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The rocky rise of Kevin Smith

Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) in Chasing Amy.

By David V. Rodriguez
Arts Editor

When Kevin Smith started making movies, he thought only his friends would see them. He was working at a convenience store at the time and thought making a movie would be fun. He financed the film through credit cards - he had many - and by selling his comic book collection to a local comic book store (however, the store only issued store credit, so he sold his store credit to this friends.)

The final output was Clerks, which Smith thought was good enough to send to all the major distributors, but none of them were interested. He later took his film to the Sundance Film Festival, where many young directors were found (including Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) and Quentin Tarantino). But Smith's expectations were low - the studios passed once, and they'll pass again, he thought. But by the time he left Sundance, he had a deal with Miramax, and Clerks was being scheduled for nationwide release.

Clerks grossed over $3 million at the box office and a good deal more on video, and for his next film, Mallrats, Smith was given a budget of $6 million. And initially, everyone was happy with the movie. Smith thought it was funny, and it got good marks from test audiences. The studio was excited about it, and one executive dubbed it the "smart Porky's."

But Mallrats flopped. Everyone went to see Get Shorty that weekend, and the movie was pulled from the theatres after only three weeks, after grossing less that Clerks. A large share of the blame should be put on the advertising campaign that tried to use the comic book theme, but instead came out with ads that looked like Saved by the Bell.

Even worse, Mallrats was panned by critics. It was called sophomoric, and there was talk that maybe Smith was a one-hit wonder, that he left the independent film track for the big studio and couldn't make it.

One evening, after Mallrats was a confirmed failure, Smith spoke before an audience of independent film makers. He started by publicly apologizing for Mallrats. Smith liked Mallrats (and still does), but he though this would be a good way to show that he had a sense of humor about it all. But what started as a joke won't be forgotten: Every time Roger Ebert writes about Smith, he never fails to mention the apology.

For his next film, Chasing Amy, Smith asked for a budget of $3 million. But the studio was afraid of another Mallrats, and said that if he was to get that much money, the film would need to star Drew Barrymore, John Stewart, and David Schwimmer. Smith refused; he wrote the script with his favorite actors in mind (the same actors from Mallrats), and he wasn't about to change it. The studio told him that they weren't going to give him $3 million to make a movie starring his friends. So he went back to Miramax and made the movie for $250,000.

Chasing Amy might be the movie that puts Smith back in good graces with Hollywood. Reviews of Chasing Amy have run the full spectrum, but most have been positive. It received a standing ovation at this year's Sundance, where the audience tends to be younger and hipper (and more like the audience who would go see Smith's films). Even Ebert liked it, saying it was the funniest film shown at Sundance, and one of the best-written films he's seen in a while.