It’s been 17 years since Kevin Smith burst onto the scene at Sundance. At the time, the success of his film, Clerks, served as a rallying call to independent filmmakers working outside of the studio system. Now, Smith is seeking to cause the same type of excitement. Yesterday, the director announced that he is self-distributing his new film, Red State, and is thereby cutting the studios completely out of the loop. By doing so, he believes he is ushering in a new era in which independent filmmakers will distribute their own work.
“Yes, anybody can make a movie,” Smith said after the premiere. “We know that now. We know that because I’ve made ten, you know what I’m saying? That means anybody can make a f*cking movie. What we aim to prove is that anybody can release a movie now as well. It’s not enough to make it and sell it now, I’m sorry.”
I like Kevin Smith. Of his ten films, there are probably only two that I would ever sit through again. But I’ve always admired his success, even if I haven’t always admired the finished product. And I certainly hope that he’s successful in his endeavor. After all, why would anyone outside of Hollywood be upset if he found a way to beat the studios at their own game? But the idea that what Smith is trying to do is somehow applicable to small, independent filmmakers is complete nonsense.
Let’s look at Smith’s plan, or as he calls it, “Indie 2.0.” Red State cost $4 million to make. Rather than sell the film to a studio, which would then spend upwards of $20 million on marketing, Smith is going to generate publicity with a fifteen-city cross-country tour that will begin in March. Without spending any money on advertising, he will rely solely on his popular Podcast and his 1.7 million Twitter followers to get the word out. If all goes well on the tour, Smith will have recouped the initial $4 million, and everything afterward will be pure profit. He will then attempt to cut a deal directly with theater owners for a nationwide release on October 19th, the anniversary of the Clerks release.
Clearly, this could work for Smith, and I wish him the best. But how does this situation translate to an aspiring filmmaker? The simple answer is that it doesn’t.
Smith loves to say that if he can make 10 films, anyone can make one. I get the point he’s trying to make, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a lot easier to get a film made once you’ve already been successful. This is even more true of distribution. Because of his past success and his built in followers, he may be able to buck the studio system. But most aspiring filmmakers don’t have millions of twitter followers. Most aspiring filmmakers don’t have a popular Podcast. And if your average aspiring filmmaker wants to launch a nationwide tour, he better have some rich parents.
I understand his frustration with the cost of marketing. Why should a movie that costs $4 million need to make $50 million to turn a profit? But unless you’re Smith, and you have alternative methods at your disposal, what are your options? You either sell to the studios, or watch your film wallow in obscurity.
Of course, if he’s successful, Smith plans on leveraging his strategy to help other filmmakers. Getting his fans to turn out for his own films is one thing. Getting them to turn out for at unknown filmmaker is a whole different ballgame, but not impossible. Regardless, the filmmaker is still reliant on Smith’s clout. In a sense, they are simply trading the studios for Silent Bob. While that might not be a bad thing, it’s a far cry from Smith’s vision of a world where anyone can successfully self-distribute. That world will never exist.