As we all know by now, announced earlier this week, Spike Lee's hotly-debated independently-produced and financed Red Hook Summer will be released this summer, August 10th, courtesy of privately held, full service theatrical distribution and consulting company, Variance Films.
After that announcement was made just 2 days ago, I had the opportunity to ask Variance Films' founder and head Dylan Marchetti questions about the news; obviously, given all the chatter that followed the film's Sundance 2012 premiere, this was an announcement that, whenever it was made, would be of definite interest to us here at S&A, and further discussion of it would be embraced, or even required!
So, thanks to Dylan for taking the time to answer all my questions – answers you'll find below, verbatim; I think you'll find it all very informative.
Without further ado…
– How early did Variance's interest in RED HOOK SUMMER start? Did you see it at Sundance and immediately considered it, or did the conversation begin some time later?
Immediately after walking out of the screening at Sundance, I cancelled my next meeting, sat down with a cup of tea, thought about things for an hour, and called up the sales rep.
The attraction was the film itself. I walked out of the theater feeling like I'd had the wind knocked out of me, and in a good way. I'm watching 6-12 films a week (and at Sundance, 4-6 a DAY), so a hazard of my job is that it's easy to become a bit numb. At this point it takes a really, really powerful film to get that kind of reaction out of me, and RED HOOK SUMMER gave me that rush. It made me laugh, it made me think, and it made some nuanced, layered points that I haven't seen made on screen before. Spike was clearly saying something, and it stuck with me.
– You obviously weren't at all deterred by all the negative press post-Sundance? Any ambivalence?
No, no ambivalence at all. Variance is self-funded and employee-owned, and for better or worse we don't really answer to anyone… which means I have the luxury of following what ought to be every distributor's golden rule- if you're ambivalent about a film, you shouldn't release it. We only do 8-12 films a year, and that's by choice.
As for Sundance, a lot of the negative press was over the top, and I think some of it was a little bit knee-jerk. Part of it comes from the fact that when you walk into a theater at a festival, you have no point of reference- no marketing, no trailer, nothing to tell you anything about the film except a single still image and a three sentence synopsis. And when it's a filmmaker like Spike, who has such a range and such a legendary filmography of classics, several of them arguably decade-defining, you walk in with expectations. Those expectations are going to be very specific to you, through the roof, and probably unattainable no matter what comes up on the screen. Nobody will cop to it but I really do think an awful lot of people at Sundance would've been disappointed with anything except DO THE RIGHT THING 2.
On top of that, film festivals are always tricky because it's such a hothouse atmosphere. You don't have time to let a film sink in, you have to get to the next movie or party or meeting. Now, with social media culture, it moves even faster. You're now seeing tweets from critics being sent as the credits are rolling. But no matter how you slice it, 140 characters sent 15 seconds after the lights come up isn't really a legitimate critical response to a film, it's a way to get across your immediate reaction. That's fine, but with such a hot-button film, a lot of those reactions are going to be love it or hate it reactions, and I honestly do think a few of those in a row can set the tone early. Don't forget that there were plenty of great reviews out of Sundance- LA Times, Variety, indieWire loved it… and having seen the film four times now, I think it will open up for a lot of people if they give it another shake, particularly now that's it's so much tighter.
– Can you explain in brief what exactly the agreement between Variance Films and Spike (or 40 Acres) is, in this case? I think what people are thinking is that you acquired rights to the film, and will be releasing it; but my understanding is that this is more or a collaborative/service deal type of effort (somewhat similar to what Freestyle Releasing does); can you explain in layman's terms for the many who'll be reading this, how exactly this works?
It's neither a straight-up acquisition nor a service deal. The deal is this- 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks is releasing Red Hook Summer, and Variance is helping out with the theatrical. You have to understand, 40 Acres and a Mule is a full-on organization- it's not just Spike sitting in a brownstone in Brooklyn, there's a whole team over there that is smart, dedicated, and fully engaged on this. Spike knows his audience, Variance knows the art house audience and the ins and outs of theatrical marketing- and that's why I think this is such a good team-up. 40 Acres has always been a training ground for young talent both behind the camera and behind the people behind the camera… so taking control of theatrical distribution makes complete sense. And don't forget, Spike isn't new to the game- he's too smart not to have been paying attention to how his films have been released for the last 26 years. He's got a few tricks up his sleeve too, and we're going to try them out.
– The one question I keep getting consistently is whether the version of the film that screened at Sundance will be the same version that will be released in August; I've been told that Spike definitely recut the film (although I'm not sure if that's public info yet); can you share any details on what this new version might look, sound, feel like? Was anything else done to the film other than recutting it – like any additional shooting or reshooting?
I can say this- the film is tighter now. In that sense, if you saw the film at Sundance you really haven't seen the film yet. But without giving anything away, absolutely no key scenes have been removed from the film, and it's going to be just as intense and controversial as the cut you saw at Sundance… probably more so.
– Have you zoomed in on a target audience for the film? Who do you plan to market it to? Anything you can share on your planned marketing strategy? Any expectations for how you think the film will do in theaters?
I don't believe films have one target audience. I believe that good films, at least the ones we chase after, have multiple audiences. Our task is that we've got to prove to each one of them why they should spend their Saturday night and their hard-earned money at the movie theater watching our film instead of whatever the big studios are chucking out that week. But… that's what's so great about this film.
Think back to when Spike opened SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT at the Cinema Studio in NYC (used to be on 65th and Broadway, where a Century 21 is now). African-American audiences embraced the film. Older white audiences embraced the film. And since then, Spike's done historical epics, independent DV-shot films and big Hollywood action pictures, and he's done them well… so now he doesn't have one audience, he's got several. We're going to bring the film to all of those audiences- some art house theaters, sure, but also a lot of neighborhood theaters and megaplexes.
I will say that I think that when it comes to marketing African American comedy and romance, there are some studios that really know how to get those out. Look at THINK LIKE A MAN- they did a fantastic job with that. But when it comes to independent African-American cinema, or something more thoughtful or serious, if you take out AFFRM and few others, people are mostly dropping the ball. PARIAH was one of the best films of 2011 and I don't think it got a fair shake in theaters, so we're going to work closely with 40 Acres and some key partners across the exhibition, marketing, PR, and outreach space to make sure RED HOOK SUMMER does. And we've got a lot of great stuff in store for people, but I'm not going to pull the blanket off the bed just yet… stay tuned.
I think the film is going to do well. I think you're going to go to the theater this August and see theaters packed with a diverse audience that's hungry for something intelligent after a long summer of sequels and explosions. I think you're going to see people talking about the film in the lobby afterwards. And I do believe this is a "coffee and pie" movie- you can't go straight home after, you've got to go have coffee and pie down the block and talk about what you've just seen. Doesn't get any better than that these days, you know?
And that's it folks! He's right; it certainly doesn't get any better than getting the info straight from the person or people who are directly involved. So, once again, thanks to Dylan for taking the time, and for his lenghty, thoughtful replies.
I certainly am looking forward to seeing this newer version of the film. This is going to be an interesting summer, and I'm looking forward to all the debate/discussion that follows when the film is finally released!