Kevin Smith takes on the Studio System at Sundance


Author: Jack Greenbaum, “The Reel Deal” Columnist

In film history, there are milestone movies that changed cinema for better and for always. Kevin Smith is trying to put his latest film in that category, and not just because it is the only fundamentalist Christian horror movie ever made.

At the Sundance Film Festival, one of the biggest assets a film can have is buzz, and this year Smith’s newest movie had people atwitter. Aside from the skepticism and intrigue surrounding his latest film “Red State” as his first foray into the horror genre, the premiere was both a screening and a spectacle.

Prior to the festival, Smith announced that, following the screening of the film, he would be selling the distribution rights live and in front of the entire audience. Most Sundance films are seeking distribution, and many negotiate deals with studios in acquisition meetings, but never before have the studios had to compete for a movie in a live auction.

Therefore, acquisition representatives filed into the Eccles Theater along with fans and critics to see the film and place their bids for what was considered a saleable movie. Yet soon after the film ended, they found out there would be no competition. None of them would be distributing “Red State” because Smith bought the film from himself for $20 in a stunt that infuriated many entertainment insiders.

Smith went on to detail his frustration with studio distribution as the studio reps sat there and endured his criticism. He then explained his plan to forgo the studio route and self-distribute “Red State” on a 15-city tour. At $70 a pop, each screening is packaged as an event evening complete with an extensive Q&A session with Smith after the film.

Starting as an unknown independent filmmaker with a movie he made for $30,000 at the convenience store where he worked, Smith is trying to get back to those roots and prove to independent filmmakers that they don’t need the help of a studio to get their movies out there.

Attempting to self-release a movie is no simple feat, however. In Hollywood, while it may seem expensive to produce a movie, it’s even costlier to distribute it, albeit more profitable.

Practically since the beginning of feature filmmaking, the studios have had complete control over the releasing of movies to the public. Even in 1948 when the Supreme Court took on the studios’ illegal oligopoly in the famous Paramount Case, the justices only focused on the aspect of film exhibition and left distribution alone.

Now, Smith is embarking on a cinematic gamble to challenge the studio system’s monopoly. Still, as he rejects the studios, he’s embracing the old Hollywood idea of the roadshow theatrical release, where a film would travel from town to town and build buzz as in the days of David O. Selznick and Irving Thalberg.

Given the dogmatic nature of the film industry, execs are skeptical of the success of this model, but at least it’s a different approach to getting independent films out there. Since the inception of Sundance, the goal of filmmakers who get into the festival has been clearly defined: Get your movie recognized by a studio, get a distribution deal and get your movie into theaters.

Smith’s model, known as four-walling a film, would bypass the filter of the studios and enable the movies to get directly to the audience.

I hope Smith is successful because, too often, the film industry gets set in its thinking that there’s only one winning formula for movies. However, the success of independent films proved that good movies can be made outside the system. Repeatedly, filmmakers are showing executives that if cinema art rises above hype, and if Smith’s formula prevails, it will show studios and filmmakers they can be seen above the system as well.

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