Filmmaker Kevin Smith blasts MPAA ratings in online-porn era

Q&A In his book "Tough Sh*t," Smith muses on his long career in movies and transitioning to running a podcasting empire. But in a CNET interview, Silent Bob argues the MPAA can't protect kids.

For certain types of people, finding out that fantasy writer Neil Gaiman likes their work could be considered the cherry on top of a career. So for filmmaker Kevin Smith, seeing that Gaiman once tweeted "I suspect @ThatKevinSmith is what all gods and demons aspire to be" had to make for one terrific day.

@ThatKevinSmith, of course, is the man who made such cult hits as "Clerks," "Mallrats," and "Chasing Amy." More recently, he's moved on from wry humor to darker stuff like "Red State." And he's even been telling the world that he is quitting movies altogether.

In fact, the man who may be known to many as Silent Bob (from "Clerks") may these days be better termed an Internet mogul, or at least someone who has built a popular podcasting empire. But now he's also wearing the hat of an author, having just published his latest book, "Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob who did Good."

The book, which tells all kinds of stories from throughout his career in movies -- as well as his early explorations with technology, his adventures courting his wife, and much more -- is a hit both in paper and in electronic forms. It recently landed on the bestseller list, something Smith himself realizes may not be quite as impressive as it sounds.

But while Silent Bob comes to any conversation with plenty of opinions, the most striking ones he shared with CNET during an interview last week may well have had to do with his incredulity at how out of touch the Motion Picture Association of America's movie rating system is. After all, Smith argued, the system was developed to shield children from things they weren't ready for, something that is simply an impossible task in the Internet era.

Q: You've got a new book. Think that's a medium that's going to catch on?
Kevin Smith: These books, they might be here for good. It's funny, the publisher said you made The New York Times bestseller list, and I said right on. But I didn't understand the book metrics so I couldn't put it into perspective. When they gave me numbers, I said, wow, the bar isn't very high in terms of physical copies. Naturally, I sold more e-books than physical copies. But that's what I like the best. I wrote a book, and then before we were done, they said, to sell the e-book, you have to record video. I'm like, what? Is that what you told Gutenberg?

Is that disappointing to you that you sold more e-books than physical ones?
Smith: God, no. Heavens, no. I don't have the same perspective I had 15 to 20 years ago. I don't fetishize the release in one medium, particularly the traditional version. I did a book tour across the country, and that was great, but I'm not one of those cats like, when people say, "film has been replaced by digital, don't you lament the loss of actual celluloid?" And I'm like, "no, man, I don't care. I watch my movies on an iPhone at this point."

We're promoting this movie called "Bindlestiffs," through our Smodcast label, and I was trying to sell the kids who made it on doing a screening for the video-on-demand people, because later on, VOD will be very important for the movie. These cats instantly were like, "The movie was designed to be watched on an iPhone," and I said, "You got it, kid, you understand."

At this point, how it gets out there, I don't even care anymore, whether you watch it on the big screen, on DVD or Blu-Ray, or watch it ripped on YouTube. Believe me, it's great that the book is selling, and I'm a capitalist at heart, but you can't do as many things as I do and charge for all of it, because I'm working from a very small pool of the people that follow me. But I saw a lot of people on Twitter say they bought the book because of all the free podcasts I do. I was like, right on.

You were known as a filmmaker, but now you have a podcasting empire, and you're big on Twitter...
Smith: I'm big everywhere, especially on airplanes . Like, "get the f--k off."

So, if someone who doesn't know who you are asks what you do, what do you say?
Smith: It depends. I remember this old bit from Spalding Gray, who was a wonderful monologist. I loved his shows, and they're the backbone of what I do. I love podcasting, and doing those long-ass Q&As, because I loved to listen to Spalding Gray. He had this one line where somebody asked him what he did for a living, and he said "I chose writer that day." And that always made me laugh, because that dude spun a bunch of different plates. So it's based on the moment. If they know me from the flicks, it's "I used to make movies." Most people say, "Are you that guy?" Or, "Why do I know you." Or, "Oh, my God, you're Silent Bob." But lately, I've been saying I'm a podcaster. But then people feel like you're a dick if they find out later on you're a filmmaker, because they're like, "Why didn't he say that." They feel like you're having fun at their expense. But really, literally, that's what I consider myself.

