The Mystery and Wonder of Kevin Smith

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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.

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  1. And this has what to do with Libertarianism?

    Why does this post have such an anti-Smith / anti-Smith fans tone? What’s so strange about fans of a different age group? Are there no 20 year-old old triology Star Wars fans, who were -3 when the first film came out?

    I’m no hardcore Kevin Smith fan, but come on… is this news? Aren’t there enough other things going on right now worth discussing? Don’t quit your day job, Weigel.

  2. 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

    Another thing that they realize which apparently you do not is that DVDs exist, therefore you don’t have to judge someone only by what’s in theatres this instant.

  3. Are there no 20 year-old old triology Star Wars fans, who were -3 when the first film came out?
    Not dissing this statement, but the math is a bit off.
    1977-2006 + 20=-9.
    Just sayin’

  4. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Dogma are on Comedy Central probably once a month or more. Not great films, but Jason Mewes is weirdly compelling.

  5. Sorry, but, uh . . . who is Kevin Smith?

  6. math pendant-

    How’s it hangin’? 🙂

    I saw “Star Wars” during it’s original theater release when I was 12. I probably saw it 5 times in the first two weeks it was out.

    But, by the time the second movie came out, I had read enough sci-fi to understand just how pathetically awful the first was- and I have yet to see any of numbers 3 thru 6.

  7. Once again, no post on Kevin Smith can be complete without mockery of Catholicism.

  8. Oh no! The cool kids don’t like Kevin Smith anymore? This is upsetting. I mean, I thought Dogma was funny and pretty clever. But I see now that it wasn’t influential. I feel like such a dupe.

  9. Jonah — Liber-what?

    this is a culturally libertarian magazine so the exploration of culture and economy is ripe for HnR…why no scoff at HnR on Paris Hilton, or elections in Venezuela.

    All libertarian all the time gets boring awful quick — you read one Jacob Hornberger op-ed or one issue of Liberty or one day of LewRockwell you read them all.

  10. Jonah,

    And this has what to do with Libertarianism?

    Please don’t give David Weigel the wrong incentives. I have been enjoying the cultural posts here at Reason much more than the political posts, so I think this sort of post is to be encouraged.

    I made up my mind on how I feel about free trade about 20 years ago, I am bored with global warming fights, and worse than bored with the “I hate Bush/Santorum/Malkin/O’Reilly” posts (though, to be fair, there have been few of these since the election.) The posts here about comics, music, movies, TV, etc., are interesting, and expose me to things I haven’t already read about and thought about.

    Anyway, Reason is about “free markets,” and so The Long Tail tie-in makes this a perfectly legit post.

  11. are analogies automatically mockery, crimethink?

    by the way, free advice: rent Clerks II, don’t buy it. if you like Clerks it’s worth watching. once.

  12. Are there no 20 year-old old triology Star Wars fans, who were -3 when the first film came out?

    Try -19. I’m den leader of my 10-year-old son’s scout den. 13 boys and every, single one is a Star Wars nut. They’ve all grown out of Power Rangers but Anakin and Obi Wan still rule. Long Tail indeed.

  13. And this has what to do with Libertarianism?

    Who cares? I’f I wanted a strict, libertarian view there’s TCS. If I want to get hassled by a wanker, I’ll stop posting and go back to work.

    Go read a comic book.

  14. Aren’t there enough other things going on right now worth discussing?

    Yeah…and they’regetting discussed ad nauseum on other threads. This is a nice diversion. Mitch sums up my feeling nicely.

    Don’t quit your day job, Weigel.

    I like Weigel…he’s quickly become one of my favorite writers on this board.

  15. One way Smith has stayed connected to the fanboys between film releases is by publishing his own comics and writing them for the Big Guys like DC.

    So, madpad, there’s no escape!

    Kevin

  16. I’m not sure I would call Chasing Amy a sex comedy. It was good, it was different. There was comedy, there was sex (nothing explicit, IIRC), but it was not a sex comedy.

    Porky’s was a sex comedy.

  17. I have a friend who works for a radio station who did an interview with Smith this fall and I got to meet him. He seemed like a geniunly nice guy. I always assume anyone associated with Hollywood is an arrogant dickhead, but he didn’t seem to fit the mold.

