Kevin Smith, Once Again, Demonstrates How Connecting With Fans Leads To Something Special (And Profitable)

from the an-entertainer dept

After last week's exploration of a smaller movie project, I thought it might be nice for this week's "case study" post to focus on a more "mainstream" (even if still somewhat independent) Hollywood movie maker. Hope you enjoy this week's case study...

When I first started talking about smart business models that involve the concept of CwF+RtB (Connecting with Fans + Reasons to Buy) for musicians, it involved less-well known musicians, running experiments in doing things like giving away music for free. And when that happened, we were told that this could work for small, less well-known musicians, who had to value attention over money, but that it would never work for more well-known musicians. And then, suddenly, we saw it happening with incredibly famous musicians like Trent Reznor... and critics said "well, it can work for rock stars like Reznor with a giant audience they've already built, but it's no solution for up-and-coming artists." This contradiction had me banging my head for a bit, and someone even jokingly dubbed the phenomenon Masnick's Law, defined as:
"in any conversation about musicians doing something different to achieve fame and/or fortune someone will inevitably attempt to make the argument that 'it only worked for them because they are big/small and it will never work for someone who is the opposite,' no matter how much evidence to the contrary might be readily available."
After we discussed this, someone (seriously) then claimed "well, it can work for people who are small and have nothing to lose, and it can work for rock stars who already have their millions, but it doesn't work for those in the middle." Eventually, it even reached the point that I spent time working down a list of musicians, big to small, all making use of this general concept to prove that it can work at any level.

And, while I hope that issue is settled in the music space, it's amusing to me that I keep ending up in the same discussion in other industries -- with films being a big one. One of our regular commenters, who claims to work in Hollywood, often points out that no "big" filmmakers seem to be embracing unique business models ideas, and that the only examples we have are people like Nina Paley, a wonderful filmmaker, with a devoted following, but not someone considered to be a "big" filmmaker.

However, I don't think this is true at all. There are filmmakers doing all sorts of interesting things -- including "big" filmmakers who really work hard to connect with fans in new and interesting ways. One, who we've spoken about a few times in the past, is Kevin Smith, most famous for Clerks. We've pointed out in the past how he's embraced the CwF+RtB concept (since long before we'd even thought about it) and had a very progressive view towards embracing "pirates," by noting that it was one way to create "converts."

Converts to what? Well, that keeps evolving, which is why Smith has become a really fascinating entertainer to watch when it comes to connecting with fans and giving them a reason to buy. As mentioned, he's really embraced this concept for well over a decade -- for example, with his own comic book store that sells all sorts of comic related items, including many related to Smith's movies, as well as his various books and comics that he's authored.

But what I've found most fascinating is watching how Smith's adventures in podcasting have evolved. A few years back, he started a podcast, called the SModcast, which was mainly Smith chatting every week or so with his longtime producing collaborator Scott Mosier. I started listening to these two years ago, when I needed podcasts to listen to on a cross-country drive, and haven't stopped since. They were fun (and funny) and something that he clearly enjoyed doing for the fun of it -- but which also helped him connect with fans. Last year, I paid a fair amount of cash for me and my wife to go see him do one of his famous Q&A shows in San Francisco, which, if you haven't seen them, are like 3-plus hours of pure, hilarious, standup comedy, all in answer to random questions from the audience. Since the answers often went on for half an hour or so, there weren't actually too many "questions," asked, but it was telling that most of the questions were really quite knowledgeable about all aspects of Smith's life -- with much of it coming from what he's revealed during SModcasts. I enjoyed it tremendously -- and almost certainly wouldn't have gone if I hadn't listened to SModcast (even though I've liked his movies since I saw Clerks back in '94).

I thought that this was a great example of CwF+RtB. He was connecting with infinite goods like Twitter and with the free podcasts -- all given away for free, and monetizing it with these Q&A's (scarce access) and movie deals (in part built off of his loyal following). But he keeps taking it further.

