I'm not the biggest Kevin Smith fan, but he did succeed in generating a lot of buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival by buying his own film distribution rights for $20 with a plan to distribute the film theatrically himself. Ultimately this calls into question the role of theatrical distribution for independent cinema, as Smith also sold Video-On-Demand (VOD), Subscription Video-On-Demand (SVOD), Electronic Sell-Through (EST) and Television rights in the United States to Lionsgate Media (details about the distribution model can be found at MovieWeb). Did he genuinely believe that he could successfully distribute the film itself, or did he realize that there was no need to invest significantly in the theatrical release as long as the brand is established for the video distribution platforms? While the jury is still out on whether Smith's theatrical distribution was a success, one wonders whether the theatrical gross will be that relevant in the long run in relation to its branding as people recognize it in their VOD and Netflix queue.
Red State (Kevin Smith, USA, 2011, 88 minutes)
Netflix: Director Kevin Smith puts a unique spin on the horror genre in this tale of hormonal urges gone awry. Three high school boys answer an online ad from a woman seeking wild sex and find themselves face-to-face with a threatening supernatural force. Netflix link.
Another recent independent film that has experimented with alternative distribution strategies and has dabbled in so-called "transmedia" (translation: multiple format) storytelling is Vladan Nikolic's Zenith.
Following up on the film's conspiracy theory themes, initial publicity for the film was generated in part by actual conspiracy theory websites. The initial theatrical release strategy was described in IndieWire, where my friend Ray Privett described the subsequent DVD and VOD distribution as "adjusted windowing" in which the key dates are close together but not literally "day-and-date" (simultaneous) release dates. Zenith was also distributed though Vodo, a peer-to-peer based distribution platform that has been described on the Vodo site as "Netflix meets Kickstarter." It would be interesting to see statistics for numbers of eyeballs that have seen the film in these various formats, compared to how many people will see the film now that it is on Netflix.
Despite the parallels between these films, the obvious difference is the branding associated with Kevin Smith (and his SmodCast empire) and the relatively unknown status of Nikolic and Zenith. They are on equal footing on Netflix to the degree that you can hit a button and watch either of them with the same ease right now, but the question would be what will drive people to hit play for Red State or Zenith?
Zenith (Vladan Nikolic, USA, 2010, 92 minutes)
Netflix: In a hellish future where human beings have become stupefied by the state of permanent happiness they have been genetically altered to experience, Jack (Peter Scanavino) offers relief via drugs that cause his customers the welcome phenomenon of pain. But when Jack receives a mysterious videotape of his dead father, he sets out to unmask the dangerous conspiracy that has created this dystopian world. Vladan Nikolic helms this innovative drama. Netflix link.
[Mobile users double click for fullscreen]
* Edit 11/19/11: Well, I just finished Red State, and it reminded me why I've never liked Kevin Smith's films. A strong setup (despite some of the clunkiest exposition dialogue I've heard in a while) is followed by narrative spurts that lumber along as the situation gets more overblown and we care even less. Really has nothing to say about the topic it pretends to be about, it's just a set up for a shootout (which itself is clumsily shot and edited). Even the inspired audacity of the false climax is undermined by a clumsily written final scene that just keeps going, apparently even beyond the interest of the actors themselves (am I right, don't they seem bored)?
Still, there's probably enough interest in the film to warrant this post, so by all means watch it if you were intrigued by it in the first place and let me know your thoughts in the comments section.