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Kevin Smith on the Future: Why He Wants to Release Other People’s Films and How He Cracked the Self-Distribution Game

Twenty-two years after "Clerks," Smith thinks he's finally found the formula for being a successful filmmaker.

Kevin Smith

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Few filmmakers are better self-promoters than Kevin Smith, who has mastered the art over the course of two decades. Ever since the breakout success of 1994’s “Clerks,” Smith has developed his public persona as a hilarious foul-mouthed geek in tandem with movies that often reflected that sensibility. Today, Smith remains as visible than ever, less because of his movies than because of countless public appearances, a regular podcast, two television series and social media. He’s less pure filmmaker than self-made media machine.

But Smith still makes movies: He took a hiatus after the self-distributed “Red State,” and has since launched into his so-called “True North” trilogy of wacky Canadian tales. After the absurdist comedy-horror of “Tusk,” Smith premiered “Yoga Hosers” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The movie, which stars his daughter Harley Quinn Smith and Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose Depp (her dad also plays a small role) finds the two girls working at a convenience store and eventually pitted against an army of tiny Nazis made of bratwursts.

So yeah, it’s kind of silly, and not Smith’s best-received work — as he’ll readily admit — but even when the filmmaker isn’t at his peak, he remains a lively and informative mouthpiece for reflections on the state of the industry. He spoke to IndieWire this week about how his relationship to the movie business has changed since his early Sundance days and why he hopes to move beyond making his own movies to champion newer voices.

How has your relationship to the success of your movies changed over the years?

Look, we’re all filmmakers. Every filmmaker dreams of seeing their film in a movie theater. I have that. Festivals take care of that. When I was a kid, I would dream of playing in a cinema. Unfortunately, I make the kind of shit that I like to make, which means sometimes the audience is on the same page and they’re like, “Hey, we like it!” — and sometimes, like the last 10 years, I’m on an ice flow and people are like, “We don’t understand what the fuck he’s doing to his career.” When you’re making movies like that, on the surface, the movie is whatever it is. I love the movies for the pieces of storytelling that they are, but there’s always the backstory.

red state

“Red State”

I made “Red State,” took a few years off, and then didn’t think I was going to do this shit anymore, then made “Tusk,” and now “Yoga Hosers.” I’ve been trying to figure out how to do what I want to do, make it work, and not be beholden to popular vote or what is going to work, what’s been tried before. Unfortunately, as a storyteller, I’m cursed with the fucking gene that just makes me want to see stories I want to see. “Clerks,” as I’m sure you’ve heard me say a million times, shares the same element as “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers.” What could they possibly have in common? They all come from the same place, which is that I just wanted to see that movie.

And it sounds like you don’t have much to lose.

As long as you keep the money so people can get their money back on foreign sales and your home video sales, you can be creative. You know, I read the internet, too. Everybody bitches about sequels and remakes. Why don’t they do something new? Then you do something new and people are like, “Well, not you. Other people.” But I like to do new, too. Some people might say, “This is fucking stupid.” I get it. That was the thing with “Mallrats.” With experience, you learn not to sweat this shit. Every critic shit on it, and when the box office came in, the late, great [producer] Jim Jacks called me on Saturday morning to give me the numbers. I was like, “Tell me, what’d we do, man?” And he was like, “Well, $400,000.” I was like, “On what screen? that’s amazing.” And he said, “That’s everything, all 500 theaters.”

Back then, I was terrified. What’s going to happen? Will the studio want their money back? Whatever we didn’t make? If we only make a million dollars, do we owe them four? It was baffling and scary — I was thinking I’d get kicked out of the business and shit. I would’ve been, but I wasn’t ever really in the business. Even “Mallrats,” distributed by Universal, was made through Gramercy Pictures, an arthouse division. It didn’t have high expectations, like it would light the world on fire. They were still doing something experimental.

These days, even if you’re making your own kind of movies, you’re also a work-for-hire director on television. So how do you explain that divide?

Working on other’s people stuff — like directing episodes of “The Flash” and ‘Supergirl” — is like playing in the DC toy box. But that’s not where my heart is, that’s just fun stuff to do. Because I’ve been telling stories a long time and love comics, I love to do it, but that’s not the aim of where I want to go, either.

Even if you’re developing a “Mallrats” TV series, you haven’t given up on features.

I’ve heard that a lot. People are like, “TV’s where you want to be, dude. You can tell stories as long as you want, people stream it that way.” I get it, there’s been this change. When I jumped into the game, it was with Miramax. Harvey Weinstein marketed my stuff. I was never really, truly indie then. When I came into this business, I dreamed of four-walling movies. That’s the shit I read about. I remember when I did the “Red State” thing at Sundance, and decided to take this movie out myself, somebody online was like, “He’s gonna be like Henry Jaglom now.” I didn’t think that was a hit. Henry Jaglom was my hero before I got into this business. He was the guy who was doing it. And he’s the guy who’s still fucking doing it today. When he got in, he wanted to tell the exact stories he wanted to tell on his terms. He put up billboards and shit like that. That motherfucker was a rockstar to me. Even now, at this stage of his life, I drive down Sunset periodically and see a new billboard for a Henry Jaglom movie. He keeps doing it.

