By JON SILBERG
December 15, 2000
It was 1996. Web sites had not yet become a required tool for advertising new
releases, nor was there a such a thing as a dot-com economy. A U. of Michigan student,
Ming Chen, decided he wanted to pay tribute to his favorite new pic, "Clerks," using this
fresh medium, the Internet. With Adobe's PhotoShop and Illustrator and Apple's
QuickTime, he put together some text, artwork and video, rented server space and put
his site out there for Web-savvy friends and "Clerks" fans to find.
Cut to Redbank, N.J., home of "Clerks" creator Kevin Smith. One of Smith's cronies asked
him if he'd seen Chen's "Clerks" Web site. It was, he insisted, clearly the best of the
batch of "Clerks" sites that had begun to crop up. Unsure what a Web site might be,
Smith visited a nearby Internet cafe to take a look for himself.
"I'd hoped that one day Kevin might discover the site and maybe even send me a post,"
Ming said. "Something like 'the site's cool,' you know? I was also a little worried that if I
did hear from him, he'd say, 'shut this thing down or I'm going to sue you.' "
Chen was not prepared for what Smith did say. "I dropped him a note," Smith recalls,
"and told him, 'thanks, it really looks great.' And I said that if he was ever inclined to
design an official site for us, I would be more than happy to give the job to him to do."
Soon after, Chen was designing Viewaskew.com, a fount of information and trivia about
all things Kevin Smith. "I wanted to do like a news section where every couple of days
I'd get out there and talk about what was going on with the company," says Smith.
"Ming suggested doing a Web board instead. I didn't know what that was but when he
explained that it would let me sort of talk back and forth with people going to the site, I
said, 'yeah, let's do it.' So he threw that up and that's kind of where the site really took
Viewaskew.com grew to include a virtual tour through Smith's cluttered office, video
clips from his movies, opinions from Smith and friends about the latest developments in
the film and comic book worlds and even some merchandising. "We auctioned off props
from the movies, posters and other stuff people thought of selling," Smith says. "There
was interest right away and once we set up a secure server the thing got really
popular. I'd been paying out of my pocket to keep the site running every month and all
of a sudden it was paying for itself; more than paying for itself."
The number of hits grew at a constant rate until shortly after the release of "Chasing
Amy," when numbers exploded to many thousands of hits a day. Soon the server space
they'd rented was unable to accommodate the traffic and Ming, who had graduated
and moved to the Washington, D.C. area in part to act as Viewaskew's Webmaster, set
up a dedicated Sun Microsystems server to handle the increased number of hits. Hits
shot up again when the short-lived cartoon version of "Clerks" aired on ABC, which
provided more exposure to Smith's world than even his most solidly-performing feature,
As the merchandising facet of the site continued to grow, Smith decided to go into
business with Graffiti Designs, a Portland, Ore.-based comic-merchandising company.
"We got into a business groove with them," Smith says "and we started to make shirts
and Zippo lighters and hats like the one (recurring characters) Silent Bob and Jay wear.
We have all manner of merchandising like you generally only see in comic book stores."
Smith professes that his primary goal with the site has always been to make his
audience feel like a part of the process, part of his world. Producers and publicists have
been pleased with the interest this generates in his films though sometimes, Smith
admits, his involvement in Viewaskew has gotten him into some trouble.
When Emma Thompson informed Smith she was dropping out of "Dogma" to go home to
England and try to have a baby, Smith promptly told his "friends" on the site. In no time
at all the actress phoned Smith to complain that her home was surrounded by press
wanting more details. When he answered a fan's question by posting that he hadn't
cared for Paul Thomas Anderson's film "Magnolia," "it must have been a real slow news
day," he says, "because my comments about that movie showed up in the New York
Post and Entertainment Weekly.
"It all feels so familial," Smith explains. "I tend to forget that there are people who are
there just reading other people's posts -- what you call lurkers -- and some of those
people work in media. So if there's something that they can turn into news, suddenly
this comment I thought I was sharing with my buddies on the site becomes a story. I
think people are wise enough now to know that I have a pretty big mouth so when they
talk to me they throw in disclaimers in conversation where they say, 'this isn't for the
Internet, OK?' "
While the Internet industry has brought many through wild fluctuations of hope and
disappointment, Smith says Viewaskew has delivered far more than he imagined
possible when he first contacted Chen. "I read about the failing dot-coms and
what-not," he says, "but it's a whole different arena than what we trade in. We were
never trying to build an industry. It's a nice bonus that we actually can make a profit.
When I first discovered what the Internet was, that I could share ideas with some dude
in Idaho -- someone who I had no chance of ever meeting in my life -- I thought, 'that's
a cat I want to talk to.' As a movie fan myself, I always wanted to learn about the
people I liked and become part of their world. Viewaskew helps people who like our stuff
do that. From my point of view, the site's done more than I ever imagined it would."