Kevin Smith exhales a cloud of pot smoke. “Does this bother you?” he asks, looking up from his pipe as I enter his backstage dressing room at Denver’s Paramount Theater. Smith has retreated here, alone, after an hour and 15 minutes spent onstage answering questions from hundreds of his rabid fans following a screening of his new film, Red State. “Do you want some?”
For the record: I answered no to both questions. But the fact that this is how Smith greets a journalist whom he’s never met is emblematic of the 40-year-old’s current modus operandi: totally unpretentious, fully accessible, completely self-indulgent.
It’s been 17 years since Smith’s starless, black-and-white, credit card–financed filmmaking debut, Clerks, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was bought by Harvey Weinstein for distribution by Miramax, which itself had only recently been acquired by Disney. Clerks grossed more than 100 times its $27,000 budget in its theatrical release before becoming a hit on home video, and in terms of pure return on investment it’s still considered one of the most profitable films of all time.
This success earned the neophyte from New Jersey what he calls a “catbird seat” for the American so-called independent film boom of the 1990s. From that seat, along with contemporaries such as Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, Smith was able to build a career incorporating many of the freedoms afforded an independent, while still making films generally financed, marketed and distributed with corporate money.
It’s a position of privilege that, Smith is the first to admit, he landed in by chance. “I got into this business by a fucking fluke of history,” he tells the crowd in Denver. “A very fucking rich man” — Weinstein — “wanted to prove to the world that he still had balls and could pick up an American independent film, even though Mickey Mouse owned him.
“I’m not a filmmaker,” Smith continues. “It’s difficult for me. This is not my first language.”
That the audience applauds Smith’s self-deprecation with the same boundless enthusiasm they accord Red State — the new film that this self-proclaimed nonfilmmaker wrote, directed and edited — offers a clue to one element of Smith’s appeal. His success is almost an inverse Horatio Alger story: It’s not so much about hard work paying off as it is about the dream of living large (no pun intended) on as little effort as possible.
Smith has often said that seeing Linklater’s Slacker at New York’s Angelika Film Center on his 21st birthday was a personal turning point. He left the theater thinking, “If this counts as a movie, I think I can make a movie, too.”
If Slacker was an ode to hanging out, roaming the city streets and chatting as a kind of sport, Clerks is a celebration of the same pursuits (well, maybe without the walking) as sanity-maintaining subversions of service-industry drudgery. In simplest terms, Clerks is a movie about collecting paychecks while maintaining a constant conversation.
Nearly two decades later, in more ways than one, Smith is coming full circle. Red State, his 10th directorial effort, is his first film since Clerks to be financed and produced independently. And in October, Red State will become his first movie that he’ll distribute himself, under the banner of Smodcast Pictures.
The new company is named after his popular independent radio franchise, which includes a series of podcasts featuring the ramblings of Smith and friends, some of them recorded live in a small Hollywood theater he’s dubbed Smodcastle. Smith is using his podcasts to promote a road-show tour — launched last month at Radio City Music Hall, and concluding at the Wiltern on Saturday night — during which he’s visiting large theaters in 15 cities, screening Red State and engaging in lengthy, rowdy conversations with his audience about the movie, his previous work, his podcasts and various other pursuits.
Within these conversations (which fans pay dearly for; the cheap seats at the Wiltern go for $69.50, including fees), Smith confirms that the Internet rumors are true: He’ll make one more movie after releasing Red State — a script he’s writing called Hit Somebody, a hockey movie inspired by the Warren Zevon song of the same name — and after that, he’s quitting filmmaking.
“I’m so, like, sick of movies and shit,” Smith tells the Denver audience. “All I want to do is talk, talk, talk.”
Post–Hit Somebody, Smith says, he’ll be able to do just that, devoting more attention to his speaking tours — an annual ritual that grew out of, and eventually outgrew, the college screening circuit that Weinstein forced Smith and producer Scott Mosier to travel to spread the Clerks gospel in between Sundance and the film’s October 1994 theatrical release. He’ll also expand the Smodcast network by launching a daily two-hour morning Internet radio show, and he eventually hopes to turn Smodcast Pictures into a distributor for other people’s movies.
Smith is quick to point out that he’s not the only 40-something veteran of the ’90s Sundance/Miramax feedback loop who claims to be on the verge of voluntary retirement. Steven Soderbergh, whose sex, lies, and videotape was the first American indie to land a million-dollar deal in Park City, also has said he’s getting out of the game as soon as his current projects are wrapped.
But where Soderbergh’s alleged retirement feels earned — he won an Oscar, and directed a string of respectable experimental narratives, plus the blockbuster Ocean’s Eleven trilogy — Smith has never been as celebrated, and he admits to treading water since his early successes. He says he’s simply burnt out.
