Kevin Smith Is Building a New Empire On Low-Budget Sequels and Shameless Bravado

For "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot," and hopefully "Clerks" and "Mallrats," Smith has a formula that could make his catalog relevant again.
Kevin Smith attends a special Screening of "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot" at the TCL Chinese Theatre, in Los AngelesLA Special Screening of "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot", Los Angeles, USA - 14 Oct 2019
Kevin Smith attends a special Screening of "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot"
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Kevin Smith repeats himself a lot. Doing press interviews for “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” he keeps dishing about the heart attack that nearly killed him last year, the impact it had on his current motivations, and how lucky he feels to keep at his unique brand of dopey, comedic filmmaking. More significant, however, is the evolution of Smith’s business acumen. Even as the film industry faces tremendous uncertainty, he may have finally cracked the code that will keep his work relevant: Kevin Smith is in the sequel business.

Some 25 years after “Clerks” became a breakout Sundance hit and single-handedly created the geek-bro genre, Smith is finding new ways to mine his catalog. His new film returned to the bumbling weed dealers he introduced in his debut, and last visited nearly two decades ago with “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” This time, he said, it had to be about the money.

“We’re not living in some environment like ‘The Fast and the Furious,’ where people are like, ‘Gimme another one!’” Smith said. “They’re not clamoring to see a Jay and Silent Bob sequel. So you have to be able to make it financially justifiable. It’s the only way the movie gets made.”

He cobbled together the $10 million budget from sources that included Saban Films and Universal, which holds overseas rights. Around $2 million comes from outside investors; Smith said they will easily be repaid by his 65-city “Jay & Silent Bob Reboot Roadshow.” Fathom Events will also give “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” an exclusive two-day theatrical run.

Not only has he made peace with the limited appeal of his work, he’s also doubling down on it. With this financial formula, he believes that Universal will finally give him the rights to make a “Mallrats” sequel. He has similar plans for “Clerks 3.”

“If you’re the fucking Russo brothers, you get a couple of months in theaters for ‘Avengers: Endgame,’” he said. “If you’re Kevin Smith, you don’t even get a weekend, bro. I could go through all my release history with you, and tell you where I was on each Saturday morning when they told me what we didn’t achieve. You work so hard to make a movie and put it up on the big screen, but every time out it was like, ‘Oh man, that’s depressing.’”

Smith was in post-production for “Jay and Silent Bob” reboot when the Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron rom-com “Long Shot” bombed in theaters, taking in $52.8 million worldwide on a $40 million budget. “Some people online are like, ‘How come you’re only going to theaters for just two days?” Smith said. “I asked people, you see ‘Long Shot’? No? Well, that’s our problem. There’s a comedy that’s kinda like ours, and they spent $25 million to get you to see that movie, to make sure you knew it was coming out. I can’t do that. To get another $20 million to market means I have to make back $30 million, which really means I gotta make back $60 million at the box office, and no Kevin Smith movie has ever done that.”

"Jay and Silent Bob Reboot"
“Jay and Silent Bob Reboot”Saban

According to Box Office Mojo, the cumulative domestic box office gross for Smith’s films is $300 million adjusted, and his biggest title came in 1999 with “Dogma,” which grossed $54 million adjusted. “Even if somebody was going to put $20 million behind this, I’m just too old for that,” he said. “The only reason to say ‘yes’ is because it would make me feel like a normal filmmaker. But my self-esteem is OK. I don’t need a commercial to know I made a movie.”

The question of whether moviegoers needed another visit from foul-mouthed horndog Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) never concerned Smith; he already knew the answer. He and Mewes have spent years touring their live conversations for a rabid fanbase. “Me and Jay go out to do Jay and Silent Bob with no movie, and people still shell out 100 bucks to watch us talk about the old movies,” he said. “So I knew they’d enjoy this even more.”

Aesthetically, “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” may not be Smith’s finest hour — it’s a two-hour lowbrow comedy crammed with inside jokes — but it’s certainly the purest Kevin Smith movie ever made. Newbies to his expansive world of self-absorbed geeks might find “Jay and Silent Bob” too high on its own supply, but that’s kind of the point: The movie finds the pair on a cartoonish journey to stop no less than Kevin Smith from directing a reboot of their previous “Bluntman and Chronic” misadventures.

Along the way, Jay learns about fatherhood from the daughter he never knew he had (Smith’s own offspring Harley Quinn Smith, in a surprisingly poignant turn), and Smith pays tribute to some of his most beloved creations, from “Chasing Amy” (which receives an intriguing coda) to “Dogma” and even “Comic Book Men,” his just-canceled AMC series. And of course, the shadow of “Clerks” looms large, right down to a final shot that hints at its next chapter.

The garrulous Smith has become a bigger presence than any of his fictional creations. He has 3.2 million Twitter followers and his own long-running podcast network, SModcast. (“If I’d waited five more minutes instead of making ‘Clerks,’ I probably would’ve been a YouTube guy,” he said, adding, “It would’ve been a long five minutes.”) Through it all, Smith’s marketing genius has been the most consistent factor in his career. He once noted that both he and John Waters make more money talking about their movies than they do on the movies themselves.

