I have no idea if Todd Sklar is a good filmmaker, but he's quite the convincing pitchman. The 25-year-old Minneapolis native turned bearded Missourian turned quasi-homeless, film-hawking vagabond started Range Life Entertainment in 2008, after growing frustrated with trying to distribute his first feature film (called Box Elder, it's about coming of age, like first films tend to be) through the traditional model. Basically that meant getting in a 1986 Dodge van with his friends ("It isn't like we didn't have the money to buy a better van, but we didn't have the money to buy a better van"), driving around the country for a few months, convincing people to watch his film, and then having parties. Using experience as a music promoter, he applied the model of touring bands to film distribution: "I just figured, how would I like to find out about this?... We'll go into a city and find out what makes that city tick."
That first tour, to their semi-surprise, achieved "weird, oddball success," and, thanks to Sklar's beardy charm and connections he made working at Sundance, distribution companies took notice. "The prevailing distribution model was falling apart, and we were a really easy thing to point to as an alternative," he told me. Range Life began partnering with other independent films as a kind of pro bono grassroots marketing team, hand-tailoring each screening/party for each film and each market. For now, they live on the road, no home base.
Sklar wears a hat with a feather in it and says "awesome" a lot. Everything is awesome. They started the tour, he said, for "the experience of just doing something awesome" and encouraged the audience to go out and "do awesome stuff." At Monday night's Visioneers afterparty, I told him about a piece-of-shit job I used to have and how it killed my soul. That, too, was "awesome." Sklar's frank, bro-down enthusiasm is a big part of his appeal: He's a film-obsessive who cites Truffaut's The 400 Blows as a life-changer, but his conversation drips with practical business savvy. It's not all about the art. Range Life is building a network of satellite teams in each city, aggregating valuable data about its audiences (who goes to which screening of which film, what brand of beer they order), and currently fielding, and turning down, buyout offers from big companies.
"The beauty of being young and dumb and idealistic is that none of us are really at the point where we're ready to be exploited," Sklar said. "But we're very cheap labor, and the labor is incredibly valuable."
Range Life is an investment. I do not know if—nor do I completely understand how—Sklar and his bros will revolutionize indie-film distribution or how you "buy" or "sell" six best friends working their asses off in a shitty van. But that's their plan, and Sklar makes it sound, you know, awesome. "If Rome is burning," he said, "what a great time to have a pail of water and a hammer."