Kevin Smith sells 'Red State' – to himself

2010 was a rough year for Kevin Smith. First came the unfortunate Southwest Airlines incident, in which the air carrier denied Smith a seat due to his weight. Then came the April release of Cop Out, which Smith made as a director-for-hire for Warner Bros. (it was the first picture he directed that he didn’t write).

The reviews were scathing, deservedly so, which sent Smith on a tirade against movie critics, claiming they had treated him unfairly, that they had misunderstood the picture, and that they would no longer get to his films in advance for free in order to review them. More recently, on an episode of Marc Maron’s podcast WTF, Smith also blasted Cop Out star Bruce Willis, saying the actor was so difficult to work with he even refused to sit still and pose for the movie’s poster (some have speculated Willis went into automatic pilot when he realized Smith was in way over his head).

Smith also admitted during the interview with Maron that the only reason he agreed to direct Cop Out was to learn how the big-studio marketing machinery works, which implies he didn’t really care about the movie to begin with. So why was he so upset when the public reaction was so negative?

For the past couple of months, Smith – who has built an empire of highly entertaining podcasts and communicates constantly with his fans via Twitter – has been talking up Red State, his latest film, which is a radical departure from anything he had ever done. The film, about a group of horny teens confronted by the members of a radical fundamentalist church, cost a modest $4 million, was shot in September and was completed in time to be screened at Sundance last night.

Smith had been claiming that Red State would be auctioned off to distributors immediately after the Sundance showing. But instead, Smith took the stage to announce he was buying back his own film for $20 (you can listen to his 25-minute speech here) and will be distributing himself city by city, beginning with a 15-theater roadshow engagement in March and April that kicks off at Radio City Music Hall (tickets will cost somewhere between $60-$100), and will then open the film nationally on Oct. 19, using funds generated by the tour and by selling Red State merchandise such as T-shirts to cover the $2.5 million cost of making prints. In other words, he lied repeatedly to the thousands of people who follow his Tweets and listen to his podcasts – the same people he’s counting on to turn out for his new film – but now says he had no choice but to keep his plan secret.

Early critical reaction to the film has ranged from a well-acted “good try” (the cast includes Michael Parks, Melissa Leo and John Goodman, among others) to “greatly flawed” to “a subversive little comic horror film.” I’ve only skimmed the reviews to avoid any kind of plot spoilerage, but I am extremely eager to see Red State, in part because I felt Smith had hit his best filmmaking stride with his two pre-Cop Out, personal movies (the underrated Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Clerks II), and in part because I am so curious about the film itself, since there was nothing in Smith’s previous work that even hinted at an interest in the horror genre.

But after last night’s shenanigans – There was no auction ever planned! It was all a stunt to generate publicity! Help me distribute my movie by buying a T-shirt! – I’m a lot less interested in Red State, because there’s no way to watch the film without thinking of all the attention Smith has brought onto his out-of-the-box thinking. I respect his decision to buck the studio system and try his hand at distributing the film himself (with such a low budget, recouping its costs and even making a tidy little profit is not out of reach). But Smith’s constant self-promotion, along with his endless tirades against the media (who he views as a mass of mean-spirited, catty bullies constantly out to get him), has turned me off to a person who used to be a humble, approachable, down-to-Earth guy.

It’s ironic that Smith, finally freed from having to answer to anyone but himself and embodying the true spirit of independent filmmaking, has become the egotistical monster he might have once become when he was diluged with praise for his early films. I’ll get around to seeing Red State one day, but October is a long time away, and all the hubbub around the film has already started to feel tiresome. I will also honor the wishes of Smith – who believes he only needs his hardcore fan base to succeed, and is not doing any interviews whatsoever to promote the movie – and I will not review the movie (unless, of course, he screens it for critics).

This is the one and only time I intend to write about Red State, which is sad, because Smith used to be open and friendly to me, even answering my e-mails when he didn’t have to. But he’s a different person now. I honestly wish him all the success in the world and hope that Red State turns out to be good and scary. I’ll find out eventually – maybe when it hits Blu-ray.


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