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Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash

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 jittery.

"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 that."

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 are.

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 some point.

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 reviews)
www.li.net/~filmfrk/vent (on-line support for aspiring filmmakers)
www.kulturevoid.com (tales from indie filmmaking.)

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