What does your mother think about you having an @ sign in front of your name?
Smith: She gets it because she knows I've been living online for 20 years, since after "Mallrats." At a Q&A after the film, people were like, "Hey man, did you ever check out all the 'Clerks' shrines on the Internet?" And I was like, "What the f--k's the Internet?" I went to an Internet cafe that had just opened in town. And I said, "Can you take me to 'Clerks?'" I had no language for it. And we found this "Clerks" Web site. So I asked this guy to build a Web site for View Askew. And I was like, maybe we could do a town hall once a week, and he said, let's just put up a message board, and then you can talk to people whenever you want. I was like, "I'll never be lonely again."

So mom's used to it. When I explained Twitter to her, I said it's just like the View Askew message board, except way bigger, and you have to keep your answers tighter. And she was like, "That's nice, Tiger."

You talked in the book about you and Peter Jackson being some of the first filmmakers on the Web. So, being personally involved, going into forums, communicating with your fans -- is that something that's required for filmmakers today?
Smith: If it has to be explained to someone as a requirement, they'll never get it. You do it because you love it, and don't know what else to do. When I said "I'll never be alone again" about the message board, that was a true thing. I didn't make "Clerks" to screen on a wall and not show anybody. I'm not one of those artists. I wanted to show people, I want to communicate.

Do you think filmmakers understand that?
Smith: When we did "Clerks," we weren't competing with nearly as many different media that could grab your attention. There were movies, theater, TV, the early, nascent form of the Internet, and video games. Now it's far more competitive. So the notion of finding any edge you can that makes you pop, that helps you get in touch with, and more importantly, stay in touch with, an audience, you'd be absolutely bats--t not to embrace it.

Back in the day, a newspaper or magazine would review your movie, and then you'd see box office results, and that's it. Being able to literally talk to someone that bought a ticket three hours ago, watched the movie, and now wants to tell me how they felt, it was like, oh my God, this is what I'm in it for. In this day and age, you've got to foster a relationship with the audience rather than just say here's my art, pay for it. It's a real try-before-you-buy culture. We learned that on "Red State." I can't tell you how many tweets I saw from kids saying "Just downloaded your movie illegally, loved it, now I'm going to buy the Blu-Ray." So why go through all the efforts of policing to stop an audience from getting your s--t illegally. Just beat them at their own game, and try to make everything as free as possible.

What about the MPAA? They seem sort of perpetually 10 years behind where technology's going. How do you deal with that?
Smith: I've been dealing with the MPAA for a couple of years on our flicks, but not, "These dinosaurs, these analog fools in a digital age." More like, do you guys understand what counts as offensive anymore? With "Clerks," we got a NC-17 for language. There was no nudity that they were citing, there was no violence. It was because these two dudes sat around and talked about (sex). But in the current case of the "Bully" documentary (video), some of the bullies used the term "f--k," so suddenly the MPAA says, "More than one use of the word 'f--k' in a specific situation, gets you an R-rating. Sorry, that's the way it goes." And I'm like, don't apologize, change your policy, particularly for a film that clearly needs to get out to an audience (teenagers) that maybe can't get in with a prohibitive R-rating.

A bigger problem with that is that schools can't show films with an R-rating, right?
Smith: Exactly. Is the MPAA truly in touch? The rating system was put in place a long time ago in a world that doesn't resemble this one at all, when nobody could possibly conceive of the fact that one day a 9-year-old kid could open up their laptop and watch a dude (have sex with) a horse. At that point, what do you care about a PG-13 or an R? It's not like, now that we have this rating on this movie, children are safe from vulgarity forever. It's like a Band-Aid on a cancer patient. These cats are putting their finger in a dike, forgetting that the dike burst long ago. There's nothing that Warner Bros. will put into a movie in the next 50 years that will ever warrant the amount of concern a parent should have for the constant access to hard-core pornography that kids under the age of 18 have today.

On the back cover of your book, you have praise from Neil Gaiman on Twitter. How cool is that?
Smith: You know, for someone who tore through "Sandman," tore through everything that Neil did, that's kind of sweet. It's neat, man, I never would have imagined that in a million years. But Twitter makes strange bedfellows. God bless social media.

 

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