Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Learning from Kevin Smith

Well, Saberfrog is finally for sale at my website. I also need to somehow put the movie online for sale somewhere, and also send out review screeners. All of which I probably should have done ages ago, but I have a job and other things to do with my time, which to me are major obstacles to being any kind of social-media butterfly.

You've certainly heard by now about the new Star Wars movies that have been announced. There's nothing I can say about this that hasn't been well-said by online critic Outlaw Vern (and, in the comments below, by his fellow Ain't It Cool alum Mr. Majestyk). For better or worse, people now have even more reason to keep voicing their thoughts about Star Wars. The unending kvetching about that franchise and its creator gets me down sometimes, because I think artists should be allowed to take risks and make unexpected choices, even if the results are variable.

But people are possessive about Star Wars in a way that they aren't about anything else. Also, in the age of the Internet there's not really consensus anymore – while some people have greater access to the media or go to greater lengths to make their viewpoint known, almost nothing is universally loved or hated. As Kevin Smith once observed, every movie is someone's favorite movie.

Speaking of whom, a friend and I went to see Kevin Smith perform in Buffalo a few weeks ago. By chance, I got to ask him the first question of the evening. I asked him about an interview he'd given a while back, in which he said that he was tired of the online negativity he'd endured – not only criticisms of his work, but personal attacks on himself and his family.

I asked him how, in the face of such negativity, he maintained his faith that there might still be an audience out there who was receptive to his work.

Smith said that, at age 42, he'd learned to overcome his fear. He talked about how, when he was younger, he was always afraid of getting in trouble, but now he realized that there was little as an adult that he would do that would genuinely get him in trouble. He recited a quote he'd learned: “Worry is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.”

More than once over the years, Smith has expressed the philosophy that he creates things and sends them out in the world, to find out if anyone else gets it. That approach has worked for him. One might argue that Smith's career began at a time when people were less obsessed with franchises and more hungry for individual, personal versions. Over the years, though, Smith has nurtured an audience and developed his own brand, so he's in a position to be able to create more personal work secure in the knowledge that there would be at least some audience for it.

That's the challenge facing most artists these days.

Before I set out on my Saberfrog tour, I was asked “What did you learn about yourself making this movie?” I didn't have a good answer to that, but I did learn some important things from the trip itself.

You have to know where your audience is, and how to reach them. That's the lesson I've learned from making Saberfrog.

When I was developing the movie, I was proud of the fact that it was a hybrid of genres, and that it represented a particular viewpoint on the world.

But how do you market that, when there are so many entertainment options that the only way for a consumer to filter it all is to limit yourself to the stuff you know you'll like?

You have to be a salesman. You have to make yourself and your project seem appealing to people. That's another lesson I've learned.

During my traveling showings of Saberfrog, I interviewed some people that I met in the different cities that I went to, asking their thoughts about why we make art and why it is important. I did this so that I would have something to show for my travels in case the screenings weren't well-attended, and also because I myself was seeking answers to these questions.

I showed a rough assembly of this interview footage at a Buffalo Movie-Video Makers meeting, and one attendee said that this was a measure of how “pure” I was as an artist – that this was what I chose to do to promote my movie, rather than thinking like a businessman. He didn't seem to mean it as a criticism, exactly, but it was a valid point.

Because I'm an introvert at heart (or because I grew up in a world where caring about something other than sports was kind of frowned upon), I'm still getting used to the idea of being able to share my creative passions with other people. My nourishment was more solitary – it came from books and obscure films and foreign TV shows, all of which seemed to come from a better world than my own, where people were smarter and more inventive and more thoughtful. There wasn't a social connection between artist and fan, only a philosophical one. So I'm still adapting to the idea that art is not solely a means of personal expression, but of communication. And not just artist-to-audience communication, but interaction.

Obviously the film scene has changed unrecognizably in recent years. This article has really rammed home, more than anything else I've heard lately, how film as we knew it really is on its way out – and that well-known, widely released films that came out when I was in college are already becoming unshowable in their original format.

We're only going to have digital copies of varying quality (depending on how much money gets devoted to transferring them) that may not even last very long. For lower-budget filmmakers like myself, obviously a DVD or Blu-ray is going to be the public screening format of choice most of the time. But to go to a public screening of a Hollywood movie (including ones that aren't even 20 years old) and basically be watching them on a big-screen TV … what is the point? If it's basically what you could watch on your entertainment center at home, why go to a theater?

To have a group experience, that's why. That's the one thing that still matters. Having something to share, and talk about, with other people.

That's what it's all about.

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