"Okay, so that was different," director Kevin Smith said first thing Sunday night after his movie Red State premiered at the Eccles Theatre.
He wasn't talking about the Westboro Baptist Church protestors or the much larger group of counter-protestors that surrounded Eccles before the premiere (Red State is about a clan of religious zealots who also happen to be murderers, thus explaining the church members' presence at the premiere, but the presence of the counter-protestors, including many local high school students, and their inspired, surreal posters can be credited to Smith, who urged his fans to show up).
He was talking about his wild, subversive, shocking, dark, and unforgettable new movie, but it's eerie how aptly his comment summed up the mood at Eccles that was evident on everyone's faces as they left the theater: the whole night was, in fact, really different from any other Festival premiere.
Unless you've buried yourself in a snow cave, you probably already know that Smith announced last night that he's decided to bypass traditional distributors and make deals with "smart exhibitors" around the country to screen Red State. His Red State U.S.A. tour will take place in March in mostly "red state" locales—Missouri, Indiana, and Louisiana, among others—because Smith and his producing partner, Jon Gordon, made deals with theaters in cities on their tour by cutting out distributors.
"We believe the state of film marketing has become ridiculously expensive and exclusionary to the average filmmaker longing simply to tell their story," Smith and Gordon state on the Red State website. "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."
Smith was more blunt last night than he is on his website. With a hockey stick prop, and donning a hockey jersey that reached down to his knees, Smith told the audience that the hockey legend Wayne Gretzky has become a "personal hero" of his in the last two years. "Don't go where the puck's been - go where it's going to be," Wayne's father Walter, a friend of Smith's, always told his son; the advice struck home with Smith, who said he wants to kick-start an "indie 2.0" movement of self-distribution.
A little wistful, and more than a little wizened, Smith recalled the moment 17 years ago when the Festival premiere of Clerks changed his life for the better. But "every time we make a movie, it's the same fucking thing," Smith said. "We make it for a very small budget, somebody spends a shit ton of money marketing it and then ... nobody ever sees any money ever again."
He revealed that it took seven years for Clerks (which cost $27,575 to make) to reap any profit. "When that's happening, when you're spending four to five times the amount to market a movie, or open a movie, than you did to make it, that's not an inspiring game at all," Smith said. "No kid could get into it now. ... It's impenetrable.
"Even if you're lucky enough to make a movie, how the fuck are you going to open a movie? It takes so much fucking money—so much time, effort—and everything is fetishized about that one fucking three days," he fumed, talking about the intense pressure the industry places on a film's opening weekend revenue. "They''ll spend $30, $40, $50 million just for three fucking days."
Defiant and proud, Smith said he spent 25 days making Red State for nearly $4 million and couldn't pay all his crew their usual rate. "I'm not going to fucking sit there and bank everything on three days. There's no point," he explained. Instead, Red State will be touring America's red states in March and Smith will hopefully, he said, release it nationwide through his new SModcast Pictures on October 19, the date Clerks opened nationwide all those years ago.
It would be a real disappointment if, amid the drama of last night's announcement, it was lost on everyone how stunning and indie Red State feels. Smith was right about Red State when he said that it's different; it doesn't look like his previous movies, and it doesn't feel like one either.
Characters you root for, who in any other movie wouldn't have their heads blown off, suffer that particular fate. It's well-edited (by Smith) and driven, with really funny, human moments, but there's an unsettled, jagged rage to it that's refreshing. It's not an easy movie, partly because Melissa Leo and Michael Parks's performances are mesmerizing and impossible to turn away from - and they play some pretty horrid people.
The difficult thing about Smith's self-distribution model is that, because he's refusing to use TV ads or billboards to let people know they should see Red State, audiences will have to work a little harder to actually catch a screening. But you'll be doing yourself a real disservice if you don't meet Smith halfway on his promise to hand-deliver a movie that feels entirely new and thrilling.