Kevin Smith sure knows how to put on a show. In the weeks leading up to this week's premiere of his new film, Red State, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Smith tweeted about his plans to auction the movie off to the highest bidder for distribution. He shunned the press, which only fueled interest in what turned out to be a stunt, presumably meant to show the absurdity of the now-broken independent film distribution model.
By Smith's own admission, Sunday night's event, possibly the toughest ticket to snag at this year's festival, was a three-act play. Act one was a protest outside of the theater. Act two was the movie. Act three, which never exactly materialized, was the much-hyped auction. While response has been swift—many tweeters expressed dismay at the "hoax," and must-read industry blogger Nikki Finke griped at Smith's "vulgar" and "tasteless" performance—anyone who's seen Smith do his on-stage Q&A's or listened to his popular podcasts, called SModcasts, knows that vulgarity and volatility are par for the course. Smith's bait-and-switch nonetheless brought attention to a high-profile director returning to his indie hustler roots (he still sells his T-shirts and action figures of himself), creatively concocting a hodge-podge of exhibition elements to make back his initial investment, and perhaps—gasp!—turn a profit.
Now, cue the protesters: The parking lot was host to about 15 followers of Fred Phelps' Kansas-based Westside Baptist Church, who bore signs reading "No Peace for the Wicked" and "Fags Doom Nation." Fifteen minutes before the screening was to begin, they met counter-protestors in the form of Smith and his producers, toting signs that said, "I'm a Happy Jew" and "Dick Tastes Yummy."
"I have no idea what he's doing tonight, but I'm glad he's doing it here," festival director John Cooper told Fast Company as the crowd awaited the now-delayed screening. "All I know is he's said he's going to auction off his movie to make the process transparent."
Speculation later spread at Sundance that the protesters were from "central casting." Whether or not the protest was real (a call to action on godhatesfags.com seems to verify it), the skepticism is a sign that Sundancers recognize a savvy marketer when they see one.
And Smith knows he's just that. "I have sold out Carnegie Hall, I sold out the Sydney Opera House—twice!—without any advertising," Smith said on stage Sunday.
As act two began, the movie unspooled for its first showing before an audience "of any size," said Smith, let alone the 1,270 folks packed into the Eccles Theater. The crowd was pumped for what he had described as "a horror movie—like Jersey Girl"—a dig at his own much-maligned, 2004 Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck misstep.
Though Red State is not for the squeamish—it has its share of grisly murders and some suspense—it is less a typical horror movie and more a satire. The horror Smith portrays is the fundamental religious right, the overzealous, terrorist-tracking, patriotism-obsessed government, and the bumbling law enforcement. The movie adheres to Smith's voice—it's rambling and prone to preachiness. Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) literally preaches against "unabashed tolerance of homosexuals" and decries the "devil's playground" that is the World Wide Web, on which he has set up a sting operation of sorts, to capture gay men looking for sex and horny high school boys seeking threeways. He then tortures and brutally murders them before a congregation composed of his children and his children's children.
The screening received an enthusiastic response, though not wild. Smith came out with his lucky Wayne Gretzky hockey stick, ready to play a game. "Ladies and gentleman, I never wanted to know jack-shit about business. I'm a fat, masturbating stoner. If someone had told me at the beginning of my career, 'You're going to have to learn so much about business, finance, amortization, monetization,' I would have gone fuck it," he said, peppering his description of the "soul-killing" experience with his usual array of four-letter words. "The model came from the studios," he said, complaining of the studio-style indie film world that Smith thrived in back in the 1990s. "Harvey taught us very well how to release a film," Smith said of indie studio head Harvey Weinstein, the inspiration for the name of Smith's production company, the Harvey Boys.
At last, Smith's longtime producer Jon Gordon opened the bidding. He accepted Smith's offer of $20, and …"Sold!" At that, Smith admitted that the auction had been a fabrication, a stunt to hype the premiere. "I came here 17 years ago and all I wanted to do was sell my movie [Clerks] and I can't think of anything fucking worse 17 years later than selling our movies to people who just don't fucking get it.... I have had so much fun making this movie ... and turning it into a circus!"
He apologized—sort of—to the distributors who had come out to see a for-sale film. "I'm not that sorry," he said, taking back his apology immediately. "No hard feelings. Next time maybe we'll—fuck it, we'll never sell you the movie." And then he defended his fib: "You guys make a lot of [movie] trailers; you guys have lied to me many times. You know what I mean? I've seen many trailers where I think, 'This is awesome!' I put my money down and I'm like, 'You fuckin' lying whores!'" he said to laughs.
Smith explained that movie distributors typically spend $20 million to market a movie like his, which was made for $4 million, but that with his network of fans on Twitter and his SModcasts, he can do it without buying any billboards, print ads or TV commercials. "We're not going to spend a fucking dime on marketing," he said. "All it takes is a little ingenuity, a little creativity."
Smith announced that he will tour the country (by bus—he was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight in February for allegedly being too fat) with the film, starting March 5 at Radio City Music Hall. The Red State USA Tour will include stops in Denver, Kansas City (home of Phelps, Smith said), New Orleans, Austin, Atlanta and Seattle. He then plans to self-distribute the film via his SModcast Productions, on October 19 (he is currently seeking exhibitor partners for this) in movie theaters nationwide in October, and he's actively seeking theatrical exhibitor partners for that.
The man perpetually wearing a Puck U hockey jersey (you've got to wonder how many of those he owns) plans to hold an on-stage Q&A after each performance between himself and the movie's star, Michael Parks, who received a storm of applause for his portrayal of the mad preacher.
With his October release, Smith is essentially four-walling the film, an increasingly common tactic among indie filmmakers who find options for a traditional, studio-funded release lacking. The practice involves renting out individual theaters by the week and footing the cost for advertising and promotion, bypassing the studio middle men; though if Smith teams up with a larger distributor or two, he can get more bang for his buck. He plans to net $1.5-1.7 million from premium-priced ticket sales for the initial, 15-city tour, and then he'll rack up the rest of the movie's $4 million budget by touring it until the October release. And he intends to do it all without speaking to the press. Even getting into last night's screening proved tough.
The third act of the event, at least as anticipated, may have fizzled, but it turned out to be a message of self-empowerment to up-and-coming filmmakers in the audience. "What we aim to prove is that anybody can release a movie," says Smith, who intends to stop making movies himself after his followup to Red State, and start producing and distributing other filmmakers' work. "It's not enough to just make it and sell it, I'm sorry. Indie film isn't dead people, it just grew up. It's just indie film 2.0 now, and in indie film 2.0 we don't let them sell our movie, we sell our movie ourselves."
There was even an element of the sentimental: October 19, the date of the formal release of Red State, will be the 17th anniversary of the release of Clerks, a true indie hit.
[Top image: Getty Images]