Red State started production on 9/21/2010.
Four months and a two days later, we debuted at Sundance.
We were not really prepared.
By the time we rolled cameras on Red State, Sundance hadn’t been part of the plan any longer. When we were looking at an early August start, there was a good chance we could edit the film into something showable by the Sundance submission deadline. But it took longer to close on all the financing than we’d planned, so we pushed our start date by a month and change. At that point, we assumed we wouldn’t be ready to submit the flick to Sundance in time. The thought, then, was to instead aim for a Cannes debut in May.
But if you’ve listened to the Red State of the Union Q&A podcasts, you know I spent the shoot editing the flick every night and during any free time I had during the shoot days. Everyday at wrap, D.P. Dave Klein, A.D. Adam Druxman and I would discuss the next morning’s work: the first shot of the day as well as the rest of the set-ups for that scene. Then, in the morning at call-time, the crew set up without me, leaving more time for me to edit, hitting the set at the last possible second before we’d roll on the first take. The beauty of this? After the first take (or sometimes before), I could gather the cast and crew around the monitor and show them the actual flick, edited – which had only been shot the day before. And watching the movie take shape as something recognizable (an edited film) always gets the blood going and keeps the cast and crew enthused. The film, at that point, is no longer theoretical – it’s real as raincoats.
So at the wrap party at my house – about a day and change after the final shot on Red State – the cast and crew were able to watch the same cut we screened at Sundance two weeks ago, sans entire credit sequence (I’d only done the M.O.E.’s for the wrap screening – the Main-On-End credits; that’s what it’s called when you skip opening credits on a flick and instead, put them at the end of picture, before the credit roll). We were unexpectedly finished enough with the film to show Red State to the Sundance folks before the submission deadline. So when John Cooper, Trevor Groth and the rest of the Sundance kids gave us the acceptance nod, Jon and I were happy… but concerned.
Sundance is in January. We wanted to bring Red State out in October. That would be ten long months between debut and national release. How to keep any intro buzz alive for nearly a year, in a world where we knew we were going to try to self-distribute without spending on TV spots?
I suggested we do a version of what Miramax did with Clerks after they picked up the film at Sundance 1994: from February forward, we took the movie from film festival to film festival, college screening to college screening, getting the word out well in advance of our October 19th opening.
But who’d pay for all that this time? Back then, it was Miramax. We didn’t have a studio or a distrib with deep pockets this time: it was just us. Any awareness screenings we were gonna do with the flick between now and October were gonna have to be paid for, but that’s a lot of money going out of a purse we don’t have.
Then I looked at my Q&A schedule.
Between films, you can normally find me touring the country, doing Q&A wherever anybody has set up a microphone and gathered a couple warm bodies. For the last two years, I have stepped up my live gigs considerably, including taking SModcast on the road as well – so much so that, lately, I’ve earned more just being me on a stage somewhere than I have for directing film. And since I did Red State for no money, I was going to spend the next few months touring the country again, earning off the Q&A’s, as well as live SModcast, and Jay & Silent Bob Get Old and Hollywood Babble-On.
I started thinking about hitching up a screening in the afternoon of any show I was doing – so you could pay to see Red State first if you wanted, before seeing my separate Q&A show later that night. Then we figured, just combine the two: movie then Q&A – all one price. And rather than increase the price of what folks were already paying to see me WITHOUT the movie, we add on the movie that evening, essentially, “for free”.
Together with Jeff Hyman (the man who puts my fat ass on stages across the world), Jon Gordon and I plotted a small Red State tour that could run through March. And while profit is always the overall goal, we devised a theater rental schedule that’d allow us to not spend anything in advance, using the ticket sales to pay for each venue. This is not inspired or new: this is called four-walling: renting the theater and selling the seats yourself.
For each venue, there’s a minimum number of seats to sell before we’re at break-even. As long as the minimums were reachable, the tour wouldn’t cost us anything – which is always my first goal in business: to spend as little as possible while eking out a living. Beyond the minimum seat numbers per venue we’d have to sell to cover the costs of doing a show in that venue, we figured it was all gravy. Best case scenario: we sell out every show and walk with $1.5 million net that would go toward recouping our $4 million dollar budget. Worst case-scenario: half-empty-houses that cost us nothing but also earned the movie back nothing but potential word-of-mouth.
Not the ideal, but still better than the alternative: sitting on the film ’til October or simply festival-hopping. But more importantly: the folks who really wanna see it could see it soon, and see me in the process, too – and, God-willing, they’d start talking it up to everyone they know. If they’re talking it up in March and April (on Twitter, Facebook, real life, etc), they’re getting our word out six months before we’re in theaters. And as a creature of the web, I know that’s worth way more than monetary profit now: that’s profit later – when we really need it, once the flick hits theaters October 19th. Long tail, son.
But where to start the tour? We wanted to do Carnegie Hall (I’d done a Q&A there and sold it out in 2009), but it was booked. Jon’s a native New Yorker and I’m from across the river in Jersey, so if we couldn’t get that iconic NYC theater, what was the next one down on the list?
For some reason, we went even bigger.
I don’t know who suggested Radio City Music Hall, but when they did, I knew we’d never sell it out: it’s a 6000 seater. But that didn’t matter: it was the idea that two fucking movie dorks like me and Jon could actually rent Radio City Music Hall at all to show our weird little flick. The moment Jon compared it to Spicolli getting Van Halen to play his birthday party (as revealed at the end of Fast Times at Ridgemont High), I was in. So even though I sold out the 2600 seat Carnegie Hall the day of the show, even with Red State shot from the Sundance cannon, we knew we’d never sell 6000 seats in only a month, with no paid advertising.
The good news is all we have to sell is 1700 seats.
1700 seats is the break-even point: the amount of tickets we have to sell so our rental of Radio City that night is paid for. After that, every ticket sold is all gravy. Naturally, we’d love to sell the rest of the seats, but the pressure’s off at 1700. The rest of the shows across the country are under half the size of Radio City, so our break-even numbers everywhere else are far lower; only the Radio City 1700 looms large in our minds. At 1700 seats sold, we un-cork champagne and un-clinch our assholes.
On Monday, I’ll tell you how far away or close we are.
Lots of folks who write about the biz are saying I’ve gone nuts or imploded, but the above makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s pragmatic and cost-effective while still being a fun and artful way to connect with the audience and get word-of-mouth rolling on Red State.
I haven’t gone nuts, I’ve gone Jerry Maguire. Or even American Beauty! Yeah – I’m like Spacey in that flick, but I just wanna release my $4 million dollar movie in the U.S. as financially-responsibly as I can, instead of, y’know… wanting to fuck a teenage cheerleader.
Y’know what? Let’s just stick with the Jerry Maguire analogy.