UPDATE: See the bottom of the post.
Back when Phil Alden Robinson’s terrific ensemble caper, Sneakers, was released in the early 1990s, I distinctly remember the fact that much was made of how the press kit for it arrived in digital form.
This was, of course, back in the days of masses of paper being generated just to print off every bit of marketing and promotional material. But Sneakers was a story of hackers, and so Universal tied into that to offer up one of the very first digital promotional campaigns. And it was rewarded with some healthy press for doing so. 20 years later, digital campaigns are, inevitably, far more prevalent.
Right now, though, there’s something just as significant going on, and it’s not getting anywhere near the level of attention. We’re talking about Kevin Smith’s promotion of the film Red State, which is, at heart, cutting out the middle man and giving us, the end users, the unfiltered, undiluted promotional push for the film. And not just powder puff nonsense, either. He’s giving us, the audience, pretty much everything he’s got as he sets about selling the film.
Not Such A Long Time Ago
It should be said that there is a little bit of back story here worth covering. Last year, off the back of the release of Cop Out (which was savaged by many critics), Kevin Smith expressed his displeasure at the way that some in the media went about their work. As he Tweeted at the time, “Realized whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see for free, and they shit all over it? Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bullshit: from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with I conduct critics screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week.”
Whichever side of the debate you fell on (personally, I thought Cop Out was an okay comedy with some decent chuckles in it, but it’s far from my favourite Kevin Smith film. I did pay to see it, too), and it certainly ignited some heated discussion online, you can’t say that Kevin Smith isn’t as good as his word. In fact, as it turns out, he’s pretty much rewritten the way that directors, certainly of his profile, go about selling their films.
Thus, Red State.
This is the long-in-gestation dark horror project that Smith’s long-time financiers, the Weinstein Brothers, passed on. There was no acrimony there. Smith himself has admitted that this is not a commercial picture. But it sounds an interesting one, albeit one where it took time for the funding to come together.
But come together it did last year, and Smith shot the film towards the back end of the year, wrapping it in November.
And here’s where he began to take a different path to the crowd. Red State was completed without a distributor, which isn’t unusual for a low budget picture, of course (although it is more unusual for one from a named director such as Smith). Thus, the plan that Smith announced, via Twitter, was to take the film to Sundance. The movie was subsequently confirmed to be screening out of competition, and it’ll get its public world premiere on January 23rd.
However, rather than conduct the bidding process for the film behind closed doors, and across protracted negotiations, Smith wanted something more direct. His plan? That an auction for the distribution rights should take place in the room at Sundance. Possibly even allowing for online bidders. Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen, but it’s one part of a fascinating guerrilla approach to promoting the film that Smith is taking.
The next? Instead of releasing a poster for the film, covered with flimsy embargoes that restrict when it can be posted, he used the exclusive poster rights to raise some money for charity. Basically, any website could bid for the right to host the poster first (and enjoy the hits that followed), and many did. He’s done this more than once now, and both raised interest in the film, and some cash for www.HaveFaithHaiti.org. The trailer he released himself, too, and rather than work through publicity departments, he’s doing much of the heavy lifting himself.
But going back to the Sneakers comparison right at the start, the gold in what Kevin Smith is doing here is in the series of podcasts he’s released about the making of the film. I can’t lie and say I’ve heard them all yet, as there are nine of them and counting, with a new one being released each week. But from those that I’ve heard, they’re a masterclass in low budget filmmaking, the kind you simply don’t get in the run-up to a film’s release.
Smith has been bringing in the likes of the film’s director of photography, Dave Klein, the casting director Deb Aquila, producer Jon Gordon, and members of the cast, for individual podcasts. And within them, they go into detail about what they’ve been up to, even discussing how they got to where they are in the business. There’s an abundance of fascinating material here, and it’s like getting the most feature-packed DVD of a film, even before it’s released. For film students, it’s pretty much golden.
Smith is maintaining that he won’t be doing the press circuit himself for Red State, outside of “maybe a business piece or two to help sell the flick if needed”, although he has posted a phone number on his Twitter feed that any site can call to request an interview with the Red State cast. But he won’t be putting himself up for interview on this one (although he is getting the podcasts transcribed to send out for the press to use).
