In a three-part series for A.frame, Kevin Smith reflects on his first film school, how he created the Kevin Smith universe and the state of cinema today. Revisit Part I here.
Not built for Marvel movies
I’m not very visionary, to tell you the truth. Look at the movies that I’ve made. The most ambitious one was probably Dogma, and Dogma is like a sprawling religious epic that we were able to pull off for like 10 million bucks back in 1998.
I love the Marvel movies to death, but I have no interest in making one. If they were like, “Hey, do you want to be in a Marvel movie on camera?” I’d be like, “Fuck yes.” But direct one? Seems like a lot of work. Also, my head don’t work like that. At one point, I wrote Superman Lives for Warner Bros., but never once did I think about directing it. I’m just not very ambitious when it comes to that.
I’ve been waving the flag for comic books since I got into this business. The Stan Lee cameo began in Mallrats in 1995, long before he started popping up in Marvel movies.
The way I’ve rationalized it after all this time is: They’ve got really talented people in this town who want to make shit like the next Jaws and Marvel movies and Harry Potter flicks and Star Wars. I get it. There’s only one motherfucker I’ve met in a quarter century that has any interest whatsoever in making Kevin Smith films—and that’s Kevin Smith. So I got the market all to myself.
Why jump out there and compete with a skill level I don’t have? I got in through the indie backdoor, and it’s not like I saw Slacker and said, “My God, Richard [Linklater] made a movie that’s made up of every film format you could shoot at that time. It’s got Super 8 in it, it’s got 16 millimeter. Fuck, he even used a Pixelvision camera from Fisher-Price at one point in the movie.” It’s experimental because Richard is born to be a filmmaker, as we saw with Boyhood and his entire career. I’m just a movie fan. I saw what that guy did, and I was like, “Oh, shit. He told a story in his neck of the woods. It would be cool to tell a story in my neck of the woods.” It beats going to work for the post office.
That’s why it was easy to make the Clerks gamble. I was living at my parents’, so it’s not like I was a married person with children. I was still a kid myself. And I was like, “I’ll gamble this because worst-case scenario, somebody doesn’t buy the movie, then I’m on the hook. I’ll be paying the stupid fucking movie off for the rest of my life.”
Making movies for 26 years (and counting)
Technically, I’ve been a filmmaker since I saw my first film. I just hadn’t made a movie for a few years. But I’ve been doing it for 26 professionally, where somebody buys my art. And I love being able to say that.
I’m the guy least likely to be in this business. Say what you will about the movies, ain’t nobody going to try to replicate this bullshit. And with the exception of Cop Out, none of them are standard studio fare, you know? Each one is distinct.
Early in my career, I remember people would criticize my ass, saying like, “All of his movies and characters sound exactly like him.” And in the beginning, I’d be like, “Oh, my God, they’re right. I’m bad.” Now, I’m smart enough and old enough to know that that’s distinction: to have a signature that people recognize right away.
I came up during the internet. So my career is almost as old as the internet itself (in terms of public access). We had our View Askew website from the end of ’95 onward, and I was interacting with the denizens of the internet since late 1995.
So every day of my professional life, I’ve had some stranger tell me that I’m terrible at my job and that I shouldn’t have my job. That used to, of course, unnerve me as a youngster, but that still persists to this day. To be fair, there are far more people who tell me that they like what I do. You just find a fundamental truth somewhere between the two. It helps you figure out your place in the grand scheme of things. You can’t adjust who you are and the stories you’re telling for one person’s essay about your movie. So you grow, and you get old enough, and you get comfortable. And you’re like, “This is who I am, and this is what I can do.” I was barely ever in the business proper. I was always kind of business-adjacent.
The key to creating a universe
At a certain point, I became disillusioned with the marketing process of filmmaking. Filmmaking is expensive enough, but then, all of a sudden, it became way more expensive. And in a case like mine, when you’re making a movie that costs five million bucks, your marketing could easily be four times that.
We made Clerks 2 for $5 million and the Weinstein Company spent like $15 million marketing it. And that outraged me, because I’m like, “I could’ve used that money to make a better movie. I asked people to do this shit for free, cut their rates, and then you’re just going to pour $15 million of marketing money all over it?” So I became interested in finding alternate means of exhibition.
