Kevin Smith: 'Alarmist Ninnies' Misinterpreted Sundance Outburst
The following article appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands now.
Even before the movie screened on Jan. 24, the carnival had begun. On a typically frigid afternoon, three hours before Kevin Smith's Red State would have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, hate-mongering foot soldiers from Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church faced off against an assortment of moviegoers -- including many Park City-area high school students -- who responded with a full-volume, taunting rendition of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl."
Smith and his associates had orchestrated the encounter, encouraging supporters to turn out on his behalf. But in theory, at least, Smith also was prepared to conduct business. The plan, supposedly, was that he'd auction off Red State -- a $4 million comic horror film centering on a hate-mongering preacher who consigns gays to hell -- after the screening. A clutch of prospective buyers, including longtime Smith patron Harvey Weinstein, showed up to check out Smith's wares.
But after the credits rolled, Smith stood before the crowd of about 1,100 and launched into a 20-minute harangue about the movie business, pausing in the midst to sell the movie to himself for $20.
"I never wanted to know jack shit about business," Smith said. "Ladies and gentleman, I'm a fat, masturbating stoner. ... If somebody told me all the stupid, horseshit, soul-killing, uncreative, backwards-ass bullshit business that I now have in my head ... It's too much f---in' horseshit."
Smith complained about laboring over films made on tiny budgets, only to watch a distributor spend "a shit-ton of money" on marketing. "And then I never see anything," he said. "Nobody ever sees any money, ever again." Smith said his 1994 film Clerks -- made for $27,575 -- took seven years to turn a profit. "I wouldn't try Clerks today," he said. "Because it's impenetrable. Even if you're lucky enough to make a movie, how are you going to open a movie?"
To prospective buyers who were missing the New York Jets' playoff game to attend the Red State screening, only to hear Smith dismiss the idea of "selling [the movie] to some jackass," neither the rant nor the phony auction was amusing. It seemed Smith had poured a liberal dose of gasoline on a pile of indie-film relationships and lit a match, and some observers took it as a sign that Smith might finally be imploding.
But at the same time, Smith's monologue, posted promptly on YouTube, was reminiscent of the ramblings of the disillusioned attorney played by Tom Wilkinson in the 2007 thriller Michael Clayton: Was he nuts, or was he maybe on to something?
Although he seemed to choose his words with care, festival director John Cooper stuck up for Smith. "My job is to support the filmmakers in any way possible during their time here," he wrote in an e-mail to The Hollywood Reporter. Smith's ploy -- and his plan to take the film on a city-by-city tour -- could be "genius," Cooper said. But he added that members of Smith's team, including his longtime attorney and veteran film-seller John Sloss, "know what they are doing ... and the risks they are taking."
By now, the story of how Smith took Clerks to Sundance and sold it to Miramax in 1994, kicking off a long relationship with the Weinstein brothers, is well known by movie fans generally and Smith's devoted followers in particular. Little about Smith is not known to those who desire to know it: He has tirelessly written, blogged, tweeted and podcast about every aspect of his life, including intimate details of his sexual relationship with his wife.
Smith was one of the first in the business to have a website and sell merchandise -- pieces of film from his movies and action figures -- to fans. But one source who has worked with him thinks Smith might be one of the first filmmakers to exploit and then be undone by social media, and that access to social media has eliminated any filter that might have protected Smith from emotional outbursts that, in this person's view, have undermined his career.
Smith has expounded at length about the Sundance episode and its meaning on his podcast -- or Smodcast, as he calls it. In a Jan. 31 email to THR, he added: "As per usual, the alarmist ninnies are out of sorts over nothing. What I'm doing is no attack on anything other than a weak economy that can't sustain marketing dollars on movies like mine anymore -- and even THEN, it's not an attack so much as an alternative."
