One of the major themes of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (my second favorite Smith flick after Clerks) is that while artists of any sort can certainly do something for money and recognition there’s always the burning desire within them to tell personal stories. And it’s the desire to tell those personal stories that pushes them to do their best work, which it often is. It’s always better to read something an author is excited about, hear a song played live that the band is actually jazzed about playing and watch a film that has some obvious love and passion behind it.
The telling of personal stories has been the hallmark of Smith’s career. With one notable exception where he acted as a director-for-hire (the only occasionally funny and at times nearly unwatchable Cop Out) he’s consistently lived in public through his films. You can basically track his personal life through the stories in his movies – from the directionless time-wasting of Clerks through the dealing with family issues of Jersey Girl to the finally feeling comfortable in your own skin of Clerks 2.
But now he takes a turn once again into a less personal story, though one that’s still be written and created by him. Red State is, in Smith’s own words, something of a religious horror story. A trio of young boys are so eager to have sex they respond to an ad offering just that. But when they get to the rendezvous they are drugged and brought in front of a small passionate preacher and his congregation, held up as examples of the damnation that society is living in. The compound is well fortified and when federal agents are called in to free the boys things get violent quickly as the zealots within seek to defend themselves.
The story is Smith’s way of commenting on the extremes that those fueled by a determined belief that God is always on their side can go to. And just as with his previous film Dogma it’s become something of a lightening rod for this and, as we’ll see, many other reasons.
The movie’s first poster is a pretty simple one but it lays out the overall theme pretty well. In the middle of the image is a large cross and in front of that some sort of figure, presumably the Virgin Mary based on Smith’s doctrinal inclinations, covered in a white sheet. But the whole thing looks like we’re seeing it through a shattered and scratched piece of glass, adding a bit to the mystery of what it is we’re looking at.
Other than the title and “Coming 2011” the only other text is at the top where it says “Fear God” though just how that ties in to any story is left for the viewer to wonder.
A batch of character posters were released by Smith over the course of several weeks, each being given as an exclusive to the movie site that donated the most in a given time to one of a variety of Smith’s favorite charities. Some site owners complained that this was tantamount to paying for materials but I think it was just Smith trying to not only hype his film but also do a little good so I’m inclined to give him a pass on this one.
The posters were pretty simple in nature, just the character against a plain black background, with the description of their character at the top and the same sort of “looking through cracked glass” feel the first teaser had. First was “The Virgin” featuring Kerry Bishe followed by “The Father” with Michael Parks, “Caleb” with Garman, “The Sons” with the three boys who are going to wind up getting in a heap of trouble, “Sarah” with Melissa Leo and “The Sheriff” with Stephen Root.
The next poster was (technically, I guess) a theatrical version. What we see here is Bishe in profile holding an AK-47, her eyes turned upward. The design has the same sort of rough, weathered look the rest of the posters have and promises through that image what’s likely to be at least a somewhat violent film.
There’s also a fair amount of hyperbole here. The poster pegs the movie as being “unlikely” which can be interpreted as simply being that it’s not about a couple of people talking back and forth incessantly. And it labels it as coming from “That Kevin Smith” which is a reference to his Twitter handle.
The first trailer made a somewhat odd debut, with the audio being shared on an episode Smith’s Smodcast podcast.
When that trailer did arrive (on the Smodcast site) it certainly looked unlike anything we’d seen from Smith in the past. All fast cuts and sped-up footage we only got brief glimpses of the characters and scenes as we see shots of anti-gay protesters, people in a church of some sort, gunfire going off around a young girl, someone looking in at a person who’s being kept in a cage and other scenes of incarceration. It’s more than a little disturbing…or at least it hints at the idea that the movie is going to be more than a little disturbing. With all the fast-moving footage and the only dialogue being the preacher singing about having seen Jesus it’s possible only to get an overall tone here and not any great insights. But, as I said, what’s apparent is that we’re looking at a movie that’s so far removed from Smith’s earlier work as to be all but unrecognizable as his.
The trailer was later released in a more official version at the same time the road show kicked off with a new introduction from Smith.
The next trailer (the equivalent of a red-band version) much more clearly explains what the movie’s plot is. We start with three young guys sharing cellphones and talking about some site that hooks people up for random sex, something they’re looking to utilize in order to lose their virginity. When they arrive at the home of the woman they’re supposed to sleep with she insists they have a couple drinks, which they find have been drugged. Soon they find themselves caged and in some sort of small, radical church. They’re subjected to all sorts of torture then as we see the preacher/leader/father of this community spout off about God’s love and so on. Then the federal officials are called in and things get violent as the community defends itself.
It’s a much better trailer than the first since it plays more traditionally and gives more space for the performances to breathe. You get to see what kind of stuff Goodman, Bishe, Parks, Leo and the others are actually doing here and so makes a stronger case for seeing the movie.
Oh – and it labels the film as coming from “@thatkevinsmith,” referencing his prolific Twitter feed.
The CoopersDell.com site (named after the town much of the movie’s action takes place in) is primarily an e-commerce site, with lots of differently sized packages for people to choose from should they want to buy the DVD or other associated material. There’s a lot of stuff available, you just have to decide what you want and at what price point. The site also has information on all the video-on-demand options that are out there.
There’s also the RedStatements site that Smith started after breaking some important news about the movie at Sundance (more on that below). It’s filled with Smith’s long essays on topics related to the movie and what was happening with distribution and so on.
