For a very low budget film, there’s been a lot of noise made surrounding Red State, which arrives in UK cinemas this week. That noise has come mainly from the man behind it, Mr Kevin Smith.
The film itself is something of a departure for Smith, and it’s also seen him challenge the manner in which movies are distributed. In short, rather than going via traditional channels, in the US at least, he’s taken the film on the road, and recouped its budget in under a year.
He also found time to spend the best part of a week in the UK to help push the movie, and he spared us ten minutes to tell us what he’s up to…
I was watching The Untouchables the other day.Yes. [grins]So I’m going to quote that at you. Because now you’ve made Red State, and tackled with that film the distribution system head on, I want to quote Sean Connery’s words at you: “Now what are you prepared to do?”
When I was at the Sundance stage in January I said when we’re done with this – I’ve got one more movie to make after this, Hit Somebody – we’re going to turn Smodcast Pictures over to you guys, and that’s always been the plan.
People are like ‘There’s no way you’re going to retire, you like movies too much’ [Hit Somebody will be Smith’s final big screen directorial outing] and I’m like ‘Yeah I like them and I could stay around them, I just don’t want to make them anymore’.
I like being around them, and when you’ve been doing it long enough, you could pass on a thing or two about a thing or two to somebody. That’s kind of nice, to be able to be like ‘Here’s what I learned, fuck it, take that’.
So me and Jon [Gordon] decided we would do Smodcast Pictures and pick other people’s movies up. People like me from back in the day who didn’t get a fucking shot at Miramax, who weren’t lucky enough to get it through to Miramax’s door.
So we said it would start after Hit Somebody, and it’s kind of what the Smodcast Pictures tour for Red State USA was all about. About figuring out, okay, if we do this for this, is it a model we could use for something else to pick other people’s movies up.
We figured out we can as long as I’m there, people will show up to see, and so that’ll be a nice way to take other filmmakers’ movies out.
Now, naturally everyone’s like ‘I want my movie to be with you guys’ but we tell them very quickly right up front, there’s a criteria to wind up with Smodcast Pictures.
And what’s that criteria?
I said in order to be considered, to be released by Smodcast Pictures, you have to have been passed over by every other distributor in the business.
You hand me a letter from everybody that says ‘This movie is unsellable, I can’t do it or no, I pass’. Then you come to us. We are the island of misfit toys for films.
Because physically, you personally can push in this kind of way, what, one, two pictures a year?
I figure like well, I looked at that tour, that After Dark tour they do in the United States, and I figured if we can do something like that, I mean that’s a model that works.
I can take that model and that’s all this is, Red State. Some people go ‘Oh, what a great idea’ but it’s not even my idea, it’s Trent Reznor’s idea, fucking Radiohead’s idea to unplug from the machine, the After Dark horror series, For years I watched them go out on tour and I was like, oh shit that’s a good idea.
And the benefit that I have over someone like that is like, they built their reputation. My reputation’s already there, so I can just kind of now go out there and be like, ‘Look, if you trust me, you’ll trust me on this as well’.
The ability to not spend to reach that audience is something that we perfected with the Red State tour. All that made a million bucks on fifteen screens with the screenings. And then the merchandise.
Jon Gordon told me finally, he was like, one of the people on our team, Amy, she bought a Facebook ad, I said ‘How much was that?’ because it was so against my fucking thing, and he was like ‘250 dollars’ and I was like ‘Alright, I can live with that but no more’.
So with only a $250 Facebook ad, which I don’t think did much at all, we were able to do that kind of business. Because we talked directly to the audience, because of Twitter, because of Smodcasts and shit like that, and once you’re talking directly to the audience, it’s a microcosm of the world.
Like basically we’re not doing anything differently except doing what we’ve always done, but just not spending money to do it.
In the same way if I was with a studio, or even out here, E One, they’ll set up work for me to do, I show up and I do the work. Back in the States, same thing but triple the work because you set everything up. Here, it’s bliss. You show up and this is just like it was in the old days, you know, you show up, somebody’s like ‘Here is a list of interviews you’re going to do, you’re going to go here and here for the next five days’, I’m like ‘Great’, you don’t have to think about anything, everything’s paid for, everything’s taken care of.
So how is it in America?
In the States dude, I was stood on a stage and I was like ‘We’re taking the movie out ourselves’ and what I fucking forgot was if you do that, you’re tripling the workload and I won’t lie, there were moments when I was like, this sucks, like I can’t stand… I’m waking up at four in the morning to do interviews to sell tickets across the country for a show that ain’t happening for a month, but that’s the only way this is going to get done.
