Why You Should Be Paying Attention To Kevin Smith

from the where-the-puck-is-going-to-be dept

It was almost exactly two years ago this week that I did my presentation at Midem concerning Trent Reznor and his many fascinating experiments in reinventing the music business (for himself), and summarized it down to the simple formula of:

Connect with Fans (CwF) + Reason to Buy (RtB) = The Business Model

The idea, of course, was not that he had figured out “the one true model,” but that he was doing a ton of interesting experiments, some of which worked better than others, but all of which seemed to focus around this basic concept of really making sure to build up a strong connection with the fans, and then figuring out ways to let those fans support him as directly as possible. While some have complained that Reznor could afford to do this given his previous success in the “old” industry, we’ve seen tons of other musicians, big, medium and small, figure out how to use the same basic concepts for their own careers. And, it’s not about copying Reznor or just trying to do some sort of gimmick, but really figuring out the best ways to connect with their fans, and then offering up opportunities to buy.

What’s been amusing, however, is how often I now hear that “maybe this works for the music industry, but it could never work for the blank industry” — and you can fill in your blank. A few months back I was in Hollywood on a panel discussion at the Filmmaker’s Forum, talking a lot about how to apply these same basic concepts to the movie industry, and I was told “but movies are different.” I’ve heard that about software, books, video games, financial services, you name it. And, yet, if you look deep enough, you begin to see folks in each of these industries figuring all of this out on their own.

For those interested in where the movie industry is going, I have to say that the person to watch is Kevin Smith. I’ve written about some of what he’s done before, but he’s continued to do some interesting (and, at times, controversial) things. I have no idea if he’ll succeed with them, but if you want to understand how to succeed, you should be paying attention to what he’s doing either way. Like Reznor, he’s breaking conventional wisdom, and trusting his instincts on — as he says — skating to where the puck is heading, rather than where it’s been.

This weekend Smith garnered a ton of attention for debuting his latest film, Red State — a horror-thriller-type flick — at Sundance. He’s drummed up extra attention by announcing for weeks that after the film debuted Sunday night, he was going to hold a live auction to find a distributor, rather than go through any backroom negotiations. There were some rumors that he’d already lined up a deal, which he denied, and then when the moment of truth came, after mocking the way things have been done in the past in Hollywood, Smith cut short the “bidding” by buying the film himself for $20, and announcing that he was going to take it on tour around the country starting in March, before releasing it in wider release in October.

While this has some of the Hollywood insiders grumbling (and, admittedly, it was a bit of a cheap shot to suggest he was going to do one thing and then do something else), if you’d been paying attention this wasn’t a huge surprise. For the last few months, Smith has been hosting a fantastic podcast/film school all about the movie, called Red State of the Union, in which he brought out a variety of different people involved in the film, obviously including a bunch of the actors, but also the producer, the casting director, the director of photography and the assistant director. Smith would interview them (and, he may be one of the best interviewers around, ever — something he doesn’t get much credit for, which is a shame) and then take some questions from the audience. On top of that, he’s been running another podcast called Smoviemakers, in which he similarly interviews other movie makers (so far, only Richard Kelly and Edgar Wright — but both are fascinating).

If you’ve been listening to them (and potentially some of Smith’s other podcasts), you’ll have heard him (repeatedly) talk about the ridiculous way in which movies are marketed and sold today. He’s talked about how silly it is to focus so much on a movie’s “opening” weekend, which is how almost all movies are judged. He’s noted that you can “buy” an opening by spending more on advertising than you did on the film, but that does little to determine whether or not the movie really has longevity or can connect with an audience. In fact, hearing all that, I was a bit surprised that he was planning to go with a traditional distribution method in the first place — and I guess I should have trusted my instincts.

As for what he’s doing now with the movie, well, that’s really not as far-fetched as it might sound. As we’ve noted in previous posts about Smith, he’s had tremendous success touring the country (in his custom tour bus) doing his famous Q&As (which are not to be missed) along with doing live versions of the various podcasts he does. He’s basically doing the same thing with the movie. It’s really a movie plus a Q&A with him and (apparently) the lead of the film, Michael Parks (at least according to Slashfilm). Smith already knows that formula works (though, now he’s adding a movie to it).

