This week at the Sundance Film Festival, director Kevin Smith premiered his new film RED STATE, made an audacious move to self-distribute the film, defied studios to look at how they market films, created a huge controversy with internet reporters and announced his retirement from filmmaking. All this and it's only Monday. What did you do this week?
The whole thing started innocently enough, with Kevin Smith unveiling his latest film, RED STATE. The film is a huge departure from the comedies Smith has become known for. Reportedly not fitting neatly into any category, Smith recently told the Nerdist, "I've just been calling it a horror movie." If early word is any indicator, it might not be fair to lump it into one genre.
Years in the making, it was turned down by longtime Smith partners Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Smith had tried numerous avenues to get the low-budget film made, including soliciting fans for the means in which to complete the film. The film complete, Smith went to his immense SModcast network of podcasts to promote the film. There are seven podcasts on the network, all of whom are among the most listened to on the net. Smith himself takes part in most of them. He had been stoking the fires early for RED STATE, even offering a "class" and interview series leading up to the film's premiere called, Red State of the Union.
Then came the premiere and the sad announcement that it would be picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church. This is the subhuman group not opposed to picketing the funerals of murdered children, celebrating death and destruction as proof of God's divine wrath against a society tolerant of homosexuals. They also weren't above picketing a tiny little movie at an indie film festival. Face it, folks. The Westboro people are in it for the media attention. Smith had a war of words on Twitter with Phelps family members, and early word said that some of RED STATE's characters may be based on the group. Hilariously, a counter demonstration broke out which not only vastly outnumbered the WBC, but made them truly look like the fools they are.
Then came the big event. Kevin Smith unveiled RED STATE. Reviews were mixed, and from the sounds of things it might take some time for the public to see where Smith is going here. Still, there were plenty of interested parties. Smith announced that there would be an auction after the film. Studio reps showed up, since Smith said "I will pick the distributor in the room."
Then, the move that everybody is talking about. Just as things were getting started, Smith preempted everything and sold the movie for $20.... to himself. Smith then announced that he would self-distribute the film, taking it on a roadshow tour, complete with director Q & A sessions, bringing it right to his loyal audiences who would probably be the ones to run out and see it right away anyway.
That is just so punk.
Some people were furious and have been very vocal about it. In his scathing review of both the film and the event, Drew McWeeny said bluntly, "Kevin Smith, you are a liar." And then there are publications like Vanity Fair, which are wondering if this might just be the signal of something new in independent film. Internet chatter has been all over the place since Smith made his announcement. Surely he expected some reaction, but I'm not sure he expected it to explode like it has. Commentators left and right have been calling Smith everything from a visionary to a charlatan.
Smith had reportedly grown weary with the Hollywood machine and the huge amount of money required to publicize and release the film. He also didn't like the idea of the filmmaker being taken out of the equation once it comes to selling a film to the public. "For me, the idea of giving somebody else five times the amount of the budget for the movie that we all collectively made, worked our asses off real hard, to sell the thing just seems obscene," Smith said.
This opinion is reiterated on the RED STATE website in a brief posting that reads like a manifesto. "We believe the state of film marketing has become ridiculously expensive and exclusionary to the average filmmaker longing simply to tell their story," the statement reads. "When the costs of marketing and releasing a movie are four times that film's budget, it's apparent the traditional distribution mechanism is woefully out of touch with not only the current global economy, but also the age of social media."
RED STATE already has dates lined up as tickets go on sale for advance screenings. Smith will host "one night only" screenings at huge venues. A Q & A session with Smith and awesome actor Michael Parks will follow each screening. Prices will naturally be much higher than your standard movie ticket. The first of these screenings will be at Radio City Musical Hall. From there, it will move onto at least a dozen other venues. If you live somewhere that might make getting to one of these roadshows difficult, never fear. This model is only designed to recoup costs and pay back investors. RED STATE will have a wider release on Oct. 17, 17 years to the day Smith's first film CLERKS was released.
Smith's model is actually nothing new. As he has acknowledged, the age of 3,000 screen releases that only last a few weeks in theaters is still relatively new. In the decades before the internet, home video or cable television, movies opened on far fewer screens, sometimes only one, and toured the country a bit before calling it a day. Smith's process is similar to an old practice called "four walling," a process by which the filmmaker releases their own film. It has been used by some religious filmmakers as well as exploitation gurus of years past. Kroger Babb famously toured his film MOM AND DAD everywhere, a fake doctor substituting for the more reputable Smith and Parks.
"This is Indie Film 2.0," Smith said during his rant. "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 shit to the people, which is what I intend to do."
Not every filmmaker, especially those starting out, could afford to do what Smith is doing. Smith does however have a built in cult following and a ready-made publicity machine with his SModcast network. If nothing else, this shows that there is more than one way to do things. Other filmmakers, who might feel that the current method of doing things is outdated, might want to take a look at what Smith is doing. After all, if there is more than one way to get a film out to audiences, there is certainly more than two.
That is something that is reiterated in the Harvey Boys manifesto. "It is our intent to use the groundwork we lay with RED STATE to aid other filmmakers in releasing their films, via our new launched SModcast Pictures," the posting read. "Don't hate the studio; BECOME the studio. Anybody can make a movie; what we aim to prove is anyone can release a movie as well."
Kevin Smith has shaken things up and forced filmmakers to take a look at new ways of doing things. And that's always exciting.
As if all of this weren't enough, Kevin Smith also announced his retirement from filmmaking. For months, he has been hinting at this development in his podcasts. "After this, I think I have one more film left in me and then I'm done," he told the Nerdist. That film is another comedy, the hockey-themed HURT SOMEBODY, to be made next year. So, this announcement was sort of expected. Still, to hear it formally announced at Sundance is a major disappointment.
Personally, I've enjoyed all of Smith's films to varying degrees. Some I naturally love more than others. But I am very excited to see RED STATE, because I believe Smith is at his most interesting when he defies expectations. Smith took his brand of comedy and inserted it into a tender and unconventional love story, coming up with the incredible CHASING AMY. He used old school zany humor to skewer religious stereotyping in DOGMA. I was personally a big fan of the film he did a few years ago, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO. So now that he is truly going out on a limb like no other filmmaker with his reputation, it would be a shame if this were an end to what he has to offer. I personally hope he discovers more stories he wants to tell.
Is RED STATE a successful film? I don't know. Like much of the country, I have not yet seen it and so I cannot comment. It will however be an interesting film, just like it is interesting to see any talented filmmaker venture out of their comfort zone and deliver something new. That is something that doesn't only cover the making of RED STATE, but the release as well. Maybe it will be a success, maybe not. But Smith has already struck a resounding blow to independent filmmaking. Just like 17 years ago, when Smith first burst onto the scene.... at Sundance.