Or, you know, jumping on TV I could do that, or jumping on the radio, but I didn’t sit down and do a lot or print press because I was like ‘That ain’t going to help me sell tickets’.
I’ve got this ability to kind of go out and sell tickets for something, I could do it if I’m standing there by myself or now I’ve proven I can do it if I just like bring the movie along. A lot of people have bitched about the tour who were never going to go when they first heard about it. They were going ‘He’s charging $50/$60 dollars to go see the movie’. It’s like ‘You don’t get it dude’, like, I charge 50, 65 bucks to stand there without a movie, they don’t give a shit. If I show up with a movie, they’ll be happy, that’s a bonus to them, the audience that we’re going after, the only audience that matters.
So here in the UK, it’s been lovely, somebody doing all the work. Back home there were moments when I was just like, this is too much. I forgot, when you’re like ‘I’m going indie’, you forget how much work is involved in that sort of thing and I’ve been a privileged baby for nearly two decades.
I came in on one flick and I was indie for like ten minutes because Miramax picked it up. And then I was always described as indie, but you know, Mickey Mouse was on all my travel vouchers and shit like that. And there was always a piece of me that felt like shit man, like, I talk indie, but I never really had to do indie but once, and then I got lucky.
And you always feel that there’s a debt that you owe, at least I do.
Which is what brought you to here…?
I always knew I’d go back to indie because I knew I wasn’t finished, because, the filmmaker I became… don’t get me wrong, but that wasn’t the filmmaker I thought I would be.
Red State is the filmmaker I thought I would be. Clerks and Red State I feel are like a really nice double bill, because one shows a lot of promise and one shows the answer, the delivery on that promise. And there’s about twenty years almost between those two movies but that was me going to film school in front of people.
Because I didn’t have film school prior to Clerks and whatnot, so for me this movie makes all the difference because I’m like ‘Right, on’, this shows that I could kind of grow up and do what other cats do and know how to make something more than just a quote unquote Kevin Smith movie.
And since we were already unconventional and outside of the box I was like, well let’s take it out unconventionally as well. For years dude, I’ve watched them spend money on releasing my movies. Like, over here, these cats? They’re spending wisely, over in the States, it’s like, a $4 million movie man if someone’s got to take it out.
Let’s say Lionsgate, they’re the most responsible, fiscally responsible at releasing a movie in terms of marketing, but that’s a minimum of $20 million, $20 million! And that’s the low end of the business. But $20 million on a $4 million dollar movie that’s five times what we spent to make it, it’s fucking ridiculous.
$4 million plus $20 million is $24 million I’ve got to make back and we know that ain’t the case, you’ve got to make double that because the exhibitors keep half, the studio gets half, so you have to make $48 million just to break even on a $4 million movie.
I ain’t never made a movie that’s made $48 million ever, it was never going to be this movie, so I was like ‘Now’s my chance, now’s the chance to try it out’, take this movie out, make their money back and just don’t spend. I built up enough reputation or enough following to be like, ‘I can sell directly to anybody who gives a shit about the movie’, anyone who doesn’t give a shit about the movie, they were never going to come anyway. And that money we always spent to try to trick them into coming like ‘Come see this movie!’ they were never into it?
For years I’ve watched that happen, and on this movie, I was like, you know what, let me weigh a certainty against a doubt and the certainty is this: if I’m willing to stand next to that movie, I can charge a premium for it and we can make our money back. But if we play it the standard way and let them spend what they wanted to spend in the States, or what they’ve always spent in the States, it would have died, it would have withered on the vine. I was like ‘We’re already outside the box, let’s just keep going’.
And so the line [Sean Connery impression] ‘What are you prepared to do?’
…that’s my bad Sean Connery. [Louder, more Scottish] ‘What are you PREPARED TO DO?’ It’s that.
[Laughs] Your Connery impression needs work!
I’ll tell you man, it was nice being on that stage and saying what I said, because maybe there were some cats in the room that were like ‘Fuck you’. But more than that it was the people at home, it was the kids dude, where I was almost twenty years ago, who embrace your back, because suddenly you’re back in the midst of punk rock film-making.
Because they know you could fucking get your movie financed, do it traditionally. We could have sold the movie, you’ve seen the flick, I wouldn’t say it’s commercial but we could do business with it. And if you’re lucky maybe some smart distributor would have found… like Miramax circa 1994 would have crushed this movie, crushed this movie. But that company today didn’t go near it.