And all of this, of course, is predicated on the fact that he’s connected with his fans by the tweet-load.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there either. If you want to keep watching where the puck is going, look beyond Red State. A year ago, we’d mentioned rumors that Smith was considering crowdfunding Red State — a move he eventually decided not to do (they got two outside investors to pony up the $4 million). However, he’s since admitted that he really regrets not doing that, and some of his talk at Sundance suggests that after his next movie, Hit Somebody, he’s going to focus on creating a platform for others to make movies, talking about how anyone can make movies, if they stop playing the old Hollywood game (something we’ve been discussing as well).

Again, who knows if he’ll end up being successful with this particular strategy. He’s taking a calculated risk that probably isn’t as big as it might look from the outside. What’s much more fascinating is that, like Reznor in the music industry, Smith is also showing the rest of the world where the industry is heading. If you’re not paying attention (of if you’re dismissing it for whatever reason), you might miss something important.

While both Reznor and Smith have taken very different approaches to going about all of this — and both have very different styles and personalities — I think the similarities between what each has done is really incredibly strong. They’ve both built up huge, and incredibly passionate and loyal fanbases, and worked hard to keep them happy for many, many years. Each has a great story of how they first broke through. Each has had interesting ups and downs and career twists in the intervening years — and each has now figured out ways to rethink the industries that they’re most well-known for being a part of. In fact, I think it would be fantastic if there were some way to get the two of them together to talk about the future of entertainment, because I can’t think of a conversation that would likely be more interesting than that. I’d actually love to facilitate just such a discussion, but I don’t think either Reznor or Smith need me to do so — so let’s just hope it happens one way or the other.

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Comments on “Why You Should Be Paying Attention To Kevin Smith”

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PaulT (profile) says:

Kevin Smith

Citation? Everything I’ve ever heard from the guy is about disillusionment with the way the movie industry’s run, not about “piracy” e.g.:


“Smith officially announced his impending retirement post-Hit Somebody, he let the old guard have it (right to their faces), further washing his hands of the studios and the press, describing, in detail, his thoughts on all of the ways they go wrong selling a movie”

Joe S (profile) says:

Kevin Smith

Actually, He may be ‘retiring’ from personally making movies, but he’ll still be in entertainment, between doing his podcasts, live shows/Q&As, and any comics that come his way, he will also be running Smodcast Pictures which will help young up and comers to get their movies made in a similar way to how Red State and Hit Somebody will be done.

We should all be so lucky as to ‘retire’ to that. ๐Ÿ™‚

Anonymous Coward says:

In the past five years I have seen two movies in theaters: Avatar and Jackass 3D. Both movies gave me an experience I could not get at home. That’s why 3D has been so successful.

Smith’s touring with the movie is a lot like the “four-walling” in the past. Film producers would buy out a theater for a night, show a movie, and keep the receipts.

The most famous of these producers is William Castle. Just read the cool things he did to get people to see his movie: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Castle

I’m not going to pay $20 to see the Green Hornet at a theater when I can get it on my 58 inch television in three months. I will pay $50 to watch Red State and then interact with the writer/director. I’d pay $55 if the seat had a The Tingler joy buzzer to scare me with.

PaulT (profile) says:

Kevin Smith

To be fair, that is how it’s been reported in the press. It is technically “retiring” in the sense that he’s no longer going to be doing the same work, though not in the sense of “not working” that so many seem to be assuming.

It’s heartening really, that this self-professed stoner and fat slob can still make such a difference while so many here spend their time defending a broken system that doesn’t even benefit them…

RobShaver (profile) says:

Four-walling is not new

Four-walling has been used by filmmakers for a long time.

From Wikipedia

Use of the four-wall technique has been generally uncommon, except during the late 1960s and 1970s when a host of U.S. companies engaged in this method.[5] They tended to operate in states such as Utah, Oregon, Florida and Texas, but shunned major markets like New York City and Los Angeles.


