Self-distribution plan raises questions

“Viva la revolucion” could be Kevin Smith’s new motto — provided that enough of the citizenry will pay a premium to help the revolution along.

Smith, taking issue with what he deems “obscene” marketing costs to open and distribute a film, announced at Sunday’s much-hyped Sundance premiere of his latest pic, “Red State,” that he would self-distribute the horror film, including a 12-city roadshow tour starting March 5 at Radio City Music Hall. Auds would pay “probably six, seven, maybe 10 times” the normal price of a ticket to see the film and a live Q&A with him, Smith said.

The announcement incurred a wave of angry responses from both bloggers and acquisitions execs who felt they’d been misled, since Smith had promised a live auction of the film to distributors that was to take place immediately after the preem. “We were basically lured into that theater so that Kevin Smith could read us a press release instead of doing what he claimed he would do,” wrote Drew McWeeny on the blog HitFix.

But the big question isn’t whether Smith deserved the ire — though some praised the maverick helmer for his gutsy approach — but whether his plan will work.

“As storytellers, why not instead use our creative abilities that resulted in a film in the first place to also creatively sell that film directly to our public?” Smith asked in a post on the “Red State” website.

The filmmaker, who worked with Miramax on films starting with “Clerks” in 1994, paid homage to the distrib when describing his release model for “Red State.”

“If we can build Smodcast Pictures into a brand — the way Harvey & Bob made the Miramax name stand for a specific kind of film — then it can become a kind of no-budget service label for flicks we feel fit our ethos or can’t find love elsewhere in the world,” Smith tweeted.

Smith plans to rent out theaters to show “Red State,” using profits from the elevated ticket prices to pay back investors before releasing the movie in October in a more traditional pattern.

The distribution model isn’t new — it’s called four-walling and historically, it’s been unable to support films with multimillion-dollar budgets. But Smith has more leverage than most filmmakers who self-distribute, with a large fanbase and the infrastructure to reach many in his target aud. He’ll also use funds from roadshow tickets to help pay for P&A, costs he deems inappropriately high.

“When the costs of marketing and releasing a movie are four times that film’s budget, it’s apparent the traditional distribution mechanism is woefully out of touch with not only the current global economy, but also the age of social media,” Smith continued on the “Red State” website. During post-screening remarks, he pegged “Red State’s” budget at just under $4 million. Smith claimed it took “Clerks,” a $28,000 film, seven years to make a profit because of marketing costs. “When you’re spending four times, five times the amount to market a movie or open a movie than you are to make it, that’s not an inspiring game at all,” said Smith, referring to the film business.

Social media will be key for the filmmaker, who has more than 1.7 million followers on Twitter and a handful of podcasts, at least one of which has topped iTunes as a download. Smith and producer Jonathan Gordon plan to follow the roadshow with an Oct. 19 theatrical release through Smith’s Smodcast Prods.; during that release, Smith claims he will offer exhibs more favorable financial terms than the typical distributor.

Prior to the premiere, Smith had enlisted advisers including David Dinerstein as a distribution consultant, Cinetic Media and co-seller WME (Daily Variety, Jan. 21), indicating the ducks were already lined up for a self-distribution scenario.

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