Starting in March, writer/director/actor Kevin Smith will hit the road to screen his new film Red State for fans, in mid-sized venues like Radio City Music Hall and the Wiltern in Los Angeles. Prices for his Radio City show range from $54.50 to $124.50. Which makes one ask, A hundred bucks for a movie?
Actually, it’s more like a ticket for a glimpse at an entertaining guy in career transition. When Smith sold distribution rights for his first film, Clerks, at the Sundance Film Festival 17 years ago, it was a dream come true. This year he brought along Red State, a humor-filled horror flick featuring Melissa Leo as a religious fundamentalist with a bloodthirst for gays (hence the title’s jab at conservative states) and John Goodman as an ATF officer. Immediately after the screening Smith showily “bought” the distribution rights to the film for $20 before anyone else could bid, announcing in a profanity-laced screed that instead of releasing the film through a studio he’d tour with the movie and follow that with a wider but still independent Oct. 19 theatrical release.
The goal, Smith says, is to skip the massive marketing campaigns attached to most movie releases — which he estimated would cost a minimum of $20 million for Red State, a movie that cost only $4 million to make — and bring the film directly to his fan base instead. It was a radical, attention-getting move, seen by some as arrogant. But what did it mean? Was it a publicity stunt? Was he trying to change the way Hollywood does business? We wanted to know.
A Q&A with Kevin Smith includes a lot more As than Qs; the filmmaker is famously voluble. Some ground rules: If he agrees to give you 30 minutes, plan for an hour. Expect to laugh; the guy who directed Chasing Amy is funny, even if sometimes, he makes a comedy that isn’t (Cop Out.) Get ready to trim obscenities (this is the guy who directed Zach and Miri Make a Porno). And prepare for your close-up; Smith, who prefers social media to old media — he has over 1.7 million followers on Twitter — agreed to talk to Time on the condition that he would post a unedited recording of the interview on his website as well.
We barely got a word in edgewise for about 35 minutes, so full disclosure: In the interest of providing structure and shape, we reordered and inserted some “questions” we would have asked if the highly agreeable Smith hadn’t just told us everything.
Why no traditional distributor for Red State?
We’re in a global economy now that does not support the kind of movies I like making in terms of marketing them. It doesn’t make sense to try to sell what I do to an audience that doesn’t want to see it. And I have been doing this for 17 years; I know there is the audience that likes what I do and then there are cats that don’t even know who I am or are indifferent to what I do. Or don’t want to see it. It just feels like, why do we waste money going after the audience that has no interest whatsoever?
You’ve said that Clerks, which cost less than $28,000 to make, didn’t make a profit for seven years because of the marketing budget. People might have thought you were slamming Harvey Weinstein, who bought Clerks.
Oh God, no. We literally named our [production] company the Harvey Boys in honor of Harvey. No slam here, that’s just the realities and vagaries of our business… There is no bad guy here. It is just what the business has become.
So what’s with these expensive screenings of Red State?
It was like, we could let it sit on a shelf until October [he plans to release Red State in theaters as a Halloween movie] or take it with me when I go out on the road, and that’s the thing I guess I’m taking a lot of heat for. Most people kind of know me for one job — for making the films — but for anyone who is really into my stuff knows that for over 10 years now, between movies, I go out on the road and do Q&As and kind of put on shows.
According to Smith, ticket prices for Red State are the same as those shows. In 2010, without a movie to preview, he sold out six of the 11 venues he played — including, to his great pride, Carnegie Hall. Smith says a completely sold out tour would net $1.5 million; he expects to make up the rest of the film’s production costs in foreign rights and video sales. He says his wife Jennifer, who has a small, gun-toting role in Red State, wouldn’t let him do any of this if it was a financial gamble.
To me the gamble [would be], we’ve spent $4 million to make the movie, let’s gamble another $20 million to make people want to see it. That’s madness, that’s arrogant… I’ve been called arrogant for what I’m doing. Isn’t it more arrogant to believe that my movie that we couldn’t get financed for three years — nobody wanted to make it, I understand, it is bleak material, it is not for everybody — I’m like, wouldn’t it be more arrogant for me to do this the traditional way, overspend to make people want to see it? This is the financially responsible model.
Smith also puts out a series of podcasts (available on smodcast.com) including one featuring his alter-ego Silent Bob and his friend Jay (Jason Mewes) that gets up to 300,000 downloads. Touring and talking keeps him busy, which is a good thing since he just announced he’ll quit directing movies after his 11th feature, Hit Somebody, his hockey movie in pre-production now. So we asked, “Really?”
I wasn’t born to be a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg, I was born to tell stories, and film was the first vehicle through which I could tell those stories. But it’s coming on 20 years since the moment I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, and 20 years of doing anything — it’s just like, I’ve done it, it’s been great, my dreams came true, well beyond what I ever would have expected… I always said I only have 10 scripts in me… When I wind up directing someone else’s script as I did with Cop Out, that to me is a clear indicator that, Okay I have done everything I ever wanted to do, and now I’m just doing s— to see what will happen.
Smith cites Henry Jaglom (Eating, Queen of the Lot), one of the first successful filmmakers to self-distribute his movies, as an example of how this model isn’t new; but, as TIME was unkind enough to point out, it is hard to find Jaglom’s films in theaters.
I believe in the Long Tail theory. I’m a creature of the Internet. The idea is, if I start marketing now, in this quiet kind of online way, amongst my fan base who then go out and talk to their friends, who talk to their friends, by the time October rolls around… all I will have to say is, Here it is, come see Red State… I salute f—ing Henry Jaglom. He has been making the exact movies he wants to make for years and years, putting them out his own way … Henry Jaglom is doing it people! He’s not sitting around talking about how people are trying and failing, he’s just putting his head up and stick down. He’s a model to a guy like me. The only difference is, I’m going to try to go wider. The good news is I have tons of support.
Definitely on Twitter. But what about inside Hollywood as well?
I didn’t make this move before I talked to all my industry friends… I am in Hollywood. Nobody is up in arms. I talked to them all.
So you’re not trying to start a revolution?
No. God, no. Look at my track record, I’m not a revolutionary. I’m not a rebel. I’m not political. I’m not the savior, man… I am not even trying to do it for all of indie cinema. I don’t picture myself as someone kind of quixotic figure. I just have built up enough of a reputation and an audience to try and experiment with it. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone try to talk me out of it… Because if for nothing else, I have done it nine times the other way and I know exactly what happens.
Many of us assume you Hollywood types have to keep making tons of money to support your fancy lifestyles. Don’t you?
Last year and the year before, I made more money standing on a stage talking as myself than I did as a director of film… For the last two years I haven’t been seeing the kind of big dollars I used to see when I had a overall deal with Miramax and the Weinstein company. I have had to support myself just going out on stage talking and I have been able to do that… Do I have enough f— you money, is that the question? No, I wish I did, but I would rather grind it out, try to make honest money with something I am passionate about.
Everything I see in my bankbook tells me [fans] like me best when I’m being me. And this is me being me… I’m 40. I am in mid-life, but it’s not a crisis. A crisis would be spending $20 million to market a movie. This is me, taking stock.