers should distinguish themselves by forming distribution companies instead of production companies.
That always stuck with me. I kept waiting for it to happen. But that ol’ Indie spirit, it don’t wait forever. Sooner or later, Indie spirit rolls up the sleeves and says “s’cool – we’ll just do it ourselves.”
Fourteen years later, I’m ready to give distribution a shot, too.
I used to be an Indie filmmaker. Then, I was part of something quasi-Indie for years. I have no regrets about any of it; I loved every second. But now, as I wind down the directing career, I’d like to go out the way I came in…
Indie as fuck and willing to take a chance.