Is the digital revolution here? Or are we just living through the trailer for it?
We’ve been treated to trimmings from the possibilities. The technology has rolled through the door, splashing us with hints at the future of the entertainment industry, but how close are we to the new standard?
The physical media of the industry are sinking slowly into the antiquated mud – this isn’t news. More significantly, the channels of entertainment distribution are being thrown in new directions. A decidedly anti-Orwellian movement has put a large chunk of any film, show, or album’s distribution into the hands of the people. File-sharing, digital copies and streaming freebies are changing the game. With this in mind, Kevin Smith’s Sundance surprise might just be the next omen of things to come.
Smith, who famously personified the cliché that “we all have a shot” by rising from convenience store clerk to successful film director in a matter of months, surprised his audience tonight. After the Sundance Film Festival screening of his new film, Red State, Smith had announced to his loyal (1.7-million-plus) Twitter fans that he would be auctioning the film to the highest bidding distributor. He stepped on to the stage tonight and announced his intention to release the movie on his own.
That’s right, he – or his company – would negotiate with theatres, and carry the film from its concept to its release. Smith will not conduct interviews, and will not put out any traditional advertising. He will spread the word through Twitter, and through his incredibly popular podcast network, which has been offering regular behind-the-scenes previews for months now. After one more film (the hockey comedy, Hit Somebody), Smith plans to turn his focus toward helping other independent filmmakers explore this alternative to the Hollywood system.
I won’t lie; I’m rooting for Smith on this one. He has the ability to make movies people think and talk about (Chasing Amy, Dogma), and given the neo-horror, church-cult subject matter of Red State and the stellar-looking cast (including John Goodman and Stephen Root, two of my favorites), he should have no problem making back the $4 million he spent to make the flick.
The grey area is how this method would work for anybody else. As stated, Smith has a loyal and dedicated fanbase. His live shows, which elevate the concept of a writer/director q&a to truly unique level, frequently sell out. Smith knows how to talk to his people. With the right product, the first-level word-of-mouth promotion would be staggering. But it remains to be proven if a third party’s product, like one of the aforementioned independent filmmakers’ creations, will be able to generate a profit through a Twitter following.
I’m also reminded of the dreadful Apple Records experiment. In 1968 the Beatles launched their own record label, with John Lennon insisting people could avoid going “on their knees” in somebody’s office to beg for a record contract or a movie deal. Apple wound up scoring with James Taylor and Badfinger, but they were also hammered with a flood of quirky artists, each believing the Beatles were going to grant their vision the fame it deserves. Smith will no doubt find a similar storm of closet Scorseses, and we can only hope he has a plan to sift through them.
The advertising might be the biggest hurdle he’ll have to overcome. The younger movie-going crowd is drawn to theaters by being told repeatedly what they must go see (The $36 million gross of Vampires Suck was not due to any threat of quality or substance). There will be no overcoming this demographic’s mindset, at least not anytime soon.
That said, given the steady parade of changes to the industry in the past fifteen years, I’m going to remain on the side of the optimist for this one. Smith won’t reinvent the industry – if anything, he’s reinventing the industry of network marketing. But, with the cost of making a projectable-quality movie relatively low, it’s entirely possible he’s carving out a solid slab of land in the world of alternative cinema, which has a sturdy marketplace in urban North America.
For now, Red State is doing what independent bands do in anticipation of a world-wide release: it’s going on tour. Fifteen cities so far, with possibly more to come prior to the October 19 official release, seventeen years to the day after the release of Smith’s first film, Clerks.
This may not bring about the new standard, but it will keep our eyes on the game.