Lights, Camera, Interaction! Director Clicks with Cyber Fans
By Lisa Rose - The Star-Ledger
If Red Bank filmmaker Kevin Smith had his way, clips from his new
film-in-progress, "Dogma" would be coming soon to a PC near you.
Smith wants to use video-streaming technology to put dallies from the
film - a spiritual road comedy staring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and
Chris Rock - up on his web site (www.viewaskew.com) so fans can see
footage as the film is being made, months before it screens.
Is this a marketing masterpiece or madness?
Smith's studio, Miramax, is of the latter opinion. "It'll never
happen," a studio spokesman says, declining to elaborate.
Smith's notion is the latest Web-movie development that has the film
industry wishing the Internet would go away.
Last summer, director Joel Schumaker blamed a series of negative
reactions to early test screenings posted on the Internet for the
crash-and-burn of "Batman & Robin." Sony Pictures issued a
cease-and-desist order to fans who posted sketches of the bugs from
"Starship troopers" in June, long before the film's November release.
Smith, who trained as a filmmaker not at UCLA but at the Quik Stop
convenience store that inspired his first feature film, aligns himself
with the film geeks and cyberjunkies who are making the studios
"The studios have this wonderful resource where they can go at any
given time and find out what a majority of fans are thinking," he
says. "Before the Internet, it was tough to communicate with some guy
in Minnesota, but now you can. The studios should not try to fight it
or co-opt it. Use it. See what feeling is out there and work off of
The 27-year-old director might be forgiven his cheek in advising the
Hollywood suits. In four short years, Smith has gone from Slurpy-jerk
to mini-mogul. He made his first film, "Clerks" (1994), using credit
cards and local talent; produced for less than $30,000, it made more
than $3 million.
Smith followed 'Clerks" with the poorly received "Mallrats" (an ode to
the now-defunct "dirt mall" on Route 18 in New Brunswick), then
rebounded with last year's "Chasing Amy." Produced for Miramax for
less than $1 million, the film, a bawdy lose story between a man and a
lesbian, made over $12 million at the box office and landed on Time
and Rolling Stone's year-end Top 10 lists.
His new film, "Dogma," also for Miramax, has an initial budget of $4
million and stars three of the hottest young talents in filmdom.
These days, it seems, Smith has the keys to the Magic Kingdom of
Hollywood and anyone with a mouse and modem can ride.
Smith represents a new style of director, equal parts filmmaker and
film lover and unusually accessible to fans. Through his 2-year-old
Web site, Smith offers movie lovers a chance to contact him directly,
opening up the heretofore one-sided communication between director and
audience. (Imagine if you could e-mail Orson Wellses about that sled
or send a post to Alfred Hitchchock's bulletin board about his
fixation on blondes.)
Smith's Web site includes a virtual tour of his View Askew office in
Red Bank, a World Wide Web Board, where Smith corresponds with fans,
and clips of outtakes from "Clerks" and "Mallrats." An unreleased
video from "Mallrats" was devoured by fans even though the 3-minute
clip took hours to download.
Which perfectly illustrates Smith's purpose in creating the site.
Unlike other film sites that offer little more than press releases and
photos, View Askew focuses on interactivity.
"We didn't want to do this thing where we put up a site every time we
have a film to promote," Smith says. "We wanted a direct line to the
fans. They are the people that employ you, and they are the ones you
want to hear from."
Created by former University of Michigan student Ming Chen, the site
is professional-looking and well-organized but also "down and dirty,
befitting the films," Smith says. "It's not the look but the content
that keeps people interested."
The site has created a bond between the director and his fans,
inspiring some to create offshoot sites - most prominently "News
Askew" (http://www.newsaskew.com), a collection of daily news collected form
the board. (Smith met Chen when he discovered the Michigan student's
"Clerks" site; he promptly e-mailed Chen and offered him a job.)
The feedback Smith gets from the board has an impact on his films.
Beloved stoners Jay and Silent Bob from "Clerks," for example, will
return as prophets in "Dogma." (Smith also uses fan reactions in the
comic books he writes.
"It's a great grounding device," he says. "If it were all positive,
I'd think I was God of the world or something."
Anything in the pop-culture canon is fodder for the board. It has been
an epicenter for electronic debate on "Titanic" and served as a
communal mourning center after the death of comedian Chris Farley last
Christmas. Smith, who checks the board twice a day, sees it as a small
piece of the cultural snapshot that is the Internet. And he thinks
movie studios should take a look at what's out there - and pay
attention to what they find.
Brett Dicker, senior vice-president of promotions for Walt Disney
Pictures, Miramax's parent company, disagrees. He believes that while
the Web is an excellent marketing tool, it should not be trusted to
determine the content of films.
"Gossip sites are a detriment to the filmmaking process," he says,
citing a recent rash of sites that post reviews of test-screenings and
unfinished films. (The most notorious of these, Harry Knowles' Ain't
It Cool News (www.aint-it-cool-news.com), is feared and loathed in
Hollywood for its insider scoops.) "People are judging unfinished
films as if they were finished products. It's unfair. The vision of
the filmmaker should not be corrupted."
Dicker has a point. Dailies are often muddy-looking and repetitious;
they hardly give the viewer a true idea of what the final product will
be. Smith would seem to be risking his relationship not only with his
studio but also with an audience that may not understand what dailies
Yet her persists. "Dogma" begins shooting in late March in Pittsburgh,
but already fans have been able to track the film's casting and
pre-production on the News Askew web-site. Smith plans to continue to
update the site with news about "Dogma," but it is unlikely that he
will be able to post his dailies since Miramax owns the rights. Smith
expresses his frustration:
"It's really up to the studio. I'm making the film, but I don't own
it. It's something I am dedicated to doing, and I hope I'm able to as
- www.imdb.com (intenet movie database)
- www.777film.com (movie listings)
- www.viewaskew.com (View Askew)
- www.newsaskew.com (Daily Smith info)
- www.aint-it-cool-news.com (Harry Knowles site)
- www.corona.bc.ca/films (latest Star Wars, Godzilla, Armageddon info)
- internet-plaza.net/zone/mrcranky/index.html (Mr. Cranky's
- www.li.net/~filmfrk/vent (on-line support for aspiring filmmakers)
- www.kulturevoid.com (tales from indie filmmaking.)