Build What You Love: Kevin Smith, “Clerks 3,” and 21st Century Art

Written by Film

Even a scatologically obsessed middle-aged guy from New Jersey can be an inspiration sometimes.

“That seems to be the business model of the 21st century… build what you love — dream it, do it — then figure out a way to monetize it.”

The above quote comes from Kevin Smith, who made waves earlier this week when he went public with his plans to release Clerks 3 as a serialized book before turning it into a movie. It’s an interesting story for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Smith’s stated intention to let his fans “influence” the shape and direction of the project’s storyline; whatever you think of Smith as a writer or director, he’s unquestionably one of the few major filmmakers who’s willing to channel his frustrations with the studio system in high-risk, high-reward directions, and this might be the daffiest/most brilliant of all.

“I know people would go, ‘Why would you want to? You’re an artist,'” he admitted. “Well, now I’m a new-media artist, and the new-media artist involves the audience — and that’s something I’ve been doing for nearly 20 years at this point anyway.”

Admittedly, crowdsourcing art is nothing new, and neither are hybrid projects that spill over into different mediums, but Smith’s Clerks gambit comes at a crucial time for film. DVD sales gave Hollywood an extra decade of insulation from the technology-driven havoc that the music and publishing industries have had to deal with since the late ’90s, but streaming and downloading have wiped out that market, while affordable high-definition home viewing has given filmgoers an easy alternative to rising ticket prices. It’s all helped create a sense of panic, one of the net effects of which has been reduced funding for niche projects — and as anyone who’s suffered through Cop Out could tell you, Smith is one niche artist who’s decidedly better off sticking with what he knows.

But while studio margins have been shrinking, so have the economic barriers between creators and their visions — and perhaps more importantly, the number of delivery options for filmmakers has exploded over the last decade, so that while finding traditional distribution is still a common goal, it’s no longer the only option, and even though almost any director would much rather have a movie debut in theaters, on-demand avenues have also proven effective.

Of course, it helps if you’re a name brand like Smith, but these are changes that will impact everyone in ways that are just beginning to be felt. On the technology side, we have the recent news that Searching for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul finished shooting his movie with an iPhone after burning through his production budget; on the distribution side, we have a growing number of entrepreneurial creatives who have leveraged Web success into more traditional production deals. (This is what should be known as “The Hardwick Model.”) For consumers, the result is still something of a mixed bag; at the cineplex, we have a rising tide of broadest-common-denominator releases, most of which involve superheroes or titles ending in numerals, but on the home front, we’re treated to a growing number of projects like Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary, which bowed in theaters alongside an ambitious, multi-pronged VOD release that gave viewers a wide variety of (extremely affordable) options for streaming and/or downloading the movie.

(It bears mentioning that Smith’s stated reasons for taking this route for the project are mostly creative — he wants to make Clerks 3 an origin story, and putting it in book form enables him to get inside the characters’ heads far more easily than he’d be able to on the screen. Still, these are the thoughts he’s prompted, and I’m running with them.)

The overall picture is still cloudy for the filmmakers themselves. In terms of financial investment and raw sacrifice, it’s easier to create, but it’s much harder to get your audience’s attention — and in that way, directors and screenwriters are in the same boat as artists of pretty much any other creative discipline — which is, I guess, a big part of why I find it so encouraging that Smith is taking such an unorthodox approach to the presumably final installment of a moribund “franchise” as he closes a chapter in a progressively more frustrating career. I have very little use for Smith as a director and I think it’s painfully obvious that his best days as a screenwriter are behind him, but as an artist, I think he’s more fascinating than ever; rather than trying to wedge into the dwindling space for his gifts in the studio system, he’s actively seeking new ways to create and disseminate his art.

It’s on that last point that I think the Clerks 3 story is most instructive, because even though we’re all familiar with the ways digital has scrambled the pathways between art and commerce, a lot of us are either still attached to outdated concepts or struggling to find new ones — pursuing creative careers under the misguided notion that someone is going to come along, cut us a big check for our talent, and free us to live an artist’s life, unfettered by business concerns. Smith’s one of the lucky few who could still make a living that way if he wanted to, but instead, he’s looking for more satisfying answers — and he still has a high enough profile that his efforts have the potential to help clear a path for those who follow.

However Clerks 3 turns out — and I’m more than a little skeptical of this whole fan-“influenced” model of storytelling — Smith’s summary of the 21st century business model is as broadly accurate as it is concise: Whether you’re a filmmaker, musician, author, or other type of entrepreneur, those steps saddle you with the burden of creation in ways that wouldn’t have been feasible 30 years ago, and they retain the artist’s admonition to truly listen to the muse, closely enough to understand and cling to what you love. But they also contain a lot of hope and a tremendous amount of possibility.

Build what you love — dream it, do it — then figure out a way to monetize it.

So. What are you going to build?