But it’s gotten harder, right? In your early days with “Clerks,” people like John Sloss ruled the show, selling movies to the highest bidder. Now the scene is much more crowded, with agencies dominating the marketplace. Does it feel like a different time for you in that regard?

Yoga Hosers

“Yoga Hosers”

Invincible Pictures

The equation’s changed, but I don’t feel pushed out by any stretch of the imagine. It’s either swim with the current tide or just get out altogether. In a world where I can’t expect somebody’s going to spend marketing money, and it almost kind of sickens me when they do — we didn’t spend any TV or online ad money on “Yoga Hosers.” I can’t sit there and say, “I made this goofy-ass movie that me and 10 people are going to like, and it already cost this much, can you put more money on top so that all the people who will never want to see this know about it?” That equation had been bugging me since 2011. Ever since then, I’ve been figuring out how to stay alive if I do want to this. After “Red State,” I was like, you know what? I’m doing TV, I’ve got the podcast, there are other places for stories at this point. But then when I did “Tusk,” I got bit by the bug the again. I like telling these weird stories.

A24 gave us a home really early on in production, and that was really sweet, but I wasn’t looking to get picked up. This sounds crazy, and this is the only place I would say it — please don’t ridicule me — I just wanted to figure out how to be Henry Jaglom, dude. When I was a kid, that dude was the master of his universe. He’s not behold to some studio picking up his movie and spending marketing money on it. He does it at his own pace the way he has to. Small. Sometimes people will hear about it, and sometimes, only people who like them will go.

You learn to play in that field as quickly as possible. John Sloss knows what it’s like to play in that field. I understand he might feel pushed out because people didn’t used to care about indie film. He has had his own world there, his fiefdom. But now, money’s drying up everywhere, so that even agents are getting into the business. I’ve been approached by a few agencies to finance [Smith’s next film] “Moose Jaws.” I said to my people, “Are you sure you heard this correctly? Agencies don’t put money into movies!” But now they’ve got investment companies, they finance flicks, they do gap money. But for a movie like this, “Moose Jaws,” and it has Jay and Silent Bob in it, and the budget’s only $3 million or something, they’ve got that easily covered.

So I can understand that whereas John was the guy who used to find you a distributor and stuff, he’s now competing against the agencies that used to just rep his clients.. The business has become small and the money’s drying up. It’s just like the music business. When the music business changed, everyone tried to figure out how the fuck to stay in the business and stuff. I like making movies, I got a bunch of other interesting things I could do, but this is what introduced me to the world. I’m a movie kid at heart. People have told me for enough years that I’m not good enough. But I’m going to continue doing this, and in order to do that, you have to figure out how to stay alive.

How did you map out a plan in that respect?

The first thing I thought was, OK, I’ll sequelize my catalog, because I like telling stories with those characters. But “Clerks 3” and “Mallrats 2,” as movies, were virtually impossible to find money for. Now, “Tusk” — a movie about a guy who turns another guy into a walrus — and “Yoga Hosers” — about two girls in Canada who fight one-foot-tall Nazis — I could find money for that. It’s not the death of it all. People are like, “Yeah, but Johnny Depp’s in it.” He wasn’t in “Tusk.” We got our money and he came in on the last week. He had nothing to do with it. With “Yoga Hosers,” it certainly helps to say, “I want to make a movie with complete unknowns, about a weird cartoony version of Canada. Can I have $4 million? Oh, by the way, Johnny Depp is here.” That helps.

But at the end of the day, what I learned was, if you want to get your stuff financed, you have a better chance of saying something new than representing something old. In the world of indie financing, they don’t want sequels and remakes. I can come out there with my “Clerks” dick and they’ll be like, “Of course, that’s a good investment. We know what this is — an IP that’s built in.” There are people out there with money financing the arts who aren’t doing it to get rich, they’re doing it because they’re rich. They grew up on your movies and they’re looking for your voice. But they’re not looking for me, they’re looking for the new. And I only got through the door with the last two movies because, oddly enough, the subject matter is new. I had to give up on the “Mallrats” sequel as a movie. Now it’s going to be a TV show. “Clerks 3” is still hanging in limbo. So it’s not all doom-and-gloom out there. I read a lot and see the indie world changing, and it is — it’s vastly different from when I got in 22 years ago. But everything is. You just have to figure out how to play the ball how it lays and step out there on your own.

With “Moose Jaws,” I want to self-finance that motherfucker and tour it to death for a year straight, until I get back every penny I put into it. I know I can do that. I know I can make $30,000 a show. If you do, what? A hundred shows? That’s a million bucks. So I’m trying to figure out how to combine my strengths. I understand it’s changing, so let me see what I can bring to the table.

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