That wording suggests Smith hopes to soften what played very much like an attack. But Sloss says the negative take -- that Smith is unraveling -- is diametrically wrong. Yes, the 40-year-old might have annoyed prospective distributors of any films he makes in the future (assuming his threat to retire after his next film is hollow), but Sloss thinks Smith's need for those connections has diminished.
"Kevin Smith has 1.7 million followers on Twitter, and it's not like Ashton Kutcher's followers," Sloss says. "These people think about Kevin every day, and he cultivates them and they love him." At this point, Smith has said he doesn't need to work for anyone except his fans. As for his complaints about the film business, Sloss adds, "There's a lot of truth to what he is saying, and everybody knows that."
If the Sundance escapade inflicted serious damage on Smith's standing in Hollywood, it wasn't as though he was souring an otherwise-flourishing relationship with the industry. He has worked steadily but struggled intermittently for years, perhaps most publicly with the 2004 bomb Jersey Girl, which paired Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez at the most tabloid-worthy moments of their respective careers. With a budget of $35 million, it was Smith's most expensive movie to that point. It grossed only $25.3 million domestically and became an object of ridicule. But two years later, Smith was at the Festival de Cannes with Clerks II, enjoying a prolonged standing ovation. The $5 million movie grossed $24.1 million domestically.
Smith was back with a comparatively big budget of about $25 million for his next movie, 2008's Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and he landed Seth Rogen to play opposite Elizabeth Banks. Smith was convinced the film would grasp a piece of the raunchy-comedy box-office success that had flowed freely to Judd Apatow the previous year for Knocked Up. Some counseled that making a movie with the word "Porno" in the title would limit box-office potential, but Smith didn't listen. Outrageousness was his trademark.
Perhaps its title doesn't explain why Zack grossed a flaccid $31.5 million domestically. An associate says Smith bitterly blamed Harvey Weinstein for failing to spend enough to market the movie. Although Weinstein said he spent $30 million on marketing, Smith didn't believe he had followed through. Either way, the relationship between the two frayed. (Weinstein did not respond to THR's requests for comment.)
After Zack failed, a source says, Smith withdrew for weeks, "convinced he'd lost his touch." Smith was even absent for a time from the digital space. "He had lived on the Internet, hours and hours a day," the source says. "He wanted to know what people were saying about him. He stopped doing it after that."
Smith's next move was to take a more formulaic movie, directing material from the studio machine. A source says Smith figured Warner Bros. would spend generously to support Cop Out, a 2010 comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, and that "no one would blame him if it didn't work out."
In an e-mail to THR, Smith says he took on Cop Out in part because his dad would have loved it and in part to learn about studio marketing.
"I'd seen 12 years of Miramax/Weinstein Co. marketing, but I wanted to see how 'they' did it across the street -- especially [Warners marketing chief] Sue Kroll," he wrote. "I wanted to work with her and pick her brain." Smith says he took a major pay cut to do the film.
It seemed generous of Warners' Jeff Robinov to give Smith the shot: Years earlier, after a pitch meeting didn't go well, Smith had broadcast his opinion that Robinov was a balding studio clock-puncher.
Robinov says he thought Smith might succeed with Cop Out. "What Kevin needed was a script to tell the whole story," he says. "I thought mostly the issue with Kevin's movies was how the story held up." In retrospect, Robinov adds, there were other problems in this instance, including the pressure of working with a relatively big budget (about $35 million) and, most of all, the personalities involved.
A talent representative with a connection to the project says there were awful conflicts on the set, notably between Smith and Willis. "He smokes way too much pot," the talent rep says of Smith. "He sat behind his monitor. He didn't interact with the actors. The actors felt they were on their own."
Smith disputes these allegations. "I dealt with every actor who wanted to be dealt with on that set," he wrote in an email. "If I was smoking so much weed, how did I manage to not only bring the film in on schedule but under budget? If I was supposedly so stoned, how could I shoot all day THEN edit the film myself all night?" Smith then rattled through a list of other activities that he engaged in during that period, concluding, "Yes -- what a big, fat, lazy, unenthused stoner I must be."