Kevin Smith’s new flick, Red State, is all over the blogs and style pages this week. But it isn’t the film that most people are gathering to talk about–which is a little surprising, given that the extremist religious group at the center looks like it’s set to tweak a few noses in this increasingly conservative country. But the content of the film has been largely overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding its distribution.
Normally, the distribution process on a film isn’t something we have to give much thought to. Some films get wide releases, some don’t–some films have extensive, even obnoxious, marketing campaigns, while others move in and out of the theaters without really causing a blip on our radar. Sundance, of course, is itself a gatekeeper of such opportunities. There is more talent than there are screens. Kevin Smith’s film started on a traditional path: a Sundance showing complete with protesters and an entertaining counter-protest with signs like God Hates Critics. But the signs and protests were just a prelude to the real draw: Kevin Smith’s experiment with “punk rock filmmaking.”
Kevin Smith’s model, “Indie 2.0”, is a plan for self-distribution of his film. Self distribution is nothing new: films that can’t find distributors are often toured through small festivals, shown in independent venues, or–more likely, today–released in pure digital format. However, for a serious feature-length production, these methods are usually considered a last resort. Kevin Smith’s definition of Indie 2.0, however, asks for a rethinking of that stigma. Perhaps small releases (or even straight to DVD or digital movies, gasp!) don’t have to be thought of as the path of failure. Perhaps, instead, self-promotion and truly independent distribution can be a first choice. Compare, for instance, Kevin Smith’s plan with the production of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible. Dr. Horrible was released digitally first, and generated its own hype, in large part thanks to the dedication of Joss Whedon’s fanbase. It eventually moved to bluray and remains on the greatest hits list of indie web productions. Kevin Smith’s distribution model may be rooted in physical theaters, but it is reliant on the same principles.
The back and forth over the validity of Kevin Smith’s plan–especially given that with his impressive number of followers and already successful film career, he’s not just some guy taking a film around–has echoes off the debate over Cory Doctorow’s decision to release his books as free eBooks. Thus, even if Kevin Smith succeeds, he risks hearing the same scoffing as Cory Doctorow received for his free ebook releases. Sure, a big name can do it, but that doesn’t mean much for the rest of us. But what CD and Kevin Smith offer is in part a model for how to take a following and build on it. Cory Doctorow wrote in “Giving it Away” of the skepticism that surrounded his (publisher-backed) distribution of free eBooks. He noted that by letting his ideas travel freely, he gained opportunities he wouldn’t otherwise have had, opportunities rooted in paid appearances out in the real world: “…having my books more widely read opens many other opportunities for me to earn a living from activities around my writing, such as the Fulbright Chair I got at USC this year, this high-paying article in Forbes, speaking engagements and other opportunities to teach, write and license my work for translation and adaptation. My fans’ tireless evangelism for my work doesn’t just sell books–it sells me.”
Kevin Smith looks set to follow a similar path. He has already gained further loyalty from fans by freely distributing content–lots of content. His podcasts have grown into the Smodcast empire, complete with Smodcastle. Smodcastle is literally podcasting as theater: the perfect hybrid of new and old media, of in-person comedy and digital distribution, and a model for entertainment that is simultaneously global and local. Kevin Smith’s recently tweeted idea for “Smeet the Press ”, uncut meetings with journalists, probably won’t find many takers in the traditional crowd if it ever comes to fruition–but for journalists with their eye on the future of cultural cachet, it would be a must-do.
With Smodcast and Twitter, Kevin Smith has put it all out there. Kevin Smith his his own interviewer—or his twitter followers are, and he’s often open for questions. He is already accountable, and his following is moved by his transmedia authenticity. Consider the poster auctions he hosted through Twitter–or his Sundance ticket charity auction. Kevin Smith talked for a while on Twitter about a crowdscourced film production: a film funded entirely by the fans. That proved unfeasible (for now?), but this is a step in that direction—a film, fundamentally, marketed by the fans.
Institutional gatekeepers have every reason not to like these ideas. Our expectations of content and authority have changed dramatically in the last few years. What role do movie theaters really play now? What role should they play? Given how powerful—and how communicative—the crowd has become, do we need someone else to make the choices? Often the same institutions are pushing excessive marketing that can be hard to swallow. (Scott Pilgrim, for instance, was a victim of its own marketing. After so much hype, some people could be forgiven for feeling like they’d already seen the movie. In that case, a brilliant film underperformed at the box office.)
Kevin Smith is a polarizing figure, and Red State won’t change that. But it’s an easy way out to mock him, or his fans, rather than accept the possibility that success can be defined in different terms. Consider how the artistic dream is being gradually transformed: it’s not about finding an agent, a publisher, a studio, a record label. It’s about finding an audience. It’s not going to be everybody who can get followings like Kevin Smith, and frankly, it shouldn’t be. Not everybody has a feature film to share. But part of what Kevin Smith is leveraging–what Cory Doctorow leverages–is the value he’s already given as a creator. If he can use the fan support he’s earned over the last decade to make this release a success, then he will have added to the precedents for the constantly evolving methods of Indie 2.0. He’s even releasing the project bookkeeping to the world so others can see the real financial stakes behind this type of venture.
In the end, Red State will likely be like most Kevin Smith movies. Some people will hate it, some will love it, it will get more attention than actual viewers but the viewers who go will often be truly interested. As for me? I’ll be watching for a Baltimore date to make that Red State Tour list. And when the dust has settled, and the movie is out on DVD, and no one cares about its theatrical distribution anymore, someone else might try a similar approach, and they’ll have a model to learn from.
I keep a copy of the Clerks II poster in my office. I keep it in part as a reminder that it’s more important to make choices for your reasons and happiness, not to fit somebody else’s model for success. Kevin Smith seems to be advancing a similar philosophy as part of his Indie 2.0: to quote part of his recent tweet-essay, “…RedState brought back the fun. Everything about the way we’re going about things forces us to be MORE creative, and it feels awesome just to be doing the same thing differently for a change…I’m INDIE again – maybe for the first time, even.”