Kevin Smith, whether you like him or not, is running full speed into the future in a way no other film maker, no other studio, no one else involved in the film industry is. Personally, I have no real opinion on the man himself. There are a few of his films I absolutely love, a few I'm ambivalent about, and a few I feel are a complete waste of time. What is most interesting about Kevin Smith right now is that he may be mapping out the future of independent film making and a way for writers, directors, and creative people of every variety to be able to create the things they want to and bring it to the audience directly.
Most people don't know about it, unfortunately, and I don't think it's conspiracy theory to say you don't know about it because the majority of the media have to be frightened of what he is doing. He's making them obsolete in the way the "internet optimists" have been predicting for years.
He's going directly to the audience, in a way that no one else has even attempted to. It's terrible to say it, but the truth is there is going to be a section of the media that is going to shoot holes in his latest project Red State, less because of the film than because they dislike Smith himself. It is the unfortunate nature of the way film as a business and the media related to film is going.
Kevin Smith has managed to find an audience. He has his audience, and they will go and see his film. They will give him the benefit of the doubt, even after Cop Out. His twitter feed is huge, over one million. And Kevin Smith has figured out exactly what the film studios and the film media are terrified of. He doesn't need them. A number of different websites, some of which I enjoy and follow were quite up in arms when Kevin Smith made the suggestion that he might finance Red State through fan contributions. It was interesting in a bizarre way to see the number of writers who were losing their minds over the idea that a film maker might turn to his fan base, the people for whom the film is meant, are going to consume it and who are asking for it in order to finance it. To me, I don't find it either offensive or strange. It's another way for a film maker to find financing and that gives them the kind of freedom to create that they haven't had in the studio system. At this point, on some of those sites, with some of those writers, it doesn't even matter that Smith never ended up using fan contributions, he found independent financing. And by all accounts, he's gone and created something that is completely different from anything he's done before.
It really began with An Evening with Kevin Smith where he proved that not only could he be entertaining, but that he had a big enough audience, dedicated specifically to what he's doing to be profitable. Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy had brought him a cult following, and enough critical acclaim to continue to make movies. Dogma is also well loved among his fans, and has a wider cult following of it's own. An Evening with Kevin Smith reall proved that following would follow him beyond the movie theater.
Sure, Kevin Smith has had his fair share of press, good and bad. When Clerks and Chasing Amy were released, he was consistently praised for one to watch among the new generation of film makers. Dogma created a good deal of controversy, which didn't hurt the movies box office, and which helped to keep his name in the loop of film news publications and websites. For a number of years his films weren't as successful, and he's made a few movies which have been almost universally panned. Clerks 2 brought some of the old magic back. Fans were happy to see their favorite characters again, and the critical community was at least not brutal toward the film, overall it was recieved as a film which was entertaining, but not much more. Then came the Kevin Smith vs. Southwest Airlines debacle, and Smith became the butt of a joke the size of the entire internet. And unfortunately Cop Out was released this summer, and therefore hasn't been completely forgotten yet. I didn't see it, because the only thing about it that was at all interesting to me about it was that Kevin Smith was directing Bruce Willis. Tracey Morgan is pretty funny on 30 Rock, but on the whole, I'm not really a fan. Cop Out was universally trashed. There doesn't seem to be a human being whose seen the film and liked it.
But what most people, even people interested in film and who follow film news don't know is that Kevin Smith has an entire podcasting network, putting out seven shows a week, with a podcasting theater in L.A. in which they record with a live audience. That podcasting network also reaches a large audience, with four of the seven different shows having reached number one on iTunes at some point. The Internet media have been covering Red State to some degree, but for Smith he doesn't have to do any promotion at this point. He's made a horror film of some kind for four million dollars. He can more or less guarantee that eight to twelve million people will come to see his movie, regardless of whether or not he does any promotion other than those podcasts and his Twitter feed. The film has been accepted to Sundance and whether or not the film makes it to theaters has yet to be decided, but even if it's released directly to DVD, Blu Ray and digital download, it's going to be profitable.
