Features and Columns

Talking Heads: Is Kevin Smith Right About Distribution Being Broken?

By  · Published on January 28th, 2011


Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as ClairesKneeFan and THXForAllTheFish1138 in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, the two finally manage to answer last week’s question while reveling in the continuation of Sundance and the totally old revolutionary model of distribution that Kevin Smith wants the world to take note of. But instead of wasting more internet words on Smith, the question is far simpler and far too high concept to attempt without some Sandlot references:

Is the movie distribution system really broken?

Cole: ? ?I’m going to throw you a curve ball. Ready for it??

Landon: ? ?Hold on, let my grab my cup?.

(After five minutes)


?Cole: ? ?I meant for now and for when we play catch later on the Reject HQ Lawn.?

The curve ball now is that instead of talking about Red State and Kevin Smith and indie movies, I’m going to ask you whether Smith is right about the distribution model being broken. Is it?

?Landon: ? ?The fact that Blue Valentine is playing at my local theater in a mid-sized town says “no?.” (Also, I wish old man Marley would give us our baseballs back.)

?Cole: ? ?Seriously.?

So, one indie that broke out of Sundance confirms that things are hunky-dory with distro?

?Landon: ? I mean, things aren’t peachy. Buying movies at Sundance has certainly slowed down the past few years. Things have definitely changed, and there are so many options outside of traditional theatrical distribution now, but that doesn’t mean broken; it just means different.?

?Cole: ? ?But there could be improvements.?

Landon: ? ?Certainly.?

Cole: ? ?So let’s fix distribution right now. The two of us.?

Landon: ? ?Last week we established that indies are still alive (thank God we gave them those extra doses of adrenaline). But is distribution what’s causing the panic over indies, not filmmaking??

?Cole: ? ?I think it’s definitely part of it.? It’s a major piece of the puzzle, and theoretically, unless you’re making experimental not-for-consumption films where you slap a cantaloupe as a metaphor for the injustice in wherever, getting an audience to see your work is the endgame.

I’m not sure I remember a time when indies specifically had an easy path to our local megaplex, but with a few entities monopolizing production and screening, it feels a bit like the 1930s again. What’s wrong with distribution? And how do we fix it? That’s the meat and potatoes right there. (If we can even pinpoint what’s wrong.)

?Landon: ? ?Well, the only way to really “fix” it is to take risks, which is probably the exact reason why distribution is so shaky to begin with, but smaller movie companies need to stand behind what otherwise might be seen as “marginal” or “niche.” But because most big movies are franchises, those in charge are afraid to put anything out that doesn’t have a built-in audience.?
Changes in the idea that one can make a small profit from little movies is what separates Sundance culture of the 90s to now.

?Cole: ? ?So maybe the real problem is that movies either have to be under $10 million or over $100 million now.? The gamble itself has changed. What’s risky has changed.

Landon: ? ?That and there’s also a difference in what type of movie we think should be a limited release movie. It always surprises me that The Hurt Locker, for instance, had 535 theaters as its widest release. A blockbuster is something that Hurt Locker could never have been, but it certainly could have had a bigger following theatrically if distribution was handled differently. Movies like that aren’t marginal enough to warrant that small of an expansion.?

?But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. What if distributors are right to feel at risk? What if they’re simply reacting to a change in what audiences want??

?Cole: ? ?No! That can’t be it! Business is evil! And they’re depriving the people of all the indie dramas they yearn for!?

Of course that’s a major part of it, but responding so absolutely strictly to demand is a bad thing in any business. It crushes growth and innovation. So maybe Kevin Smith is right to bypass the structure completely and set out on his own to give his fans what they want directly, but it may leave him a bit isolated in the echo chamber.

Landon: ? ?I think you’re absolutely right. Audiences aren’t given a chance to decide whether or not they want something.?

?However, let’s not forget that Kevin Smith is in a privileged situation here with a built-in audience. I don’t think he thinks self-distribution is a viable replacement for the traditional model. What he’s doing requires even more power than getting a movie picked up?.

Cole: ? ?Right. Him and Glenn Beck can do this, but no one else.?

So we haven’t solved anything (shockingly), but can I throw out a radical claim?

Landon: ? ?I don’t know what kind of pitch that is.?

Okay, baseball metaphor over (I don’t watch sports). Yes, radically claim away

Cole: ? ?I think part of Smith’s reaction (besides all of the other reasons), and the reaction of those in staunch agreement with him is due in part to the failure of Web 2.0 to do what people thought it might.? Filmmaking hasn’t become one inch more democratized since the internet revolution, and I think that pisses some people off.

We were all supposed to be big time movie makers with only our webcams!

(That’s me being a surprised guy with a great idea for a movie about people talking about how hard it is to be guys with great movie ideas that no one seems to give a shit about.)

?Landon: ? ?Sounds like a Charlie Kaufman script called Indifference?. Frankly, I’m glad we have gatekeepers, but the problem is that the gate seems to be shrinking instead of getting bigger.

?I mean, look at 127 Hours (again). Technically an independent film, but it stars a well-known movie star and is directed by a great director coming off a massive hit. Yet it hasn’t even made its money back domestically. The reason some movies aren’t getting picked up at all is because even mainstream indies are under-performing because 1) a lack of audience interest, or (I argue) 2) a bad distribution model?.

We need to get over the idea that anything remotely good should open in limited release.

Cole: ? ?Or not enough money or talent being allocated to marketing (the exact opposite argument Smith made).? You call 127 a mainstream indie (which is correct), but even Danny Boyle isn’t a household name (my mother doesn’t know who he is), and the subject matter of that film is niche. Meanwhile, Black Swan is crushing. Because of distribution? No. Because of the film’s merits.

?Landon: ? ?True, and I would say the better film is winning in that regard. But at the same time I’d love to see something niche get released wide-ish and succeed on its own terms. But there’s also this idea that if something isn’t a blockbuster it isn’t a success (i.e., Kick-Ass)?.

Cole: ? ?Bingo.? Make a $20 million movie, shove $20 million into marketing it (with some solid marketing and not the lazy bull we’ve seen lately), and give it a chance to see first dollar gross.

I forget what the original question was, but I’m pretty sure we’ve answered it, fixed Hollywood, and cured at least 3 types of Cancer by now. Sum up the ultimate conclusion for us.

?Landon: ? ?We need more people in the business who want audiences to see a movie they’ve seen at a festival. That motivates good business, and it comes from a real love of cinema. And we need to change the definition of success.?

That said, I’m going to work on putting this contraption together to see if I can get our baseballs from the giant dog next door.

?Cole: ? ?That was shockingly straightforward.?

Except for the part about the movie business. I’ll strap on my PF Flyers and come help you.

Join the discussion by leaving your two cents below and check out more Talking Heads

Photo by Johnny Greig.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.