Red State brings Kevin Smith's career back to where it all began

by Paul William Tenny

Kevin Smith at Ryerson theatre for the opening of Smith's new comedy Zack and Miri make a Porno. (Sam Javanrouh)
Kevin Smith at Ryerson theatre. (Sam Javanrouh)

The world is a different place today than it was when Kevin Smith held one of his signature Q&A sessions at a 2006 comic convention in Chicago.

Twitter was a struggling startup with more aspirations than actual people using the service. The global economy was still riding high with the recession yet come. Smith could be found writing detailed accounts of his daily life on the Silent Bob Speaks blog while he engaged with his fans on his message board.

SModcast -- the weekly podcast with longtime friend and producing partner Scott Mosier that now has its own "podcast theater" in Los Angeles, and went on three live national tours this past summer -- wouldn't exist for another seven months.

It was just an idea. No script, no studio deal, and every chance it would never become more than that. So many deals and projects come and go every week in Hollywood that something isn't worth talking about unless the first roll of film is in the can.

"I dunno, it might be too soon to talk about it", Smith told the crowd. "Anytime you fuckin talk about something and it doesn't happen, fucking people come up to me like 'what happened to that, you said you were gonna do it.'"

Then from the crowd: "Paper, rock, scissors, best two out of three!"

If Smith lost, he'd have a good excuse to throw caution to the wind and tell his fans that his next project would be unlike any other, whether he was ready to talk about it or not.

The fan joined Smith on stage, losing the first around but winning the second. The third and supposedly deciding round ended in a scissors-scissors tie.

Overtime, in a game of rock-paper-scissors, at a comic convention with an indie film hero and a room full of fans dying to find out what the news might be? It made for some entertaining impromptu theater, with Smith ultimately winning the showdown and with it the right to stay silent about his next project.

But anyone who knows Kevin Smith knows that he couldn't be more unlike his silent on-screen persona. When the crowd settled down, he began a protracted and torturous journey whose endgame would be years in the making.

"I just think it's time to go in a completely different direction, so I'm gonna do a horror movie."

Smith gave Red State a proper introduction in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes UK while the family spent time in London's West End for a Q&A in April of 2007.

Inspired partly by the Phelps family of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, State was principally about a family feeding the fringe of society their own nasty brand of religious extremism. It wasn't based on the life of the church leader, Fred Phelps, or on any real-life events involving the church. But Smith said Phelps "really informed" the movie which he wants to use to explore "even something more insidious" in a public or government that allows it to exist.

The idea, according to a blog post a few weeks later, was to finish a script for what would later become Zack and Miri Make a Porno -- which he started writing in March -- before writing Red State. In reverse order, they'd shoot State first in late 2007 and Miri about a month later, presumably with the Weinsteins.

A first draft is complete by August and starts making the rounds amongst Smith's friends and professional acquaintances. A Weinstein executive calls it a long shot but "feels it needs to get made". Scott Mosier, who has produced most of Smith's flicks since they met in a Vancouver film school that Smith would later drop out of, re-reads the script and writes some notes.

Little was said publicly while reactions would trickle in from people Smith has worked with and trusts throughout the fall. Producer Dan Etheridge (Veronica Mars, The Nines, Bio-Dome) reads the script and calls it a "dark trip" that makes him "feel like [he] wants to take a shower". They end their conversation with a prescient prediction from Etheridge: "you'd be guaranteed the most divided love it/hate it reviews .. in a long while."

A consensus develops that this will be a tough sell for both studios and audiences and despite the quality of the script, it's hard to give something this bleak a resounding endorsement.

Smith discusses the project with his Lawyer, John Sloss, over a phone call in early September. They agree that "it's very clearly a film that needs a festival launch".

Another round of notes, another draft, and more notes still. Actor-turned-writer Brian Lynch, who had parts in Chasing Amy and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, says in an email that State is a "bold" and "great read" that would "scare the living shit" out of him in the theater. "After over ten years of writing, you found a completely new voice that's as strong as the one you've honed for a decade".

Bob and Harvey Weinstein founded Miramax Films in 1979 about as far away from Hollywood as they could get, in Buffalo, New York. The company was privately owned for 13 years as an independent producer and distributor of films like The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction, and Chicago. All of Smith's films made with Miramax were produced after Disney bought the company in 1993.

The Weinstein's weren't satisfied being under Disney's thumb and founded The Weinstein Company to get back to their indy roots, and Smith happily followed.

With Zach and Miri moving towards casting and Red State shaping up and slimming down (it would be one of his shortest films to date), word came from Harvey that he had read the script. He found it "quite disturbing and challenging" and wanted to find out what his brother Bob thought before saying more.

Smith was intrigued. "This is a man who built his name and company distributing challenging flicks", he wrote on his blog. "Having him call "Red State" "challenging" really floats my boat."

