We've written about filmmaker/entertainer/podcaster/author Kevin Smith quite a bit here on Techdirt -- and for a very good reason. He seems to absolutely understand how to adapt to the modern internet era -- and thrive in doing so. As he likes to say, he's much more focused on being where the puck is going, rather than where it is (or where it's been). Along those lines, we've mentioned in the past that he's publicly stated that he believes piracy leads to converts, and those new fans are likely to support him down the road.
Recently he expanded a bit on how he "competes" with piracy. In a all around awesome AMA on Reddit the inevitable question came up about his thoughts on piracy and he busted out a simple explanation for how to "compete" with piracy (even if compete is the wrong word here): he connects with fans by giving away a ton of stuff for free, and then gives them a reason to buy by making things that he wants to sell special, unique experiences that you really can't pirate.
Here's my approach...
I try to give away as much as possible. At SModcast.com, we've got thousands of hours of my best work, as well as the funniest shit you'll ever hear: My true life's work. And we give it away free.
Tomorrow, we celebrate the First Birthday of S.I.R. - SModCo Internet Radio. http://smodcast.com. To celebrate, we'll be launching S.I.T. on YouTube - SModCo Internet Television. All of it is free.
So when I do present my audience with something that requires payment? I try to make it more special. That's why I toured with Red State, rather than simply stick the movie out there in theaters alone. Anyone can access any movie digitally once it's in theaters; I accept that. But they can't digitally access me unless they're in the room.
Instead of trying to fight change, I like to adapt and figure out how to thrive in an ever-changing global economy. And as much as I like to head where the puck is going, you sometimes have to play the ball where it lays.
Having followed Kevin's career for quite some time, it's pretty clear that he's completely internalized these concepts. It comes natural to him, and it's great to see.
Of course, we've been preaching from the same basic book for years, with the point being that you can use free to your advantage. It does not mean (as some people falsely accuse) that we think "everything should be free!" It's all about understanding what things are useful when they're free, and what things you can reasonably charge for. There are a large and growing number of artists who have figured this out -- with Kevin Smith being a great example. It's just too bad that some others are so freaked out by this that they seek to ruin it for everyone else.
There's been a really interesting trend going on recently. For all the talk about how the entertainment industry must be dying (it isn't), a whole bunch of internet-aware celebrities are wholeheartedly embracing the internet as a new video platform -- and this includes a bunch of folks we've written about before. The first to make a big splash was Felicia Day, who already has been hugely successful in building a massively popular online-only video program, while also being thoughtful about new business models. On April 2nd, she and some friends -- including folks like Wil Wheaton, Veronica Belmont and Paul & Storm, -- launched the awesomely named Geek & Sundry, which includes both her existing show, The Guild, and a variety of others (including Wheaton's Tabletop, which looks awesome).
That same day, Chris Hardwick, of the Nerdist (or, I guess we should now call it "Nerdist Industries") launched his special YouTube channel with a variety of shows of its own:
While some of the programming is based on already-existing Nerdist properties, most of it has been specifically conceived for the Nerdist YouTube channel. For instance, "Face to Face with 'Weird Al' Yankovic" brings in the beloved song parodist (and frequent Nerdist guest and contributor) to interview celebrities, and "Ain't it Cool News with Harry Knowles" will adapt the infamous film gossip site to a filmed talk show. Hardwick will also host "Chris Hardwick’s All Star Bowling," a bowling competition/comedy show with a nod to Hardwick's father, champion bowler Billy Hardwick. Nerdist will also stream episodes of the legendary sketch show "Kids in the Hall," with new interviews and segments hosted by Hardwick.
The Nerdist YouTube channel will also incorporate adaptations of Nerdist podcasts, and plenty of wild cards, most notably: "Neil Patrick Harris’ Puppetopia," "Gif Gif City," "Cute Things Exploding," "Weird Shit From Japan," "Untitled Rob Zombie Project" and "Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson," a video version of the podcast hosted by the famed astrophysicist.
While I note that there's a lot of overlap between these two worlds (Wheaton and Hardwick are good friends and used to be roommates, and I'm pretty sure Hardwick is friends with Paul & Storm too), it seems pretty cool that they're both starting to flood YouTube with cool content.
Amusingly, when I first started writing up this post, I was going to mention all of the cool things that Kevin Smith has done with his Smodcast network, but I was realizing that was just audio. Well, no matter. Just as I was reading up on the details of the other two networks, I saw the news that Smith was launching Smodcast Internet TV -- his own online video network too! Perfect timing, Kev.
Like both of the other networks, the plan here is to take some existing shows (in this case, from the Smodcast network), and then add some new ones as well.
Who knows if all of these (or any of these) will survive, or even thrive. But, the awesome thing is that they can do these things and just see what happens. They don't need to go through gatekeepers. There are no gatekeepers anymore. They can blaze their own path and find out for themselves what works and what doesn't work -- and we're talking about a bunch of folks who all have pretty long histories of really embracing what the internet allows, so I'm excited to see where these experiments go, and I'd imagine we're going to see plenty more like this. Some will succeed, some will fail. But you have to be blind to think that creativity or the industry is struggling. People who can't help but create cool and amazing things suddenly have many more tools at their disposal for creating, distributing, promoting (and, yes, monetizing) content than ever before, and tons of new opportunities are opening up.