You know like even Quentin [Tarantino] was like ‘Did Harvey see this movie yet, because Harvey would know how to do this movie’ and I was like ‘Harvey didn’t… he watched about 10 minutes’ but Quentin was like ‘No, this is the perfect Harvey Weinstein movie!’
Like well, circa ’94 yeah, but the business has changed, he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore, nobody does. We wanted to take risks and I couldn’t ask people to take risks knowing that in this financial environment and economy, they probably wouldn’t, they couldn’t, they couldn’t afford to even if they believed in the movie.
But I was like, ‘Who’s going to believe in it more than me?’ Harvey told us years ago when we first got into the business, when he bought Clerks, he pushed me out to speak it, just like he pushed Quentin out to speak about it. And later on when Robert [Rodriguez[ went over to Miramax and the philosophy was very simple.
I was like ‘Why not just send the clerks from Clerks, they should do all the interviews, they’re the actors’ and Harvey would be like ‘Kevin, I can’t get two dudes nobody knows on The Tonight Show’, and I was like ‘You can’t get me…nobody knows me either’.
And he was like ‘I’ve got a better shot of getting you on The Tonight Show because you’ve got a cute back story, you worked in that convenience store you shot the movie in, plus who’s going to advocate this movie better than you? Who’s going to speak more passionately?’
By doing that, that made sense. I was like, alright, so you start going out there and you start being a mouthpiece. But they kind of turned us into like celebrities to some degree, or like, rock stars, because generally speaking, you didn’t really know who directors were back in the day, you know, Lucas and Spielberg and the big names and stuff, but directors? It was like inside baseball.
But thanks to folks like Miramax, you do know my name, and it’s that you know my name I can kind of go out there and be like ‘You know me, I’m familiar from this stuff, come try this one out’.
Harvey had said something when we first got in back in ’94 when they bought Clerks, me and [Scott] Mosier are sitting in his office and he said something that really made a fucking impact, that stuck with me forever.
He goes… look, dude, he passed off, he wasn’t even paying attention, he was doing nine things at once and he dropped this shit and my eyes were like ‘Oh my God, these are pearls, pearls from the gods’, he goes, “The movie doesn’t begin and end when the lights go down and the lights come up. If you’re really good at your job, the movie begins long before they get in the theatre. If you’re a fucking magician, the movie will last long after the lights come up, long after the credits have rolled’.
So I’ve always tried to live by that, adhere to that rule where it’s just like, I started talking about Red State five years ago, to get people interested, throw your hat over the wall, make sure people give a shit. And then I’ll talk about Red State long after it’s done. The movie will be out on DVD in the States October 18th and we’ll still be taking the movie out in theatres because I have the ability to be like, ‘Hey man, come see Red State at the Q&A’ and we can charge a little bit more than most cats, and keep it alive on the box office charts.
Even when it’s supposed to be dead, and people go ‘Why, what’s the point?’ and I’m like ‘Why not man?’ Just to prove it can be done, just because there’s somebody out there, some young Kevin fucking Smith who’s watching going like ‘That’s another way in, he’s showing there’s a crack in the system, if that crack works for him, maybe it’ll work for me.’
And that’s how I got in, I saw Richard Linklater’s movie Slacker, I said ‘That dude found a crack in the system’ and that’s what indie film does, you have to regenerate and if you’re lucky enough to get fucking tapped and brought into the club, it’s your privilege and your honour to give that back.
I mean I hate to say pay it forward, in a Kevin Spacey kind of way, but you know, you want people to have the experience you had, and it benefits you, dude, because cool work comes from it.
Like, I’m a movie fan first and foremost. Yeah, I make them for a living, but the only reason I make them is because I love them so much. And so when you encourage other artists or you give other artists a shot or other indie filmmakers, and give them the benefit of whatever you’ve learned to help them avoid the pitfalls or whatnot, the foibles, you’re benefitting because you’re going to see some shit man. You’re going to see some cool fucking movies that you’re like ‘Yes! This is what it’s all about!’
Like now I’m winding down my movie making career which means I’m going to go back to being a movie watcher. Which means I want to make sure that the movies out there that I’m watching like give it to me in a big bad way so that I never get back to that moment I got to in 1991 when I was like ‘I don’t see myself recognised on the screen so I might as well start making movies’.
And now I see myself represented on the screen a lot, you know, I see people like me. Shit, Judd Apatow makes movies about me and my friends all the time more or less, so at that point you don’t need to make them yourself, you can just kick back and enjoy them.