If the opening of “Clerks III” this week has you feeling nostalgic about the earlier films of writer/director Kevin Smith, you’ll hit a dead-end when searching for one of his greatest accomplishments – 1999’s religious satire “Dogma.”
“Dogma,” which stars Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Alan Rickman and Chris Rock, is currently not available to stream anywhere or buy digitally, and the out-of-print Blu-ray frequently sells for around $100 on the secondary market. While religious groups were bent out of shape by the movie, it was warmly received by critics (Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars) and made $44 million at the box office (it only cost $10 million). The success of “Dogma” makes its obscurity even more puzzling.
When I asked Smith why, he said it was a “great question.” “In order to tell the story unfortunately, I’m gonna have to say the name that nobody wants to hear anymore. But of course, Harvey Weinstein figures into the story,” Smith said.
According to Smith, Weinstein was told by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to “not make ‘Dogma.’”
“He was like, ‘It’s too hot button. It’s a religious picture. Catholics get weird, you can’t do this movie.’ And Harvey said, ‘Okay,’ and then he made the movie anyway,” Smith said. (In Eisner’s defense he had just weathered the fallout of Martin Scorsese’s Tibetan epic “Kundun,” which angered China to the point that they threatened to discontinue any business relations with the Walt Disney Company forever. So while it wasn’t the best move, he was still licking his wounds from a similar religious debacle.)
The script for “Dogma” was “getting attention from the Catholic League” even before the movie had entered production, based off an early version of the script. “They were saying shit, like, ‘This movie contends that the apostles had sex and I’m guessing not with their wives.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that would have been a great idea. Where were you when I was writing this f–king thing?’” Smith joked.
After production on “Dogma” had wrapped, Eisner once again began pressuring Weinstein to “sell it off.” This wasn’t totally without precedent. As Smith noted, a similar arrangement had been made when Weinstein produced Harmony Korine’s movie “Kids.” Weinstein sold the movie to himself and then released the movie through a company called Shining Excalibur.
Smith contends that Weinstein made “Dogma” knowing that he could “do a Shining Excalibur with it at the end of the day.” “And since Disney paid for it whether or not he had to pay them back, it would behoove him to make the movie and deal with the consequences later on,” Smith explained.
It was the first big Lionsgate theatrical release (“Pre-Katniss Everdeen and the vampires that sparkle,” Smith added) and their biggest release at the time; Smith remembers a two-page Variety spread where the studio touted its success. Columbia/TriStar got the home video rights but for a limited amount of time. They made an impressive special edition DVD that then became an equally impressive Blu-ray. And Smith thinks it streamed at one point because he has a digital copy. “But then the rights lapsed,” Smith said.
We now jump to a few years later. The Weinstein Company is, after a shaky start, rebounding with “The Artist” and a string of other hits. “They were rebuilding and doing the almost Miramax version of the Weinstein Company without us. And I think we were complete afterthought,” Smith said. “I mean, honestly, not even a thought. I don’t think he realized that he still owned that movie. I don’t think he realized that it went out of public distribution or anything like that.” (Smith points out that the last movie Smith made with Weinstein was 2008’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”)
Here’s where things get dicey. “It is going to be gross and everyone needs to clench again,” Smith warns.
At this point it’s 2017. “I’ve been out of Miramax for almost 10 years at that point and hadn’t worked with the Weinsteins since then,” Smith said. That’s when he gets a call “out of the blue” from Harvey Weinstein, “when that was still a good thing.”
On this call, Weinstein talked about “Dogma” and asked if Smith was still interested in doing anything with the project. “As if that’s not all I’ve thought about ever since we finished it like people ask me all the time,” Smith said. (The filmmaker would tell people it would require another deal like the one Weinstein made with Lionsgate and Sony back for the first movie to get a sequel off the ground.) Still, this phone call was encouraging – a follow-up could finally become a reality.