Two years ago, Smith told his online followers that his dreams of “Mallrats” and “Clerks” sequels would never take off because rights holder Universal wouldn’t budge. “They’ve never let go of a single property in the history of Universal,” he said on his SModcast. “Once they own it, they own it.” However, Smith said that’s changed in the wake of Universal’s international support of “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot.”

“I went out with the Universal folks last month,” he said. “They said, ‘We love it, what do you want to do next?’ I said, ‘Well, you guys got this movie, ‘Mallrats’…” He envisions the followup as a John Hughes high-school comedy following the next generation of characters. “I’ve always wanted to do a movie where the most important fucking thing in the world is the prom,” he said.

Then there’s “Clerks 3,” which was one month away from production in 2017 when Jeff Anderson, who played Randal Graves in the first two installments opposite Brian O’Halloran’s Dante, pulled out. “Jeff was like, look, we’re not making any money to do this,” Smith said. “He was like, ‘I made two ‘Clerks’ movies and made a total of like $230,000 over the course of my entire life. I can’t do this one time for the hope it’ll work out.” Smith was furious. “I took that personally,” he said. “We were hiring a lot of crew in Philly. We were so close to shooting.”

The two men started exchanging emails after Smith’s heart attack, and finally made amends less than a month ago, during a signing event for the 25th anniversary of “Clerks.” “When I saw him, I talked about how I understood what he was saying now,” Smith said. “It ain’t about dollar signs, it’s about recognizing somebody’s value. You can’t make this thing without this person. He has to feel comfortable before we roll a frame of film. So we’ll figure out the number and build the movie around that.” He expected to build a story almost entirely set in the same Quick Stop convenience store of the original. “It’s basically a two-hander,” Smith said. “I can use the rest of the budget to pay the boys what they’re worth.”

As with “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” Smith has a very meta concept in mind. “The story this time around is based on my heart attack,” he said. “Randal has a heart attack at the beginning of the movie and realizes he has nothing in life. He decides he wants to make a movie about his life. Dante and Randal gave me my career, so I’m going to try and do the exact same thing for them before I let them go.”

Smith’s populist style makes it easy to forget his roots as a critical darling, but the talent that first established him never entirely vanished. “Clerks 2,” which premiered in Cannes, maintained his distinctive voice with the same balance of Gen X malaise and sophomoric one-liners. And even gonzo curveballs like “Tusk,” the commercial disaster that A24 released in 2014, are loaded with creative ambition. Smith’s blustering overconfidence can get exhausting; he hovers between self-involved hack and serious filmmaker — or maybe he’s the ultimate serious hack filmmaker, a storyteller so in love with his self-effacing charm that it becomes his manifesto.

“Clerks 2”

“Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” doesn’t always work; clumsy bits about Grindr and the Ku Klux Klan might have sounded funnier on the page. But as these characters get closer to their destination and confront, well, all things Kevin Smith, it becomes a swirling vortex of Smith’s homegrown existential crisis. It’s his version of a Charlie Kaufman movie.

“If anything, it’s a better time to make fun of Kevin Smith because more people know who he is,” Smith said of himself. While Todd Philips makes headlines with claims that comedy can’t take risks in today’s P.C. age, Smith remains unfazed. “Todd is entitled to his opinion, but for me, it’s not harder to be funny,” Smith said. “My humor isn’t about attacking you or taking your dignity away. I’ve been attacking Kevin Smith for 25 years. That’s my brand. The only one who’s ever going to complain is Kevin Smith, so I’m safe.”

Much of Smith’s career was enabled by Miramax, and Smith joins other ‘90s filmmaker phenoms who have to shake free of accused sexual predator Harvey Weinstein’s shadow. (As the mogul’s career imploded, Weinstein allegedly called Smith about a “Dogma” sequel.) However, the mentor who looms large for Smith is “Clerks” producer’s rep John Pierson, whose 1995 tome “Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes” included conversations with Smith about the challenges of turning independent filmmaking into a sustainable career.

“I have seen John lose the faith over the years,” Smith said. “The best you can do is bring them into your environment.” He’s taking “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” to Austin in November, and hoped Pierson would attend. “It’s not going to turn John completely, but it will make John believe again,” Smith said. “Movies are still a bit sexy. There are people who have seen all the tricks, they know how the lady is sawed in half, but sometimes you have to be there for the energy of it all.”

Smith turns 50 next year. He’s confident in his resilience, and doesn’t rule out a more commercial gig that could build off his role as an executive producer on Netflix’s “Masters of the Universe” reboot. “Part of me would love to find a home at Netflix, so I never have to think about marketing or any of that shit I’ve had to deal with my entire professional life,” he said. “But I also have this feeling that these movies should be done as cheaply as possible, that I should take them out, four-wall them. I would love things to be easy, but another part of me knows that it’s far more fulfilling to be out there.”

On some level, he has made peace with imperfection. “This has kept me working — trying — for 25 years,” he said. “Because I’ve never reached some weird high point, it’s kept me energetic, loving it. The entertainment world still plays hard to get.”

“Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” is in theaters for two days and touring the country on a roadshow throughout this fall.

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