Profane filmmaker dominates Produced By panel with tales of surviving in changing indie landscape
If he was appearing at Comic-Con, Kevin Smith would have been booked into the event's largest hall.
The line to get in would have snaked across the San Diego Convention Center grounds. And Smith would have kept the raucous crowd in stitches with his outspoken and hilariously profane monologues.
But Saturday's event was the Producers Guild of America's significantly more sedate Produced By conference on the Walt Disney Studios lot.
So Smith was simply one member of a panel booked into what was not the biggest of the three spaces.
The room did fill up, though without a long line or lengthy wait to get in. But yes, he did keep the reserved crowd in stitches.
His words focused on the business of independent film — specifically, on how he's found that the traditional distribution model doesn't work for his movies, and how he hit on a strategy that had him traveling around the country with his newest film, "Red State," screening it as part of Q&A sessions like the ones he'd been doing for years for audiences who simply come to see him talk.
"Michael Bay's special effect is that he can make robots fight and f—," said Smith, who appeared on a panel entitled "The Sky's the Limit: Entrepreneurial Media and Indie Innovators." "David Fincher is a master storyteller, that's what he brings.
"I don't have those skills. My special skill is that I'm the only director who, when the movie's over, I can come out and say, 'Wait, let me tell you what really happened! I got in a fight with Bruce Willis, I got thrown off a plane … '"
That skill — and the fact that he'd built up an audience through his sporadic one-man tours, where he simply sits on stage talking to the audience and answering questions — led Smith to take a different tack with "Red State," particularly after the Weinstein Company turned down the film.
"I knew the movie wasn't commercial," he said. "I knew that if somebody bought this $4 million film, they'd put $10 to $15 million into marketing it, and it wouldn't make that money."
The bottom line, he said: "I can't compete in a world where it's all about the first three days in theaters."
So he held onto the film instead of selling it, making that announcement at a Sundance Film Festival event that left some potential buyers angry and unamused.
Then Smith turned a 15-show nationwide tour into a marketing campaign for his movie. Rather than doing his usual one-man gabfest (or SModcast), he used the first half of each show to screen the movie, then the second half to talk about it and take questions.
Between tickets and merchandising, he said, the 15 shows brought in "close to a million bucks," which he used to help pay back his investors. And once he took VOD deals that he once would have scoffed at, he was able to repay those investors in full.
"We had a $5 million budget, but we got $1 million in tax rebates for shooting in California," he said. "So it cost $4 million."
"We just closed on deals for North America, keeping theatrical for ourselves, that were for $3 million and change. We made $1 million on the road with the movie, and $1.8 million in foreign sales in Berlin. So we paid our investors back — and they had no idea what a great f—ing thing that was."
Smith said he plans to take "Red State" out again, focusing on smaller, independently-owned movie theaters around the country. And once the film gets a wider release through his SModcast Pictures later in the year – at which point it will also be available on VOD – he plans to do post-movie Q&A sessions via satellite.
In two or three years, SModcast Pictures will use its distribution techniques for other people's films. But strung by criticism from a blogger that by becoming a distributor would simply make him part of the evil movie-business empire he's railing against, Smith insists that his company will be different.
"It'll be open to anybody," he said, "but you'll have to provide a letter that says every other studio passed on you. We are the island of misfit toys."
In the new world of independent film, he added, the key is to forget about the grandiose notions that sprang up in the golden age of indie cinema in the 1990s.
"You have to manage your expectations," he advised aspiring producers in the audience. "I look at my wife: she's a good looking woman, and I'm a fat schlub. She could have done a lot better than me, but she managed her expectations and thought, I can aim a little lower and be the queen of this world."
For the record, the panel also included Adam Chapnick of Distribber.com; Charlie Corwin, the producer of "Half Nelson" and "The Squid and the Whale"; Jon Fougner of Facebook; Nolan Gallagher of Gravitas; and moderator Dana Harris of indieWIRE. All had things to say about the new landscape in independent film, and the new possibilities in VOD, social media and crowd-funding.
But, of course, any panel on which Kevin Smith sits is a panel on which Kevin Smith dominates.
"There is no f—ing model for independent film anymore," he said when one attendee asked his advice at the end of the session. "If there was a formula, I swear to god I would have told it to you a long time ago … But you just have to manage your expectations, and figure out how to change the game."