The mavericks who won't sell their souls – or films

Clerks director Kevin Smith hired the cinemas himself to show his latest movie. He's not the only rebel, says James Mottram

When Kevin Smith took the stage at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the director who began his career at the festival with 1994's micro-budget Clerks announced that he was going to sell the distribution rights to his latest movie, a religious horror entitled Red State. Mounting the podium, he started the bidding at $20 – and then closed the auction. With dozens of Hollywood buyers in attendance, Smith then laid into the industry with a profanity-fuelled rant. "True independence," he declared, "is schlepping [the movie] to the people yourself."

Which is exactly what he did – taking Red State on a 15-date tour around the US. Beginning with a sold-out splash at New York's Radio City Music Hall (which took $160,000 on its first night), Smith was determined to cut out the middle-men and take the film direct to the fans. No traditional press junket or print and TV advertising; just spreading the gospel via Twitter, his so-called "Smodcasts", and his own internet-launched radio station, SIR. Despite inflated ticket prices (upwards of $40 a seat), fans flocked, with Smith attending each screening for a Q&A. This, he told the incredulous buyers at Sundance, was indie 2.0.

His argument was simple: why spend four or five times the movie's modest budget (in the case of Red State, $4m) fruitlessly trying to market the film to those beyond Smith's core fanbase, making it impossible to turn a profit? "We believe the state of film marketing has become ridiculously expensive and exclusionary to the average film-maker longing simply to tell their story," Smith and his producer Jon Gordon said on the Red State website. "Honestly, it didn't make sense to do it the other way anymore," Smith has argued. "And since we're gambling with such a small amount of money, it's pretty easy to achieve."

While Smith has the loyal fanbase to make this model work, he has managed to alienate most of Hollywood and the media. "God Hates Press Screenings" read one banner he held aloft in a throng at Sundance. In the UK, where Smith has sold the rights to the company Entertainment One, he forced the cancellation of the advance media screening at the 11th hour earlier this month before getting in to a war of words on Twitter with disgruntled critics. He then decided to offer seats at a future press screening to 15 fans and their plus-ones. "Why show it to some of the loudest shit-talkers for free," he tweeted, "and NOT folks who REALLY wanna see it?"

In truth, Smith is hardly in the vanguard. Based on a model called "four-walling", whereby cinema screens are privately rented, directors have been self-distributing for years. Don Coscarelli took his Elvis-is-alive Egyptian horror Bubba Ho-Tep on a road-trip and turned a profit. Lance Hammer did the same for Ballast, noting that in such tough economic times a typical advance from a distributor for securing the rights to an independent film would be $25,000 to $50,000: "If you made a $50,000 project, that makes sense. If you happen to spend more money than that, it becomes difficult to justify giving up creative control."

For directors who had mortgaged themselves to the hilt to get a movie made, it was the only option. But for Smith – who notes that Mel Gibson's self-release of The Passion of the Christ inspired him – it read more like a V-sign to the industry that made him. He claims that his next film, hockey comedy Hit Somebody, will be his last (he's reportedly now working on a talk-show) – and, after the bridges he has burnt, that's maybe just as well. Directors who bite the hand that feeds usually end up as the ones with sore hands.

In 2005, Steven Soderbergh, a director infinitely more savvy than Smith, participated in a ground-breaking attempt to launch a new "simultaneous distribution" model. His film Bubble premiered in the US in theatres on the same day it could be viewed on cable, only days before its DVD release. The scheme angered many in the industry, in particular theatre owners who believed going "day-and-date", as it's called, would kill their business and Bubble was not shown on many US screens. "We sold a lot of DVDs on Bubble but didn't make any money theatrically," Soderbergh later told me.

Soderbergh had already tried to buck the system with the proposed formation of F-64, a co-operative of four directors with Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), David Fincher (Fight Club) and Alexander Payne (Sideways), dedicated to the exclusive production of their films. "You would own the negative after seven years," Payne said. "The company would actually own the film. It's kind of a financial and moral thing about owning your own creative work." In principle, it was a great idea; keeping the studios at arm's length and using them only where necessary.

But like the short-lived Director's Company formed in 1973 at Paramount Studios by Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich, it failed to get off the ground. Directors are, by their very nature, egotistical – making the creation of a co-operative almost impossible. Only United Artists, the studio formed by DW Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks in 1919, lasted. But even its original intentions – for each independently to produce five pictures a year – fell by the wayside as the price of producing films grew.

The trouble is, directors who try to attend to business matters often end up over-stretching themselves. Consider the extra blood, sweat and tears that self-distributing a film takes; going on the road simply means less time for making movies, which is surely self-defeating, not to mention it offering limited audience exposure.

Better examples of directors-as-entrepreneurs come with self-financing. In 2004, the British director Franny Armstrong made the eco-documentary The Age of Stupid, pioneering "crowd-funding", a method whereby the financing (£450,000) was raised by selling shares to individuals and organisations, who all received a pro-rata share of the profits.

At this year's Sundance, Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock highlighted the possibilities of using product placement. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a documentary entirely funded by advertisers, as Spurlock spends the film luring in backers on the promise of promoting their goods and services. With the likes of Hyatt Hotels and US airline JetBlue on board, it meant that, when Spurlock went to sell the film, the distributors were offered an inbuilt marketing campaign, with corporate partners already on board. He calls it "a new crossroads – between the power of distribution and money influencing creativity". Rather than the arrogance of a go-it-alone like Smith, this reads like smart thinking.

'Red State' opens on 30 September; 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' on 14 October

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory