In respect to full disclosure, I am not without bias when it comes to filmmaker Kevin Smith. I was, and still am, an active member of his messageboard and I am the captain of one of his street hockey teams, the Monroeville Zombies. I think of Kevin as a friend. Some of you will stop reading now, or discount what is to come as simply one friend sticking up for another (believe me, Kevin does not need me sticking up for him; he’s more than capable of taking care of himself), and while I can never say that I am unbiased when it comes to Kevin, that does not mean that the arguments I’ve made are illogical or sentimental. I also have many friends who are film writers, critics or other staff at various film sites, so, really, this could never be an unbiased entry either way. It’s not us-vs.-them, black-or-white… the truth of the matter is in the middle, and the conversation needs to be in the open.
I haven’t written about this before, mainly because I considered it a non-issue for the majority of people who read Film Threat. It felt too inside baseball. Unfortunately, I think it is time to address it because, well, if you’re a filmmaker or part of the film media, the thoughts and considerations going on here can affect you, and how you deal with your career as a filmmaker or film writer.
After the release of Kevin Smith’s last film, “Cop Out,” static ensued between the film writer community and the filmmaker. Most recently, as his latest film, “Red State,” wrapped filming, Kevin has expressed a continuation, and clarification, on his thoughts concerning film press and the media in general. While his mindset is perfectly explained in this audio from a press scrum regarding his “Too Fat for Forty” special on EpixHD, he further clarified his ideas on the Dean Blundell Show this morning (about 41 minutes in), the main sentiments being that all should be treated equally (if the audience has to pay to see the movie, then the film critic, regardless of whether they have good things to say or bad things to say, should have to pay too) and that, honestly, Kevin Smith doesn’t need the film press or media anymore.
You know what, Kevin Smith is right.
Right now, because a critic or film writer can see most things for free, they/we see anything. It’s part of the gig, you see as much as you can. But when I have to pay for a movie? Much more discerning, and I tend to see movies that I actually have an interest in seeing. I’m not going to sleep through a screening (never have anyway), not going to walk out and I’ve got more, personally and financially, invested. It’s more than just my job and privilege, it’s my money on the line too. I think this could lend itself to more rapturous praise, but also more damning criticism (folks love it when their money goes far, hate it when they feel short-changed; this emotion would creep into the reviews but, at the same time, real professional critics who know what they’re doing would find a way to measure their response appropriately).
For the filmmakers out there, that fills the audience with critics and regular folks who actually want to see the film. It eliminates the “I don’t want to see it but I might as well” mentality. It doesn’t really hurt me as a film writer because I’m just not going to pay money for movies I’m not interested in seeing (big deal, before I wrote for Film Threat I had to make those decisions anyway. Still do, actually; most mainstream releases I review I pay to see). Sure, some outlets would wind up sending their critics to every film anyway but, to be honest, in this economic climate, no one will make the extra financial effort to see everything. An outlet would have to really think about its audience and cover accordingly; it’s not the machine-gun approach to reviewing anything anymore, it’s a more measured “what is actually good for my readers” take. It requires more thought and, I’d argue, more care.
Now, how would I feel if every filmmaker who wanted a review from Film Threat wanted me to pay to see the film? Simple, I’d understand it as long as that filmmaker understands that I’m not rich and, therefore, I’m not going to see everything. Going to say “No” a lot more than I do now. Nothing personal, but if the money isn’t there, it isn’t there. Fewer reviews, that’s all. It’s a film ecology, and it’ll all balance out somehow. People seem to forget that it’s all a matter of choices. If a filmmaker says “you have to pay to see my film,” you can decide not to see it, and no money lost. It’s an argument of entitlement to think that you should never have to deal with the choice in the first place. I mean, Kevin’s idea either works or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, a solution will work itself out somehow. Why not try something new? Why is it such a bad idea that Kevin should be criticized for even considering it?
Regarding whether Kevin needs the film press, I don’t think he does, and I don’t think that means he hates the press. Just because I don’t need my mother to wipe my a*s anymore, doesn’t mean I don’t still love her. While press helped and had stronger value in the past, when fewer outlets existed and fewer voices were heard, the market is too saturated and democratized to assume the same value it had, say, when Kevin started out or even 10 years prior to that. The internet means everyone can run a newspaper, everyone can be a critic. The folks willing and able to do the service far outnumber the demand for the service right now (don’t believe me, ask all the print critics that have been let go from their papers over the last few years).
It’s not like the film press is really all that powerful anyway. My words may influence on a person-by-person basis, but my opinion does not influence every person every time. This goes for all film sites, film writers and critics. If our influence truly was as all-powerful as some of us seem to think it is, movies like “Norbit” wouldn’t make a dime while something like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” would be setting box office records left and right. And even that is just my opinion; maybe you love “Norbit.”
Positive press on a film had value back in the day when buzz could help qualify an audience number for a distributor or sales agent to then quantify in order to make a decision about whether a film would be profitable. Even then, it was a guessing game, but the folks involved were savvy and experienced enough to lessen the risk as much as it possibly could be lessened. Nowadays, the value of press is depreciated because there is no end to the number of voices out there, nor a cap on the number of conflicting opinions. If you look hard enough, find the right critic or film site, you can get a positive blurb about ANYTHING. The audience knows this, and they don’t really care. While I don’t have any quantifiable proof to back up this thought, I don’t think that people read film sites and reviews in order to form opinions so much as they do to affirm the opinions they’ve already formed. And just like a movie looking for a quote, there’s a writer or site out there that will perfectly mirror your own opinion. What disturbs me most is that, thanks to script reviews, set visits, trailer dissections and casting “news,” most people are able to form their full opinions long before they’ve even seen the film (but that’s another entry). Sure, that’s been happening for as long as I’ve been alive, thanks to trailers and marketing, but the timeframe was shorter. A couple months of hard marketing and trailers up to release as opposed to now, where the marketing can begin before the script has even been finished.
Since press has little value in actually dictating what an audience does, what about its value of being the conduit between film and the audience? That too is lessened because the tools to go direct to the audience, become the marketing department yourself and craft your own press, are readily available for today’s filmmaker to utilize. And not just filmmakers. The Alamo Drafthouse, their distribution arm and Fantastic Fest now have their own movie website, and it makes perfect sense: why diddle around with playing the press game with so many other web entities when you can do it yourself? In the case of Kevin Smith, he has over 1.7 million Twitter followers; every one of his tweets hits a Twitter audience larger than the majority of film websites’ Twitter followers combined (and they could argue day-to-day site traffic, but I’d argue that Kevin’s 1.7 million follower per tweet ratio, if he’s on a roll one day, alone has more reach, again, than the majority of film websites combined). Why dance the press dance if he can reach a consistent audience on his own? Doesn’t it make sense to instead adapt the audience you have and then do whatever the f**k you want? Why play the game when you don’t like it and, ultimately, don’t have to anyway?
Folks could throw back arguments like “He’ll never grow his audience,” “He’ll never grow as a filmmaker”… are those HIS goals? Has anyone asked him what he wants for his career, before they went and told him how he’s going about things all wrong? Besides that, his audience is nothing to sneeze at. His movies, regardless of critical reception, have made money. Who am I to tell Kevin Smith that that’s not good enough for HIM? I have no stake in his films; if his audience grows, it doesn’t line my pockets. How does it affect me, really?
I don’t get the kneejerk reactions to Kevin’s opinions about press and/or critics nowadays either. Kevin has been making movies for longer than a good chunk of the people who criticize him have been finding work writing about them, why should their words be more influential or powerful than the knowledge he’s gained over the experience of making, marketing and releasing films? If I’m a filmmaker (and I am and have been), I find more value in what another filmmaker has experienced. Why can’t he do something new without people feeling so threatened they have to lash out at him?
The simple truth: Nothing you or I say about Kevin Smith’s filmmaking will stop Kevin Smith from making films. Likewise, his opinion on your or my job does not stop us from doing ours.
So where’s the threat? What’s the problem? What is anyone really upset about?
After all of that you may be thinking, “What an a*****e! Does Mark really think he’s above his own value judgments on the role of press? Isn’t he aware that all his arguments hurt him too?” Yes, yes I am very aware. If every filmmaker suddenly wanted to charge us to review their films, the money wouldn’t be there and we wouldn’t review many films. At that point, Film Threat’s value to the filmmakers and the film ecology would be up for discussion and we’d know, right quick, how people really feel. And we either survive it, or we don’t. But I’d much rather Film Threat stick around because we do provide a value and service than survive because we’re just another case of status quo industry inertia.
I want Film Threat to be a resource for those interested in filmmaking. I want Film Threat to be a place where those folks who have outside-the-norm ideas about filmmaking and film festivals can congregate and discuss. I don’t want business as usual, I want a place where folks can look at business as usual and really scrutinize it and see if we can come up with something else. Film in 140 is about utilizing online means to continue the discussion about filmmaking year-round. Certified Film Threat in Progress is about helping filmmakers and film-related projects find like-minded people to help them finish their endeavors. Hammad Zaidi and John Wildman write for Film Threat because I wanted real, practical information from people in the film industry that you, the reader, could use. “The Bootleg Files” caters to the film fan looking for something more, the interviews and festival coverage try to shed some light on what’s really going on out there in the film community. To me, there IS practical value here, beyond the traditional role of “press” or “critic.”
And that’s why I’m writing about Kevin Smith today; not to pick a side in a silly us-vs.-them argument (which it isn’t anyway), or to defend a friend (he doesn’t need it) but because the choices he has made, and are making, are relevant to the film community today. You can learn something here, one way or another, and forge your own path.