Last night at Sundance, Kevin Smith boldly claimed that he would be revolutionizing the distribution model for movies by using a brand new, century-old method. He’s going to be taking his movie to theaters himself. He’s going to be four-walling Red State.

What is four-walling? It’s when a filmmaker rents out the theater that a film will be playing in, keeping the ticket sales for the production while the theater keeps the money made on ten dollar medium popcorn tubs.

In a way, with its long history, Smith is tapping back into an ancient business model that had difficulty making traction as a moneymaker in order to shun the studios and their monopoly-like grip on what we see at the multiplex.

A Quick and Dirty History

In the beginning, people made movies, but they didn’t have the four walls they needed to play them.

It’s unclear when four-walling began, but one of the first pioneers of this particular self-distribution model was iconic filmmaker/author Oscar Micheaux. Noted as the first black filmmaker with his movie The Homesteader back in 1919, Micheaux employed several business methods, including selling stock to local citizens in order to see production happen.

He also rented out theater space and became quite successful catering directly to a black audience by making race films that depicted black culture without all the stereotypes inherent in mainstream productions.

Micheaux was incredibly successful, and eventually churned out 44 feature films in 29 years.

However, that didn’t mean that four-walling would always be a sure-fire thing. It’s a dangerous gamble, but it’s a gamble that leads a filmmaker to see his or her film shown on the big screen.

It wasn’t at all a common practice, although it had a mild peak of use back in the late 1960s when American National Enterprises set up a company with the most generic name possible and ended up four-walling a nature documentary that was seen by millions and ran for five years. A few members of the company split off to create Sunn Classic Pictures (in conjunction with Schick (yes, the razor company)) which made family-friendly fare that was all four-walled. For what it’s worth Sunn was generally successful with their model – The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams brought in $24 million while In Search of Noah’s Ark made $26 million (more than some wide distributions today, and that’s not adjusted for inflation).

In recent times, the name that comes to mind first when talking about four-walling is Spike and Mike’s Twisted Animation – the animated shorts compilation which tours the country on a yearly basis. Another prominent example is the independent movie Ink, which had a healthy run in 2009 when director Jamin Winans rented out theater space instead of getting lost in the festival circuit.

Still, even with the peak during the late 60s and 70s, four-walling has never been a standard releasing technique. The festival circuit is truly its chief rival, and it has emerged as the unequaled champion – culling and vetting films in front of an active audience and acting as a living menu for major distributors to choose from when deciding what to buy.

Why Four-Wall A Film?

Maybe you can’t get into a festival. Maybe you think you have a shot at building an audience on the film’s merits alone. Maybe you have no other choice and absolutely want to see your work the way it was meant to be seen.

Four-walling can do a lot to get free press exposure. Since it’s a rarity, it’s instantly newsworthy when a film does it. For Smith, it’s already garnered untold amounts of press just for announcing it. Of course, Smith spun it more than just a little by talking a big game about indie revolution and taking down the man and all that. But, still, the idea that a well-known, cult-followed director would be four-walling his movie was absolutely newsworthy and gave the film’s ticket sales an early bump by getting the word out both to View Askew fans and those who hadn’t even heard of Red State yet.

Is this really going to be a revolution?

Probably not. However, if there are other indie filmmakers out there serious enough to shun the festival circuit (or who have been shunned by the festivals) who want to pony up the money necessary for a weekend run, then maybe four-walling could catch on. No one out there has the built-in press monster and captive audience that Kevin Smith does, but that doesn’t mean that other indies wouldn’t be successful doing things this way.

It’s a matter of budgeting it early on. Renting out a theater for a weekend and getting the equipment can easily sneak up to $5,000 (depending on what city you’re in (if you’re doing it in your small hometown, the theater owner might agree to being paid in Ding-Dongs)). That’s not an inconsiderable amount of money or Ding-Dongs. It’s the type of money that makes that $100 festival submission fee look incredibly inviting.

There’s also the potential audience to keep in mind. The current distribution model exists because there are major corporate interests, but it also exists to vet filmmakers. For better of for worse, four-walling ignores that vetting completely. For filmmakers, it might be an attractive method for building an audience. For fans, it can be a gamble on a local amateur filmmaker for the cost of that ticket to see Black Swan (after hearing how great it is).

Getting Your Film Four-Walled

It’s as simple as ABC. Sadly, we can’t format ABC into bullet points, so 123 will have to do:

  1. Make your movie.
  2. Contact theater owners in your area (or go big by going to LA) and work out a deal on paying to rent out the theater for three days (one day is pointless if getting press is your goal) and paying the projectionist.
  3. Hype the screening with whatever means you have at your disposal.

Step 4 might be “Enjoy watching your baby up on the big screen.”

It’s that simple. It just costs a lot of money and takes a theater that is friendly to four-walling.

What Have We Learned?

Four-walling has been around as long as movies have. It’s an ancient technique that’s so rarely done that Kevin Smith can get away with claiming he invented it without any uproar. It’s a major gamble for filmmakers.

That being said, it can also be the reward at the end of the tunnel in making a feature film. If you’re setting off all on your own with a script you like and friends willing to help out for a credit, adding in money to four-wall your film in your budget at the beginning might be worth everything – especially when everyone involved (and their supportive mothers) gets to sit in a real-life theater and see what they worked so hard on.

Kevin Smith has a huge audience already. Red State will most likely find solid success using the four-walling method, but it’s unclear as to whether Smith helping out other indie filmmakers can really find a foothold. A movie made by Smith is one thing, but an indie simply given the Smodcast Pictures stamp of approval is another. At the end of the day, if Smith ends up becoming a one-man Sunn Classic – he will have helped out the indie community by simply becoming another distributor in the game.

We might be on the cusp of seeing more options for indie filmmakers, or the non-revolution might not be coming to a theater near you.

What do you think?


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