I have a love/hate relationship with Kevin Smith. It all started when I was 17 and an irresponsible teacher smuggled a copy of clerks into an academic lock-in-thing and let us all watch it.
The acting was bad. The camera work was less than impressive. But it was the first time I’d seen pop-culture lampooned so effectively, and, more importantly, it was the first time I really realized that if you had some talent and almost no money, you could make a movie that people liked.
That was the age of the breakout “indie director,” and it’s what shaped my idea of what movies could be. Filmmakers like Smith and Robert Rodriguez were making movies completely outside the Hollywood system…and then were promptly scooped up by the Hollywood system to make big budget movies.
These days independent film is different. Studios like Fox Searchlight promote, buy up, and finance “indie” projects that are “independent” in feel only, while movies like Terminator Salvation are big-budget Hollywood fare but are financed completely outside the studio system. The waters are getting murky.
Even “independent” awards shows, like the Spirit Awards, are becoming clones of the Golden Globes and Oscars. Technology is so cheap these days that anyone with a little gumption can make a movie…but it’s almost impossible to get these movies distributed.
And that’s where Kevin Smith comes in. In case you haven’t heard, he pulled a pretty radical (ish) stunt at the Sundance premiere of his independently produced, 4-million-dollar movie Red State. After telling all the usual studios and distributors that he would “hand pick his distributor” at the first screening of the movie, he opened the place up for people to bid on his movie. He, himself, bid twenty bucks and immediately gained distribution rights for the film.
While the stunt is kind of annoying, the accompanying twenty minute speech is anything but. Smith talked about how a $4 million movie would, in effect, need to make $50 million in order to fully pay its investors back. This is because of the revenue division between the filmmaker, the distributor, and the theater chains. More than that, though, it’s because the studio distribution model dictates that a movie has to “open big,” and that means that distribution companies have to throw tens of millions of dollars in advertising at a movie before it ever even hits theaters.
Smith’s point is that this is a broken model. Nine out of ten movies lose money, so even if you pull off making a movie with no budget, it’s almost impossible for the movie to become profitable. His solution, then, is to shift focus from independent film production, a concept that is almost “old hat” in this day and age of cheap digital cinema, and instead focus on creating an independent film distribution model.
Really, it can all be summed up in a single line: “True independence isn’t making a flick and selling it to some jackass. True independence is schlepping that shit to the people yourself.”
This kind of line has to scare a studio, and, if Smith’s idea takes off, I think we could be looking at a second independent film revolution. One where production companies become a thing of the past, and full-service film production and distribution companies take their place.
Today, it’s doable. With direct downloads, DVDs, blu-rays and other distribution outlets, it isn’t necessary to get your movie released in 2,000 theaters to be successful. Not to mention the fact that many theater chains, used to being taken advantage of by the big studios, are actively looking for content they can program.
There’s a real opportunity here for a business savvy mind to jump in and begin the process of finding, acquiring, and distributing good digital content. In fact, our parent company, ThoughtFly, is beginning the process of doing just that with ThoughtFly Films. It’s a different model from Smith’s, focused on web and direct download releasing, but the main idea is the same: cut out the middle man and focus on independently distributing independently produced content.
We’ll have to watch Smith as he moves forward. And I’m sure there will be more than one filmmaker who follows this new business model.
DSLRs and cheap cameras, lenses, and lighting gear are great. It’s fantastic that a kid out of high school can make his own movie, and make it look good (if he/she knows what she’s doing). But what’s really going to shake things up is when that kid can figure out how to make money with that movie so he can independently make the next one.
It’s a tricky business, but I think we’re almost there. Let the revolution begin.