The year 2010 did not begin quietly for voluble writer-director-übergeek Kevin Smith. The only thing that overshadowed the dreadful reviews for his action comedy Cop Out was his much-headlined booting from a flight for being too fat. "A lot of people thought I had a great sense of humor about the Southwest Airlines thing, but it was the worst moment of my life," the notoriously potty-mouthed Smith confesses. "For three days, there were thousands of news stories in which everyone felt license to write 'Kevin Smith — comma — the fat director.' I didn't want to get out of bed. Larry King asked me to be on, and I was like, 'I'm not fucking Octomom.'"
Humiliated, Smith was determined not to get on a plane again — and that decision unwittingly launched the boldest move yet in the evolution of podcasting as a business. Last summer, after traveling to his in-person appearances on a bus, Smith had the idea to turn his podcasts into a permanent live-theater experience. Within three days, his friend Matt Cohen, a production assistant on Smith's last movie, found a 50-seat black-box theater in the heart of Hollywood. They negotiated a lease for what has become SModcastle, the physical home of Smith's SModcast podcasts. "SModcastle is a place to go and try shit out," Smith enthuses from the set of his next movie, Red State, a $4 million horror flick about a crazed fundamentalist preacher. "It's the Little Rascals' backyard tent. 'Let's put on a show!'"
Although many podcasting pioneers, such as comedians Adam Carolla, Doug Benson, and Marc Maron, are experimenting with live shows as a way to create revenue from podcasting, SModcastle is one of the first-of-its-kind open-to-the-public headquarters for a podcasting network. It hosts six weekly hour-long podcasts — four of which have ranked in the top five in their category on iTunes — including the flagship SModcast 3D, where Smith talks about the week's news with longtime producer Scott Mosier.
For Smith fans, the live-podcasting theater is the sanctum sanctorum where they get to see the king of the comic-book geeks in action, regally decked out in his signature puck u jersey amid a hockey-inspired decor featuring mountains of sticks and red-and-black carpeting for his beloved New Jersey Devils. For a handful of Smith's friends who podcast with him and share in the profits, SModcastle is the saving grace that has freed them from living with their parents. And for Smith himself, it's the source of creative freedom and emotional solace he desperately needs. "All the fun that went away from the movies is here," Smith says. The 40-year-old feels like he's back in the Wild West of indie filmmaking, when he made Clerks for $28,000, before his movies became corporate Frankensteins. "No bosses saying, 'You can't do that,'" he says, "or, 'This is going to cost too much money.'" Or having to deal with difficult stars like Bruce Willis, who starred in Cop Out. "That'll kill your fucking soul," he says.
The SModcastle has also become the hub for Smith's expanding podcast business: "We don't have the balls to say, 'Pay what you will as you exit,' like the Little Rascals did. We like to get the money up front." That's 50 seats at 10 or 25 bucks a head depending on the show, one or two performances a night, four nights a week, in a place that rents for $4,000 a month. "We haven't advertised at all; we're selling out shows simply because of Twitter," he says, looking extremely pleased as he stands at the refrigerator of the bus he uses as his on-set trailer. Smith is holding a carton of low-fat chocolate milk, occasionally lifting it to his mouth, but he doesn't take a swig because he's talking too much. "It's shocking how self-sufficient you can be."
SModcast 3D commands roughly $2,000 for an advertising spot, with two spots running in a typical hour. "For as much as I thought, Wow, this is a brand-new world, it's really the same old world," Smith says. "Everyone tries to figure out how to keep it as similar to everything as possible, so this is like TV or radio ad buys."
But these aren't the usual TV or radio ads. "For us, it's like you can't reach out to the Nikes of the world or the Wonder Breads," Smith says. "You have to reach out to what our audience uses." Their primary sponsors: Adam and Eve (an adult novelties company) and Fleshlight (a sex toy). "Kevin's funny, and he's not afraid of what people think," says Fleshlight executive VP of marketing Chris Marcus, "so he's an ideal spokesperson."
The icing on the cake? Smith conducts wedding ceremonies at the SModcastle. It wasn't his idea, but fans suggested it and Smith is all about listening to his fans. At each wedding, Smith interviews the bride and groom for 45 minutes (or groom and groom; he's an equal-opportunity romantic) and then marries them before 50 of their nearest and dearest. The ceremonies are called "SMarriages," he charges $5,000, and they're podcasted for posterity. "I figure one of those a month covers rent, so everything is in the black, er, red," he says. "Wait, red is good, black is bad? Whatever. Everything's good." Smith smiles and takes a gulp of chocolate milk.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.