Kevin Smith’s Red State has gained more attention due to Smith’s creative distribution and exhibition model than for the actual content of the movie. Rather than selling his film at the Sundance Film Festival to the highest bidder, who would then market the film for a big opening week, Smith engaged in a little slacker street theater, selling the film to himself before providing explanation of how he would self-distribute Red State through a variety of techniques, including road shows and live “event” screenings, as well as more traditional practices such as video-on-demand and DVD offerings. Smith further linked this innovative distribution plan to his own origin story, as one of “Harvey’s Boys,” the mid-1990s generation of film directors who broke through to mainstream success, in part thanks to the marketing savvy of Miramax. As a result, Red State is bringing together a wide range of fascinating threads: the definition of “independent film,” the future of movie distribution, and the role of the distributors and exhibitors in shaping our access to movies. And to some extent, these questions have overshadowed one of Smith’s more engaging films–something I’ll return to later.
The Red State screening I attended was in Cary, North Carolina, at a local independent theater, and like a number of other theaters, we watched the film starting at precisely 7 PM EDT. Soon after the credits rolled, the theater projected a password-protected Ustream broadcast from the Beverly Theater (referred to as a Babble-On Podcast), one that invited questions from viewers located in other theaters using the Twitter hash tag #redstatekev (the filmmakers used a similar technique during their worldwide premiere a couple of years ago). Questions sent in by remote viewers were mixed with questions posed by the live studio audience, and Smith would take the questions and riff off of them, often telling anecdotes about the making of the movie. Given Smith’s college tours and his frequent podcasts, the technique worked relatively well, even if it came across as a little self-congratulatory in places, and even if the audio was often muffled. The Twitter stream itself was mostly cluttered with crude jokes, spitballs from the remote audience, but Smith’s assistants were able to rescue a couple of good questions that would allow him to talk about Michael Parks’ performance as a Fred Phelps-style anti-gay preacher or about his screenwriting process.
As Smith acknowledged in the Q&A, Red State is a film that may potentially challenge viewers, especially given Smith’s creative engagement with genre conventions. The film focuses on a closed-off, but publicity-hungry religious cult called the Five Points Trinity Church led by a charismatic family patriarch, Abin Cooper (Parks), who preaches against homosexuality and promiscuity. It opens with a scene featuring member of the church protesting at a funeral of a local teenager, recalling the images of Westboro Baptist Church protesting military funerals. Later, we are introduced to three misfit teenagers who meet a woman through an Adult Friend Finder website. When the woman promises to have sex with all three of them simultaneously, they are intrigued and drive out to her trailer, where, of course, the woman (played by Melissa Leo) has other plans, drugging and kidnapping them and delivering them to Cooper’s church, where the congregation engages in a mixture of worship and torture, speaking in a shorthand of Bible verses and references that suggest a shared–and completely closed-off–point of view. The torture scenes seem to prepare us for something like a satirical torture porn film, but just as we are prepared for Red State to follow one genre path, it suddenly–almost defiantly–chooses a different one.
The kidnapping of the boys comes to the attention of a local sheriff who, in turn, contacts an ATF agent, Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), leading to a hostage standoff, in which the ATF agents surround Cooper’s extremely well-armed compound, pulling us even further away from standard horror fare. Here, Keenan is presented as essentially benevolent, but as the shooting escalates, he is forced to balance concern for the hostages with concern for the public relations nightmare that might ensue, especially given past crises, such as the standoff with David Koresh’s Waco cult. As a result, Smith is able to subtly satirize not only the homophobic rants of people like Fred Phelps (and the media culture that provides them a platform) but also the “red state” policies that have loosened gun control laws and increased surveillance through the Patriot Act.
These shifts in tone evoked some of Tarantino’s genre games–especially in films like From Dusk ’til Dawn–but without QT’s self-conscious dialogue (there’s not a Star Wars reference to be heard in the entire film, which shows major restraint on Smith’s part). Smith also defied our expectations with regards to killing off certain characters (and actors), often in gruesomely funny ways, with the result that the film never settles in on a single point of identification. These moments where Smith defies genre expectations seem to have flustered some critics, but given Smith’s larger aims, I’m willing to more or less buy into what he was doing. I’ll admit that I’m probably being a little more generous to the film, in part because Smith created an event in which he sought to connect with his audience and where he truly advocated for his film. The $20 price tag for the Red State event seemed a little steep, especially for remote audiences, but I think it also offered some added value that might not normally be associated with a typical Friday blockbuster opening. As Smith himself noted, he spent several years writing and putting Red State together, and a traditional opening would likely build to a single weekend, with the movie disappearing soon after, but Smith’s self-distribution model allows him to spend a little more time enjoying the reception of his movie. I don’t think that this form of self-distribution will work well for every filmmaker–Smith has spent almost 20 years building up goodwill with his audience–but as a means of harnessing the potential of social media and digital delivery to distribute a certain brand of do-it-yourself filmmaking, it worked pretty well.