The Weinstein Company wasn't the right place and this wasn't the right time for a project like this. The Weinstein's were investing their limited resources in Zack and Miri, and needing big things to happen. Red State simply wasn't that kind of movie. TWC officially passed on State on September 28th. Smith liked the challenge of having to get a film off the ground himself again and believed it could work with a strong festival launch.

But that would have to wait.

Red State would struggle to find financing for nearly three years. A couple of studios reportedly showed interest in picking it up in 2007, but no one was willing to pull the trigger.

A global recession shrunk the market for indie films (and just about everything else) and DVDs began giving way to Netflix and online streaming. Zach and Miri Make a Porno, originally intended to hit theaters after Red State, would be bumped to the front of the line at The Weinstein Company only to endure a disappointing theatrical run compared to expectations.

Smith took a break from the Weinsteins to direct Cop Out at Warner Brothers from a script written by Robb and Mark Cullen, and then went to work on his next project, Hit Somebody.

Things were quiet until someone asked Smith on Twitter about the possibility of fans financing the production of Red State if no studio would pick up the tab. Industry bloggers did what they do best and invented at least as much about the idea as they reported as fact, creating an easily avoidable mess.

Kevin Smith was begging for money on the Internet, look how far the indie hero had fallen.

But what followed my have eventually inspired later events involving distribution.

Ideas were tossed about and everyone considered the possibilitity of going outside the studio system and avoiding Wall Street hedge funds to pay for the production of a feature film.

But nobody was begging for money.

It was a tall order for a project this size. Clerks, which Smith had produced on his own using credit cards and loans, cost $27,000 to shoot and sold for $227,000 after all was said and done. Paranormal Activity, which was being handed out on DVD at Screamfest around the same time that Red State was being written, had been produced for $15,000.

Five figures had been raised online for various popular causes before, but Smith had pitched State to Harvey Weinstein for a budget 185 times larger than what Clerks had. Even though five million dollars is pocket change in the studio system, and compared to most big feature film budgets, it was still a lot of money.

Clerks and Activity might have been possible to fund through fan donations, but this was a pretty big stretch, and everyone seemed to know it. The logistics on taxes and legal fees were daunting, and there were so many unanswered questions. If the movie is profitable, who gets the money? Did they need a company to do this and how do the employees get paid? What if other people want to make a non-Kevin Smith flick?

What if it bombs and 20,000 fans suddenly want their money back and threaten 20,000 lawsuits?

The questions were numerous while answers were few and far between.

The intentions seemed true to the spirit of film making as self-expression, rather than a business model to make money.

Smith wouldn't take a salary if he got fan funding off the ground. No profiteering. No gatekeepers basing their decisions on tax breaks, favorable loan term sheets, commercial viability, and merchandising and DVD rights, and cable syndication packages. Just make the movie you'd want to see yourself for as cheap as possible, and let the fans that trust your vision fund it.

While the idea never really took off, it turns out it wasn't necessary in the end. Sometime after February and the online blowup over fan financing, Smith and former Weinstein executive Jon Gordon found the financing they needed to shoot Red State.

Gordon had been working at Miramax for years and was instrumental in pushing the Weinstein's to buy Clerks, the film that put Kevin Smith on the map, even after they had passed on it twice before. The pair continued working together even after Gordon left Miramax.

At least one source of funding came from a firm called Three Point Capital, which lists Red State as one of its "California Tax Credit Loan" investments. These are loans that are repaid with the tax credits a production receives from the state where the film is shot, after production ends. It's doubtful that the California tax credit covered Red State's entire production budget, and where the rest of the funding came from or how much Three Point Capital contributed to the production is a bit of a mystery.

Production began in late November with an eclectic group of actors. When Smith wrote to Harvey Weinstein three years prior, he expressed a strong desire to cast Michael Parks as his lead character, Abin Cooper. In addition to landing Parks, the cast would be headlined by Melissa Leo, Stephen Root, and John Goodman.

Smith said to Weinstein at the time that "it's time" to make this film; it was something that he had to do.

Parks' eventual performance garnered high praise from Smith as an acting clinic and a breakout performance. Goodman was the consummate professional who showed up to work hard and show everyone how it was done.

A final version of the film was screened for over 200 guests including the cast and crew at Smith's Los Angeles home three days after the 25-day production wrapped up in late October.

With no one to foot the bill for marketing that would have run up charges three times the size of the production budget -- at least -- and little interest in wasting money on it anyway, Smith set about promoting Red State himself through auctions on Twitter. Bloggers, fans, and anyone with a check book would bid in real time for exclusive rights to a series of teaser posters for the movie created by Jon Gordon's assistant.

Proceeds went to charity that Smith would often match with his own money, while the winning bidder would get limited exclusive rights to publish one of the posters on their website, and Red State would get its marketing.

"It's very clearly a film that needs a festival launch."

The U.S. Film Festival has been a launching pad for careers of independent filmmakers since it was founded in 1979 by Sterling Van Wagenen, John Earle, and Cirina Hampton Catania, to showcase American independent films and encourage filmmakers to locate their productions in Utah.

