The buddy comedy Mallrats landed in theaters on October 20, 1995. And it bombed.
“I thought that day was the end of my career,” recalled writer-director Kevin Smith.
“We’d done a test screening that Tom Pollack, who was the Chairman of Universal
“I remember I flew out to Los Angeles from New Jersey for the premiere, and when I landed in LA, there was a radio station, I think it was KROQ, and the DJ was between songs and said, ‘Hey, what are you up to this weekend? I saw a movie that’s coming out called Mallrats. Boy, it was terrible.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Well, hopefully, that’s just a one-off.’ Then I went to the opening night back in Jersey; it was something like an 8 pm show, half sold. The next morning, I spoke to Jim Jacks, our producer, to talk about box office numbers. I was like, ‘Alright, man, how did it do?’ He goes, ‘We did $400,000.’ I asked, ‘On what screen?’ and he goes, ‘That was all the screens. I don’t know if we’re going to make a million for the weekend.’ And that was it.”
He added, “Before Mallrats, I’d only made Clerks, and that never played on more than 50 screens, it had a real arthouse release, but it made $3 million, so everyone was happy. Mallrats was a movie that we spent $6.1 million to make, and it opened to $1 million. It grossed just over $2 million. I was like, ‘Do I owe Universal Pictures $4 million? Because I don’t have that.’ I didn’t know the rules of the business whatsoever.”
While Mallrats is celebrated 25 years later, it’s not the path Smith expected it to follow.
“Making the movie, I thought it might have a life; we even thought it would have a sequel. I was ready to go, and then Mallrats came out, and everything stopped. Nobody talked about it anymore. There was no talk of a sequel. They shunted it very quickly to home video before we can even do like a fat laserdisc release and stuff,” he lamented. “It was ignominious. Then, for ten years, it was the punchline of most of my jokes. I’d be like, ‘Well, what do I know? I made Mallrats!’ I was the whipping boy that year after being the flavor of the month, or even flavor of the year, with Clerks. I was a cautionary tale like, ‘This is what happens when you give those Sundance kids money.’ It was hard.”
“Richard Linklater had done Dazed and Confused right before me. It had also not lit the world on fire at the box office. Suddenly, I was a cautionary tale probably more than Richard because Clerks had traveled to a much higher height than his film Slacker had, so there was a much farther place to fall from. I made fun of Mallrats for years. Clerks was the golden child, and Chasing Amy replaced that, then Dogma replaced that as movies of mine that people respected. They also made money, and they got good reviews. Oddly enough, ten years after Mallrats came out, the jokes I was making about it didn’t land, people would push back on them, they’d say they loved the movie. I’d be like, ‘Well, that’s great, but where were you when we made it? We could have used the help in the box office because it flopped.’ I’d say it was a flop, and people would ask how because they liked it and owned it on DVD. I lived the movie, and it failed at the box office. The director is the only one that carries that cross. They are mostly the only one that remembers how the movie did.”
Making a move from independent cinema with Clerks to a studio movie with Mallrats opened up a whole new world to Smith.
“We were used to working very small scale. Mallrats was small on a movie level, but by comparison, Clerks was minuscule. We had 50 or 60 people in the crew in Minnesota to shoot Mallrats. We had three people on Clerks. My first adjustment was figuring out what I was and wasn’t supposed to do anymore as per unions,” he explained. “We had a pre-shoot day that we did to save a little money and get the crew and the cast familiar with each other before we started our first official day. We needed to shoot a little video sequence where Ben Affleck’s character, Shannon, is having sex with Renee Humphrey’s character, Trisha.”
“We went and shot that on video cameras with a tiny crew. When we wrapped, I started picking up cable and wrapping cable around my arms and moving monitors. Ben comes over, he’d been in the business longer than me, and he goes, ‘You don’t do that here anymore. They’ve got people who get paid to do that.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t help?’ and he just said, ‘No, you’re taking a union job away from a union player.’ It was very different.”
The cult status that Mallrats has achieved has confirmed Smith’s belief that the film was ahead of its time.
“Mallrats developed this weird identity factor for a cross-section of the audience. Some people know comic books well, can quote movies like crazy, who live and breathe pop culture, and then we just got lucky because the whole culture shifted in that direction,” he explained. “Mallrats was almost a fantasy, a world where people knew all the comic books and everyone knew who Stan Lee was. That was not the world in 1995, but it became the world by 2005. Once they started making Marvel movies, Marvel became a brand name. It took over the world. Stan Lee started doing cameos in Marvel movies and became one of the most famous people on the planet.”
“So, the movie aged well partly because the culture shifted in a direction the movie leaned into, to begin with. It was nice watching everyone else fall in love with the same s**t my characters and I were in love with way back then. Because of that, I get untold currency off of Mallrats.”
