While the most obvious analogue for me to Kevin Smith’s Red State self-distribution/self-marketing plan is the Paranormal Activity game-changer, he cites Gone With the Wind, which has some fundamental differences—but so does my analogue.
In both cases, the difference is that a studio was behind the whole thing. Gone With the Wind and Paranormal Activity were both bought and paid for by a studio, and a studio enacted the distribution scheme.
Wind‘s distribution was a bit more like Smith’s idea in that it was a planned out in advance city-by-city tour. Activity actually let audiences vote on whether or not they wanted the film in their town—a user-generated schedule. In fact, Smith’s plan kind of accommodates both. There is a built in schedule in place already, but venues, at least, have the opportunity to request to have it come to their town.
Another key difference from Activity is that Smith’s release has a built in date to go national. With Activity, again, it was up to audiences to decide if an when it went national, based on if it hit 1 million votes (although I’m guessing Paramount didn’t lay down that guantlet until they were fairly certain audiences would bite).
But to me the most appropriate analog is in music, not movies. Prince, Radiohead, and NIN have all benefited from the self-distribution/self-marketing route, and had it work largely because they already had built-in audiences. Smith, who has built up an extensive network of podcasts and a loyal Twitter following has a similar—and potentially better-organized—fan base off which to make back the film’s $4 million cost. I think it’s a smart move and an excellent antidote to one of the remaining big costs that studios can meet but independent filmmakers can’t: marketing. That is, if you’re Kevin Smith, Prince, Radiohead, or Trent Reznor.
On the other hand, Paranormal Activity wasn’t Paranormal Activity when it started. That is to say, it had no stars. No following but the one it built during the tour, not beforehand. If Smith’s venture to turn this into a model for films other than his own is to work, the same principle has to apply. So, the question becomes, could Paranormal Activity been Paranormal Activity without Paramount? According to Arin Crumley, probably not.
Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters attempted a similar vote-to-get-the-movie-in-your-town plan and, at least at first, failed because theater owners didn’t care if so many people said they wanted to see the movie because Crumley was not a studio. The studios have (dysfunctional) relationships with exhibitors, so that’s who the exhibitors trust, even irrationally. So Paramount could easily come in and say, hey we’ve got this movie with unknowns but a bunch of people online said they wanted it so why don’t you show it (and by the way here are all these other movies we own that we know you want and wouldn’t it be a shame if something happened to that). So, Paramount has trust and leverage; Crumley, not so much. Although he’s since evolved his way out of that.
So, if Smith’s experiment is going to work for non-Kevin Smith folk, either his clout will have to be enough (kind of like Harvey Weinstein’s in the heyday of Miramax as a recommendation engine) or, he will have to develop ways to develop the filmmaker’s own following (smaller though it may be) to snowball into something useful. The whole point of spending a lot on marketing, an outcome Smith’s project is designed to avoid, is to buy a following. Smith’s challenge, for non-Smiths, will be to build one from scratch (or near-scratch) for free.
Either way, I find it to be a fascinating and encouraging experiment.