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Of course, it’s somewhat easier to call bullshit on that fundamental film festival fantasy when you’re two decades into your career, when you live in a dream house sold to you in a sweetheart deal by Ben Affleck, when you have nonfilmmaking streams of revenue coming in and when you have connections that can help approximate the results of traditional distribution without requiring you to fully submit to the system. In Smith’s case, those connections include John Sloss, his longtime lawyer and sales agent, who managed the release of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop last year, and distribution consultant David Dinerstein, who served as head of marketing at Miramax during the Clerks era and is now an independent marketing consultant.
Dinerstein, who was brought onboard to design a release plan while Red State was in production, says the goal is to maximize Smith’s fan base while spending as little money as possible on traditional promotion. “On this preview tour to date, we haven’t spent a dime on ‘advertising,’ ” Dinerstein says, and though he doesn’t promise total advertising abstinence going forward, he stresses that Smith already has the kind of awareness within a certain demographic that money can’t buy. “I think there’s absolutely a built-in audience [that] Kevin’s able to communicate with in a very unique way — there’s an inherent trust between his audience and Kevin.”
What seems most striking about the microcosm of that audience making up the near-sellout crowd at Denver’s Paramount is the extent to which Smith’s modes of communication have become infectious. The great majority of seat fillers that night look as though they were carved in Smith’s image: They’re mostly male, apparently born after the JFK assassination, and, in keeping with Smith’s own dress code, clad in backward baseball caps, hoodies and voluminous hockey jerseys.
Preshow, while finishing up smokes outside or standing in line for beer, they buzz with the sound of fandom. Friends debate the relative merits of Smith’s films (“Dude, Cop Out is not that bad!”) and try to one-up one another with Smith-related anecdotes. Strangers exchange Twitter handles and promote their own, likely Smith-inspired blogs and podcasts.
For a self-admitted “huge fan of Kevin Smith” like 24-year-old Michael Cuculich, paying more than $100 for tickets for him and his wife to attend tonight’s show was about more than the bragging rights of seeing Red State early. In January, he wrote a post on his blog, cucumovies.blogspot.com, crediting Smith as a major influence in his decision to “actively pursue my dream” of making movies, starting with his application to the Vancouver Film School — Smith’s alma mater.
Cuculich updated the post after Sundance to state his admiration for Smith for “reviving and reinventing independent film, right as I’m getting ready to enter it.”
Waiting for the show to start at the Paramount, Cuculich says buying road-show tickets was his way of buying into that reinvention. “Even though I’m broke, that’s money I’m willing to invest.”
Cuculich says he’d be “bummed” if Smith quits the filmmaking game after Hit Somebody, but his ardor for all things Smod seems to back up Smith’s insistence that “the movie is irrelevant — it’s [just] what gets ’em in the door for the conversation.”
That conversation starts while the movie is in progress. The viewers make catty, snarky comments loud enough to hear several rows over (“Whoa, turn the lights out!” shouts one dude when Melissa Leo’s would-be seductress appeared on-screen), and cheer wildly when the bad guys are blown away. Meanwhile, Smith sits in the back of the theater at his laptop, live-tweeting his reactions to the audience’s reactions.
And when he returns to the stage after the movie, Smith starts the formal conversation by grading their performance. “You were very interactive. And a little bloodthirsty. Way more bloodthirsty than Chicago.” With that, the crowd goes nuts.
But is this what he tells all the crowds? What if Smith’s claim that he’s quitting filmmaking to “talk, talk, talk,” is, in fact, all talk? After his self-admitted “Barnum-ism” at Sundance, how can we trust that anything he does is anything but a publicity stunt?
We can’t. Like it or not, in the post–reality TV social-media world where Smith lives, a product and its promotion are virtually indistinguishable — it’s all entertainment. To fret about that disappearing line is to admit to not getting it. And while Red State represents a creative 180 for Smith as a director, more than that, it may be a test perpetuated by Smith the marketer, to measure exactly how far outside of the usual comfort zone he can convince his faithful to travel.
For what it’s worth, the people working with Smith have either been fed the same line as the rest of us, or have simply been asked to parrot it. “I hear the same thing as you — Kevin tells me he’s going to make one more film and then hang up his skates,” Dinerstein says. “I don’t have a crystal ball, and it would be a shame if he quits. But I hear the same thing as you.”
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes