Sundance Film Festival 2011 is winding down and the big news isn’t about any breakout critics’ darling or big acquisition. The buzz is all about Red State, a movie that received mixed reviews at best and didn’t earn a distribution deal at all.
To be specific, the buzz isn’t so much about Red State, an uneasy mix of horror film and political/religious diatribe, as it is about the film’s director, Kevin Smith. Has Kevin Smith gone too far this time with his fake auction stunt? Is his decision to self-distribute his new film via a whistlestop nationwide tour of personal appearances a viable model for film distribution in the social-media era? Has Kevin Smith burned his bridges? Why is he biting the indie distribution hand that has fed him for years?
The truth, of course, is that Kevin Smith is just doing what he always does. Turning chicken feathers into chicken salad. This is the genius of Kevin Smith.
Has any cultural icon every built a larger empire out of less actual content than Kevin Smith? J.D. Salinger, maybe? Snooki? Axl Rose? Brett Easton Ellis?
Kevin Smith is a media savant and provocateur, producer of comic books and bobblehead dolls, director of music videos and Coke commercials, popular stage performer, Twitter phenomenon, podcaster, and occasional scriptwriter-for-hire (Green Lantern, Superman Lives). The man is everywhere. Even when he’s not somewhere (in his seat for a Southwest Airlines flight, for instance), he makes news. In fact, pretty much the only thing capable of slowing the Kevin Smith marketing juggernaut is the occasional release of a Kevin Smith movie.
Smith has released nine movies, most of which circle inevitably back to the same jokes—fetish porn, Star Wars, lesbians, masturbation, waking and baking—told by the same characters. As a filmmaker, Smith writes a terrific wisecrack, but keeps bumping his head on his creative ceiling. He can’t create characters with believable motives, and he can’t sustain any sort of story arc. Crafting a narrative just isn’t part of his skill set.
Smith knows this, obviously. Even as his revenue streams multiply, he has tried to expand his filmmaking brand. He’s tried romantic comedy (Jersey Girl), Judd Apatow-style zeitgeist gross-out comedy (Zack and Miri Make a Porno), mainstream cop-buddy comedy (Cop Out), and now Red State, all with ever-diminishing results both creatively and financially. So when Smith preempted his own film auction by paying $20 for his own distribution rights for Red State, it seemed pretty clear he wasn’t outbidding anybody else.
Given his lack of crossover appeal outside his rabid cult of fanboys, independent distribution may simply no longer make any sense for Smith. What, after all, does $20 million for prints and advertising really buy him? Ads purchased on the Spike Network and G4 reach an audience that has already been following Red State’s progress on Smith’s Twitter feed for months. Ads purchased in more mainstream media fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile $20 million borrowed is $20 million that must be repaid. If the independent distribution model no longer fits Smith and his brand, then his decision to repackage himself as the revolutionary at the gates of the indie distribution establishment is typically savvy.
Kevin Smith has already announced that his next film, Hit Somebody, will be his last. This could be yet another marketing ploy. If he’s serious, it remains to be seen whether his other revenue sources will continue to grow once he doesn’t have a “filmmaker” peg to hang them from. I wouldn’t bet against him.