Monday, January 24, 2011

How Kevin Smith's Red State could have been the new face of Video On Demand.

There are people with stronger feelings one way or another about Kevin Smith than I. I loved Clerks II and Dogma, hated Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, liked Clerks and Chasing Amy, and I have yet to see Mallrats, Zack and Miri Make A Porno, Jersey Girl or Cop Out. So I'm not going to get terribly worked up over the hurt feelings allegedly inspired by Smith's decision to distribute Red State in the classic Road Show style (sometimes called 'four-walling'), taking the film around the country as if it were a traveling circus attraction. It would seem that Smith is, if anything, guilty of announcing a perfectly-okay personal choice in a manner that put him in a most negative light. Similar to James's press-conference last summer, Smith basically failed at that whole 'tact' thing. James had every right to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers after seven years, but the self-aggrandizing press-conference probably wasn't the best way to go about it. Same thing here: if Smith wanted to turn his film into some kind of sideshow exhibit, then more power to him. But perhaps the Sundance Film Festival wasn't the best place to criticize the various means of distribution for smaller films (while showing a token amount of ignorance about how smaller films are marketed), especially after (allegedly) implying that the film was going to be put up for sale following the first screening last night. More importantly, even if much of the fanboy criticism of Smith was truly overblown, Kevin Smith doesn't realize that he missed out on the chance to truly be a pioneer.

If handled properly, Red State could have been The Matrix of Video on Demand. Only a few small studios (notably Magnolia and IFC) have truly embraced the concept of offering theatrical pictures for home viewing prior or during their theatrical release. While the major studios have wrestled with the idea of offering same-day releases for some of their features on multiple platforms (theaters, DVD, OnDemand, etc), the dangers were plenty. Obviously, the major theater chains wouldn't be thrilled about having their first-run pictures being offered on DVD at the same time they were being offered on the big screen. And, more importantly, the theatrical exhibition of a picture, the idea that it indeed was a big and/or important enough film to screen in US theaters is what sets one film apart from the countless direct-to-DVD features littering the walls of Blockbuster. One can certainly argue (especially in the horror genre) that many films that go direct-to-DVD are superior to many of the theatrical releases, but the idea that 'theaters = real movie' is still potent, and a genuine factor for international ticket sales as well.

Whatever one's thoughts on the new distribution model, if Video On Demand is to thrive in any way, shape, or form, there needs to be a test case. There needs to be a 'big' movie that dips its toes into the pre-theatrical VoD marketplace. I argued last summer that Universal/Rogue should have gone this route with Macgruber, a genuinely funny picture that nonetheless completely flopped at the box office. Point being, the R-rated, $10 million action-comedy was just the sort of film that didn't feel worth a trip to the theater, but would have been far more attractive as a $20-$30 rental after the kids had gone to bed. Just as The Matrix came out on DVD just as the emerging format needed a kick in the pants in late 1999 (and, to a lesser extent, how The Dark Knight, Sleeping Beauty, and/or Avatar helped mainstream Blu Ray discs), a film as buzzed-about as Kevin Smith's Red State, if picked up by Magnolia or IFC, could be a test case at at-home pay-per-view viewing for something that theoretically could very well have been a major theatrical release.

I'm of two minds about the whole 'video on demand' concept. On one hand, since becoming a parent, the idea of screening a major release on or before opening night in the comfort of my home with my wife easily able to watch with me, is frankly irresistible. As a working parent whose three-year old rarely takes weekend naps, I'd gladly pay premium prices if I could watch something like The Rite or The Mechanic (to say nothing of Oscar-bait character-dramas like The King's Speech or Rabbit Hole) at home after my daughter goes to bed. Moreover, as the HDTVs get larger and cheaper and surround-sound systems become cheaper and easier, the at-home viewing experience becomes that much-more appealing for more and more pictures.

On the other hand, before I became a parent, I was an absolutist when it came to theatrical exhibition, so I concede that my circumstances dictate my 'morality' in this specific case. Moreover, there is a plausible fear that mainstreaming 'same-date releases' will eventually kill theatrical movie-going all together, which in turn will kill the potential for the fantastical epics that we still go to the biggest screen we can find to enjoy. No studio is going to fund the next James Bond movie or Avatar 2 so it can go straight-to-DVD or cable. There are plenty of intelligent people who believe that same day-release strategies are the beginning of the end for mainstream movie-going, and I again admit that my perception is hopelessly colored by my specific situation.

But VoD is indeed an emerging distribution network, and one that isn't utilized perhaps as often as it should be. Kevin Smith had a chance to put his faith in the kind of studio that gave him a career. He is where he is today partially because Miramax took a chance on Clerks and because Lionsgate stepped in to distribute Dogma (which in turn put that small studio on the map). Smith has achieved artistic and financial success because he put his trust in smaller distribution studios, who in turn believed in his work. He had a chance to re-establish that trust yet again, and he turned his back on the independent cinema while implicitly mocking those who can and will benefit from the likes of Magnolia or Sony Pictures Classics. Whether he did it because he's a self-aggrandizing fop, or because he has truly lost the faith (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt), Kevin Smith has missed out on a prime opportunity to become truly relevant yet again. Red State could have been the Journey to the Center of the Earth for Video on Demand, instead of just another variation of Repo: The Genetic Opera.

Scott Mendelson

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