With Red State, we started taking the movies out ourselves, like on a tour. They put me out in front of the movies afterwards, to do a Q&A, and I always try to keep it light and funny and clever. I sidetracked into a standup career and became a comedian, so it was a whole other way to make a living other than film. I didn’t have to rely on film like some of my other solo filmmakers did, or take jobs I didn’t want to because I could always just go down the street and get paid to talk about making a film.
Not only does the movie pay in terms of, “Ah, my vision. I’m watching something that I wanted and dreamed about come to life—and they’re paying me to do it. God bless the movie business.” It also pays more dividends, where I can go out there and turn it into material, tell stories and jokes. Suddenly, I’m making a completely different salary that’s movie-adjacent, and that gave me freedom throughout my entire career to be like, “I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to do that. I don’t need to do that.” Even when my popularity waned, I wasn’t forced to do things I didn’t want to do. I just readjusted.
I was easily pivoting all the time, because I made Clerks so cheaply that I could always default back to cheap. We tried to make Chasing Amy for three million bucks initially at Miramax. And one of the production execs at the time was like, “Three million? Who’s your cast?” And I was like, “Oh, I wrote it for these people that I met on Mallrats, Ben Affleck and Joey Adams and Jason Lee. They’re friends of mine.” And she was like, “The movie business is not about making movies with your friends. It’s a business. We’re not going to give you $3 million to make movies with your friends.”
I remember thinking in that room that day, “Well, I’m going to spend the rest of my career disproving that.” I get it, you could choose to be surrounded by strangers on a movie set and assume that’ll somehow make things better. But life is short. I’d rather be around people that I know and trust. And I wrote these parts for these actors, particularly. So instead of asking for three million, I was like, “Okay, I’ll do the movie for 200,000 bucks. And if you guys like it, it’s yours. If not, you give it back to us, we go out and sell it. And then we pay you back.”
They were like, “We’ll give you $250,000.” And that worked out, too. Chasing Amy, some would argue, saved my career, because we made Mallrats with Universal for five million, and the movie only made two million. And I was so green in my career, I was like, “Do I fucking owe Universal $3 million now? Because I don’t have that kind of money.”
So I’ve learned how their version of the movie business works. And since I’m achingly familiar with how the Kevin Smith movie business works, their marketing model would have priced me out of this game a long time ago. Why would you spend good money after bad if a Kevin Smith movie was only ever going to make this amount of money? Of all the movies that I wrote and directed, none of them made more than 30 million bucks.
My whole career, they were always like, “You’ve got to broaden. You can’t just play your audience.” And I’m like, “But Steven Spielberg plays to his audience. His audience just happens to be way bigger than mine, but shouldn’t we play to our strengths? Why are we alienating the people who want to show up?”
I would always put shout-outs, what they now call Easter eggs, in the movies. So you can go to Mallrats and in the opening, they talk about the death of this girl at the YMCA. And if you saw Clerks, that was a conversation that happened in that movie. So suddenly you’re like, “Oh, my God, these two movies are connected.” And then Jay and Silent Bob show up, and you’re like, “Hey, they were in that other movie.” It’s something that Marvel does all the time now. I always point out that I stole it from Marvel comics, so Marvel was stealing it back for their movies.
That’s all we do in the business now is reference, constantly universe-build. Everybody wants a fucking universe. So, early on, I realized I see this differently from everybody else in the actual business. I was always trying to find ways to diversify or be interesting or change things up, and keep things cheaper, really. So we started touring the movies.
Touring with Silent Bob
We did the Red State tour. We did a Jay & Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie tour. And then we got it all down to a science. We did a 65-city tour with Jay & Silent Bob Reboot and used it to pay back the equity investors on the movie. It was astounding.
We were able to pay back our equity investors because the fan base was there. In a world where Jason Mewes (who plays Jay) and I are constantly going out there doing a live show anyway, called Jay & Silent Bob Get Old, my rationale was, “Look, they love talking about the old movie. If we give them a new movie, they’ll happily come support it.”