    I thought Dogma was hysterical and Clerks even funnier. Jay and Silient Bob was when he seemed to have jumped the shark. Clerks II looked good, though.

    One interesting thing I heard in the interview was that in the late 90s he got hired to write a script for a new Superman movie staring Nick Cage as Superman. He was told to do two things in the script, Superman wasn’t going to fly and he wasn’t going to wear stupid tights. It might not have been too bad. He got paid some obscene amount of money, wrote the script only to see the project bought out by Tim Burton and his script thrown in the trash. I guess Superman went through so many interations in the 1990s, Smith says you are not a screenwriter in Hollywood unless you were hired to write a Superman script at one time or another during the 1990s.

  18. John, to hear Kevin Smith’s version of the Superman story from the horse’s mouth, rent “An Evening with Kevin Smith” – he’s funny and down-to-earth.

  19. I don’t think this is that new of a phenomenon. There were always “cult” movies, bands, etc. that people of a certain age tend to discover. As a lonely teenage geek in the early 90s I was watching Monty Python and Mel Brooks films that had been released before I was born. Somehow these artifacts seem to get passed down from one generation to the next. For me, video stores and cable tv helped as did influential older siblings, uncles, babysitters, and so on.

    Its just easier now and will continue to become an even stronger trend as services like Netflix allow people to easily find movies from all eras that might appeal to them.

    Nowadays, if you like a particular cultural artifact it’s a simple search on the net to see what else the artist did or to find similar material recommended by fans, critics, etc. Back in the day it was more word of mouth, videos and tapes being passed between friends and the like.

  20. john, I agree, Dogma was hilarious. I knew about him writing the Superman script but I hadn’t heard the restrictions. I did hear that he was hip to Cage doing it because he loved Raising Arizona.

  21. Porky’s was a sex comedy.

    I was gonna go with anything by Blake Edwards – S.O.B. or Skin Deep in particular. But I guess Porky’s ‘ll do in a pinch.

  22. He was told to do two things in the script, Superman wasn’t going to fly and he wasn’t going to wear stupid tights.

    He also was told to add a giant killer robotic spider….(se Wild Wild West)…

    Like biologist said rent an evening with Kevin Smith (or watch the clips in YouTube I think its broken into multiple parts) — he tells this story with hilarious detail.

    Say what you will, but I watched An evening with Kevin Smith (I’m not that big a fan) and the guy can tell a story and keep it compelling and light hearted and funny at the same time.

  23. I love Smith. I have seen everything he’s done except “Jersey Girl.” Sure he peaked with “Chasing Amy,” but I still get a good laugh out of his movies. The original “evening with kevin smith” was a bit overlong, but some of it was pretty funny. Especially the bit about prince and John Peters obssession with giant spiders.

  24. I forgot about the spider part. I guess Smith just recycles his schtick from “An Evening with Kevin Smith” in radio interviews. That is kind of disapointing, but oh well. He seemed pleasent enough and I bet his version of Superman with Nick Cage would have been a lot better than what got made.

  25. I can’t bring myself to really like Kevin Smith after a comic-book-writing friend of mine relayed to me how Kevin cut him from the loop of his Clerks cartoon series and then let someone bite my buddy’s style for said Cartoons.

    Not to say I don’t get any enjoyment out of some of the movies that I’ve seen of his, but that’s how it is.

    Although, my friend has probably gotten over it, so maybe I should too. 🙂

  26. Kevin Smith’s Superman script.

    Just in case anyone is curious. It’s actually pretty good (although some of it is just downright silly, which i think was forced into the script).

  27. Yeah, Kevin Smith is mad dedicated to fan outreach. I was at the Cornell stop on the first tour – he was scheduled to come on around 9, he actually came on around 10, by midnight the film crews were telling him to wrap it up. So he wrapped things up, said goodbye, big crowd reaction, everyone stomping their feet, camera booms shooting the audience for a good minute or two.

    And then they came down, and the production crew started to pack things up, and he walked back out on stage, lit a cigarette, and took more questions. He was still taking questions when I left around 3 in the morning, I hear that at 5 or so his wife finally called him from their hotel and made him leave. I respect that, I respect that a lot.

