Kevin Smith isn’t typically someone you’d expect to see hawking a company’s product. He’s a DIY sensation, the architect of cult-turned-mainstream favorites like Clerks and Mallrats. He’s been known to be defiantly anti-establishment when it comes to the culture of media, yet here he is now, participating in Gillette’s Man of Steel tie-in campaign, “How does Superman shave?”
Part of the appeal for Smith comes from seeing the sort of dingy comic book shop debates that are so integral to his interests and his work, being taken up and embraced by a wide audience. “This is one of those things that, like, when I was a kid I wondered about,” he tells Digital Trends. “John Byrne, in 1986 in the Man of Steel [comic book] miniseries, which is no relation to the movie except the name sounds the same, he came up with an explanation about the laser vision into a mirror burning the beard off. As comic book fans, you’re like, ‘Okay, I buy it.’ You don’t go any deeper than that. ‘John Byrne is good enough for me. It’s John Byrne for God sakes.’ It doesn’t work like that for the mainstream.”
Now, almost 30 years later, Smith is happily surprised to see even his own mother wondering about how the last son of Krypton removes his indestructible whiskers. He’s the type of geek who would rather see his niche interests blossom beneath the gaze of a broader audience. Why wouldn’t he be? This is a guy whose earliest films featured heated debates about collateral losses in the Star Wars universe and superhero sex. He looks at Superman and sees a perfect lightning rod for focusing mainstream attention on the sort of stuff that he loves.
“I never imagined when I was writing dialogue like that, like two decades back, that that would be a viable conversation in the 21st century.”
The reality is, as ever, that it comes down to money. Superhero fiction in particular is a big business in entertainment right now, with Marvel and DC Comics properties worth billions in theaters and on TV screens. That’s not even mentioning the recent spikes in popularity around Doctor Who, around Star Wars and Star Trek, around any number of other fictional universes that used to be the domain of social outcasts and misfits.
“This shit’s in my wheelhouse,” Smith says, a toothy grin spreading across his face. “When these cats called up, I was like, ‘I was gonna talk about him anyway.’ It’s fun. I never imagined when I was writing dialogue like that, like two decades back, that that would be a viable conversation in the 21st century.”
Smith appreciates the unconventional approach, which is part of what attracted him to Gillette’s look at Superman’s shaving habits. A tie-in marketing campaign doesn’t need to be as on-the-nose as the traditional push to get people to buy stuff because it has a link to something else you like. Will the off-kilter approach sell more razors for Gillette? Hard to say. It catches the eye though. Watching the videos from Smith, from Bill Nye, from the Mythbusters duo, it doesn’t feel like an ad.
“I wonder how much longer TV has. It’s all predicated on commercials and selling ad time, but we all see that that [doesn’t work] the way it used to.”
Smith has always been quick to embrace new technology; he was an early adopter of podcasts, beginning back in 2007 when the medium was still new. Successes like Hulu’s Spoilers and AMC’s Comic Book Men also exemplify what he sees as a more diverse creative playing field to work in. “Options now, there’s more options,” he says. “Now it’s easier for me to do the shit I want to do because people in the niche now, they understand. Arrested Development is a large niche, but it’s still niche. It had enough hardcore fans to bring it back and become something in its second incarnation.”
“[This is great] for a guy like me who can’t command a bunch of people because my movies aren’t these massive spectacles. It’s not like you’re going to see Iron Man beating the shit out of Thor and it’s gonna be amazing. In my movies, you’re gonna see two dudes talking about Iron Man beating the shit out of Thor, and it’s gonna be just like hanging out with your friends. So you can’t necessarily mobilize the world to go see that, but in the age of social media you can mobilize the people who are interested in that kind of thing.”
The niche becomes a viable audience to create for when digital channels establish a sort of direct delivery system. Presently, there is a focus in fiction-based entertainment on building libraries, on growing an idea into an income-producing success with help from a small-yet-focused audience. If that seemingly niche appeal then catches the attention of a wider audience, all the better.
“We’ve seen it happen time and time again,” Smith says. “The Walking Dead was a huge breakout. A genre show that pushed them into the mainstream. Netflix was very popular before Arrested Development came along, but shit, the windfall of fucking press that they just enjoyed over the last month simply for making a show that people like. Or Xbox [with its plan to produce original programming]. That changes the game. That means there are places other than the five places you used to walk into before and could be like ‘Please give me money to make my art.'”
“We’re in this place where, because of all these options, you’re going to see a lot more art. You’re going to see a lot more chances being taken. There are always going to be gatekeepers. In a world of gatekeepers, there are now many more. Suddenly you can go a bunch of other places. You can take a show or take an idea and try to grow it someplace else. It’s way more exciting.”
The Internet plays a huge role there. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Smith’s work in recent years understands what an important tool the online world is for him. Even the cult-turned-mainstream status of early works like Clerks owes much to the rise of an interconnected global network.
“When I started in ’94, there weren’t that many places to compete for people’s attention,” he explains. There was television, porn, and video games. Now? You’re competing for a lot of attention within each of those mediums. Instagram? I didn’t even know what an Instagram was, and now it’s something that you add to your life where you’re like, ‘I haven’t Instagram’ed in awhile. Better go do it because what the fuck’s wrong with me?’ Suddenly you become a slave to the digital world.”
“We’re in this place where, because of all these options, you’re going to see a lot more art.”
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have had a career over the last 10 years [without the Internet]. I probably would have been over years ago were it not for the digital world, were it not for the world of online. I’m like Lawnmower Man: there, I can make shit happen. In the real world, not so much. So I owe so much of my career to the online world, and that’s why I’m always trying to stay on top of what’s happening, because my success depends on it.”