Helmer Smith takes pic on the road for hardcore fans
When a filmmaker has nearly 2 million Twitter followers, why not launch his movie with a nationwide grassroots tour?
That was the thinking for helmer-scribe Kevin Smith, who, after garnering loads of press at Sundance for the contentious fake auction of his latest film, “Red State,” hit the road last weekend on a 14-city personal tour of the U.S., screening the pic to his most hardcore fans.
Making films into events has become an integral part of the indie playbook, but the tirelessly self-promoting Smith has taken eventizing to a whole new level.
“You don’t have to trick an audience to come see my stuff,” Smith told Variety. “This movie is a very acquired taste, and if it pops, it’s going to have to happen organically.”
“Red State,” which stars John Goodman and Melissa Leo alongside a relatively unknown supporting cast, follows three teenage boys who find an online sex ad from an older woman. After responding, they encounter a group of fundamentalists with gruesome motives. Smith’s Smodcast Pictures banner will release the film in theaters Oct. 19.
Pic is a tough sell for most moviegoers, and even Smith acknowledged that it won’t work with mainstream auds. “There ain’t no superheroes in this movie; it’s about immoral relativism,” Smith said. “So we have to be happy with diminishing returns and, in this case, just playing to my audience.”
The rent-a-theater roadshow does seem to be tapping into Smith’s fanbase, but it’s an open question whether other filmmakers have the followers to pull off a comparable strategy.
What Smith described as an “indie band tour” launched with one screening at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on Saturday. The show took in $161,590, thanks to ticket prices ranging between $50-$100 but also filled more than 3,800 seats. Pic then grossed $42,640 on Sunday in Boston.
The hefty ticket price may be too steep for some, but at least some of those whom Smith is targeting — his Twitter followers and fans of his SModcast podcast — are willing to shell out the extra coin to see Smith in action at each screening.
“I sit there every night, and while it’s not a full house, we’ve hit our house minimum,” Smith said. “For us, this is strictly a word of mouth tour.”
As part of the arrangement, Smith has committed to attend every show, along with his wife Jen and a small crew that includes Smith’s assistant, a technician and bus driver. The crew last stopped in Minneapolis on Wednesday; the tour will end at L.A.’s Wiltern on April 9.
“There was a moment before the tour when I thought, ‘Why did we do this?’ This is a lot of work,” Smith acknowledged. “I mean, do we stay at the Comfort Inn because it’s $90 a night?”
But given that the tour has minimal costs — most theaters are rented, while others offer a better-than-usual percentage split of ticket sales — Smith said, “The tour gives us just a little more breathing room.” Pic’s budget was $4 million, according to Smith, with foreign pre-sales in markets including Germany and the U.K. contributing an additional $1.4 million.
Still, one of the biggest payoffs for Smith is creating goodwill among his fans — and investors.
“The main objective for the tour is that it doesn’t cost anyone a dime,” Smith said. “That’s why I’m out there, to show these cats that it’s possible to see traction on this movie without doing it conventionally.”
And while the Sundance stunt resulted in a few complaints from those who thought he was actually selling distribution rights, the attention it generated was priceless. Smith said he preferred marketing films himself to keep costs low. “Who better than the filmmaker to go out there and advocate?” he asked.
The real question, however, is whether the roadshow will ultimately boost the theatrical release in October.