The festival was profitable within three years, received a lot of attention and promotion from Hollywood, and would eventually make Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronfsky, and Kevin Smith into household names.

Today, it's better known as Sundance.

Red State would bring Smith's career full cricle, back to Park City, Utah, where Clerks had been well received and eventually bought 17 years ago. Produced on a shoestring budget of $27,000 and shot almost entirely in the convenience store where Smith was working at the time, Clerks would be passed over twice before Miramax eventually bought the film and released it, grossing a little over three million theatrically.

If it was going to stir people's imaginations and, as Dan Etheridge said, make them want to take a shower after seeing it, Red State was going to need a some of the winter magic that launched Smith's career almost two decades ago.

State wouldn't run in competition at Sundance like Clerks had, but it did make the list for a couple of non-press screenings guaranteed to be a tough ticket due to Smith's decision to auction distribution rights in between the first and second screenings.

Smith would banter back and forth with Megan Phelps of the same Westboro Baptist Church that partly inspired Red State, on Twitter in the run-up to Sundance. The church sent a few members to Utah to protest the film, and Smith urged his supporters to stage a protest of their own.

When the big day (or night, rather) came, both sides were true to their cause. Far more information poured out of the festival in the form of attendees Tweeting and posting photos from their smartphones than was coming from the industry media and bloggers -- by a huge margin. Less than a half dozen protesters showed up with signs and chants, reportedly drowned out by a crowd of 30 or more supports of Red State.

This tactic was used when the church showed up to the San Francisco offices of Twitter last year. "Fags can't marry" and "God hates Obama" signs from the church were joined a feet away by others saying "build prisons on the moon", "I have a sign", and "silly hats only". Another series of signs read in order "GOD NEVER GONNA GIVE YOU UP", "GOD NEVER GONNA LET YOU DOWN", and "GOD NEVER GONNA TURN AROUND & DESERT YOU".

The church had been rickrolled.

Smith himself got in on the action, holding a sign that said "THOR HATES STRAIGHTS", while his long-time friend and fellow filmmaker Malcolm Ingram's sign read "dick tastes yummy".

A huge line formed in the tent covering festival goers waiting to get into the first public screening of Red State. Things were quiet while everyone on the outside waited to find out how the auction would go later in the evening. Before the blogs and news blurps came up, a flood of 140-chacter reviews slammed Twitter.

It was the moment that Dan Etheridge had predicted three years earlier, finally and fully realized. Some people loved it and others hated it. It was boring and confusing. It was emotionally trying and dark. It marked the transition of a niche writer and director into a full-blown filmmaker. And it was simply awful. And it rocked.

I remember thinking at the time that if Red State were bought at Sundance and distributed, that it would be the only review that mattered.

I was wrong.

The auction only lasted a few seconds and had only one bidder: Kevin Smith.

Rather than entrusting the film to the audience of indy buyers (Harvey Weinstein was there, as were representatives from Lionsgate, supposedly) that Smith had just spent ten minutes railing against after the screening, Jon Gordon and Smith were going to release the film themselves via "SModcast Pictures" and their "Harvey Boys" production company.

The auction was never going to happen, but it wasn't exactly a lie. Smith never promised to sell Red State to the highest bidder and his rant against the structure and nature of professional film industry was a rehash of his well known feelings about the flaws and trappings of the studio system. Even a film that cost four million to shoot would have to make tens of millions at the box office just to break even. Theaters take nearly half of all proceeds and marketing costs can often match or exceed the production budget.

That wasn't the fault of anyone in the room, but they were all a part of that system.

Smith was tired of pouring his heart and life into these stories and watching everyone around him take huge salary cuts or make other sacrifices just to keep the budget reasonable, only to watch studios waste tens of millions on poor marketing campaigns and bills so huge that 90% of everything they make was going to lose money and fail by default.

"Seventeen years ago, I came to this festival and took my shot, and it was amazing. My life changed in an evening."

The plan is simple enough. SModcast Pictures, an extension of the brand that a dozen podcast shows now call home, will screen Red State across 12 states in 29 days. There will only be a single viewing in each state, followed by a Q&A with Smith himself.

The first stop will be Radio City Music Hall in New York on March 6th, a 6000 seat venue where tickets will run at least $60 each. Other major cities on the tour list are Denver, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Austin.

Each venue was undoubtedly carefully chosen to ensure enough ticket sales to cover the production cost of Red State by the time the tour wraps up in Seattle on April 4th, if everything goes as planned.

After that, Smith expects to have enough deals with exhibitors to release the film nationally on October 19th, sans Q&A's and with normal ticket prices.

It's fitting that in trying something new and risky, Kevin Smith had to return to the place where his film career began all those years ago. A few things don't seem to have changed. Smith is still out there, telling the stories the wants tell, and doing it his own way.

Critics be damned.

A 20+ image gallery of the Red State protest shenanigans and a few pictures from inside the screening theater can be found here.

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