Posted by mike in Entertainment,Film,Internet at 10:43 pm on November 20, 2009

I don’t know if this is necessarily a dream most people share or not, but it certainly holds true for me personally that I would love nothing better than the opportunity to write my own movie and eventually see it produced. Tucker Max, the blogger-turned-author-turned-screenwriter behind I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, had the opportunity to do just that, and as I mentioned in my review of the resultant film, he was good enough to share the experience step by step with the world via a production blog that offered a surprising amount of valuable insights into the independent filmmaking process.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell‘s theatrical run has been, by any standard, a failure. Due to Max’s abundant stream of cocksure updates about the decision-making process he went through in bringing the film to theaters, though, I think there’s a rare opportunity to examine exactly why it was such a flop, and maybe learn something about the state of the indie film market as well.

From the start, Max’s fundamental assumption was that he had an undeniably great product on his hands. This was not entirely blind self-confidence: the book that was used as the movie’s source material has sold over a million copies (according to Tucker Max—I couldn’t find definitive sales numbers anywhere), and it has appeared regularly on the New York Times best-seller list over the past 4 years (the current list credits it with a tenure of over two years). What he was incorrect about, however—among several other things—was in making the following additional assumptions:

  1. Everybody who considered him or herself a fan of his book would naturally seek out (and pay to see) his movie.
  2. These people would not only provide him with a built-in audience, they would also provide him with the necessary word-of-mouth advertising to turn the film into a widespread hit.

In his theatrical run wrap-up post from a few weeks ago, Tucker relates a story of an encounter with a self-identified fan who was completely oblivious to the movie’s existence. He correctly recognizes that the movie’s poor box office performance was due—at least in part—to “a complete failure in the publicity and marketing of the movie,” but true to form, he’s quick to imply (in not very indirect terms) that it is the fault of others:

Part of it was a lack of experience, part was naive optimism, and part was straight up malfeasance by certain parties involved with the movie.

This borderline tinfoil-hat assessment is in character for Max, but given his previous candor about the decision-making process (and his personal role in it), it’s hard to buy the conspiracy theory angle he’s trying to sell—though I’m sure it’ll be amusing to read his promised forthcoming explanation of that aspect of it. Even his claims of naiveté don’t totally fly, though, particularly if you examine his posts leading up to the movie’s release that revealed the self-education on independent film distribution he was (impressively) able to attain. Back in July, he wrote a primer on how film distribution works, and his tone in it is quite telling: confident that he had a hit on his hands, Max settled on a deal that was “an incredibly risky one, one that will pay off huge if the movie does well, and hurt us a lot if it fails. High risk, high reward.” I suppose you gotta admire the guy’s bravado, if nothing else.

Max’s description of their distribution model of choice goes on:

Normally, this is not an option available to an indie, because most indies don’t have any real commercial appeal, so no one wants to invest 35 or 20 or even 5 million dollars because they don’t think they’ll get their money back. But we are different–we have a broad commercial comedy that we could have sold to a studio at any point in the process, and based on the quality and reaction to the movie, Darko [the film’s production company] was able to independently raise the P&A we needed to distribute the movie ourselves.
On even a 40 million dollar box office with this movie, we are all swimming in money, whereas with a major distributor, we might have to hit 60 million before we start to see even pennies.

Even ignoring the lofty numbers he’s talking about, there’s a lot of confidence in his product behind those words, but I think it’s quite obviously unfounded. In that wrap-up post from a couple of weeks ago, Max had this to say:

I’ve seen every reaction, read every email, seen every review, and talked to more people about this movie than anyone else. No one has been more on the ground and seen more actual audience reaction than me. I know what real people who have actually seen the movie think about it, and it’s going to do great, given enough time.

He’s mostly referring to the month-long premiere tour he took the movie on; you can view videos from all of the stops at the movie’s YouTube channel. There’re a couple of interesting phenomena at work there, though, both of which I think contribute significantly to leading the filmmakers to believe that audiences like their movie a lot more than they actually do.

The first (and obvious) one is that people who go to the effort to purchase advance tickets, stand in line, and go to the general trouble of seeing the movie on a premiere tour stop are already predisposed to liking it. To even know about the movie in the first place, they’d probably have to be pre-existing fans of Tucker Max and his books. And to know about the premiere tour, they’d probably have to have been following his blog already. This all adds up to the fact that they’re likely going to be fans of the movie pretty much by default.

