At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Kevin Smith created one of festival's biggest sensations for audiences and film buyers alike by announcing he was going to auction off his film Red State after its world premiere screening.
Added to that, the hate-spreading publicity junkies known as the Westboro Baptist Church announced they would be staging a protest in front of the event with their usual "GOD HATES FAGS" signs, which in turn inspired Smith to stage his own protest of the Kansas-based church as a self-proclaimed "FAG ENABLER," which in turn inspired hundreds of people from Park City to make their own signs. Tickets to the movie were rumored to have been scalped for close to a thousand dollars, and the buzz surrounding the situation was truly something I have rarely felt at Sundance.
But Smith had yet another trick up his sleeve: after the film completed, instead of auctioning off his film, he sold the film to himself for $20 and went on an inspired and jaw-dropping rant about how "this world of independent cinema had lost its way" (as Sundance director John Cooper stood awkwardly behind him), and that not only would he be self-distributing Red State, but that he was retiring from his 20-year career of filmmaking. Again, all of this had happened within a few hours and we all left the theater not really knowing what the hell had happened.
But all the hype seems even more relevant now that Red State has finished its world tour, recouping his $5 million production budget. On the eve of the world premiere for his latest stand-up movie (Kevin Smith: Burn In Hell, available on ePiX starting February 11), echoes of the naysaying critics bounce around in my brain especially in light of Louis CK's similarly successful independent release Live at the Beacon Theater.
Smith gave both Hollywood and the indie scene the middle finger and managed to follow through on his goal without both of them. Red State, a surprisingly violent and complex political manifesto confronting gay rights, wasn't just an immense departure from his usual clunky comedies, it is the stuff film history is built on. If a filmmaker can make millions of dollars with no studio backing, the entire industry (studios, filmmakers, critics, and audiences) best take note. This is how Hollywood was born back in the early 1910s, when a group of filmmakers rebelled against the vertically integrated monopolization of the Motion Picture Patents Company created by Thomas Edison (and friends). This East Coast gang led by Carl Laemmle and William Fox moved out West to create their own studios, which later became Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox, respectively.
Now let's cut back to the critics of Red State. They were furious with Smith. Not only did they rarely even talk about the actual film in their reviews, they felt they needed to put Smith "in his place," for he had somehow made a mockery of their profession. Not only had he not needed the studios to release his film, he hadn't needed reviewers either. He has close to two million Twitter followers, after all! Critics busted out every kind of mocking comment imaginable; some were even quoted as proclaiming that they were the reasons Kevin Smith was famous in the first place. (Do some Googling, the reviews are priceless!) These critics weren't just baffled or angry, they were scared.
Which brings us up to the present. If you prefer Smith's earlier, funnier films like Clerks (1994) and Mallrats (1995), or you only like 1997's Chasing Amy (Criterion released it!), or you even found something to enjoy in his underrated 2010 studio pic Cop Out, the man has made himself into a contemporary icon and has positioned himself as the voice of a whole new era. The uncensored, unrelenting, and utterly sincere Burn in Hell helps answer every single question you may have about love, life, being overweight, questioning God, being gay, the state of cinema, and ultimately following your dream before you drop dead tomorrow.