How to lose fans and alienate critics

Tuesday July 5th 2011

If you’ve been following the progress of Kevin Smith’s indie horror movie Red State over the last twelve months (and it’s been pretty hard not to), you’ll already be well aware of the various controversies surrounding the film and its volatile director. The shit officially hit the fan back in January, when Smith organised a high-profile auction at Sundance for the film’s distribution rights, only to turn up, refuse all bids and sell the film to himself for $20. If he was going for a ‘man of the people’ vibe, it backfired badly: most commentators understandably sided with the bemused distributors rather than the spoilt brat so intent on ‘fucking with the system’.

Internationally however, Smith’s distribution strategy is a little more traditional. He sold Red State‘s UK rights to eOne earlier this year, and a release date was set for September 30th. But given that eOne have been steadfastly ignoring me for about three years now, I figured it was still unlikely I’d be seeing the film any time soon.

So you can imagine my excitement when a screening was scheduled for 9pm last night and I managed to wangle my way into somebody’s plus one. For me, a new Kevin Smith movie is still something of an event — and I say that as someone who sat through Cop Out — so it didn’t take much effort to get myself properly psyched up for what I hoped would be The Horror Event of 2011.

Like others, I made my excitement known on Twitter, and by 6pm it seemed Smith himself had finally caught wind of the screening:

Within the hour the screening was cancelled, with eOne citing ‘Kevin Smith’s request that a different screening strategy for Red State be put in place’. Smith later elaborated on Twitter that the film ‘needs an intro’ he’s made before it can be screened. Now, I totally understand the desire of a filmmaker to have control over how his or her film is presented, but cancelling a screening due to be attended by hundreds of people an hour or two before it happens isn’t being a perfectionist, it’s throwing your toys out of the pram because Timmy didn’t invite you to his birthday party.

Critics, some of whom were already en route to the screening when they found out, were understandably annoyed. And as minor grievances tend to do in 2011, it all ended up on Twitter. Not know for his ability to turn the other cheek, Smith was straight onto the defensive:

Before long he was requesting that his fans send him the names of ‘whiner’ critics so that he could have them banned from the screening and replaced by ‘folks who REALLY wanna see the film’, i.e. his 20 most fawning Twitter followers.

(Incidentally, now that they’re no longer the aforementioned Paying Customers, those fans presumably cease to matter, in which case they don’t get to go to the screening, in which case they’re Paying Customers again, in which case they matter, in which case they do get to go to the screening after all, in which case AAAAARRRGGGH PARADOX.)

You couldn’t help but feel bad for eOne, whose hopes of any kind of decent press coverage for the film must have rapidly diminished as Smith swapped more and more reviewers for random members of the public. Hold up — maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. This could be my chance to finally attend an eOne press screening under my own name! They can’t ignore me if I get a personal invite from the director…

No reply as of yet.

The thing is, I know Kevin Smith has good intentions. And as contrived and apparently self-serving as his attempts to Stick It To The Man might be, you sense that he does at least believe he’s doing the right thing. But by refusing to play the PR game and saying exactly what he thinks at any given moment, he’s also backing himself into an increasingly tight corner. One minute it’s all about the love of filmmaking, the next minute he’s just trying to turn a profit. First he’s insisting that reviews are meaningless, then he’s encouraging attendees of his Red State US tour to send their own in (spoiler alert: obsessive Kevin Smith fans like the new Kevin Smith movie).

Of course, this is all very easy for me to say as someone who will probably end up seeing the movie for free, albeit as a plus one rather than a critic in my own right. But it’s also not the first time I’ve been made to feel like some kind of traitor to the Kevin Smith cause, for suggesting that ticket prices for his stand-up were too expensive, or failing to share his sense of injustice when he was thrown off that plane for being too fat. Isn’t it possible to be a fan of somebody’s work without granting them total immunity to criticism?

When the person in question has an army of loyal Twitter followers ready to dob you in at the first sign of revolt, it would seem the answer is no.