I think more interesting, though, is what I’d call the “I Was There” phenomenon. I used to encounter this a lot when I was in college and would go to see Phish a lot. People would often post show reviews on Usenet and mailing lists, and those that came from a guy who lived in the town where last night’s show took place—and who only attended that single show on the tour—never had much credibility. Invariably, said guy would gush about how great the show was, how it was the best of the tour, and how everybody should seek out tapes of it. There’s something about being “in” on something, experiencing it first-hand for yourself, especially when it’s something that’s not widely known about—it adds a counter-culture aspect of exclusivity to it, as well. I think this definitely occurred on the I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell premiere tour, and the audience reactions in the tour videos certainly seem to bear this out. (Of course, they’re also only putting positive reactions in the videos in the first place.)

If you’ve read my review of this movie, you know that at the most basic level, I think there’s a really easy explanation for why it was such a flop: it’s not good… at all. Even the trailer isn’t funny: there’s nothing in there that I can imagine would make the average filmgoer think, “Man, I wanna see that!” But I do harbor some respect for the process, for the way they attempted to go about doing things. Max sums it up fairly succinctly:

If you care about independent film or helping artists own their work or just generally root for the underdog, you are looking at that philosophy embodied in reality, right in front of you. We are not sitting around talking aimlessly about how we wish we could beat the system; we are putting our money and reputations on the line and trying to do it.

That, in a nutshell, is why I’ve paid so much attention to this movie from the get-go, and why I’ve been so interested in seeing how it does. Conversely, though, since I think the actual content was so poor, it’s hard to come to any hard conclusions based on this one example.

The biggest irony in all of this is the headstrong, self-confident series of assumptions behind the decisions that were made, most readily characterized by a post made back in June. There Tucker says, “For over five years I have looked at this movie as the first major battle in the grand campaign to change the entertainment business.” He takes his cockiness to the point of absurdity, albeit with an admirable slant:

We examined the “normal” Hollywood way of making a movie, found it to be stifling to creativity and utterly evil in how it treats artists, and consciously rejected it. Instead, we took another path:
We wrote a different way–not worrying about what would sell or what we were “supposed” to do, instead focusing on nothing other than what made the best movie.
We financed it the right way–turning down upfront money and guaranteed “success” so we could do the movie with a company who would respect our artistic vision and give us creative control.
We made it the right way–by hiring people who got our vision and wanted to do it the right way, not the “Hollywood” way.
And we are marketing it the right way–by engaging fans in the process, being completely honest with them, and always treating them the way we would want to be treated, instead of shilling and lying to them at every turn.

The ideas expressed there are great, in a pie-in-the-sky, naively dream-like kind of way. If you can choke back the snickers every time he refers to himself as an “artist,” in fact, that post in particular is well worth reading in its entirety. The ironic part is that there is nothing ground-breaking about the movie that came out of this process (no matter how many claims to the contrary are made by its originator). The writing was trite and unoriginal, the production half-assed, and the marketing—premiere tour aside—uninspired.

If it sounds like I’m sort of vacillating between the two extremes of hating and loving the endeavor that is I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, the movie, it’s because that’s where I stand: On the one hand, it’s a bold attempt at doing something different, if not in its actual content then at least in its approach. On the other hand, it’s a shitty movie. That makes it hard to judge the totally independent, outside-the-norm process on its own merits. Max sums up the situation like so:

For maybe the first time in history, the creator is free to be who they want to be, to create what they want to create, and to not have to answer to the interests or demands of the powerful, or of anyone but themselves.

It’d be great if that were true—and I think that in some ways, it probably is—but unfortunately the manner in which Tucker Max chose to exploit such a level of creative freedom was quite underwhelming. He’s absolutely right, I think, that “audiences are craving originality and meaning”—he’s just not providing either of those things.

There’ll be more and more films that attempt an approach like this, and I’m sure some of them will be successes in one way or another. While I care a whole lot more about artistic value than box office returns, the latter is always nice to see, too, especially since it serves to give those artists further chances at realizing their creative visions. An indie doesn’t have to go to Paranormal Activity heights to be considered successful, either; oftentimes doubling its (presumably meager) production budget can be considered a huge success for a small-budget film that finds a strong following and capitalizes on it. Given the chance to predict Beer in Hell‘s box office take, I probably would’ve put it right around that level—about $15 million. That it struggled to scrape one-tenth of that total, I hope, doesn’t mean the movie-going public won’t embrace this approach to production or style of distribution when other, better films give it a shot in the future.

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