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Mr. Smith goes to Sundance

Posted Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 2:37 PM Central
Last updated Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 11:13 PM Central

by John Couture

Director Kevin Smith begins an odyssey of sorts today as he travels to Park City, Utah for a return visit to the Sundance Film Festival. It was here in 1994 that Smith got his big break when Clerks debuted and was subsequently purchased by Miramax Films.

He's been back to Sundance (to premiere Chasing Amy) before, but this time it's different. In many ways, this trip to Sundance mirrors his first journey in that the film is looking for a distributor and Smith is looking to make a name for himself, albeit this time in a different genre.

As unabashed fans of Kevin's work, we have written extensively about Red State and the man himself since the inception of our website back in 1999. No really, we have mentioned him in no less than 150 news stories on our site, or about 1 in every 20 stories.

It's not that we're obsessed with the filmmaker, but rather he is someone that both Tim and I feel a kinship with because he's part of our generation, had a similar upbringing and, most importantly, spoke in a voice that we easily understood and recognized. If Richard Linklater's Slacker was the film that inspired Kevin Smith and reinforced his conviction that he could make films, then Clerks' arrival opened our eyes to the idea that there was a filmmaker from our tween generation (not quite Generation X, definitely not Baby Boomer) that spoke to us.

What followed has been 17 years of filmmaking in which he hit highs and lows, but always maintained his special brand of writing and wit that came to personify the "Star Wars Generation." He became the top purveyor of dick and fart jokes in all of the land and built quite a successful View Askew empire.

A couple of years ago, Smith changed his focus slightly and started a podcast from scratch that he has quickly grown to an empire of SModcasts that dominate the charts on iTunes. He changed the paradigm and found a way to give away his podcasts for free, but yet still make it a profitable venture. At least, profitable enough to break even with his costs, and that's all that really matters in the end, no?

Around the same time, Smith started working in earnest on the movie that he's bringing to Sundance with him this weekend. It's a horror film. That's right, gone are the dick and fart jokes, instead replaced by blood (get it blood = red = Red State?).

Of course, this isn't your normal every day horror film. Smith revealed that the main baddie in the film was based on Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). The WBC is technically a religious organization, but it seems that they are more content to make headlines by picketing funerals of fallen soldiers, homosexuals and politicians than by converting the masses.

And since the title Red State could have certain political implications (despite Smith's numerous denials), some pundits have incorrectly assumed that it's a political film. From what we have seen from the trailer, this is anything but a political film. Those of us that have been following the Red State of the Union Smodcast can tell you that it's a vintage horror/psychological suspense film that could just as easily be a throwback to the exploitation flicks of the 1970s.

And that's the real story this weekend. As Mr. Smith prepares to invade Park City for the third time in his career, in many ways he's also going there for the first time. This is the new Kevin Smith with a passion project that is a 180 degree turn away from his usual fare.

But, he won't be alone when he gets there. The WBC has announced plans to picket outside of Sunday's screening of Red State at the Eccles Theatre. Interestingly enough, this isn't the first time that one of Smith's films have gotten the picket treatment. Back in 1999 when Dogma was released, the Catholic League took offense to the film's subject matter and some people decided to picket on opening night.

Undeterred, Kevin Smith embraced the picketers and even joined them in their condemnation of his flick. Oh, and yes, we've got the video to prove it.

This Sunday's festivities will have more of a West Side Story feel to it though as Smith has pledged to picket the WBC picketers. You can read the press release below:

Not being in Park City this weekend, I can't tell you what film will be the talk of the town, but as an outsider looking in, I can tell you that Kevin Smith has been nothing short of brilliant by ushering in a new model of film marketing and promotion. It's true that Red State will come to Sundance without a distributor, but Smith hopes to rectify that by the end of Sunday night.

The filmmaker has announced plans to hold a live auction immediately following the screening on Sunday night with the film's distribution rights going to the winner. He has even been trying to elicit some good fortune from his idol Wayne Gretzky by way of an Edmonton Oilers era stick used by the great hockey star.

It goes without saying that all of these cutting edge marketing and promotion tactics have worked to stir up his considerable fan base. I think it's safe to say that they will line up to see Red State during opening weekend as they do for every Smith offering, but what about the rest of the movie-going public?

A big piece of that puzzle will fall into place next Friday when Smith will screen the movie for select movie websites and blogs, of which we are honored to have been chosen. This is just another cog in a new promotional machine that has, thus far, worked to perfection for Smith.

So, this weekend Kevin returns to the Sundance Film Festival both a wily veteran and a hungry rookie. The puck drops on Sunday night and from there, it's all just about playing the game that he loves.