“I didn’t get into this [business] to just stay in as long as I could,” he says backstage. “I got into it to make Clerks and Dogma, and I did that a long time ago. When your job is to be creative, burn that candle at both ends, empty that tank, and sometimes there’s not much left. And you take your beatings over the years and it’s, like, ‘I get it, I’m not a good filmmaker.’ And that makes the exit even easier.”
Making the decision easier still, Smith says, is the fact that for “the last two years, I’ve made more [money] onstage talking about directing than I have actually directing films. I don’t have a dependency on film financially, and now I don’t have a dependence on film in terms of the whole ‘Kevin Smith, if he doesn’t make films, who is he?’ sort of thing.”
As much as public speaking might help fill the void left by his retirement from film, Smith’s manic activity on Twitter, where he lustily answers his critics and publishes manifestos spread across dozens of 140-character missives, feels like a sign of an identity in limbo. Would it be fair to categorize his career change as a symptom of techno-accelerated midlife crisis?
“I’m a writer, too, so I would like to write the perfect [narrative]: ‘Ah, a midlife crisis! That’s something everyone can identify with!’ But that’s just not it. I think I’m just done making films. I’m happier than I’ve ever fucking been, to be honest with you. With [Red State], I tried to make it as challenging as I could because I wanted to be an artist again. Suddenly, when you see the end in sight, it’s like graduation day, and [I’m], like, ‘Here’s my thesis film.’ ”
In fact, Red State feels less like a summation of all Smith has done to this point than a window into what could have been — or could still become — a second act for his career.
A post–Sept. 11 church-versus-state-versus-common-sense-and-basic-decency parable, the film opens outside a small-town funeral parlor, where a small but brazenly vocal group of protesters from the (fictional) Five Points Church, under the smugly smiling watch of their charismatic leader, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), greet the funeral of a murdered gay teen with signs bearing slogans like “God hates fags.”
Later, when three horny high school boys answer an online ad from an apparent MILF (recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo) looking for an orgy, it turns out to be a trap set by the Five Pointers, leading to an extended battle for survival among the teenage would-be sinners, the murderous Bible-distorting wackos and, eventually, a crew of bumbling, Patriot Act–emboldened federal agents.
Cooper and his Five Points cult were inspired by Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (although Phelps exists in the world of Red State, too — the ATF agent played by John Goodman makes the distinction that the WBC gang is “irritating, but they’re not gun nuts like the Coopers; they’re suers, not doers”). In Denver, Smith told the crowd that the seed for the screenplay was watching an extended interview with Phelps shot by Smith’s friend Malcolm Ingram for his 2006 documentary Small Town Gay Bar, which Smith produced. “It was like a horror movie to me,” says Smith, who defines himself as a practicing Christian.
An about-face from Smith’s usual sedentary, solipsistic talkfests, Red State has both the inspiring spark and lack of polish that often mark a first feature. Its ambitious plot structure, combining suspense and violence with an impassioned polemic against moral relativism, has a thrilling go-for-broke bravado. When Smith defies basic storytelling language in action scenes, or resorts to preaching, that bravado is less than charming.
That said, the version of the film making the roadshow rounds is seven minutes shorter than the cut presented at Sundance (Smith says he plans to trim even more before the official theatrical release), and his obsessive tinkering has paid off: The edits have improved Red State’s pace and tightened its argument considerably. Smith says the film is the work of a tapped-out hack winding down toward retirement, but it feels more like the product of a known-quantity filmmaker pressing reset.
Smith wrote Red State four years ago, but he couldn’t find financing in the usual places. “Harvey and Bob [Weinstein] passed on it, and then over the course of the next three years we looked for money. We looked low and high. We looked for $5 million, we looked for $15 [million], we looked for any number of permutations. But nobody was putting up any money.”
Smith and producer Jon Gordon eventually cobbled together $4 million from private investors, with Smith eschewing a paycheck. The diehards who pay big bucks to see him live, he says, “almost crowd-source financed this movie.”
It may be easy to forget that Smith was a critical darling early in his career, though he hasn’t forgotten: When I mention Amy Taubin’s review of Clerks in The Village Voice, he effuses, “I will remember that piece on my deathbed.” His popularity and respectability arguably peaked with 1999’s Dogma, plummeted five years later with the Bennifer-damaged misfire Jersey Girl and, though Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno were middling successes, never fully recovered.
