As Kevin Smith’s “Red State” is finally released Nationwide via on-demand (on every cable outlet… except mine, which is AT& T Uverse, whose sole purpose seems to be to torture me with their extremely limited indie film selections) and all the usual online movie outlets, I wanted to take some time to reflect on just what Smith has accomplished with the release of his film. But before I dive in I should note that Mark Bell, owner/publisher of Film Threat, plays street hockey in Smith’s league and has some personal connections to the Kevin Smith posse. I didn’t run this piece by Mark and he hasn’t edited it for content. This is all me and Mark is merely (hopefully) publishing it.
I also want to point out that while I am a fan of much of Smith’s work, I’m not one of his millions of die-hard fans who buy everything the guy sells and listens to every podcast and live radio emission. I have listened to his podcasts in the past and the only one I still listen to is “Hollywood Babble-On” because I think Ralph Garman is hilarious. All the other ones ended up kind of boring me so I tuned out, but that’s a point I’ll allude to later. I’m also a fan in varying degrees of all of his films except “Cop Out” which I found unwatchable and will use in the future to show film students how not to direct a scene. I have yet to see “Red State” but am really excited to and will do so this weekend. All that being said…Kevin Smith is a genius for doing this self-release and if you’re a filmmaker or any kind of other artist, you should take note.
Bear in mind that I’m not talking about Kevin Smith “the man,” so save your petty grievances about what a “blowhard” or “jerk” he is or how he lied to people about picking the distributor of his film live at Sundance. And honestly, if those or similar issues are your main gripes against Smith, you really should just ignore him and/or get a life. Until the guy shits on you personally (and not your idea of “THE INDUSTRY” or “PROFESSIONAL HONESTY”), you really have no reason to care about what he does. And if you don’t care… then don’t pay attention to the guy. All that being said, Kevin Smith has potentially changed the way movies can be released and everyone who loves or makes film should pay attention as these are positive changes for everyone trying to mix art and commerce.
For starters, he took the film to HIS niche and made a high profit. He also expanded that niche by reaching out to non-jaded genre buffs who are always looking for great gore and horror but, mostly, Kevin Smith fans paid top dollar to see “Red State” accompanied by a Smith Q&A. Granted, Smith’s niche is huge and many smaller filmmakers don’t have that aspect going for them. But Smith started small too and all indie filmmakers and artists should pick over what he’s done like buzzards and apply his actions as they fit your film, book, CD or artistic endeavors. Gain that niche now and they will follow, as Smith has proven.
While many bloggers bitched that Smith was charging his fan base too much, did that fan base ever complain? Why do you or anyone else care about what someone spends to see “Red State” or Kevin Smith? Those who couldn’t afford it or those who weren’t graced with a screening in their area can now see it today for $10. Except for me apparently. But anyway, my point is: he took it to the people who wanted to see it and made a big ass profit. He broke even on the movie and actually made money if you believe his reports and I have no reason not to. And, isn’t that the point? As Smith himself said, had he gone the traditional route, he’d be nearly three times his total budget in the hole right now on PR for people who don’t want to see the film. Musicians do this all the time with small, private (and expensive!) concerts for fan club members. Where’s the press jumping to the defense of Metallica fans who paid big money to see their favorite band in an intimate venue? It’s a smart move and die-hard fans of the artist love it. And if they don’t, they don’t…have…to…go.
But those who chose to fork over the cash saw the movie coupled with Q&A from Smith and often times, many cast members. For a day-to-day, common film fan, this is a rare exception in film going and the kind of stuff usually reserved for film festival attendees. Hell, by not playing the film festival circuit and touring himself, Smith kept money that crowds would have paid for festival tickets and passes which is another topic for another day entirely. In short, Smith gave his fans a thrill for less than the price of most big concert tickets. He made his fans happy, he made himself happy and he did it himself. Win. Win. Win.
Next, by controlling the release window, Kevin Smith (to the best of my knowledge) has avoided internet piracy. While I’m sure, by the end of Labor Day weekend, the film will be readily available to watch free by illegal download, Smith and his investors were the ones who saw the money on “Red State” first and that’s how it should be. By not sending out screening copies to press or film festivals, not immediately going to theaters and by showing only in tightly controlled (read: secured) theaters, Smith and Co. avoided being ripped off. They’re now even or in the black on this film and will be making money off the on-demand and subsequent releases. It’s abundantly clear studios and theater owners are not interested in protecting these films so I admire Smith for keeping a tight wrap on “Red State” as long as he could. And, he did it successfully by paying attention and by showing it to people who respect him and his work. Win.
Another impressive angle to take on the self-release of “Red State” is that by avoiding the snarky, self-important, fickle internet bloggeratti, Smith could control what was being said about his film. As I mentioned above, I’m no fan of “Cop Out” but the coverage by many of my “colleagues” in the press was an embarrassment. They made it personal and were acting the equivalent of the school-yard bullies that no doubt picked on them for their love of cartoons while they were in Jr. High. Kevin Smith is an easy target as he rarely sits back and takes it. Picking on Smith the person on your site or twitter feed is the equivalent of hit-whoring (which is publishing big headlines about gossip and rumors in order to get site hits) because you stand a good chance of him coming after you. He comes after you, his fans come after you which generates site hits. Then, buzz for that blogger or site is created. Granted, a lot of it is based in people attacking the blogger negatively but then again, we kind of come full circle there because the initial unprofessional attack on Smith prompted the whole thing. But I digress.
Smith picked and chose the media he wanted to cover his film, and while I do think that’s kind of screwy, and walks the line between conflict of interest, every big studio does the same exact thing with their films to gain positive results so why shouldn’t Smith? Further, he used the haters to build even more buzz! Be they butt-hurt bloggers or the Phelps family picketing his screenings, Smith let the haters hate, threw gas on their fire and reaped all the benefits as everyone who purported to hate him and his project simply couldn’t stop talking about it. Win.
All of these things are new ways to deal with shortcomings in the film business and, in this case, they worked. Kevin Smith made a film outside of his wheelhouse, took it out on the road himself, promoted it himself and made back a profit before releasing it to the public. I hope creative folks and fans can set aside issues they may have with Smith and look at what was accomplished as I truly believe this can change the face of film and distribution. I know that for myself, I took many of Smith’s ideas and applied them to our film “Worst in Show.” We failed on the festival circuit as far as getting into many festivals, but we succeeded by taking the film out ourselves to people we knew would like the film. We gained press coverage through mostly mainstream and area coverage and recently secured distribution because of all of that. But most of all what I learned from Smith was that you should think outside the box and struggle to succeed rather than sit back and wait for an already established medium to come and swoop you up and bring you to riches and safety. That may or may not happen, but wouldn’t you rather just do it yourself, succeed and erase all doubt?