Earlier this year he did two new things: first, he started offering additional podcasts, both from himself and others. It was mainly the rotating cast of close friends of Smith, many of whom have appeared on previous SModcasts, doing their own podcasts, and putting together a Smodcast podcast network. And, I've actually become hooked on those as well -- even though I never thought I'd care what Smith's friends had to say on anything (though, ironically, on a recent episode of one of these podcasts, the Tell 'em Steve-Dave show, the hosts came out supporting John Mellencamp on his recent confused anti-internet statements, with Walt suggesting that anyone who downloads unauthorized content should have their computers destroyed on the spot). The second thing he did was he took SModcast on the road, with a series of live shows at various venues (including the Improv in Hollywood). Yes, this was basically still him sitting around, chatting with Scott Mosier about whatever he felt like chatting about... but people were paying to see them do it live.

Once again... giving away the infinite goods for free... and realizing he could sell the scarce good (seats/access). In fact, as expected, the infinite goods help make those scarce goods more valuable. The reason why people want to go see Kevin Smith literally have a random conversation with a close friend is because of all those free Smodcasts they listen to.

And now he's taken even that to another level. After the success of some of the other podcasts and the live shows, Smith set up a Smodcastle theater in Los Angeles, where he not only will regularly perform Smodcasts, but has a whole host of other podcasts being recorded as well. Hell, he'll even host weddings there for a large fee -- where he'll turn your wedding into a podcast where he'll interview the bride and groom before officiating their wedding. Seriously.

And, so far, the reviews of Smodcastle make it sound great. It's a small theater -- only 50 seats -- but Kevin's turned it into a place that sounds fun -- even to the point of letting people come watch cartoons or movies with Smith at the theater.

In the following interview from Attack of the Show, Smith and Mosier talk about Smodcast, and towards the end they hit on the "monetization" issue, making two key points. First, they didn't even try to monetize it for a couple years. The focus was very much on building up an audience. Yes, Smith had a good-sized audience of "true fans" to start with, but it still took time to really build a core podcasting audience (something that Twitter has helped with). The second, is that they recognize the value of free: noting that the infinitely available things -- such as what's on Twitter and in the podcasts themselves, should always remain free, but the scarce things, such as seats to the show and their listeners' attention (in the form of sponsorship) are where they can make money:
Now. obviously, no one's saying that the way for big Hollywood directors to make money these days is for them all to set up their own theaters. Just like no one said the way to make money in music was to copy exactly what Trent Reznor had done. But there are serious lessons to be learned from this, even if Smith himself is making much of this up as he goes along. But he's really showing how he isn't even thinking just about being a "filmmaker." Too often, we hear people in a certain profession say "but that's how I make my living... from my music/movies/art/etc." Smith realized long ago that it goes beyond that. He's an entertainer, and he knows quite well (whether on purpose or not) how to mix "free" into a structure where he's really transparent, authentic, available... and offers up all sorts of incredibly valuable scarcities for people to buy.

Oh, and in a bit of colliding worlds, Smith is going to have a "Starfucking" podcast that will include friend of the blog, Amanda Palmer, along with her fiancé, Neil Gaiman -- though, I imagine they (unfortunately for me, but fortunately for most other people) won't spend much time talking entertainment industry business models.
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Filed Under: business models, kevin smith, podcasting, scott mosier, smodcast, smodcastle


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2010 @ 10:30pm

    Re: I've suddenly noticed this is same as religion.

    It doesn't apply, if you want to see what others did look at Coca-Cola and how they transformed their product into something that can be found in the middle of the jungle and still be sold.

    Melinda French Gates: What nonprofits can learn from Coca-Cola
    http://www.youtube.com/user/TEDtalksDirector

    Coca-Cola didn't sue the people taking their products and reselling it, they trained them and told them we will work with you.

    Coca-Cola didn't kill the local entrepreneur's they feed them and made them part of the game.

    You can pay lawyers to try and stop others but I don't think you will be successful if you don't have popular support.

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