Smith’s last directorial effort, Cop Out, was a work-for-hire action comedy that grossed more than any previous Smith film — and also cost more to make, earned abysmal reviews and alienated Smith from some fans who had been drawn to his work for his distinctive voice as a screenwriter. “A lot of people think [going indie] was a response to Cop Out,” Smith acknowledges. “But if I had the money, we could have done this four fucking years ago, and Cop Out wouldn’t exist.”
Smith admits he was passionate about Red State when it was first conceived, but “that passion had to go on the shelf because nobody wanted to make the movie. [Filmmaking] is just so fucking costly and time-consuming. Four years ago I started this Red State conversation. And if I would have just done it as a podcast, it would have been done four years ago — it would be a classic episode by now. And that was why I was, like, ‘I don’t want to do this again.’ ”
Is he saying there’s nothing he could say using cinema that he couldn’t just say on a podcast?
“I’m saying, after Hit Somebody, if I say anything, it’s just going to be redundant. A lot of people don’t like my shit right now — they’ll tell you, it’s been diminishing returns for the past 10 years. So why make it worse on people? I’ve got a nice fucking wave here that I’m gonna ride out big on. But if I can be honest with myself, after that, it’s gonna suck.”
Smith’s friend Richard Kelly, the director of the cult hit Donnie Darko, who has appeared on Smith's podcasts, recognizes the toll that filmmaking often takes. “I don’t think he wants to fight these battles again unless he has the proper inspiration,” Kelly writes in an email. “I think he wants to cruise the open road for a while after Hit Somebody and see where it takes him. I can’t say I blame him … as the vitriolic personal attacks and market disintegration can wear any filmmaker down.”
On the one hand, Smith’s brand of “fuck it” realism is an example of the dispiriting dark side of his stoner-slacker philosophy: Why do the hard thing and risk criticism from those who don’t already like you, when you can do the easy thing that draws almost universal praise from the same choir over and over again?
But it’s also reflective of an argument that seems increasingly valid in our changing media landscape. Online tools like Kickstarter allow filmmakers to directly communicate with, and solicit donations from, their fans. Once you’ve built up that choir, if their support is enough to financially sustain and justify whatever it is that you want to produce — movies or otherwise — there may not be much to gain from attempting to expand the circle beyond the passionate, reliable few.
We're moving from a top-down culture in which media companies dictate where the eyeballs will be directed to one in which each of us curates our own personal “mainstream” from a variety of niche content streams. This is why someone like Conan O'Brien can lose a gig like The Tonight Show without losing cultural cachet, and why shows like Mad Men and Gossip Girl stay on the air — and dominate blog conversations — despite the fact that traditional audience measurement tools suggest that they reach far fewer people than Two and a Half Men. It's also why Charlie Sheen can get fired from such an ostensible top-shelf media platform, for pure assholery, and walk away with his highest-ever market value — and the freedom to squander it indiscriminately (more on that later).
Smith, with his mastery of social media and ardent devotees seemingly blind to distinctions between varieties of content bearing his signature, is in a unique position to take a gamble that could push indie film further along the new-media evolutionary timeline. He could just as easily crash and burn — but if he’s truly at the tail end of his filmmaking career, what does he have to lose?
The stunt Smith pulled at Red State’s premiere this past January at Sundance is indicative of his current relationship to the institutions that still stand between the average independent filmmaker and his audience. Before the film was even announced as part of the festival’s lineup, Smith had spread the word online that he planned to auction distribution rights to the highest bidder after the Sundance screening.
Simultaneously, in keeping with a series of threats he made after Cop Out was roundly dissed by critics, Smith insisted that Red State would not be given a separate press screening at Sundance — if the press wanted to see it, we would have to line up like plebes for the premiere.
Smith thus ensured he’d have a full, captive audience of journalists, as well as executives from just about every remaining specialty film distributor, to witness him “selling” the film to himself for $20 before outlining his plan for the road show, Smodcast Pictures and the October theatrical release. His speech argued against the business plans of bigger outfits like Lionsgate and the Weinstein Company but failed to consider the many alternative distribution models. Tom Quinn, vice president of Magnolia Pictures — a natural fit for Red State, given its model for releasing a film on-demand in homes at the same time as in theaters, which would appeal to Smith’s tech-savvy, Middle American fans — summed up the reaction of many when he tweeted, “Thanks for the insult, Kevin Smith.”
“I said, ‘If we get into Sundance, I intend to pick my distributor in the room, auction-style.’ And,” Smith says, as he smiles, “I did exactly that. I picked our distributor — it was us — and I did it auction-style. Granted, that’s a bit of P.T. Barnum–ism. Do I regret it? No. It was very specifically worded. I did exactly what I said I was going to do, but not what they said I was going to do. It was one of those moments where I was, like, ‘I’m going to say this, and watch people turn it into something it fucking wasn’t.’ I never once corrected them, but that wasn’t what I said.”
