Sundance 2011: ‘Red State’ premiere sparks protests and media circus


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Call it the perfect storm of publicity mongers.

For weeks leading up to this year’s Sundance, writer-director Kevin Smith’s religious horror movie “Red State” has been touted as one of the festival’s hottest tickets -- with Smith himself auctioning off two tickets Sunday for $1,000 (which the filmmaker donated to benefit the Sundance Institute Labs).

But the movie has also been a matter of scrutiny for a group whose interests lie somewhere quite outside the indie movie realm.


Last week, the independent, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church -- which is widely considered a hate group for its slur-filled diatribes condemning homosexuality -- issued a press release claiming the movie “mocks the servants of God” and labeling Smith a “hater of Biblical proportions.”

Church members announced plans to travel to Park City Sunday to protest in front of the Eccles Theater for the “Red State” premiere. To which the outspoken Smith swiftly responded with an entreaty to his fanboy legions -- albeit one laden with inexplicable references to “Ghostbusters” -- to organize their own counter-protest.

“The Harvey [Weinstein] Boys are seeking the aid of the Mighty Thor, hoping he’ll lay down his
hammer and instead pick up a protest sign on our behalf, in a Park City battle of the mega-gods!” reads the release. “If he’s in reshoots, we’ll be reaching out to Sigourney Weaver to channel Zuul on our behalf. If she’s not at Sundance this year, we’ll start praying to Krom. And if you don’t help us, Krom? Then to hell witchoo.” The two tribes massed outside Park City’s Eccles Theater two times on Sunday, facing off with picket signs, chanting slogans and singing songs in a strange display in which hate speech was met with absurdist humor, resulting in a kind of media frenzy that was spirited even by Sundance’s hype-saturated standards.

Between 2 and 3:30 p.m., a group of five Westboro Baptist Church members holding signs with such slogans as “God hates America,” “You’re going to hell” and “God is not mocked” (as well as others that have no place in a family blog) rallied near the street side of the theater while a group of about 100 mostly high school aged kids -- who had organized themselves via Facebook and Twitter -- stood jeering just a few feet opposite them. The boisterous crowd of teenagers carried their own picket signs that spelled out funny, cryptic messages such as “Shut up and dance” and “God hates signs.”

The Westboro protesters and a smaller group of about 60 counter-protesters returned in the evening before the “Red State” premiere and resumed the heckling and singing, witnessed this time by a gaggle of video crews, photographers and reporters and hemmed in by a contingent of police.

Asked what motivated her to picket a film she had not seen and admittedly knew little about, Westboro Baptist’s Shirley Phelps-Roper explained her rationale for traveling from Topeka, Kan., to Utah for the event.


“This is just a beautiful preaching opportunity,” Phelps-Roper said. “Kevin Smith can keep mocking and scoffing but we’re just going to climb on his back.”

On the other side of the divide, Kya Palomaki, 17, and Alex Falten, 18, both seniors at Park City High School, exhorted their classmates to sing Katy Perry’s hit “I Kissed a Girl” ever more loudly in an effort to drown out the Westboro protesters’ original composition “God Hates America.” Falten walked back and forth in front of the counter-protesters waving a large American flag.

“We think they are spewing nonsense,” Palomaki said. “So we’re spewing nonsense right back at them.”

Meanwhile Amy Darling, 31, a programmer for the Calgary Film Festival who is in Park City for Sundance, heard about the counter-protest on Twitter and came out to lend her support. She held a sign that said “God hates nags.”

“I’m surprised how boring they are,” Darling said of the Westboro contingent. “It’s so banal. I definitely feel like I’m on the winning team here.”

For his part, Smith walked up at 6:10 p.m., accompanied by a phalanx of about two dozen more counter-protesters. And the event escalated into a full-on media circus. Girls screamed out offers of sex. Cars honked. Cameramen converged around the rotund filmmaker like sharks around a bleeding sea lion. Police jostled counter-protesters and journalists from the sidewalk. Flashbulbs popped; everyone, it seemed, was shouting.


The “Red State” director posed for photo-ops with several different signs, including: “God hates Christian (Louboutin),” “God hates fat (so does SW airlines),” “God hates critics” and “Dogma is dog [excrement].” And seven full minutes later, he left -- a scrum of cameramen and a gaggle of looki-loos following in the director’s wake.

A guest walking past the Westboro Baptist protesters was overheard to remark: ‘They’re only making the movie more popular. What idiots!’

-- Chris Lee