“All the people that were in it are still around, so we can we can make a pretty good sequel or series even better,” Smith said. “And I got really excited because I was like, ‘Oh my God, for the first time. The dude remembered me. Like, after a decade he remembered that I was part of the Miramax family.’ And he remembered that he had ‘Dogma’ and had a cool cast and I don’t know, I felt like wow, that’s, that’s cool.”
Part of what made Smith feel good was the fact that Weinstein’s call was so unexpected. “I didn’t have to do anything,” Smith said. “And then he was like, ‘Alright, I’ll get in touch with you.’ And then he hung up.”
A week after their conversation, the New York Times story about Weinstein’s horrid behavior broke. Smith remembers being shocked and sickened; he had no idea about the rape allegations. “Rapists don’t openly act out in public. That’s something that you keep hidden,” Smith said. “We knew that the guy cheated on his wife, that was always the big rumor. But we didn’t know anything about this shit.” Smith said he felt “guilt by association.”
But it wasn’t until he talked to John Gordon, a former Miramax exec and producer for Smith, that things crystallized. “I was like, ‘Did you see this New York Times? Because I can’t f–king believe it.’ And I said to him, ‘I don’t know how to say this but he called me like a week ago, out of the blue, to talk about ‘Dogma’ and making a ‘Dogma’ series and I got real excited now I’m reading this and I feel gross and disgusting,” Smith said. Gordon told Smith, “He called everyone because he knew the story was coming. And he wanted to find out who spoke [to the New York Times].” “I was like, ‘That makes perfect sense.’ I’m guileless, I don’t see all the angles,” Smith said. “He was calling not because he wanted to do anything with ‘Dogma.’ He wanted to see if I was one of the people who had spoken to the New York Times. I hadn’t, because I didn’t know any of that stuff.”
Years later, Smith was told that a new “Dogma” DVD was coming out. That’s when Smith found out that Weinstein was trying to sell the rights to “Dogma” to somebody. “I found out that he was trying to sell the rights to the movie,” Smith said. Weinstein was asking for $5 million, which Smith admitted was “overvaluing.” Smith found out that Weinstein was also trying to sell the rights by suggesting that Smith would be involved in the new release. (This was all through lawyers, as Smith hasn’t talked to him since that phone call.)
“Please tell that company that I’ll have nothing to do with it, if he’s still attached to it. I’ll work on a ‘Dogma’ anything, as long as he has no more ties to it,” Smith told his lawyers. Smith and his lawyers even reached out about buying back the rights themselves “which we felt very dirty about because we didn’t want to give him money.” “But at the same time, it’s like my movie and he’s got it,” Smith explained. “He’s holding it hostage. My movie about angels is owned by the devil himself. And if there’s only one way out of this, maybe we could buy it away.”
Smith and his lawyers gave Weinstein an offer and were “scoffed at.” They went back with a higher offer that was “also scoffed at.” Smith feels like Weinstein is holding out for the $5 million. “Look, I love ‘Dogma’ as much as the next guy but a) I don’t have $5 million and b) that’s not what the market bears anymore. We live in a streaming era. The last I heard was from a different company, saying he wouldn’t sell me my movie back,” Smith said. “I thought what else can I do? There’s not much. You can make a public stink, but I don’t think that guy reads the news anymore.”
Two months ago Smith heard that a “new company” has it but he asked his lawyer to find out what this new company was, since Smith has “a sneaking suspicion he just changed the name of the company and maybe sold it to a different shell company.” “My movie about heaven is in limbo,” Smith said.
While it’s a bummer, Smith points out that it’s nothing compared to what Weinstein put his victims through. “What sucks is that he’s also sitting his fat ass on my movie. And the right thing to do would have been to sell it back to me even if you didn’t want to sell for the price that I first said,” Smith said. “Tell us what that price is and sell me my self-expression back.”
“Clerks III” is now playing in theaters in limited release and will be on PVOD soon.