Smith now says self-distribution was the goal as far back as the first week of production on Red State.
“Day four, I was sitting on the set and I realized that it felt like the Little Rascals — everybody was doing it for love, we weren’t gonna get paid. And I thought, We’re gonna pull this off for 4 million bucks. And then we’re gonna sell it, get paid probably $4 million, if we’re lucky, and based on all my previous experiences in this business, that would be the last money we would ever see. I know what happens next. If I sell to Lionsgate, that’s $20 million [in marketing budget] tacked on top of my movie, and I have to make $24 million back. But then we know that’s not the case, because we know [the studio] doesn’t keep all the money, they only make 50 percent. So now my horror movie that cost $4 million to make has to make $48 million to break even? I’ve never made a movie that’s made $48 million, and it’s certainly not gonna be this one.
“I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s going to happen again, and it’s going to happen to a movie that can’t hold up.’ It demands a lot of its audience, it’s not going down smooth, it’s challenging. It’s not for fucking everyone. And [a distributor is] going to try to sell it to my mother … which is ridiculous. I can reach the audience. I hit them through the podcast, and it costs nothing. All these people, pulling together, cinching their belts, doing it for no money — they’re gonna watch other people spend copious amounts of money to trick an audience into seeing a movie that they’re not going to like. End result: We’re wasting our fucking time.”
Smith says he was sensitive to a hypocrisy that underlined his initial success as a “ ’90s indie kid”: “You talked a big game about being independent, and then sold your movie as quickly as you could. Which never made sense to me.”
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.”
Kelly — who calls Red State Smith’s best film and says, “It should be nominated for Oscars” — is slightly more skeptical. “I don’t think that ‘retirement’ is ever a permanent thing,” he says. “There is always the option to switch gears and return, especially when you retire at the very height of your game, with miles to go before you sleep. Kevin is only 40 years old, and I certainly hope that he makes many more films one day. But maybe he won’t. Who knows?”
The answer might be determined by whether the Red State release succeeds or fails, vindicating Smith or giving him yet another very public flop to flee. He’s hoping to break even on the film’s $4 million budget before the “official” opening day, Oct. 19 — exactly 17 years after Clerks hit theaters. As of this writing, the Red State tour has grossed $701,977. Smith says he expects foreign sales and ancillary revenues to make back the rest of the $4 million budget. But he admits the usual markers of victory may not apply to what he’s doing:
“Once you pull your ball out of the game and create your own game, you have nobody to be compared to. Well, now I guess technically we could be compared to Charlie Sheen, who has his own tour.”
Smith is referring to Charlie Sheen LIVE: My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option, the series of performances Sheen launched April 2 in Detroit with a disastrously ill-organized roundelay through his own memes, sprinkled liberally with references to crack smoking. The following night in Chicago, Sheen revamped the show, incorporating a question-and-answer format not unlike the one that fuels Smith's live shows, and recieved much more generous reviews.
When Smith mentions Sheen — a few days before the actor's tour is to begin — I ask, “Do you feel like Charlie Sheen is ripping you off?”
“Not by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s like, we [sold] 3,800 in Radio City Music Hall and we were feeling awesome about that, and it took us like a month, without any advertising or marketing. [Then] Charlie Sheen sold out Radio City Music Hall twice in the span of, like, 20 minutes, and I was, like, ugh. And for one second I was like, ‘Man, what are we doing wrong?’ And then I was like, you know what, I’m not a girl-puncher, so at the end of the day, if that’s what it takes to sell out Radio City Music Hall fast and twice, I’d rather work a little harder for it over time.”
Compared with Sheen's lightning-fast, highly quixotic engagement with the zeitgeist, Smith looks like the slow-and-steady toad in this race, but whether his entrepreneurial experiments can sustain themselves remains to be seen. In the short term, Smith is fueled by each new shock of pulling it off. “After we played Radio City Music Hall and Variety put us in their box office gross chart? You look down the [distributor] column and you see Paramount, Fox, WB — you know, all the famous logos — and then all the way down in whatever position we were it just said ‘SMod.’ Seeing SMod in Variety really fucking did it for me.
“You get to middle age and you start thinking about a lot of shit,” Smith muses. “We’re all gonna die. And so I feel like anytime you can give yourself a dopey little victory, that makes it all worth it. Seeing SMod in that chart staved off death for a couple hours.”
The Red State road show comes to the Wiltern Theater on April 9. Red State opens in theaters Oct. 19.