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:
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.