Here’s a reference to it from 1974

And just to prove I know how to Google …

Anonymous Coward says:

Kevin Smith tries all sorts of different things. He has had a couple of successful movies (as “made enough money to make him pretty wealthy”), but for the most part he has always made the movies he wants and be damned with who loves them or who doesn’t.

He made big connections with certain groups by his “weed” related subjects and tones to many of his movies. The Jay and Silent Bob characters, present since his very first movie, connect very well to the solid underground weed culture in North America, and to a less extent around the world. Long before this internet thing and long before some johnny come lately coined the over capitalized CwF thing, Smith was out giving presentations on school campuses, and appearing on the cover of High Times magazine with enough weed to send him upstate for the rest of his life.

Sadly, he has had a hard time getting past a certain point in his career to really blow one out of the park. He has continued to grow his box office, but when your domestic gross is only about 30% higher than the costs to make the movie, you aren’t doing well enough to make anyone get excited (numbers for Cop Out, which was his best performing movie so far).

While he is pretty good at making movies, he is better at making hype. Perhaps letting others do the movies and moving into a more overseeing role will help him reach his true potential.

PaulT (profile) says:


Ah, you see this is the problem. You’ve fallen into 2 of the main traps that Smith always complains about – the obsessions of Hollywood with image and opening box office.

First of all, you’ve latched on to a single reason why you think he’s relatively popular and pretended this is the only reason. There are, of course, numerous different reasons – his funny dialogue, his frank and forthright nature that allows him to talk about taboo subject in an amusing and uninhibited manner, the fact that he remains an unapologetic comic book and movie nerd and has never lost sight of his roots. There’s far more to Smith than “that stoner guy”, and he has a lot of fans who have never touched the stuff.

Secondly, you confuse a relative lack of *theatrical* box office with a lack of success. Some movies that were considered flops for 20-30 years have never been out of print on VHS/DVD and have become regarded as major successes. I suspect that Smith’s movies have been steady sellers and made a lot more than you realise.

I would absolutely *love* to see real figures for VHS and DVD sales for his career, as there can be no doubt that he’s made most of his money there. Hell, I’ve bought all of his movies at least once just for the commentary tracks (even Roadhouse for his commentary now I think about it!!), and I’m pretty sure that Chasing Amy was the only one I made it to see theatrically for various reasons.

Anonymous Coward says:



Cop Out sold about 11 million on DVD and then pretty much died out. It sold really well for a short period of time, similar to it’s time in the theaters. So worldwide box office of 55 million, another 11 million of DVD, so 66 million direct against 30 million to make and $x to market (and we don’t know where the break even line really is). Not amazing, and this has been his best selling movie to date.

you’ve latched on to a single reason why you think he’s relatively popular and pretended this is the only reason.

No, I think that is the reason that he got the type of fans he did to start with, plenty of college kids and such. His humor is, well, infantile for the most part, and he will gladly admit it. Dick and fart jokes, he refers to it as. While he is a very smart person, he has made his fame on some fairly low brow stuff. He actually to me is a much better writer than director, if only because his directing style tends to be a little too flat and obvious for me.

I think he has just had a hard time breaking past the stereotype he created for himself, and his movies have been scattershot enough that he has had a hard time expanding his fan base past a certain point. I have seen most of his movies (I was a fan from around Mall Rats or so), but I will say that his movies often lack a certain twist to bring wider appeal. Perhaps he should have used the giant spider ๐Ÿ™‚

Image isn’t everything, but it is part of the process of selling a movie to the public. Quintin Tarantino not only makes very interesting and unique movies, he also has created himself as a film maker character who is as unique as his movies.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Kevin Smith. I just think he has probably maxed out his directing at this point, and “retiring” and perhaps helping other people make some movies instead might be a better idea.

