Roadshowboating: Kevin Smith and ‘Red State’

This past weekend (5 March) began a new phase in the career of everyone’s favorite indie icon/punching bag, Kevin Smith. Per plan, he debuted his most recent film, Red State, to a special group of admirers at Radio City Music Hall. As part of an old fashioned roadshow ideal, Smith will be doing his best Kroger Babb, wandering around the better part of North America for the next few months, offering up his first “horror” effort at special “appearances.” There will be close to 15 of these screenings, with more planned possibly, each one a facet of Smith’s desire to “self distribute” what he agrees is a complicated, controversial film (the subject matter takes on religious fundamentalism in frightening, unflattering ways).

Now, there is nothing really novel about what Smith is doing. Cracked actor Crispin Glover has been doing something similar for the last few years, touring his cinematic performance pieces What Is It? and It Is Fine. Everything is Fine! to larger and larger audiences. Considering the content of these films (one is made up mostly of actors with Down’s Syndrome, another was co-scripted and starred a man with cerebral palsy) and his cult status, it’s not hard to see why. In fact, many non-distributed films find the old exploitation mannerism a creative way of getting their movie message out to audiences. Titles like Black Devil Doll and the sickening A Serbian Film have traded on the old dynamic to take difficult material and commercially managing it.

Unlike playing the festival circuit, which sees acceptance and consensus in same, the roadshow is meant to be an event. Originally, when theaters would play a single film for months as a time, it was a way for those outside the studio system (who almost always owned said venues) to get their content seen. Someone like Babb would travel the country, film cans in his trunk, looking for outlets that were just about to close their current offering. For a fee, he would rent out the location for a weekend (or better yet, a week) and then plaster the neighborhood with some of the most adept advertising imaginable. Because he was usually peddling something scandalous (his most famous film, Mom and Dad, featuring live child birth footage), he’d hide the truth inside hoopla, bringing the customers in with promises and pamphlets, knowing that word of mouth would do the rest.

In Glover’s case, the oddity involved with his material mandates such an approach. Besides, one wonders how many “fans” are there to see such experimental films and, instead, just want a chance to watch the amiable eccentric in person. Glover accompanies his movies with a slide show and reading, turning a screening into something spectacular. Similarly, when Anvil were on the rise – thanks in part to the terrific documentary by lifelong fan Sacha Gervasi – they accompanied many of the showings with a free concert afterwards. While one could argue that it was all part of distributor VH-1’s desire to push ticket sales (and eventually, DVD/Blu-ray buys), it was the kind of evocative perk that turned an otherwise memorable movie into a near phenomenon.

All of which makes Smith’s decision to go exploit-exclusive all the more bizarre. Granted, as a member of the quasi mainstream moviemaking establishment, the Clerks god is a bit of a mensch. Queue up any of his entertaining one man Q&As and you’ll hear wounded war stories about missed opportunities (the Superman reboot, The Green Hornet) and his struggles in studio Hell. Recently, when both Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Cop Out failed to become box office hits, Smith took his frustrations out on the critical community, complaining that it was their panning of his films that led to their ultimate financial disappointment. He then argued that the social networking media like Twitter and Facebook would be a better judge of his material than crotchety old journalists.

When he announced the completion of Red State, he also suggested that he was developing a new “distribution” model that would make such old school publicity problems obsolete. While the roadshow is nothing new, it is something that Smith could and can excel at. He has a huge and devoted fanbase, a viewership (readership, listenership) enamored of almost everything he does. There’s a guaranteed return in playing to the View Askew universe, a place where his SModcasts sets the communal conversation. Most filmmakers would kill for a following as rabid as his, and Smith knows exactly how to handle them. He plays directly into their “us vs. them” belief in the indie scene, supporting their own dreams of being part of same.

Still, Red State‘s reception so far seems antithetical to the whole “event” process. While many have championed its skewering of the subject matter (apparently, the film is a veiled screed against religious bigotry ala the Westboro Baptist Church), there have been disagreements over tone, structure, and a 20 minute sermon by actor Michael Parks. Many think it’s Smith’s best work. Others argue that it’s not really a traditional “horror” film, so to speak. Considering his consistency (outside of Jersey Girl and his director for hire gig on Cop Out) he’s made some excellent films, so there’s no reason to believe that Red State is any different. But the biggest problem Smith faces is the one he’s completely catering to right now.

Over the next few months, before the eventual October national release (yes, the movie will hit most theaters in the US around Halloween), Red State will be left to the broad based soap box known as the World Wide Web. It will be discussed, dissected, and derided. With so much time before the rest of the populace sees it, some semblance of a backlash is possible. Indeed, if the groupinion is that it’s good, those outside the tour schedule will feel slighted. If it’s bad, no amount of roadshowboating can save a traditional theatrical run. Smith is already a questionable commodity. He can bring in a certain amount of money each time out, but he has yet to thoroughly crossover into the weekly box office breakdown. His films typically do well on DVD, so there is always that format to support such a stunt.

Make no mistake – this is a gamble for Smith. As an agitator, he is taking an “I know better stance” that could easily blow up in his face. Currently, the tour is geared almost exclusive to big cities (Boston, Chicago) and well know support sites (New Orleans, Austin, Texas). No, Smith isn’t planning on playing Peoria, one of the old road-showman’s standards for crossover appeal (it’s where the gore epic Blood Feast got its start) and such a strategy suggests that the filmmaker knows the best avenues to employ his glorified gimmick. While it’s not new to the artform, Smith’s desire to roadshow Red State is certainly unusual for 2011. With all the other avenues for distribution out there, hitting the highway may not be about money, but meaning – something he could certainly use right about now.