Well, he can’t say he didn’t see them coming. The movie blogs are all over filmmaker Kevin Smith today, following the media event/premiere screening of his new film Red State at Sundance last night. Smith made plenty of enemies in the blogosphere last spring, when his studio buddy comedy Cop Out opened to some of the most scathing notices of the once-critical darling’s career. In a response not particularly notable for its maturity, Smith declared film critics irrelevant and vowed that he wasn’t letting critics see his films for free anymore. “Realized whole system’s upside down,” he tweeted. “So we let a bunch of people see it for free & they shit all over it Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bullshit: from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critics screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week.”
Critical reaction was swift and virulent (the best response was Roger Ebert’s: “Kevin Smith thinks critics should have had to pay to see Cop Out. But Kev, then they would REALLY have hated it”), so when Red State’s Sundance screening was announced, you could all but hear the film writers sharpening their knives. As expected, response to the film has been mixed (“An ambitious attempt to break away from comedy, the film is a well-acted mess,” notes Movieline). But cinematic pundits are giving Smith their sharpest broadsides for the self-distribution strategy he announced after the screening (and the manner in which he announced it), which is being slammed as either crazy, dishonest, or misguided.
We offer another take: it might be kind of brilliant.
Say what you will about Smith, but the guy knows how to market himself. The Sundance Red State premiere was typical Smith-generated hoopla: The low-budget horror-thriller’s premiere was protested by Westboro Baptist Church — no surprise, since the film is inspired by the funeral-picketing Westboro congregation and their leader/patriarch, Fred Phelps — so Smith and his entourage grabbed signs and joined in for a counter-protest. Smith had announced that he would auction off distribution rights to the film immediately following the screening (“(T)hough we’ve heard a few sight-unseen preemptive bids,” Smith tweeted Sunday morning, “THIS MOVIE HAS NOT ALREADY BEEN SOLD. After the screening, THEN we’ll pick the distributor”). Instead, Smith’s producer auctioned off the film to Smith himself, for all of twenty American dollars.
Smith then outlined, for the festivalgoers, film writers, and (presumably irritated) distributors assembled in Park City, his plan for self-distribution via his Smodcast Pictures banner. He’ll spend the spring and summer taking the film out for a series of premium-priced ”road show” engagements, beginning at Radio City Music Hall on March 5. Smith will introduce the film himself at these screenings, and do post-film Q&As (reportedly with lead actor Michael Parks). According to Smith, tickets will run “probably 6, 7, maybe 10 times” the cost of a regular movie ticket, but his fans will get to see the film months before its wide(ish?) release in October.
It’s a strategy that is both forward-thinking and a throwback to old-time movie distribution, when huckster producers like William Castle would “four-wall” small-town cinemas with goofy gimmicks to sell their cheap-o wares (for an entertaining illustration of this practice, check out Joe Dante’s wonderful, underrated 1993 comedy Matinee — starring John Goodman, who co-stars in Red State). Smith reiterated that he would do no press for the film, which several bloggers are gladly taking him up on. “I’ve written my last word about Kevin Smith,” wrote Motion/Captured’s Drew McWeeny at the end of his Sundance Red State wrap-up, “So we both win”; Collider tweeted, “After matt reviews the film, we are 100% done covering his stuff on collider. Bridge burned.”
But here’s the question: What if Smith is right? What if he’s actually got it figured out? It’s not a question we’ve posed much over the last few years, admittedly. His anti-film critic screeds certainly had an unbecoming scent of whiny crybabyism about them — you certainly didn’t hear him demanding that critics pay to see his movies back when he was banking raves for Clerks and Chasing Amy. But if he’s figured out nothing else, he’s figured out how to reach his audience — he’s got 1.7 million Twitter followers, scores of active users on his View Askew message boards, and his rambling “SModcast” has turned into a podcasting empire, with over a dozen shows in the “SModcast Podcast Network.” He regularly sells out venues large and small, here and abroad, with his “Evening With Kevin Smith” Q&A sessions — which, it should be noted, is presumably what those high-priced “road show” screenings would be, with the value-added bonus of an entire new film.
So he knows how to get his people out. What he’s had little luck doing, for the past decade-plus, is getting anyone else out. His films reliably gross right around $30 million dollars — not much more, not much less, whether they’re fronted by his best bud Jason Mewes or by 2008-era Seth Rogen. Even Cop Out, with Bruce Willis in the lead and the backing of Warner Brothers, topped out at $44 million domestic — respectable, sure (and reportedly profitable), but far from a blockbuster. He’s spent years trying to break that $30 million ceiling. Maybe he’s just tired of trying — maybe he’s recognized that he’s got about $30 million worth of fans out there, and they’re going to go see his stuff no matter who’s in it and who’s releasing it and how they’re releasing it.
And if that’s the case, the entrepreneurial mind would reason, then why not keep more of that $30 million for oneself? In his post-screening statement, Smith noted that conventional advertising and marketing are a financial black hole: “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.” Instead, he’ll rely on viral and word-of-mouth promotion — which he seems to have a pretty keen handle on.
Yes, he lied about the post-screening auction. Yes, picking a fight with film critics as a whole is a stupid move when you’re trying to release a film almost entirely via positive buzz. But if Smith has what amounts to a marketing arm in place, and fans who are already willing to pony up fifty bucks to spend “an evening with” their guy, why not take a shot at eliminating the middle man? It may be the most indie-minded thing he’s done in years.
What do you think? Is Smith’s strategy just crazy enough to work — or is it just crazy?