Donkevo32 says:


Success should not be measured on how much money a certain movie made it should be measured how happy the filmmaker is with the finished product and I am almost certain that Kevin would have never had any of his movies released if he wasn’t happy with the finished product I am hopping to get to see red state asap and I am hopping it gives me that same indie feeling of a movie such as clerks of chaseing Amy or even dogma and to put it out there as an inspiring filmmaker I would rather follow in the footsteps of Kevin smith rather then any of the other great filmmakers cause I am inspired by his fuck it I am going to do things my way attitude

PaulT (profile) says:


Well to be honest, if we’re talking about Smith as a filmmaker then Cop Out is the least relevant movie. It was deliberate departure from his normal style and an experiment to see if he could cope with material he hadn’t written, and a studio star vehicle to boot.

What I’m interested in is the likes of Mallrats (considered a flop on its initial release but now a fan favourite), Chasing Amy, Jersey Girl (similarly considered a major flop) and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.

While none of these movies set the box office on fire, they represent the core of Smith’s career and so it would be interesting to see how these have fared within the long tail. Yeah, Mallrats lost money on its initial release, but how does it look over 15 years down the line? That’s what I was getting at.

“While he is a very smart person, he has made his fame on some fairly low brow stuff.”

Which doesn’t invalidate his worth, of course. A lot of people have been very successful while making movies that are considered “lowbrow” or “niche”.

“I will say that his movies often lack a certain twist to bring wider appeal.”

You see, this is what I don’t get, and probably the mindset Smith comes against constantly in his career. Whether the discussion on this site is about movies, music, whatever, “wider appeal” or “the mainstream” always comes up.

But, why does that have to matter? Yes, if you’re creating a “product” for a studio and you want to shift as many units as possible then yes it matters. But, if you’re creating the art you want to, then finding a good niche can be just as important.

Smith is the embodiment of this. Yeah, he’s not going to appeal to the Christian moralists or people who prefer highbrow humour to blowjob gags, but so what? His movies generally make money, in the mid term if not the short term, and he’s out there doing what he enjoys. It’s only the industry side of things that have been stopping him, so all power to him if he manages to leverage his popularity into getting away from that.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:


I despise the fact that movies are measured simply by how much money they make, as if that means anything in terms of quality. Just like awards shows, focusing on box office turns filmmaking and art into a sports competition. Movies don’t suck because they don’t make money, and movies aren’t great because they make more than anything else.

That said, Kevin Smith’s films consistently cover their production costs, with the one exception of “Jersey Girl”, which lost $10 million. “Cop Out” may have made more money than any of his movies, but it also cost more. The profit was about $15 million. His biggest success was “Clerks 2,” which profited $19 million. Overall he’s a very successful filmmaker, but the marketing costs are outrageous.

What he’s talking about doing is cutting out marketing costs, most of which goes to television ads, which have little sway over whether his core audience is going to see one of his films or not. He’s going to get so much free press from people talking about his movie and his tour that he won’t need a $20 million marketing budget to profit greatly on his $4 million film. This move will probably make him far richer than all his other films put together, provided the film is good enough that his fans go to see it, which it sounds like they will.

Unfortunately, there are few people who can do what Kevin Smith is doing, because few filmmakers have the charisma and fanbase that Kevin Smith has. But it should work great for him.

The indie film market came on strong in the 1990s – strong enough that Hollywood bought out the market by effectively controlling all distribution of indie films. They didn’t take kindly to some indie filmmaker taking their precious awards, so they bought Miramax too. The indie film boom proved that anyone could make a movie, but you couldn’t get it into theatres without one of the big studios getting a piece of it.

Now there’s a need for independent distribution, which has never been cheaper or easier with digital prints and internet marketing. As long as you make a film that caters to people who are online (District 9, anyone?) you can do alright without the billboards and TV spots.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

To add to the discussion

Kevin Smith?s unorthodox approach and social media celebrity drive initial interest in new movie Red State | Wave:: “Kevin Smith?s divisive ‘DIY’ approach to marketing new movie Red State shows how existing fame within the digital space can be leveraged to drive engagement with fans, but may alienate new audiences.”

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