Why I'm Releasing My New Movie as "Pay What You Want"

As a kid, I was obsessed with punk rock. But growing up in Ossineke, Michigan, the only punkers I saw were in the movies. Weirdly enough, Emilio Estevez was the star of my two favorites - Repo Man and an anthology movie called Nightmares. These were my earliest punk memories. Nightmares subconsciously informed everything I thought was cool – arcades, loud music, muscle shirts. Emilio was my punk poster boy. I didn't know names of bands or how and where punk started, but I wanted in so bad. I don’t quite remember gushing about anarchy to my parents, but at some point they bought me a starter muscle shirt when I was seven that simply read "Punk Rock" on the front, in badass graffiti font. That's as close as I got for a long time. I wanted so badly to be an angry ‘80s teenager, but I was just a scrawny little kid who didn't know shit. Weird Al was the only hero I felt might actually want to hang out with me.

As I got into junior high I started to figure a few things out. A re-run of Fear's appearance on SNL played on Comedy Central enough times for me to remember to record it on the VCR. My brother and I watched it until the tracking gave out. We were lucky enough to record it a second time. Still, to this day, it's my favorite thing to come out of SNL and one of the most punk things I’ve ever seen. It embodies everything about the scene. Although YouTube saved the day years later, that tape is in a giant box in my parent’s basement.

I wanted filmmaking to feel like being in a punk band

I started shooting bands in high school and making little movies with my brother. It was always about the music first. Ideas came from songs. I wanted filmmaking to feel like being in a punk band. But it never quite made sense. Directors don’t spit on gaffers or trash the set during a take. Harmony Korine was about as close I as could find.

So, for now, the best I can come up with is giving the middle finger to the big guys in the industry. Radiohead and Girl Talk were early to the game, releasing albums online without a price, asking you to pay what you want. They never quite came out and said, “steal this album,” but you could if you wanted. And I'm not going to say that either. People swipe my movies off the internet enough as is. Years ago, Ti West published a letter to the public with a great point. He wasn’t going to make a buck off The Innkeepers, but if everyone’s lifted it for free, there’d be no incentive for distributors and production companies to help him make future bizarro films. He urged people not to join the piracy, not because it was taking money from his pocket, but because it was important to show the distributors and investors that films like his had a following and were relevant.

Picture by Anna Gustafson

Picture by Anna Gustafson

I have nothing against the Netflix strategy. I watch Netflix almost every night. They gave us Lady Dynamite and introduced us to Zombeavers. They take a few chances, but I smell a monopoly coming on. Five years ago, when people would ask about my movies, they'd say, "Is it gonna play in theaters?" Today, the first question is, "Is it gonna be on Netflix?" That company generates profits that are nearly literally insane. (Whatever that means.) Yet, they’re in a bold new online frontier that legally does not require them to reveal numbers to anyone. And they don’t give a shit what you think, because they’re richer than you’ll ever be. They control your airwaves, and no one can say a damned thing. And when distributors are left in the dark about how well their “product” is performing, then filmmakers are most certainly clueless.

That’s how monopolies begin.

There needs to be a shift, starting now. Someday, I’m going to release a film as a real deal road show. Only one copy exists, in the trunk of my car, and it can only be seen that one night I come to your town. It’ll be like a concert with music and double dares and bad jokes. But I'm not Crispin Glover, so I need to build up my cred first. This is a first step in getting away from the big guys.

Afterall, The Alchemist Cookbook is about escaping the static, while bringing the noise. Sean says that the government doesn’t own him anymore. He’s found something new out in the woods. No rules, no bosses, no business, no bullshit. The internet is a big, weird place, and I’ll be damned if this movie doesn’t escape the trends and traditional release strategies. I want to set it up in the woods and see what happens when it’s left to fend for itself.

I'm no Radiohead, I'm no Girl Talk. I’m no Ti West, even. So, we’ll see how this goes. This experiment may fail. Maybe only ten people will download it, and only two of them pay. But I figure if I'm taking creative risks in my storytelling and actively trying to challenge the audience, I may as well take some risks and challenge the traditions in distribution. It's 2016, after all. Time to get futuristic for once. Pay us what you want. That’s all. I think crew cut Emilio would approve.

[By Joel Potrykus, director