At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Kevin Smith spent roughly half an hour telling a packed room that he planned to self-distribute his new horror movie, "Red State." On Saturday, in a much bigger room, he spent twice as long getting the enthusiastic reaction he wanted in the first place.
Smith kicked off "The Red State Tour" at Radio City Music Hall to a crowd of 3,800, many of whom shelled out $54 to watch the movie with the guarantee of a characteristically vulgar Smith Q&A afterward. Smith delivered on the promise, packing the stage with almost all primary cast members, including John Goodman and recent Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, fielding questions alongside the actors for a full hour. (Lead actor Michael Parks, who plays the demented priest responsible for kidnapping and murdering homosexuals, backed out at the last minute due to a fear of flying.)
But who pays that kind of money for a 97-minute movie and the opportunity to witness Smith unfurl essentially the same routine he's done probably hundreds of times before? (Not me. Despite Smith's virtual fatwah against the press, he still hires good publicity to get them through the door.)
The answer: Hardcore Smith acolytes. "Have you seen all his movies?" one attendee asked another as they grabbed beers in the theater's pristine lobby before the show. "At least eighty percent," the friend replied. "But I also listen to the podcasts."
Smith's weekly podcasts, which he hosts alongside producer Scott Mosier, provide one of several anchors the filmmaker throws down to keep his core fans in check. He also has nearly 2 million followers on Twitter and a theater in Los Angeles where he regularly hosts events (and even performs weddings on request). For Saturday's "Red State" audience, the screening was more like a meeting ground for Smith devotees who wanted to get just a tad closer to their master.
The roving Q&A session often resembled the boisterous self-indulgence found at Comic-Con panels, with virtually every question beginning with ample praise for the idol in the spotlight. "That was the best movie I've ever seen," a man said, before getting to his point. Another questioner boasted that he flew in from California that morning to attend the screening. "I hate to tell you this," Smith said, "but there's a show in L.A., too."
Smith's tour will stop in 16 cities scheduled around the country before the movie's general release in October. Ticket prices vary, but none come cheaply because the director hopes to recoup the $4 million production budget before opening day. Although the 6,000-seat Radio City was just a little more than half full, enough people turned out for a press release to boast the next morning that "Red State" grossed $161,590 on one screen. Of course, it was a big room.
Some audience members pitched podcast spin-offs or movie ideas to Smith, while others relished praise on Goodman, who took the attention in stride. At one point, the actor quoted his character from "The Big Lebowski" to massive applause ("Shut the fuck up, Donny," he muttered), and even indulged one man who wanted to know what game Goodman was playing on his cell phone before the show. ("I think it was Trivial Pursuit.") For these people, the chance to achieve physical proximity to the faces they admire from afar provides all the validation they need to open their wallets, a weak spot Smith happily exploits.
And why shouldn't he? "Red State" has competent-enough entertainment value to deserve an audience and the director has found a way to deliver it on his own terms. He says his just-launched SModcast Pictures label could release more movies by other filmmakers, especially once Smith (allegedly) quits the directing business after completing his next feature, "Hit Somebody." Said Smith, "If we can get this model right, we can release other people's flicks."
In the meantime, the "Red State" journey continues. Smith singled out his mother in the audience and repeatedly thanked people for showing up. "Let this be a lesson to you," he said to the room before the movie began. "Anyone can rent out Radio City Music Hall, even a fat kid from Jersey."
For a full list of tour dates, click here.