Sunday was a busy day at Sundance, from distribution news (Fox Searchlight picked up the teen comedy Homework, the Weinsteins got My Idiot Brother, and Roadside Attractions made a deal for Margin Call) to enthusiastic buzz for documentaries (especially Reagan, Becoming Chaz, and The Interrupters) but the real talk of the day was Kevin Smith's Red State and his announcement that he's going to distribute the film himself.
From his constant tweets about the post-screening auction to the highest-bidding distributor (that wound up never happening) to the presence of a handful of protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church (whose Phelps family was a clear inspiration for the film's gun-toting Bible-thumpers), Smith orchestrated a perfect storm of media, fan, and industry interest. And that's the kind of PR he's going to have to continue to whip up, since part of his strategy is to release movies without spending a dime on traditional advertising (TV, newspapers, billboards, etc.); nor can he count on traditional press coverage, since he announced his intention to ignore the mainstream media after getting harsh reviews for Cop Out.
Still, Smith has a thriving online presence, from his popular Twitter feed to his various blogs and websites to his weekly SModcast podcasts, some of which are now also turning up on Sirius/XM radio. (Don't be too surprised if the SModcast empire one day winds up including a devoted channel for Smith and his shows on satellite radio.)
Obviously, the jury's out on whether or not Smith's plans to revolutionize indie film distribution will work. On the one hand, it's exciting that someone wants to shake up the paradigm wherein studios spend four to five times a movie's original budget to get it into theaters. And if Smith can use new media and social networking in a way that lets low-budget moviemakers enter profitability faster, more power to him.
The big question is whether or not this model has any legs beyond Red State and what Smith says will be his last movie, Hit Somebody. Yes, Smith can fill up venues like Carnegie Hall thanks to his network of fans, and they'll no doubt shell out 60 or 70 bucks when Smith and Red State and the film's star Michael Parks come to their town. But will exhibitors want to work with SModcast Pictures, even with Smith's promise of a better percentage than they're getting from the studios? And what about home video? And what about his plans to release other people's movies in the future – will those same fans shell out to see a Smith live show with somebody else's film tacked onto it?
We'll have to see. Many great ideas started out looking like acts of folly. But then so do many acts of folly.
As for Red State itself, I wish it were as exciting as Smith's business plan. The closing credits indicate that the film has three separate acts – "Sex," "Religion," and "Politics" – but they don't flow together as much as they bump up against each other. We open with a traditional horror premise of three teen boys driving out to the sticks for sex, only to get drugged and kidnapped by a fanatical cult that plans to murder them. (Imagine if the Phelps family took their "God Hates Fags" shtick a step further and started acting on what they considered God's orders to put certain sinners to death.)
Then we get a 10 to 15-minute sermon by Parks' preacher character – a bold move, to be sure, but neither the acting nor Smith's editing is electrifying enough to make it work. And once we start getting a glimpse at the inner workings of this terrifying church, along comes the ATF for a Ruby Ridge/Waco–style shoot-out that feels endless. And then John Goodman's ATF agent gives us a tell-but-don't-show monologue that wraps up the proceedings.
Smith's got lots of interesting ideas, and his ambitions to make a completely different kind of film from his previous ones is certainly admirable. But the execution just doesn't come off, despite effective work from Parks, Goodman, and especially Melissa Leo. I might feel even more confident about the SModcast Pictures agenda if the company weren't getting rolling with what seems like the director's most uneven film to date.