Anyone who thinks that the entertainment industry is in trouble isn't paying attention. The rest of us are over here checking out all sorts of cool new content, which didn't require a big studio exec deciding whether or not it deserved to be on TV.
For quite some time, we've used Kevin Smith as an interesting example of someone who seems to really grasp the whole CwF+RtB (Connect with Fans + Reason to Buy) concept that we focus on in explaining how to create success models (not just "business" models) these days. And while some may tire of hearing about the same person over and over again, as with Trent Reznor, Smith seems to keep doing more and more interesting experiments that really fit in with the general concept, and from which there's plenty to learn.
From early on Smith has embraced his fans, like very few others out there. He had set up a very active message board well over a decade ago, and has always been incredibly open with his fans. Of course, it's not just about talking to your fans, but doing interesting things with them (and, at the same time, opening up opportunities for those fans to support you in a variety of ways -- not just monetarily). We've talked about how he's branched out way beyond being a "filmmaker" to being an overall entertainer with a bunch of podcasts that presented lots of opportunities to practice CwF+RtB, called the Smodcast Network. A few months ago, he took it even further by starting his own internet radio, called Smodcast Internet Radio -- or SIR.
And, the latest is that he's teamed up with Topspin -- a company we've obviously talked about a lot, though mostly in the music space -- and totally relaunched his site that shows off a variety of CwF+RtB elements. You can see the whole thing at Smodcast.com. There's a premium "subscription" offering that provides additional benefits for true fans, though all the basic content is still available for free. There are ways to get tickets to live shows and other events. There's greater interaction on the website, allowing greater connections both between Smith and the various other folks involved with Smodcast/SIR, as well as between community members themselves. Separately, it also does a nice job showing off the fact that Topspin's platform works for way more than just music.
But I think one of the really key points is brought out in a blog post about this by Bob Moczydlowsky (bobmoz, to most folks) at Topspin about this offering:
But look past the offers and focus on the strategy: This site is more than podcasts and a fan club. Notice the brand name atop it all: SModCo. This is step one of a filmmaker-comedian-podcaster-talk-radio-host getting his house in order for the new day rising. Notice Kevinís Twitter following. Look at the footer on the site.
I think this is an important point that often gets lost in all of these discussions. We've talked about the importance of actually understanding the deeper strategies rather than just focusing on the superficial cargo cult side of things. People who brush aside Smith's efforts as "it's just a podcast" or "he's just sitting around and talking" are missing the larger picture. They're seeing the surface, but missing the depth. This isn't just a guy talking. There's a larger strategy (one that is improvisational, but coming together nicely) here, and it's built around a brand -- a brand that is 100% focused on connecting with fans while still giving them plenty of reasons to support him. As Smith is fond of saying, this is about being where the puck is going to be, not where it's been. If you're not paying attention (or if you don't think this is a big deal), you're missing something big.
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.
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.
We recently wrote about how Kevin Smith was connecting with fans in a variety of ways, and after doing so, some of "his people" (see? I got this movie business lingo down) contacted us to see if we wanted to give away some copies of his new book, Shootin' the Sh*t with Kevin Smith: The Best of SMODCAST. So, we said sure, because we're told by people all the time that Techdirt readers "just want stuff for free." These aren't signed books or anything -- we tried, and apparently we're not cool enough and the signed ones are a reason to buy, so if you want that, pay up, cheapskate. But, hey, these books are still free. What are you complaining about?
Anyway... I've put together some trivia questions, which shouldn't be that hard to answer if you listen to Smodcast regularly (or if you're a creative Googler). Alternatively, write up a comment about something having to do with Kevin Smith or his movies, and make it funny, cool or original (preferably all three). Anyway, we've got five books. There are three trivia questions. The first person to answer any one of the trivia questions correctly gets a book (if you know the answer to more than one question, don't be that guy -- we know you're awesome; just let someone else get it). Then we'll take the two best Kevin Smith stories and award the books to them. If, by Monday night, no one's been able to figure out the answers to trivia questions (and, who knows, maybe I'll give hints), then for every unanswered trivia question, we'll pick another "Kevin Smith story" writer. Oh yeah, make sure you include a working email in the email box so we can contact you and work out the details. If we can't reach you or you don't respond to our emails in time, the free book goes on to the next winner... That's about the deal. This is intended to be fun, so don't go nuts over it. Silent Bob wouldn't approve.
Trivia questions (remember, just answer one):
When Clerks was first shown at Cannes, what famous rocker did Scott Mosier have to go wake up on that rocker's yacht one morning?
Kevin's got some dogs (three, I believe). One has a habit of interrupting SModcast with barks, and recently traveled to NY to bark on a special east coast SMod. Name the dog...
Smith recently got to meet the father of one of his heroes, who he's suggested there should be a new religion around. Who did he meet?
Again, if you're the first to get any of those right, you get a book. If you get more than one right, you still get just one book, but whoever is quick and copies your second answer in the next comment gets the next book. If you don't know any of these... start listening to SModcasts, or write a cool story that involves Kevin or (more likely) his movies. Update: Wow, you guys are fast. All three trivia questions answered. But, now we're still open for stories: talk about Kevin or how he influenced your life in some way and a book could be yours...