Why do bad things happen to good fans? Whether it’s atrocious art, ridiculous writing or something else entirely – some crimes against fandom cannot go unanswered. When that happens, it’s time to say “BLAARGH!“
Kevin Smith has been one of the most popular and iconic figures in independent film for the past fifteen years. While none of his films have earned much at the box office, he has earned a large and devoted fan following that almost guarantees that his projects eventually turn a profit on DVD. Some have argued that his most recent films have not matched his earlier projects in terms of quality, yet a new Kevin Smith release is still guaranteed to make its money back due to his built-in group of devotees. Because of this, he made an announcement at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that he will be self-distributing his newest film, Red State, in the form of a cross-country tour which will include a screening of the film and a Q&A session with the director himself afterwards. While this seems like an excitingly innovative way to distribute an independent film, the way Smith announced this decision has pissed off a lot of the people who made him what he is today, which makes his decision to self-distribute his film a risky one that just might blow up in his face.
When Smith first announced that he will be holding an advance screening of Red State at Sundance, he mentioned that he will be auctioning the film off to any interested studios that would want to distribute it. After he announced this on his Twitter account, the Red State screening became one of the most talked about events at the festival, and the fact that the Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest the screening didn’t hurt, either. After the film was first shown, Smith came out to greet the large crowd that had shown up, made a short speech about hockey while holding Wayne Gretsky’s hockey stick, and then brought out the film’s producer to hold the auction. In a twist that Vince McMahon would be proud of, Smith himself placed the first bid of twenty dollars, which the producer automatically accepted to the bewildered shock of the studio reps who had shown up hoping to distribute the movie. Smith then basically told the studios, some of whom had distributed his previous films, that he didn’t need them anymore and that he would be showing the film his way. He then announced that his next film would be his last and that he would soon retire as a filmmaker and move into distributing other people’s films.
Again, this is a ballsy move for a filmmaker to do and is a true statement of independence from the mainstream studio system, but the way Smith announced his intentions left a bad taste in many mouths. For starters, he flat out lied to the studio execs that he invited to the screening, and it’s obvious that he invited them so that he could thumb his nose at them. I’m usually not one to side with the suits against the artists, but this was harsh even for me. One of the people in attendance, Harvey Weinstein, gave Smith his first major opportunity when he bought the rights to distribute Clerks back in 1994, and without the help of the studios, Smith wouldn’t be enjoying the success he has today. Sure, his last few films did not do very well, but he has explicitly and publicly blamed everyone but himself for these failures, including some of the actors who appeared in his movies and the critics whose job it is to scrutinize the quality of these films. His decision to shun the studios and take Red State on the road may earn a big payday for him, but after burning all those bridges at Sundance, he’s going to be in some big trouble if Red State tanks, because it will be unlikely that these studio heads would be willing to give him the time of day if it turns out that he really does need them after all.
Also, his decision to eventually become a distributor reeks of hypocrisy. Does anyone really believe that he won’t do the exact same thing that the studios do when distributing independent films? It seems like his plan is to build capitol with his road show and then dupe younger, less well-known filmmakers into buying into a pyramid scheme of distribution where he will make money off of their hard work, which is what he said was wrong with the studio system in the first place. Instead of letting his films speak for him, Smith is relying on his “cult of personality,” trading on his celebrity status among film geeks to make himself a player in Hollywood while shrouding himself in the role of a populist who speaks for the artist in the cutthroat world of movie making. This comes across as grossly disingenuous for a filmmaker who I once highly admired for his genial manner and “everyman” quality. Now it looks like he’s cashing in on that image that he has cultivated for the past fifteen years to make himself rich.
To borrow a phrase from my colleague Jared Whittaker, I refuse to drink the Kool Aid on the “Kevin Smith” brand anymore. He has devolved into the “Hot Topic” of indie filmmakers in that he appears to be a rebel, but in reality, he’s just as much a shameless huckster as anyone in the film industry. He may in fact be worse than the usual Holywood phonies in that he puts on airs of being the “voice of the people,” when in actuality he’s just looking out for his own personal fortune. The jury’s still out on whether Red State will live up to all the hoopla that resulted from the Sundance debacle, but it’s up to us, the filmgoers, to decide whether we want to allow Kevin Smith to fool us into making him just another rich Hollywood asshole. I for one never thought I’d feel that way about him, but his actions lately have left me no choice.