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The Self-Made Man: Kevin Smith

You know, I really did try to find someone outside the entertainment industry for this week’s Self-Made Man column. It’s harder than you think, because I have to find people who both fit the topic and have some level of celebrity. This proves difficult because an awful lot of rich people were born into wealth, and no one aside from Forbes Magazine editors has even heard of most of them. So it’s back into show business I go for this week’s subject: Kevin Smith.

The great Kevin Smith

Smith, who has built his own little indie film/comics/podcasting fiefdom over the past decade and change, grew up in Highlands, New Jersey, which owes a lot of its existence to being a vacation spot for New Yorkers. Smith’s dad worked for the Post Office and made a modest salary by that era’s standards, but the family got by through extraordinary cheapness (in keeping with Catholic tradition). In his Highlands: A Peephole Historypodcast series, Smith and his siblings talk about their parents’ legendary thrift, which included stealing souvenirs from Disney World and sharing blocks of literal government cheese with Smith’s grandparents.

While Smith was certainly a bright kid, he was hampered by self-esteem issues due to his size and a general lack of direction ? he wanted to make movies but didn’t know how, and didn’t know anyone else with similar ambitions. He did eventually go to film school, specifically the Vancouver Film School, but dropped out and ended up working at a convenience store in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Smith was, at this point, on the verge of becoming an unsuccessful nerd. You see them at conventions all the time. They’re smart and funny and passionate about their hobbies, but they can’t ever generate enough momentum on their own to do anything but coast and wish things were different. It’s a sad reality of the arts, but Smith managed to avoid it by virtue of watching Slacker, which lit a long overdue fire under him, and meeting Scott Mosier during his time in Vancouver. Smith and Mosier bonded over their love for obscure movies, and when Smith dropped out of school, he asked Mosier to produce the film that he dropped out to make: Clerks. We all know what happened from there, and just in case you don’t, here’s a good rundown.

Once his career really got underway, Smith turned out to be a very hard worker. His zeal for publicity and press appearances is downright carny (he protested his own movie, Dogma, under a false name and made the evening news in his hometown), and he’s one of the few directors who spends time in the editing room, cutting shots and generally ?making the sausage,? to use an industry term for unappealing grunt work.

That said, the best example of Smith’s work ethic is his fanbase. He built that up from absolutely nothing through scores of appearances at conventions, promotional events, and a very active website where he communicated directly with his fans, often with uncomfortable honesty about his personal life, career, and shortcomings. Smith is one of the few celebrities around who actually likes his audience, which explains why he always tops fan-generated lists of nicest celebrities (compare that to Will Ferrell, who is reportedly a huge douche to autograph seekers).

So no, Kevin Smith didn’t grow up dirt poor, but he also didn’t have any connections to the film industry when he started out, and wasn’t in the position to make any without earning them. He built relationships with like-minded people and grew with them, and was willing to put in the time and effort required to turn a lucky break into a real career. He’s living proof of his own quote that success doesn’t change people; it just magnifies what’s there.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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