Treated and Released: Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Oct. 31, 2008)

I'm willing to admit something that, in this day and age, might damage my cinephile cred: I'm still a fan of Kevin Smith. Yeah, I recognize all the problems with Smith's work, the way he conducts himself as a public figure, and the staggering amount of stupid things he is willing to say. I can rectify almost all of it by simply admitting that I'd probably make a lot of mistakes in his place. Definitely not the same mistakes, but probably some equally baffling ones. Dude is not sophisticated, and since that seems to be the unique thing about him, he leans into it.

Anyway, if you've followed Smith for a while, you could probably pinpoint that moment where the vast majority of Internet denizens and most of Hollywood declared a moratorium on politely tolerating him and his business. That moment came in late 2008, when his new take on his old brand of R-rated, foulmouthed comedy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, bombed really hard and sank Smith's hopes of a mainstream comeback. Smith started staying in his house somewhat permanently. He started smoking a prodigious amount of marijuana, a "lifestyle" he had adopted from the movie's star Seth Rogen. He started turning his most cherished side project, his Smodcast audio show, into a largely self-sustaining business empire that now makes up the majority of his income to this day. 

Why did Zack and Miri Make a Porno become this focal point in this filmmaker's career and personal life? It certainly isn't his most personal or ambitious film. I find it charming enough, with an underlying message of love and devotion to filmmaking and collaboration that is undeniably Smith's greatest trait. It's remarkable how unremarkable of a movie it is for 2008, honestly. In 2008, R-rated comedies were back in big business after the one-two punch of Knocked Up and Superbad, among others. Judd Apatow's new brand of pop culture-laced, loquacious schlub comedies starring Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, and the rest of Apatow's loyal troop were hitting over $100 million at the box office. Smith saw this happening and set about taking his established brand to new heights by riding the Apatow train after Apatow arguably rode the Kevin Smith train directly to A-list glory. Step one: develop a script that involved a lot of clownishly profane sex and sex talk as well as a warm/fuzzy love story. Step two: convince Rogen to combine brands for this outing. Step three: convince Harvey Weinstein to finance the film and put it in wide release. Step four: leaving Kevin Smith box office numbers behind and swimming in Judd Apatow money.

But here's a puzzling detail to the story: The Weinstein Company decided to distribute the film for a Halloween release. On October 31, 2008, very few people were interested in a Seth Rogen sex comedy, or a Kevin Smith talking-about-sex comedy, or any weird Cronenbergian fusing of the two. Smith was optimistic that his film could make comparable numbers to Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which released April 18 of the same year and hit $17.7 million in its opening weekend domestically, and a whopping $105 million worldwide total. The Halloween weekend saw Zack and Miri open at No. 2 in between High School Musical 3 and Saw V, with $10 million. The film only went on to a modest $42 million worldwide.

The plan didn't work, for quite a few reasons. First off, no one wanted to market a movie on television with the word "porno" in the title. Because of a lack of legitimate marketing, Smith took a play out of Harvey Weinstein's usual playbook and tried to spin every little controversy about the film--like the MPAA's initial NC-17 rating and his lengthy appeal hearing of it, or the banning of a Canadian poster for the film deemed too saucy to be displayed--into a form of guerilla marketing to sell audiences on how outrageous and naughty it was. Secondly, Smith wasn't on fire the way Apatow was at the time; in fact, most mainstream audiences only remembered that Smith had made one of the two giant Bennifer bombs of 2003, Jersey Girl. But that Halloween release is a really puzzling attempt at counter-programming, and sank the film's only chance to make some decent scratch during the all-important opening weekend. Disney's bubblegum musical already had the edge in the quest to slay the Saw franchise's domination of the spooky season: it was rated G and was a sequel to one of the biggest selling DVD releases of all time. Weinstein really thought that Zack and Miri could compete with both that and the only significant horror release on Halloween? Maybe Rogen passed the spliff to Harvey once or twice as well. Or, possibly, it had more to do with Weinstein's distribution deal with MGM falling through just before the already scuttled marketing campaign could get moving. Or, even still, maybe we give Harvey the benefit of the doubt and assume he saw a bomb on his hands and tried to toss it out of a moving car, relegating it to the only weekend slot available without another R-rated comedy opposite it.

Had Zack and Miri been given a December release, that might have made more sense. If the idea was to retroactively pull a Deadpool and rake in cash from an audience that was sick of the usual fair during a typical month of similar movies, wouldn't it make more sense to pit the ribald comedy up against more dour choices like Cadillac Records, Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road, and Valkyrie? Imagine that idea, counter-programming against the classy awards pictures by releasing the least classy movie anyone can think of. But no, not Harvey Weinstein. He was very busy during that Oscar-bait season with The Reader, you know, screaming his head off at producer Scott Rudin and director Stephen Daldry, dragging the names and memories of freshly deceased producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella around like marketing tools, and shuffling the release date of the drama to...December 12. Hmm.

Whatever the case for the bizarre release date decision, Zack and Miri Make a Porno was proof that Seth Rogen’s string of hits in 2007 was not a Kevlar vest in which to envelope an indie studio, an indie director, or a highly un-marketable script from the oppressive fires of the business. Simply put, playing in the Weinstein leagues is never going to be the same as playing in the Apatow leagues, and Smith learned that the hard way. 

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