So there’s nothing here that resembles a traditional movie website. But in its place there are sites that allow for people to take immediate action, from buying the movie and its associated swag to connecting with Smith and his opinions. Which is much more interesting and interactive.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Nothing here that I’ve seen, but with the amount of publicity Smith has drummed up – only a fraction of which is covered below – who needs an ad buy?
Media and Publicity
Aside from the incessant stream of casting updates and related news stories, along with plenty of talk from Smith himself on his Twitter account, the first bit of real news about the movie came when it began to look like he would be taking it to Cannes 2011, news that still broke via Twitter. That was also where Smith distributed the first photo from the film.
Of course Smith was his own best publicity machine, endlessly updating Twitter about the movie and creating a special sub-section of his ongoing Smodcast podcast series to the film.
As Smith himself had said he was hoping for the, the movie got accepted to the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as an out-of-competition entry. Since the film didn’t have a distributor at the time Smith had said beforehand that he would love to run a live auction after a screening there to get people excited and talking. Of course both of those announcements generated plenty of conversations themselves, which was absolutely the point.
There was some discussion about how this was a different type of horror movie, one that dealt with the psychological damage people inflict on each other as opposed to scenes of gory mutilation.
Smith stirred up quite a few reactions when he announced (again over Twitter) that it was his intention to not to do much of any press glad-handing for the movie (Hollywood Reporter, 12/29/10), instead opting to record an epic-length installment of Smodcast that he said would contain just about everything anyone would want to know about the movie. The move was seemingly prompted by his frustrations with movie news writers and what he felt was their “I’ll just write whatever I want” attitude, something that was cemented with his experience in the wake of Cop Out. His statements prompted much hand-wringing from people who said they would just not cover the movie at all, though how serious such declarations were remained to be seen.
That appearance at Sundance wasn’t without issues, though, as it became the venue for protests by Westboro Baptist Church and those attached to its leader Fred Phelps, who Smith has said is the model for the preacher character in the movie.
Sundance also became the tipping point of another kind for the movie. Instead of holding a full-fledged auction for the movie’s distribution rights, which is what many figured he would do based on his comments, he snapped up the rights himself (THR, 1/23/11) for a mere $20 and then announced he would be distributing it himself.
What Smith outlined in a sprawling 20-minute speech after the screening of the movie was finished was the idea of a road-show, where he would travel with the film to select cities and show it to those who had bought tickets for an event more than just a movie, though he did say he would talk to any interested exhibitor as well and was planning on a formal release later in the fall. But the marketing for the movie would be done almost exclusively through Smith’s own – and owned – outlets such as his podcast, Twitter feed and so on.
The plan was so audacious that it immediately gained both ardent fans and fervent critics. Those acquisition executives who were in the audience felt (somewhat rightly) as if they had been duped since this, according to Smith, was the plan all along. And many industry pundits echoed the thoughts of Patrick Goldstein, who felt this was Smith more or less imploding and giving the entire industry the middle finger.
The analysis of the Sundance incident continued as Smith worked to convince people he wasn’t against the business in general, just that he didn’t think it was working for what he was trying to do. Some came to his defense (Time, 2/3/11) and cited Smith’s filmmaking history (THR, 2/3/11) as a reason why he might want to try going this one on his own.
Things sort of died down until the road show kicked off at Radio City Music Hall, where Smith lived up to his promise of holding a Q&A with each screening as he talked about the movie and whatever else came to mind with some of the cast on stage with him.
Profiles of Smith such as this one (LA Weekly, 4/1/11) continued throughout the screening tour, with the usual themes being how he’s very comfortable in his own skin and with his place in life despite all the attention and speculation that’s circling around him. There were also plenty of interviews with Smith (LAT, 4/7/11) where he continued to talk not only about the film’s themes and story but also about his own future as a filmmaker, with the writer/director insisting that this would be his second-to-last movie before retiring and moving into the next phase of his career as a talk-show host/pontificator of sorts.
The movie was later announced as the opening night feature at Montreal’s Fantasia film festival just before news broke that Lionsgate would be handling (THR, 6/28/11) multi-platform distribution for the movie, though did not include theatrical exhibition, which Smith still retained control over since he wanted to include digital Q&As with the audience as part of any exhibition.
Despite all the hand-wringing up front there was the perception that, regardless of whether or not you like the movie, Smith had fundamentally changed the game in a number of ways by controlling the entire process himself.
Just days before the planned theatrical release (though after the initial VOD release) the movie became available on Netflix for instant streaming viewing, thereby opening it up to a whole new – and much broader – audience group.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I liked this campaign a lot. Mostly that’s because, regardless of your opinion of Smith and his movies (he may be one of the few actually polarizing writer/directors out there right now), you have to admire the big brass ones that taking a stand like he’s done requires. He’s so passionate about the movie and believes in it so completely that he’s putting his own money where his mouth is and taking the risks himself, at least for the most part. He sees something that’s broken – the distribution and marketing system most movies go through – saying he wants no part of it and blazing a different path. So he gets a thumbs up from me based solely on that.
The campaign, when viewed through a more traditional lens, does work pretty well even though it’s clearly as divisive as Smith himself. People will either be turned off completely by it or put it on their Must See lists. Indeed some of the reviews that came out of festivals and even VOD watchings have played out just like that.
What will be interesting, though, is that since this is so VOD heavy if Smith has the leverage to finally get public VOD numbers released, something that has to date remained behind lock and key. Only then will we be able to judge whether this campaign winds up succeeding or not.