He added, “What it did not make in money at the box office, I’ve more than made up for in the currency of affection and credibility. This is a movie people remember very fondly. Mallrats is treated as a cult artifact. I’m here to tell you; I was there on the day it opened, none of that s**t was written in the stars. I don’t do nearly as many movies as I did back in the day. I’m certainly not nearly as well regarded as I was at the beginning of my career when it comes to my motion picture output. Still, Mallrats makes me oddly more relevant now than when I made the movie.”
“The fans have made it what it is, people who have kept the movie it in their hearts carried it with him for a quarter of a f***ing century,” Smith laughed. “As the guy who has made all the Kevin Smith movies, it’s not even my best work but I don’t give a s**t. I’m happy that people love it. Nobody is like, ‘Oh my God, this is like Citizen Kane of mall movies.’ They love it because of what they represent at a time in their life.”
To celebrate the milestone, Mallrats has been gifted a special Limited Edition Blu-ray release through Arrow Films. It includes commentary from Smith and others. Did that bring back memories he’s forgotten?
“Honestly, I’ve never stopped recounting the tale of making Mallrats,” he confessed. “Some people get to the 25-year mark, and they have to try to think back, and the cast or director will scratch their heads, but for me, it’s the story of my life, it’s part of my mythology that allows me to continue being like Kevin Smith for a living. No detail of the making of Mallrats has been lost to time. I have kept it alive. I loved doing this Blu-ray. I cried when I found out that Arrow was releasing. I was like, ‘Oh my god, they’re like the f***ing Criterion of the moment. They’re shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and they make the best f***ing product out there in the world.’ The fact that they want to do Mallrats on its 25th anniversary is insane because I thought I was going to wear this f***er like an albatross around my neck forever. Mallrats is the anti-Clerks. Everything that Clerks was Mallrats wasn’t, and now it’s shoulder-to-shoulder with Clerks. In some places, it is regarded as being better than Clerks.”
With the set including various alternative cuts of the movie, did Smith ever consider re-editing the film into another form, perhaps spread across multiple chapters as Zack Snyder has done with Justice League?
“Zack is a wonderful storyteller who probably has more visuals to spare then there is running time in a movie, right? That’s what we’re seeing with the Snyder Cut, there’s so much story to tell,” he laughed. “Man, I was barely lucky to come up with as much time as I did for Mallrats. It’s pretty threadbare.”
However, there is more ammo in the Mallrats canon.
“It looks like we’re heading toward doing the sequel in 2021, which is nice,” Smith explained. “It’s called Twilight of the Mallrats, so I get to go back to the mall. Writing that this time around was a weird exercise. The entire third act of the original sequel idea that we couldn’t make happen became Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Writing Twilight of the Mallrats, I realized I had to do something closer to the original. If you went in to see this, you would think, ‘Yes, I guess that’s what a Mallrats sequel would look like 25 years later.’ You wouldn’t think that with the original idea at all.”
How audiences will consume the sequel, a quarter of a century later than anticipated, has yet to be decided.
“What it would have been before COVID was we’d make it, and then I’d tour it just like we did with Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Now I think that is going to be difficult,” he considered. “When we took Jay and Silent Bob Reboot on the road, we were seeing 1,000 to 1,500 people a night packed into theaters. I don’t think we’re going to see that again for years, particularly in indoor theaters. If we get to make the Mallrats sequel next year, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it was a streaming debut or something like that. At the same time, I know I could probably take it out on tour, and our audience would go see it at a drive-in or somewhere, so we’ve got options in that way.”
“Universal Pictures co-financed Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, they were on the foreign side of it, so it looks like this time around like they wanted to do something else, so I think they got the domestic side convinced as well. At that point, you’re in studio land, and then it’s up to them how they want to distribute it. To me, if we’re making it with Universal, that puts you in NBC Universal country, it’s just like, ‘Oh my God! Debut it on Peacock. My audience will find it.’ I would love to do that for them if they were remotely interested.”
He added, “I remember, when I was a kid, you could be a lot more selective and s**t, but when you’re talking sequelizing a movie that wasn’t a hit and do it 25 years after the fact, you can’t be bossy. Whatever way it happens is fine by me. Just the fact that it exists will be great. I just want to see it. I’ll keep the budget low so that hopefully they can make their money back, but it’s not about getting rich for me. I want to see if we can do it. That’s kind of what every movie is. I just want to see if we could pull it off. Sometimes you pull it off, and sometimes you don’t. Trust me.”
The Limited Edition Mallrats 25th Anniversary Blu-ray from Arrow is available from Tuesday, October 13, 2020.