As he wrote, “From nearly 20 years experience, I know this much. Folks are gonna write whatever they want, whether I sit down with them or not. So I’ll just furnish all the information I’d normally serve up one at a time to a small, jaded audience that doesn’t really give a sh*t unless there’s someone famous in the room, to a much larger, appreciative audience that would actually enjoy and benefit from hearing the same information.”
It’s a gamble, certainly. As maligned as the press may be, it’s, on paper, a lot easier to push your film when you have hundreds of websites, magazines, blogs and newspapers on your side, doing some of the work for you.
It’s inevitable, mind you, that Smith will have won few friends with some of his words in the aftermath of the Cop Out critical mauling, and he’d likely argue that the press wouldn’t be likely to do him many favours on this film at all anyway. That’s not me putting words in his mouth, rather offering a flavour of what he’s been saying out in the open at his Twitter feed (as he argues, that’s where to go in order to get material direct from the source).
So, we get to here, where Smith is on the verge of releasing a film that, from all impressions thus far, radically departs from expectations of his work. And it’s a film that’s being sold, thus far at least, in a very, very different way (in fact, the film itself was almost funded in a different way, too, as Smith investigated the idea of allowing the end audience to invest small quantities of cash in the picture).
Will all this work? I’ve no idea. Will it backfire on Smith in the future if it doesn’t? Quite possibly. But is it something different and a way of trying to promote the film by going straight to the audience, rather than funnelling it through media outlets? Absolutely.
And while I don’t think this will be the norm in the future (and it’s yet to be seen how much information the audience actually wants to digest before seeing a film), it could offer a significant precedent for smaller films to get noticed, in the midst of a busy calendar of movies with far more expensive marketing budgets. That might not be Smith’s outright aim here, as his focus is on selling his own movie. But it’d be an interesting by-product of what happens here.
Granted, thus far Red State‘s profile has been fuelled by the work that Smith has personally put into promoting it (all while preparing his next film, Hit Somebody). But with or without the exposure that Smith himself brings to a project, it’s been a fascinating approach, and one that’s meaning this sub-$5m budgeted movie is already punching heavily above its weight.
Will the film live up to all of this? Couldn’t tell you. Will the eventual distributor of the film just decide to market the film via conventional means anyway? Quite possibly. Will they keep to the planned March release that Smith has in mind? Quite possibly not.
But I can’t help but think that, rather than ranting on a Twitter feed and leaving it at that, Smith is trying to do something different. Namely, whether you agree with him or not, he’s putting his money – and more crucially, his film – where his mouth is.
You can find the Red State podcasts here.
Well, since we first posted this, Kevin Smith has put the cat amongst the pigeons still further. Firstly, as has been well reported, he bought the distribution rights to the film himself, for $20. As he’s since pointed out, he never said he’d auction the rights after the Sundance screening, rather that he’d pick the distributor. The auction element was taken up by websites (such as ours), but never came directly from Smith himself.
What Smith has done in the past 24 hours is, basically, to issue a massive challenge to the Hollywood marketing system. He’s not the first indie movie maker to take his film on the road to sell it, but he’s certainly the highest profile. And thus, he’s taking Red State on a city tour, charging for preview screenings with the view of making the film’s money back before its official release in October. More on that at www.coopersdell.com
It all slots into place. Smith was adamant that the film would be released in March, issuing a poster to the effect. And he knew it would be, because it was he who was putting on the first screening.
So, this is where the fun really starts. Can he recoup the $4m budget ahead of the film’s release, and can he turn a profit from the movie by, basically, selling it the old fashioned way? Yes. Yes he can.
The big challenge, and the most fun, will be seeing if that model can then apply to the films that follow, where potentially, film-makers needing a break have been shown a route that bypasses the expensive Hollywood marketing system. Whatever your thoughts on what Smith has done over the past day or two, if he can pull this off (and it’s not a small ‘if’), then lots of film makers may be feeling the benefits in the years ahead. And we might just get access, on the big screen, to more indie movies.
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