What a strange day Monday was. I woke up and every single site I went to had some blogger ranting about how Kevin Smith had become the anti-Christ. At first I thought they were part of a viral marketing campaign for Smith’s new religious-themed horror film, but no, everybody seemed to be genuinely upset, though it was hard to figure out why. After digging around (and reading through 100-something tweets on Smith’s Twitter feed) I finally put it together.
To summarize it, Smith previewed his long in development horror film, Red State, at Sundance Sunday night. Apparently, he’d told the public for weeks that he would have a live auction for the movie after the screening. So all the major indie companies sent their people there to potentially bid for the film. Except afterwards, Smith went on a 25 minute rant (or so we were told – the actual footage is only semi-ranty) telling those very people that they sucked and he was tired of them stealing his money so they could suck his dick. He then proceeded to “sell” the movie to himself, subsequently pissing off a lot of distributors who could’ve used that time to target other Sundance material.
He then announced he'd be taking Red State on tour, one city at a time, and charging $70/ticket (presumably each screening would end with one of Smith's famous extensive Q&As – so the cost would cover more than the actual film). Smith's argument was that this old model of marketing movies, where you spend four times the budget of your film on advertising, forcing you to make five times what your film cost just to break even, was ridiculous, and he wanted to try something new.
So instead of traditional advertising, Smith was going to utilize the power of his Podcast and Twitter feed (which has over 1 million followers) to let everyone know where the film was playing and how to buy tickets. After the tour, he'd release the film more traditionally, but with himself distributing the film instead of some big money-sucking distribution company, giving theaters more lucrative terms as an incentive to work with him.
Now I know this isn't technically connected to screenwriting, but it kind of is. People with 1 million dedicated "can contact them at any time" followers simply weren't around two years ago. That gives a ton of power to the individual, whereas before the individual had to depend almost exclusively on the company who financed his film. It's a different ballgame and it might be time to start thinking about things differently. To think that the old model is going to transfer over seamlessly in this ever-changing world of social media is kind of silly.
With guys like Ed Burns foregoing traditional distribution and selling his movie directly on Itunes (where we'll likely be watching all of our rented films in two years) so that he could retain ownership of his film, rather than hand it over to some prodco, has both its pros and cons. You're not going to get that big marketing push, and thus your movie won’t be grossing nearly as much money, but you'll be receiving some hefty royalties from being the sole owner of your film for quite some time.
Back in the days of video stores (I can’t believe I’m saying that – “Back in the days of video stores”), where shelf space was limited, you wouldn’t have thought of that. Not having that juicy “Miramax” or “Lionsgate” tag on your film would keep corporate-minded Blockbuster from even glancing at your film. But a virtual porthole, such as Itunes or Netflix, where the system is intelligent enough to know which movies you like and recommend them to you, makes those companies excited about a small movie owned exclusively by Ed Burns. It doesn’t cost them anything to throw it up there, and targeted recommendations means people will keep watching it.
At some point I expect this to trickle down to the development stage. If you developed your script openly, providing numerous drafts on the internet and encouraged feedback from fans, it’s an easy way to build awareness for your film (not to mention improve your script) and thus create anticipation throughout the development process. A case can be made that the leaked scripts for Inglorious Basterds and Avatar helped make those films what they were, and I would anticipate that same kind of buzz would happen with any filmmaker who has a built-in fanbase. I know some form of this is going to happen soon. I’m just not sure which major name is going to do it first.
So I'm really interested in what happens here with Smith. What sucks, and what's turning out to be a distracting factor in this giant experiment, is that Smith may be heading off to Crazy Land. The guy is curling himself up into a cocoon of safety in order to protect himself from any sort of negative reaction whatsoever. First he takes on critics for hating a movie that was truly awful and says he's not going to screen his movies for critics anymore. And now he's giving a big fat middle finger to studios and production companies, which is allowing him to try this unique experiment, but creating an unhealthy amount of insulation in the process.
What he doesn’t realize, is that he’s effectively becoming the low-budget version of George Lucas. Just make movies in his own back yard and nobody's allowed to tell him if they’re any good or not. This is the absolute worst way you can approach writing, and almost always leads to subpar work. If you have any doubt about that, go read The Phantom Menace.
It's a weird scenario, and I don't know if Smith's post-modern Howard Huges-like behavior is going to get in the way of determining whether this is a viable option or not. Which sucks, because if it does work, it could be a game-changer. It could give birth to an entirely new generation of writer-directors, guys like Gareth Edwards and Neil Bloomkamp, who have a unique voice and realize that with emerging technology, they can make their movies on the cheap and distribute them outside the studio system, building followers on social media outlets through teaser scenes, short films, and word of mouth, then use those outlets to directly advertise screenings, whether they be in real theaters or online.
I think what Smith is doing is cool. I’m just worried that his questionable red state of mind may screw up the test. What do you think?