This weekend, one of the year’s best films will play in 38 theaters across the country, and most of the general public will not see it — indeed, most will never even hear of it. The film is Red State, a potent and unsettling hybrid of horror, action, and socio-political commentary that echoes the Phelps family and the Waco massacre. It is the tenth feature film from Kevin Smith, the foul-mouthed auteur who burst onto the scene with the legendarily ingenious low-budget effort Clerks and who has spent the years since sharply dividing film fans, critics, and Internet commenters. Red State is 180 degrees from anything he has ever done; his filmography to date has been firmly comedic, with occasional seasonings of fantasy, romance, and action. Red State is deadly serious… and seriously disturbing. It is easily his finest film to date, but most moviegoers will remain completely unaware of it, because Smith has undercut its success at every turn with his own hubris, greed, or ignorance. Or, perhaps, all three.
In many ways, Smith’s sinking of this film began with his last one. The 2010 Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy comedy Cop Out was a critical failure, scoring a meager 19% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and earning Smith some of the worst reviews of his career. It was not the first time the filmmaker had received less-than-enthusiastic notices; his Clerks follow-up, Mallrats, took a pounding from critics, as did his 2004 romantic comedy Jersey Girl. But Smith had taken those fumbles in stride, roasting those films in the years that followed as vehemently as his worst critics. He even reprinted Matt Zoller Seitz’s negative review of Mallrats in his introduction to his Clerks/Chasing Amy screenplay book, to explain how that particular negative notice had inspired the Amy script.
So it was a bit of a surprise when the filmmaker decided that the drubbing of Cop Out — a throwaway star vehicle and his only feature directorial job to date that wasn’t a realization of his own screenplay — was where he was drawing the line. He went on an extended Twitter tirade attacking film critics, claiming that the “whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see it for free & they shit all over it?” and declaring that “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.” For a filmmaker whose pictures (the early ones he built a career on, anyway) were consistently buoyed by enthusiastic reviews, this was an astonishing display of willful ignorance; Smith certainly wasn’t petulantly asking for admission fees to media screenings of Clerks or Chasing Amy.
It was also a stunningly short-sighted temper tantrum, considering that less than one year later, Smith had a new film to release into the marketplace. Yes, sure, film critics should be able to rise above Smith’s sour grapes and judge the film on its own merits. On the other hand, it can be difficult to form an entirely unbiased opinion of the work of an artist who not only has publicly deemed your profession irrelevant and offensive, but gone so far as to compare those who practice it to gang rapists. When Red State screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it got some good reviews. It also, unsurprisingly, got some very bad ones — and, in all fairness, maybe those critics legitimately didn’t like the picture, with no ulterior motive. (Hey, it’s possible.)
It was at Sundance that Smith made his other big move, inviting distributors to Red State’s festival screening and announcing a live auction for distribution rights afterward. He then multiplied the event’s already-plentiful publicity stunt factor by buying the film from himself (for twenty bucks), afterward announcing his masterstroke: to self-distribute via “four-walling,” a rather arcane process of paying a flat rental rate to theaters, covering all costs, and pocketing all profits. But first, he would take the film out on a roadshow tour, charging an average of $65 per ticket in large venues for an early peek at the film and a post-movie Q&A (Smith’s stand-up-style speaking engagements have been a lucrative secondary income stream for years). He would not advertise for either the roadshow engagements or the later, more reasonably priced run — at least, he would not use conventional TV and print advertising, relying instead on his social networking presence and network of podcasts to market the picture directly to his fans.
While reaction to this plan was swift and mostly negative, some writers (including this one) allowed that it could work; Smith’s films usually top out with a $30 million gross, meaning that the same audience tends to turn out every time, so maybe there is a logic to marketing, at low cost, directly to them. But there was something disconcerting about the first of those roadshow engagements, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The crowd, more accustomed to Smith’s stoner-friendly “Jay and Silent Bob” comedies, laughed and cheered at inappropriate points throughout the unnerving film, and the post-screening Q&A was an embarrassment—more than a half-dozen of his cast members sat awkwardly onstage for well over an hour as an endless stream of Smith sycophants peppered their hero with praise, softball questions, and pitches for their own projects. Occasionally, star John Goodman was asked a Big Lebowski-related question, or prompted to recite dialogue from that cult classic. Neither Melissa Leo (who had won an Oscar less than a week earlier) nor beloved character actor Stephen Root (Office Space, NewsRadio) were ever asked a question — by either the audience or (and this is key) by Smith.
Sitting in that audience, one couldn’t help but wonder why Smith didn’t deflect a question or two their way, or maybe pose a couple himself, to make the event worth the time spent by his hard-working cast. But, in retrospect, that evening was a microcosm for the entire project. The Red State affair has been sunk by Smith’s attitude, whether conscious or not, that the production is less about the film than it is about him — so at every turn, he has done what is best not for the picture, but for his ego and his wallet. And that is why he made enemies of the critical community mere months before releasing a small film with no ad budget that could have benefited from positive reviews, and that is why he deliberately faked out independent distributors who could have given the film proper marketing and circulation and instead chose to embrace his inner huckster, and that is why Root and Leo and the rest of his cast spent 90 minutes on stage at Radio City looking at their shoes. And, most importantly, that is why Red State heads to DVD next month, following a week-long award-qualifying run in Los Angeles and this weekend’s “one night only special event” screenings, but no genuine theatrical release: because Smith made enough money soaking his fans that those time-consuming, troublesome four-wall engagements weren’t necessary. (This weekend’s screenings, by the way, are followed by an “interactive Q&A event” and podcast recording, and are thus priced at a hefty $20 a ticket.)
So yes, Smith won, and his KISS army won, and that is that. There’s only one clear loser here: Red State, a genuinely harrowing and well-made picture that has, at least as far as the general public is concerned, gone straight to video. Hopefully, there, it will finally find the audience it deserves. Hopefully, there, its creator will get out of its way.