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Kevin Smith’s Indie Spirit Gives Hollywood the Finger

There’s poetry to the stunt Kevin Smith pulled last night at the Sundance Film Festival after the premiere of his new film, Red State. See, 17 years ago, Smith sold his first film, Clerks, to Disney-owned Miramax (s DIS) after an incredibly successful appearance at the fest. On Sunday, though, Smith abruptly halted the previously announced public bidding for Red State‘s distribution rights by putting down $20 of his own money, then laying out an ambitious release strategy for self-distributing the film.

As an independent filmmaker, Kevin Smith at one time claimed ownership of the most profitable independent film of all time; Clerks cost $27,000 to make and made $3.9 million at the box office. So following financial flops Zach and Miri Make a Porno and Cop Out, the gory action-horror film Red State was said to be a return to Smith’s indie roots.

In short, Kevin Smith has gone full circle from independent filmmaker to faltering Hollywood movie maker, and now back to the independent world. However, he’s returning with a fan base of millions, and a plan to stay profitable thanks to their dollars.

(Warning: NSFW for language)

For years, Smith has found a lucrative side business in live speaking engagements around the United States, which he films and edits into feature-length compilations (which he then sells on DVD). And Smith has something similar in mind to start spreading the word about Red State: Beginning March 5 in New York City, he’ll tour around the nation with the film, charging “probably six, seven, maybe 10 times” the normal cost of a movie ticket, according to Slashfilm. Then, on Oct. 19 (the 17th anniversary of Clerks‘s theatrical premiere), Red State will officially launch in theaters.

Red State cost a little less than $4 million, which is well above the $27,000 his first film cost. But if the “road tour” goes as planned, Smith will have made $1.5 to $1.7 million of that investment back before the movie officially premieres in October.

As summarized by Vulture, Smith’s outlook is as follows:

The movie took 25 days and cost $4 million to make. If he sold it for $6 million, it would still take $20 million to market. But since that $26 million doesn’t go back to the movie team or the studio or the distributor, you have to make $50 million just to get to the profit line. And it would have to make twice that to be considered profitable.

Deadline reports that exhibitors didn’t take Smith’s message very well, which seems to have been something Smith was deliberately aiming for based on a blog entry dated Jan. 4:

Some people have asked if we’d sell the flick to Harvey, should he make an offer. All I’m saying is I hope Harvey’s in the room when that first Sundance screening ends…

But I hope Fox Searchlight is there, too.

And Lion’s Gate.

And maybe even an adventurous studio or two.

And some exhibitors, too – the lifeblood of the movie biz that rarely gets shouted-out.

Come one, come all to a fun-filled, fast-paced after-show that’ll be needed after that Red State screening.

Turns out, he wanted them all there so that he could tell them exactly what he thought of them.

As Smith told Crave Online:

This time it’s not enough to just make the movie. We have to learn how to release the movie because true independence isn’t making a film and selling it to some jackass. True independence is schlepping that sh*t to the people yourself and that’s what I intend to do.

Thus, Smith plans to completely eschew traditional advertising, instead focusing on pushing the film across his own platforms: This includes a Twitter account followed by 1.7 million and his SMODcast podcast.

And that podcast is about to have a much larger audience thanks to AOL’s (s AOL) new web series AOL Late Night, which will compile segments from The Adam Carolla Show, Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, and SMODcast into a nightly video series. (SMODcast is traditionally an audio podcast, but for the first time, according to an AOL spokesperson, cameras will be on hand to capture the podcast recordings.)

The road trip Smith is planning for Red State is decidedly old-school, but he’s still taking advantage of the state of media in 2011, where one guy’s personal brand can be a more effective marketing tool than the studio system — when it comes to targeting a specific audience.

Smith may have struggled inside the studio system, but he now recognizes the value of niche content — and it’s a niche he created himself: an amalgam of stoners and lapsed Catholics, loyal men and women who enjoy comic book references and dick jokes. He even considered a fan-funded model for financing the filmone he regrets not pursuing.

Is what Kevin Smith achieved with Clerks still possible today? No, Smith says, telling Crave that “When you’re spending four times, five times the amount to market a movie or open a movie than you are to make it, that’s not an inspiring game at all. No kid can get into it now. I look at the f*ckin’ film world now and I’m like there’s no way I would’ve tried it. I wouldn’t have tried Clerks today because it’s impenetrable.”

But back in 1994, if you wanted to be a filmmaker — heck, a visual storyteller of any kind — you had exactly two options: Go to Los Angeles and New York and slowly but surely work your way up in the system, or get a whole bunch of credit cards or private investment, write a movie you could shoot in one location on the cheap, and pray to God that you could sell it to an independent distributor or get it into Sundance.

And now, look at how the world has changed. Clerks today would be a web series, and while it might still hook fans with its sharp dialogue, explicit sex talk and low-fi aesthetic, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact. What Clerks represented in 1994, though, is what independent web content represents today — the ideal that if you have an original voice, you can find an audience to connect with your production, whether that production be a 16mm black-and-white movie, or a five-minute YouTube (s GOOG) vlog.

Picture courtesy of Flickr user Ian Muttoo.

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