This last Tuesday saw the release of Kevin Smith's second double-disc DVD set of lectures.
His second set.
The title and cover of the release, pictured right, belie how bemused Smith must be at the demand for this product, but that doesn't make it any less mysterious. When I set the mood and slotted disc one into my Halo Special Edition XBox, I was introduced to thousands of young Canadians who came to a Toronto auditorium to hear Kevin Smith joke and whine about his life in the movies. The audience members range in age and gender, but the vast majority are young, awkward and male—late teens and early twenties.
This presents a question: How did these people become Kevin Smith fans? If you assume that people become fans of a director or movie star by seeing his/her movies, there hasn't been a reason to worship Kevin Smith in nearly a decade, since the well-constructed sex comedy Chasing Amy. But Smith hasn't made an influential movie or created any lasting characters since 1994's Clerks. If you're one of the 18-year old college freshmen who's buying a ticket to see Smith right now, you were six when Clerks was released.
Earlier this year Ben Wasserstein attempted to crack the Cult of Kevin by investigating how he maintains his fan base. His answer: what else, The Long Tail.
In The Long Tail, the media-crystal-ball book of the moment, Chris Anderson argues that niches will supplant hits as the key sector of the 21st-century entertainment economy, pointing out that Netflix, Amazon.com, and iTunes earn more from the sum of their many-thousand low sellers than they do from blockbusters. The long-tail economy makes a passionate fan base more important to entertainers than ever: In the same way that the real money for rock stars has been in merchandise and concerts, a filmmaker's fortune isn't just dependent on ticket sales but on video-on-demand, online downloads, DVDs, and then special-edition DVDs; in short, on the ardor of his devotees. So, naturally, every with-it director is on MySpace—but Kevin Smith has them all beat by a mile. "He was so ahead of his time, because he was always communicating with his fans," says Harvey Weinstein.
Is it that simple, that Kevin Smith stays popular among the eternally youthful 16-24 year old set—Peter Pans with lightsabers—because he "communicates with his fans"? MySpace has actually universalized that for the sort of celebrities who appeal to this demographic. Anderson produced a more compelling theory in his interview with Nick Gillespie.
The fact that you and I both watched American Idol last night probably doesn't define us, whereas our niche interests really do. We go deep and find people who share our affinities, which represent much tighter connections between us. So my suspicion is that we're going to have fewer loose connections with lots of people but tighter connections with fewer people.
That's why Kevin Smith's popularity is indestructible, while his friend Ben Affleck's career exploded then spent a few years tumbling back to earth. Smith doesn't produce movies; he produces new offshoots of the Kevin Smith brand. Just like they did 10 years ago, lonely/nerdy/smart teenage boys see in Smith a humor they identify with and a personality they want to emulate. The movies are incidental: Something like Clerks II has the relationship to the Smith brand that a communion wafer has to Catholicism.