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Sundance Stories of Yore: “Clerks”

Sundance Stories of Yore: "Clerks"

Each day this week, Christopher Campbell will take a look back at a “classic” film that played the Sundance Film Festival. Today’s installment: Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994).

It’s only fitting to follow yesterday’s post on Slacker with the Sundance story of Clerks, since Kevin Smith was directly influenced by Richard Linklater’s film. And like Linklater, Smith nearly didn’t go to Sundance with his breakthrough indie, although in his case it was initially a matter of choice rather than rejection. According to Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures, Smith says about the decision, “We never even thought about Sundance. That was not a festival that we were meant for.”

Instead, Smith and producer Scott Mosier figured their best bet was at the 1993 Independent Feature Film Market in NYC, where they disappointingly screened Clerks to an audience of only a few people. Incidentally, they might have had at least one additional significant viewer had Mosier not told Miramax acquisitions man Mark Tusk that his film was “not a Disney movie.”

Of course, it’s not likely that Miramax would have picked up Clerks even with Tusk in attendance at that screening. Fortunately, as noted in John Pierson’s book Spike, Mike Slackers and Dykes and elsewhere, Sundance advisory committee member Bob Hawk did see the film at that IFFM showing, and he tirelessly fought to have it selected for the upcoming festival. So, in a way, Smith became a Sundance alum by accident.

As for Miramax’s acquisition, that’s another great story. After the original rejection of Tusk at IFFM, Miramax had a few more chances to see Clerks. The first was through a tape sent to Tusk, through which he became a fan; then came a 16mm screening at the Tribeca Film Center in which Harvey Weinstein reportedly left after 15 minutes. It took the magic of Sundance, however, to get the film and the distributor to fully connect. Clerks became a hit partly on the basis of Smith’s story and his ability to entertain during the Q&As. By the end of the festival, Weinstein, who had made a surprise return to Park City that year, and who had been rumored to have left Sundance early, was reluctantly convinced by Tusk to attend the last screening and stay at least until the “blowjob stuff.” This time, apparently, Weinstein loved it. And when he met Smith afterward, he reportedly said something along the lines of, “Great fuckin’ movie, I want to put a fuckin’ soundtrack on it, and put it in the fuckin’ multiplexes.”

It’s possible that Clerks is funny enough to have acquired fans on its own merits, as it appealed to Tusk upon his first viewing. But sometimes it takes the crowds of Sundance to show just how popular a film can be with a real audience. The subsequent buzz combined with the marketing of Smith as a personality and a filmmaker with an interesting story helped get Clerks a distribution deal, and it’s worked somewhat for others since, if only on smaller scale.

Below is the NSFW scene from Clerks that Tusk promised Weinstein he’d enjoy.

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