Thomas Hetherington

Aug 9, 2017

How Kevin Smith challenged the distribution model for cinema, and what happened next…

Kevin Smith’s career has taken some interesting turns over its three decades and counting. He’s criticised Bruce Willis, parted ways with the Weinsteins, sewn Justin Long into a Walrus suit, given us the spectacle of Johnny Depp with a penis shaped nose, and even picketed his own releases. And he did those last two things twice over. He’s one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today, he’s made podcasting a filthily brilliant art form and his projects frequently reach fever dream levels of brilliance and bizarre. But possibly the most interesting occurrence in Smith’s career was the furore and fallout, or lack thereof, surrounding his 2011 release Red State.

After the critical mauling Smith received for his studio project Cop Out in 2010, he returned to his indie roots with the brilliantly demented Red State (2011), a grim horror movie tackling the religious extremism of the American right wing starring the late, great Michael Parks on peak form as a murderous evangelist. Straw Dogs with the participation of Westborough Baptist Church, if you will.

The film was set to premiere at Sundance, where Smith’s career had taken off with the festival premiere of Clerks 17 years earlier. Red State was listed in the festival programme as an acquisition title, and thus the screening room was chock-full of potential distributors keen to snap up the latest offering from a celebrated indie darling. So it came as a bit of a shock to all those concerned when the filmmaker decided to rather loudly pronounce that he was, in fact, not their darling at all. Smith began the post movie auction in earnest only to sell the distribution rights to the first bidder for a mere $20. The first bidder was himself. 

Kevin Smith, self-distribution, and the future of cinema

In the fifteen minute speech that followed Smith laid waste to a distribution system that spent millions of dollars on print and advertising, running up costs that, he believed, could never be recuperated. In his view he was launching “indie 2.0”, a system of making and distributing films that dealt directly with theatres and exhibitors, cutting out the middle man, not only saving money but turning over a profit. “True independence isn’t making a film and selling it to some jackass. True independence is schlepping that shit to the people yourself.”

To ensure success Smith made every screening an event: attending them himself to answer questions and introduce the picture, essentially touring with the film. Most interesting though, were Smith’s claims that the industry was a closed room and that “indie 2.0” was the solution. “No kid could get into [the industry] now. … It’s impenetrable.” If not even the traditional indie route was open to newcomers, then Smith would have to hack out a new path. It was a remarkable gesture, albeit one centered firmly around Smith’s middle finger. Smith was aware that he, along with his longtime producer Jon Gordon were “just burning the bridge as we cross it”. But he still crossed it.

Six years later and the fallout from Smith’s Sundance auction is hard to trace. For what seemed like such an explosive event at the time there’s only the odd bit of debris still laying about today.

Kevin Smith’s career as a filmmaker has remained fully afloat with the release of Tusk and Yoga Hosers, as well as a seemingly infinite number of upcoming projects on his slate. By the time it came to releasing his next feature Tusk in 2014, Smith had already returned to the traditional means of distribution. Even though he had partnered with cutting edge indie distributors A24 he was, nonetheless, back in the fold.

Kevin Smith, self-distribution, and the future of cinema

Smith does, however, continue to tour with his projects. This, perhaps paradoxically, points to the major strength and weakness of the claims Smith made at Sundance. The path that Smith took was available to him precisely because of his enormous fan-base, many of whom can be heard cheering on the footage of that fateful night at Sundance. Smith is guaranteed to pull a crowd simply by putting in an appearance; he’s admired as much as a raconteur as he is a filmmaker. The irony of Smith’s situation was that he had the ability to turn his back on the studios and distribution companies because he had spent fifteen years working for them.

But was this method of distribution ever really a viable option for those trying to break the industry as Smith suggested? For Smith’s specific model to succeed it needed a figurehead, to champion the cause and support those coming through, a kind of studio of self-distribution. In many ways the novelty of a touring film and filmmaker would run out, leaving the route only open to filmmakers and personalities with an established fan base.

The idea of touring films, however, is one that continues to this day. And it’s surprisingly effective, helping to increase an independent film’s screen average and box office whilst giving the audience the added benefit of a Q&A and the chance to meet those involved in the film. It also works as an effective means of increasing word of mouth for a film too, with those who attended the Q&A passing on the good news to their friends (presuming, of course, that they enjoyed it). Free Fire and High-Rise director Ben Wheatley regularly tours with his films, an approach that, notably, he only picked up after the release of his first feature. Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby both went on the road with Mindhorn earlier this year. Even Edgar Wright has been appearing at various Q&As to promote this summer’s Baby Driver, although not on the scale of the aforementioned filmmakers.

Like Smith, though, all of these filmmakers have a readymade fan base that will come out to support them. The same people coming to the Q&As are, presumably, the same people who would be going to see the film on the opening weekend anyway.

Even if Smith’s proposed model doesn’t work for all filmmakers self-distribution has been the source of many quiet successes over the past few years. Most notably, Marcus Markou who dealt directly with Cineworld to release his 2013 film Papadopoulos And Sons in the UK.

Kevin Smith, self-distribution, and the future of cinema

Makou spent hours building up a network of ‘Papa Ambassadors’ who helped him re-target Facebook posts, cold call Greek Orthodox priests and invite fish and chip shop owners to his opening weekend. The result was the second highest screen average of that weekend, charting behind the Tom Cruise behemoth Oblivion. It seems Smith was right, however, about the growing impenetrability of the industry, with Makou noting that, for an independent filmmaker, “making a film is only half the job nowadays”.

The reports coming out of Sundance in 2011 suggested that Kevin Smith had ruined his career, that cinema might be never be the same again and that the film industry had been blown wide open. In reality nothing quite so dramatic happened in any of these instances with the industry remaining, for the most part, the same.

The past seven years have seen a monumental rise in the presence and power of streaming services and online platforms interested in picking up and distributing more offbeat projects. Unfortunately this has also led to a glut of content, making it harder for filmmakers to stand out. Q and A screenings are a way to combat this, but for most first time filmmakers it’s still safer to take a punt on the studios. As so often happens in Hollywood, the noise surrounding Smith’s auction was far greater than the eventual fallout. The fire Smith supposedly lit under Hollywood may have fizzled out quietly, but it’s fair to say that it lit a few candles before it did.