That is a position of power film makers aren't supposed to be able to occupy. They are supposed to need the studios to get their films financed, distributed, and probably most importantly, for marketing. Smith has found a way to circumvent that entire system. There's an argument to be that Smith, his crew, producers and financiers might be better off from a financial standpoint by not even attempting to secure distribution from a major studio, and going directly to DVD, Blu Ray and digital download. If they can't see it in theaters, his audience is going to purchase the film in one form or another, and without having to recoup the money studios spend on marketing for the home theater audience, and not having to pay the studios for distribution and marketing contracts, all of the profit would be going directly to the film makers and their direct financiers.
Considering that Red State has been accepted to Sundance already and will be showing with Smith's intent to sell the film for distribution rights, it's interesting to consider whether or not it's even in any of the studios interests to pick it up. If they pick it up, and the film succeeds, sure they make a profit in the short term. But they've also proven that Kevin Smith's audience is going to come out and pay the money to see the movie, even when it's not a typical "Kevin Smith" movie. Smith is in pre-production on his next film, Hit Somebody, which he's describing as an ode to youth, wrapped in a hockey movie. If Red State is successful enough, why would Smith even bother going back to trying to sell the film's distribution rights? He could very well just go about trying to distribute the film directly to the home entertainment audience, essentially taking his audience and those ticket sales with him.
The other long term question for the studios in a case like this is, "How do we continue to market films to an audience, without creating the kind of audience for the film maker that has latched on to Kevin Smith?" Because really, Smith might just be the first to have figured this out in the film world. In the music industry, Trent Reznor, Radiohead, and a number of very big musical acts are starting to figure out how little they need a major record label to promote and distribute their music in the digital age. Smith is just porting those ideas into the film industry. The film going audience is changing as well. We're probably more savy and sophisticated in our understanding of the film business than any that has come before. We have the ability to follow a film from script form, when it's being shopped around to different studios, all the way through to it's arrival in theaters. We know more about that process than any generation before us. And given the choice between seeing a film in the theater, knowing that there's been a number of creative compromises because the studio believes they can only make their money back (again an inflated price specifically because of marketing) or seeing the film on DVD, Blu Ray or digital download as the film makers intended it, without the added price hike for the studio's marketing and corporate structure, we're going to choose to put the money directly in the film makers pocket when we can.
What if someone like Christopher Nolan were to start accepting a model like this? Right now, Nolan can do basically anything he wants, even at a major studio. He's got two of the most successful films of the decade under his belt, but if at some point in the future he were to decide he didn't want to have to deal with the studio system and wanted more of the actual profit for himself and his creative team, it's possible that he could make something like this work as well. Now, Nolan isn't a public person in the way Smith is. But, Nolan knows how to find create interesting marketing strategies, and could probably use new media in a way most of the studios haven't even begun to think of. It's not in the realm of the impossible for Nolan to be the kind of film maker to create shorts for internet distribution, giving backstory or some other kind of interesting bits and pieces related to whatever current project he has. And he's a talented enough film maker to get just about any he might want to come along with him. So the studios could possibly start losing all kinds of other talent to these smaller, more personal outfits which are the result of the studios creating stars, and audiences for those stars that are going to follow them to whatever project they may be working on next.
Say what you want about Kevin Smith, but he's becoming a renaissance man of the digital age by getting his hands into everything he can, and spreading his audience across as many platforms as he can. By doing so, he's creating a new model for which other film makers and artists in other mediums to follow which could make the kind of megacorporate monoliths which have dominated the creative world for the last century. Even if it doesn't end up working out on that grand a scale, what Smith is doing is exciting from the standpoint of being able to afford film makers who may not have otherwise been able to make the films they want an avenue to do so. The technology, from the availabiltiy of relatively affordable camera equipment to editing software to marketing and distribution are changing the landscape of the film industry in an exciting way, and it's good to see someone trying to take advantage of these opportunities and creating innovations we've been being told would come for decades.