So we did this incredible soccer tour, where every night it was a thousand to 1,500 people. And by the end of the tour, I felt like the smartest guy in the room, thinking, “I’ll tell you what we’re doing next year. I’m financing Clerks 3 myself. We ain’t taking any money for this. I’ll put it all on my credit cards. And then we will take this movie out and tour it for a year straight.”
I loved the tour because you were sitting there every night, watching the movie with the exact audience it was made for. Most filmmakers don’t get that. They release a movie on 2,000 screens and you see some people writing online or you see your business numbers, the box office.
But I sat there every night, man. It was like going to a church where I was both the priest and Jesus at the same time, celebrate and celebrated. It was incredibly profitable. The audience loved it. And I was like, “This is our future. Fuck typical exhibition. I don’t need that anymore. I’ll do this.”
And then COVID happened. We finished our tour on February 26th, right before the whole world shut down. Thank the Lord because if we hadn’t, or if we’d stalled a year, my equity investors would be out of money. I would be out of money. But now, I don’t know when I’ll be able to put 1,500 people in a room again. So now we have to put our model on hold and come up with a new one. Naturally, like a lot of people, we’ve been leaning into the drive-ins and stuff like that.
I think anybody that’s got an audience can do this. Let’s be honest, almost everything has an audience. But it helps to have a … “brand” is such a fucking lame word for it. But the same thing I was criticized for in terms of like, “Oh, you just make movies for your fans.” That is the new economy. Now they tell you, if you’ve got a thousand people willing to support you every month, quit your fucking job. That’s your business.
On the internet in 1995
Being online is not nearly as expensive as the way things used to be done—and I say that from experience. I came into this business as a breath of fresh air, back in ’94 with Clerks, with people going, “Hey, look at that. Fucking Cinderella story. The guy’s got no means, no wits, and he still made a fucking picture.” And so, naturally, that’s still built into my DNA. So when I decided to tour these movies instead, I know I’ve got an audience. Fuck the rest of the world.
I’m not going to spend money to try to convince people to come see the movie when there’s a bunch of people that would come see the movie; I just have to tell them it’s there. And I can do that for free on social media.
When I did that, there were people who were just like, “Oh, this arrogant prick.” And I’m like, “Arrogant? Why?” Because I’m not asking for another $20 million to sell my movie to a public that probably wouldn’t care about it? I thought what we did was more responsible.
I remember we were online and from the early, early period. It was the View Askew website for us. Just to paint a picture of the internet in 1995: There was a time where you could literally visit every site on the internet. It would take you a couple of days, but you could hit them all. That’s how early this was.
We built this View Askew website and I would just sit on the message board, which kind of looked like Reddit, a whiteboard with a lot of writing on it, and I would just answer questions. And then the audience coaxed me into online commerce, which we’ve been doing since 1997. The only other filmmaker folks told me about was online also was Peter Jackson, who eventually wised up and got offline and won a bunch of Oscars.
But he was somebody who, like me, would sit there and talk to the audience about the movies he’d made and stuff. It was so early. I watched it all grow. My view was like, “Well, you don’t make these films in a vacuum, and certainly not for a vacuum.” The idea is you want to hear what people have to say. That’s what this whole game is about. I know some people are into it for the money, but even given that, the root of this is, “Look what I made. Do you like it?”
That’s what every movie is. You put that in front of people and you go like, “Hey, man, what do you think?” You start collecting audience members who then come find you on the website and want to ask you more questions. Early on, it made more sense to me to interact with those cats. The only other way to tell how you were doing back then was box office numbers or film reviews. So suddenly, in 1995, I could hear directly from the person who bought a ticket. And that was way more interesting to me. Like, “What made you go see Mallrats, man? Nobody else went.”
It was wild, watching it develop, and then slowly, seeing other people jumping in the pool. Now, Will Smith has his own YouTube channel, where he goes, “I’ll jump out of a plane,” and shit like that. You could draw a direct line from Peter Jackson and me, sitting online and answering questions in 1995, to that. Suddenly people stopped being so snobby about it.
I remember, in the beginning, people were real snobby about online. Like, “That’s online.” And now, particularly in this fucking pandemic, guess where everybody lives?
Reporting by Nadine Zylberberg