LONDON Hipster bible Vice Magazine has come a long way since it was founded as a free rag in Montreal in 1994 by a heroin addict and two benefit cheats. These days the Vice empire knows no bounds; besides the glossy (and still free) mag, there’s a record label, Web-based TV channel VBS.TV, a book arm, a marketing company (Virtue), a Vice-owned London pub, and a concerted push into films via the expanding Vice Films unit.
Shane Smith, who launched Vice with friends Gavin McInnes and Suroosh Alvi, is the driving force behind Vice Films.
“Film is sort of the dominant media for contacting the world, so, obviously as a media company, we want to have a film component,” he says.
To date, Vice Films’ best-known pic is “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” a cult doc about Iraqi metal band Acrassicauda which bowed last year to strong reviews at the Toronto Film Fest. That project, like most Vice Films enterprises, emanated from a feature in the mag. Next up for Vice is the Smith and Eddy Moretti penned “White Lightnin’,” a $2 million feature about the chaotic life of Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White, which also originated from a Vice article.
“About eight years ago I was sent a well-worn VHS about the last of the outlaw mountain dancers in West Virginia and I was mesmerized,” says Smith, whose meeting with White only fueled his fascination; “he has multiple personalities — he’s pure good, pure evil and then Elvis.”
Resulting pic is directed by Brit commercials director Dominic Murphy and toplines Brit thesp Ed Hogg. A West Virginia shoot was mulled but Croatia was eventually selected for budgetary and other reasons.
Smith’s assortment of influential Hollywood friends has helped pave the way for the film division — for instance, Spike Jonze is creative director for VBS.TV, which MTV has invested in. But Smith still finds the filmmaking process rather inscrutable.
“If someone came to me and showed this to me as a business model, I would have to say you’re insane,” he jokes, lamenting the fact that so many indie pics do not get distribution deals.
But Vice is clearly in it for the long run. Smith is busy working on docs about life in North Korea (he’s been three times as a reporter), the clandestine party scene in Iran, the Bulgarian illegal arms trade and possibly a follow-up to “Heavy Metal.”
The emphasis on filmmaking is part of a larger shift in focus taking place at Vice, which is increasingly concentrating on revealing international news coverage alongside trendy fashion advice and risque photoshoots.
“Vice was one thing when we were 25 and snorting coke and just cared about rare sneakers but what happened is that as we started to expand globally we realized that there’s a whole world out there that’s really pissed off,” says Smith.
“I don’t know who’s right in Israel or Palestine and I don’t pretend to, but I know that when 5-year-olds are being trained to be transportation devices for dynamite, that’s an intrinsically bad thing.”