In the run-up to Sundance, the film festival currently taking place in Utah, filmmaker Kevin Smith announced that he would be holding an auction for the distribution rights for his latest film, Red State, immediately following its showing at the fest. This created a lot of anticipation for both the film, and the aftermath, leading to Red State being the hottest ticket in town this past weekend. In the end, it turned out to be somewhat of a ploy, as Smith bought back his own film for $20, and proceeded to lay in to the Hollywood studio system, which would have been well represented in the room with many studios keen for the chance to distribute Smith’s religious horror film.
There was much consternation when Smith announced the auction would be taking place. Sundance is one of the top film festivals in the industry, and taken very seriously by the filmmakers and distributors that attend. The idea of a tacky public auction did not sit well, and though it did not really take place in the end, what instead transpired upset many people even more. In a broad strokes, what Smith has decided to do is release the film under his own banner, the newly created Smodcast Productions, taking the film from town to town for screenings for much of the year, and then putting it out in wide distribution with no funding for promotion or advertising. Smith calls this strategy indie 2.0, and feels that without the huge amount of money the studio would spend on marketing being taken out of the gross, is more profitable for the filmmaker himself.
Kevin Smith started making movies at a young age, has met with a good amount of success along the way, and as, generally, an auteur, has become very wealthy as both writer and director of all his movies but one. Red State cost just $4 million to make. Not the cheapest of ‘independent’ movies, but certainly a very low-budget. Smith already travels around the US on his own private bus to put on Q&A’s and live Smodcasts for his fans, so is well set for the type of mobile screening schedule that he has announced. From his travels, he knows that he has a fan base at each of the cities he visits willing to pay to see his work, and if all doesn’t go to plan, he can cover the $4 million dollar cost of the movie’s production if necessary. This ‘revolutionary’ distribution strategy, which is in fact the oldest model in cinematic history, is Smith’s view of the future.
For Smith, of course, it is financially viable. As an established filmmaker, he has a countrywide fanbase, over 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and thanks to the publicity his circus act has generated, there is a big buzz about his latest film. For any budding independent filmmakers who might consider the same path, however, this strategy does not look so rosy. An unknown director would be peddling his cut price film from town to town with no name value, no built-in audience, and little hope of attracting the local audience away from the multiplex. Smith believes this is the best new method for independent distribution, but is only viable for well-known directors with their own promotional channels, and will only be successful for Smith, if it indeed turns out to be, because he has managed to engineer free advertising by creating one of the year’s most controversial news stories. Red State, and Smith’s tirade, were reported on every news source within hours of the event. This type of publicity truly cannot be bought.
So in this instance, it will probably work. As Smith has claimed that he will only make one more film after Red State, that being his Hockey movie Hit Somebody, it doesn’t even need to be all that successful anyway. If he does use the same method to self-distribute his next film, however, he may find himself struggling. Hit Somebody looks to have much the same cast as Red State, but as it involves Hockey, and from the sound of it so far covers a much longer time span than Red State, it will undoubtedly be a much more expensive production. Without the media circus accompanying the release of the film, it will most probably not enjoy the same amount of free publicity as Red State has enjoyed. And though a lot of critics who viewed Red State say it is one of his best, the word is that it really isn’t anything special, and mostly follows the conventions of horror/action films without presenting its audience with anything new. Again, there will not be a great impetus for audiences to seek out his last film if the previous one was uninspiring.
In the wake of all this, one thing he has achieved is alienating much of the press and Hollywood execs. Many bloggers have stated they will boycott Smith’s next movie, and though there is evidence to suggest that internet news providers have very little real impact on box office figures, for a movie without print and screen advertising, web buzz will be pretty important to the success or lack thereof of Hit Somebody as well as Red State. What I find most surprising about the whole episode is that Kevin Smith was once a personality that, aside from his Q&A’s and Twitter banter with his band of followers, shied away from the spotlight. He has never really enjoyed chat show appearances, or the press junkets, and generally keeps his business out of the mainstream public’s eye.
In the last few years, though, there are events that may have transpired to change the director’s outlook. It had been thought that his biggest gripe was with critics following the slating of his last directorial effort, the only movie he has directed but not written, Cop Out. At Sundance, however, it was the studios and their marketing techniques that he attacked. This can be traced back to Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Zack and Miri went on to become Smith’s highest grossing movie, but the lacklustre opening weekend left him feeling frustrated. He had felt that with Seth Rogen as star it would match the performance of a film like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a belief stoked by the studio executives around him. Smith had already struggled with the marketing of the film when the titillating title meant that posters and billboards had to be toned down, without the full name or any remotely suggestive artwork. Smith blamed the films ‘flop’ on a poor marketing strategy.
He again ran into problems with A Couple of Dicks being renamed Cop Out. His longtime producer and friend Scott Mosier wasn’t involved, having started to concentrate on his own projects. This, combined with Smith’s apparent clashes with star Bruce Willis, and the infamous ‘too fat to fly’ incident which occurred around the time the Cop Out promotional trail began marked out the whole project as a miserable experience for Smith. The subsequent poor reviews for the film were just the icing on the cake. I imagine Smith realised that Cop Out hadn’t turned out as he’d hoped it would, and he probably was as annoyed at himself as he was with anyone else that he had made the choice to direct from someone else’s material, having taken great pride over the years that he had written all of his movies.
I may well be wrong, but I believe that the events of the past few months are the result of the last few years worth of knocks that Smith has taken. Whether he has become an embittered middle-aged filmmaker, or really is a trailblazer for a new generation of independent filmmakers remains to be seen. It’ll certainly be fascinating to see how the Red State saga plays out, and discover if this new distribution model really does show promise. With online streaming, and talks of simultaneous cinematic and home video release showing signs of fruition, the movie release climate is already becoming much more organic, and it looks like there will be many different distribution avenues available to filmmakers in times to come. The industry is changing, and it will be the brave and the bold that keep up whilst those more opposed to change will be inevitably passed by.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at