    (Also: one girl got up to ask a question that was mostly a long and wandering preamble that finally ended up at a punchline: don’t you think that it’s your duty it to fight against gay stereotypes? And Smith paused a bit to let it all echo out, said “No.”, and took the next question. Mad respect for that, too.)

  28. Oh come on. “Dogma” was great. And there were some drop dead funny moments in “Clerks II”

  29. This post made Kevin Smith kill himself.

  30. John | December 4, 2006, 4:46pm | #

    “…I guess Smith just recycles his schtick from “An Evening with Kevin Smith” in radio interviews. That is kind of disapointing, but oh well…”

    what are you talking about? recycled? someone asked him a question about the Superman movie script. should he make up a different answer every time he is asked the same question, or just tell what happened truthfully and accurately?

  31. Yeah, as I read that I thought, hmm, what was wrong with “Dogma?”

    crimethink,

    Given the willing of the RCC over the past ~1,700 years to give non-Christians, non-Catholic Christians, pagans, heathens, etc. shit the RCC has little complain about.

  32. yeah, don’t discourage these culture threads. i like them a lot on hit and run and they have been in short supply since tim cavanaughs departure.

    i’m not a smith fan. i’ll admit he can be a funny guy but i don’t get the cult of kevin either.

  33. “Yeah, as I read that I thought, hmm, what was wrong with “Dogma?” ”

    being tedious and unfunny? (outside of the boardroom judgement scene, i mean)

    had a lot of potential. but so do a lot of things.

  34. dhex,

    I remember laughing right through the entire film. Of course it has been years since I last saw it.

  35. My .2 cents:

    Dogma started well. That was the first ten minutes. It was all downhill after that. Outside of Clerks and “Amy”, all of his movies were downhill before they left the editing room.

    I was an early nay-sayer of Kevin Smith when Clerks was released. Not that I didn’t like the film, but I found it disconcertingly overrated given what it was: a clever, super-low budget film that was a nice start for a new filmmaker, but nothing more. But when a film like this becomes your magnum opus… take cover.

  36. I like Clerks, and I even love Mallrats for what it is, even if it is less than the sum of its parts, but I’ve had little use for Kevin Smith’s films since. Frankly, I think Smith’s continuing appeal is simple: He is an overweight geek who gets to make movies and write comic books and screw attractive women. He is living every geek’s dream, never mind that most of his movies are bad and that his comics are always late.

  37. I remember when I saw Clerks, I didn’t think it was that funny. It had funny parts, but it seemed like my friends liked it more than they should. Of course, we were all stoned as hell at the time; that could explain quite a bit of his popularity in general, actually.

  38. Of course, we were all stoned as hell at the time; that could explain quite a bit of his popularity in general, actually.

    Maybe, but then again, the only time I saw “Chasing Amy” was when I was pissed drunk, and all I could think about throughout the whole movie was wanting to slap that whiny bitch across her face…she had the most annoying voice I had ever heard. So drugs didn’t help the enjoyment of Kevin Smith product in that particular instance.

  39. I agree with Pepe that this is not a new trend.

    Perhaps the earliest and best example would be the Grateful Dead. Their rabid fan base will never be equaled, and lets face it. I love their music as much as any other non-Dead Head, but seen in historical perspective their songs aren’t ground breaking, earth shaking stuff.

    They understood early that record sales were a loss leader and let fans record their concerts and trade and sell them. This was just one decision that endeared them to fans and create the Deadhead culture. They played directly to their fan base on every level and became rich from it. (Not Mick Jagger rich necessarily, but more than most other Album Oriented artists from that era earned) I don’t know the particulars, but I understand they were some of the first musical artists to negotiate large percentages on the merchandising of their logos and cover art work. (Is there anywhere those dancing bears HAVEN’T been)

    Though it would cause their counter-culture fans an aneurysm to admit it, they were brilliant businessmen using the “tails” business model.

    And that was 40 years ago.

    Mattadolphus

  40. I don’t get the Smith craze, either, but that’s just one more aspect of pop culture that eludes me. Oh, well. He has his moments and isn’t all bad, at least.

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