Monday, January 24, 2011

Red State: Kevin Smith Discovers 21st Century Indie Filmmaking

As many of you may know, Kevin Smith recently completed his latest film, Red State, which he made for a reported $4 million outside of the studio system.  The film premiered at Sundance, after which Smith made a big to-do about auctioning off the distribution rights for his home-made horror flick right there - right then to the highest bidder.

If you are interested, check out the clips of Smith's often funny (and of course expletive drenched) rant from Sundance here:

and part 2 here:

Of course, the whole thing was really a big setup for Smith to proclaim a big F_You to the current distribution model and announce that he was going maintain ownership of his movie and self-distribute through a road-show style series of bookings at various venues throughout the country.  In filmmaking terminology, this is known as "four-walling" - traditionally a last-option tactic for a desperate filmmaker looking to get some exposure, or at best a way for an unsigned movie to try to find an audience.

The funniest thing to me is that Smith has basically come to the same conclusions that most indie filmmakers have today:  own your content, build your fanbase and self-distribute.  Welcome to 21st  century indie filmmaking, Kevin.

The problem is that someone like Smith has a tremendous advantage over someone just starting out in that he already is a known name brand and has a huge fan base that ironically was generated my the same marketing machine that he rails out against in his diatribe.  So, when he says things like, "We're going to distribute without any advertising costs.", he can get away with that because he already has 1.7 million rabid followers on Twitter.  And where did they come from?  From all the films he's made over the past 20 years.  And how did folks come to see those films?  From the same bloated, unimaginative marketing machine he now says is unneccessary.  And you know what?  He's right.

For him he's right.  Or say, Eli Roth.  Or the Cohen Brothers. Or any other writer/director who already has a fan-base he/she can sell to directly.  For the rest of us poor scrubs looking to work our way up - good luck.

So, the model for any indie filmmaker trying to make it today seems to be something like this:

- Build your skills.  Write and direct a number of shorts.  Figure out what works and what doesn't on a small-scale that won't wipe out your life savings.  If you're good enough to get into some festivals and have some favorable reviews, keep going.  If not, hey you can always make videos of kittens and boobies for YouTube.

- Build your fanbase.  Utilize Facebook, blogs, twitter, YouTube, etc to find and engage folks who seem to like your work.

- Develop your brand.  This is kinda huge in the long-run.  When I hear Kevin Smith is making a new film - I already know what I'm in for.  That doesn't mean all his films are the same, but that he has a certain worldview, a certain style that shows through in all his movies.  If you are all over the map in the type of movies you make (especially in the beginning) it will be harder to grow and maintain a fanbase.  After you're established, you can branch out more.

- Take your big shot.  Now it's time to step up and make a feature.  If you can, find financial backing through traditional investors, or crowd-sourcing sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter. Keep production costs low by leveraging digital technology - shoot on HDSLRs, or Red. You know your craft, you've built your fanbase and established your brand - now, put everything together into a great script THAT SOMEONE CAN ACTUALLY MARKET.  This is not the time for introspective, experimental filmmaking - unless you already have a fortune and can afford to live off a trust fund.  This is a project that will make or break you, so it better be something your existing fanbase as well as others will want to see.

- Make your deal.  Here is where I disagree with Kevin.  For someone just coming up in the ranks, if you are lucky enough to have a distributor approach you and actually want to drop $20 million to promote your film - EFF YEAH, you should take that deal.  Sure, you will sign your film away and will probably never see any profits, but the trade-off is well worth it because now that bloated, unimaginative marketing machine will spread your name (and brand) far and wide in ways that you could never do yourself.

Now, what happens if no distributor ever offers you a big deal (which will be the case for most everyone)?  Well, in that case, you will need to self-distribute through IndieFlix, Netflix, etc. and scrape by, hoping that you can slowly build your brand and fanbase to a point where you can eventually make money doing this.

- Make your next film.   Hopefully, that first feature was successful and since your name brand has hit the big stage, you can now maintain ownership of your movies and their distribution.  Utilize your fanbase as evangelists to market your next film for you.  EFF the traditional marketing and distribution models.  Keep costs low, own everything and develop a one-to-one or one-to-many model to get your movies directly to your fans.  You are now Kevin Smith.  Go and buy a hockey stick.


  1. Interesting stuff. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Great post Todd. it was exactly what I wanted you to write for me :-P.

    This has been on everybody's mind since Kevin Smith laid out his "DIY indie plan".

  3. Preach on brother Todd! Excellent post.

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