When Kevin Smith was a kid, his father routinely let him cut school so they could go to the movies together.
“Tell them your uncle died,” his old man, postal worker Donald Smith, would say.
The Wednesday matinee was the future film director’s ticket to the wonders of the big screen.
Eventually, staff at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Kevin’s Highlands elementary school, informed him there were just too many dead people in his family.
Now Smith is preparing to take ownership of the local theater that nourished his childhood imagination — The Atlantic Moviehouse in Atlantic Highlands.
The new name: SModcastle Cinemas.
“This certainly isn’t about an investment deal,” Smith tells NJ Advance Media. “This is about owning a little piece of my personal movie history, a building that helped forge the filmmaker that I would become.”
The “Clerks” director and his business partners have signed contracts and expect to close on the century-old First Avenue movie theater formerly known as Atlantic Cinemas by Sept. 14, Smith says.
At a time when movie theaters — cut down by streaming and the COVID-19 pandemic — need a lifeline, the filmmaker says he’s happily doubling down on the theatergoing experience. So much so that he’s literally moving in.
He’s taking an apartment above the five-screen theater, too.
“I just turned 52, and I couldn’t think of a better gift to myself,” says Smith, whose film “Clerks III” will premiere in Red Bank on Sept. 4 as part of a director-hosted national movie tour before coming to theaters across the country Sept. 13 and 15.
The Atlantic Highlands theater is now open, but previously closed under the stresses of the pandemic.
Smith’s new name for the local fixture matches his various other enterprises, which in turn take their names from his SModcast podcast that started in 2007. They include the SModcast Podcast Network, SModcast Pictures production company and SModcastle, the podcast theater Smith opened last year in the same building as Quick Stop Groceries in Leonardo.
The convenience store rose to fame in 1994 alongside Smith, a former Quick Stop clerk, in “Clerks” and can be seen again in “Clerks III,” which filmed there last summer.
Smith, whose natural tendency to talk — and talk a lot — is diametrically opposed to his onscreen alter-ego, Silent Bob, glows about the movie theater’s 250-seat main auditorium. He likens the space to the Hollywood Improv comedy club in Los Angeles, where he co-hosted the “Hollywood Babble-On” podcast for 10 years with Ralph Garman.
“I got the ability to monetize a movie theater in a way that a normal movie theater can’t monetize itself,” Smith says.
To that end, the filmmaker plans to bring in live shows, including podcast shows and script readings. He also has designs on filming a movie at the theater (more on that below).
“I know how to bring something to the table more than just being like, ‘Hey, I own a movie theater. Isn’t that fun?’” Smith says. “I think I can make it a thriving business as well, bringing to bear everything that I’ve got experience with over the course of the last three decades.
“I’m probably going to be in town a lot more now because of it.”
He plans to occupy the apartment space above the movie theater, which he calls “every kid’s dream.”
“That’s gonna be where I live when I’m in town,” Smith says.
The director and his wife feel more free to spend time away from his Los Angeles home because their daughter, actor Harley Quinn Smith, now has a house of her own.
He already has detailed plans for the theater decor, which he says will feature a “From Highlands to Hollywood” mural that will wrap the lobby and feature characters from his New Jersey-set View Askewniverse films, which include “Clerks” (1994), “Mallrats” (1995), “Chasing Amy” (1997), “Dogma” (1999) and “Clerks II” (2006).
Smith is just the latest celebrity with ties to New Jersey to step in to save a local theater during the pandemic.
In 2021, “Aquaman” actor Patrick Wilson, who lives in Montclair, became a partner in ShowRoom Cinema Bradley Beach in an effort to salvage it and reopen it as The Bradley. The theater is open in a “pop-up” mode and showing summer films while planned renovations are pending.
The group of movie industry professionals behind the project, Cinema Lab, also operates a movie theater in The Village at South Orange Performing Arts Center, which has hosted appearances from “Spider-Man” star Tom Holland, among others.
Near the concessions counter of the Atlantic Highlands theater, Smith envisions a collage of movie stars from New Jersey — Danny DeVito (Asbury Park), Frank Sinatra (Hoboken) and Jack Nicholson (Neptune City, Spring Lake), to name a few. He likes the idea of a wall of local greats inspiring young moviegoers who walk through the doors.
The Atlantic Moviehouse’s prices remain affordable compared to many multiplex fare. Adult tickets are $10, children and seniors are $8, matinees are $8 and $7 and bargain Wednesdays are $7. The theater shows first-run movies: This weekend’s lineup is “Bullet Train,” “DC League of Super-Pets,” “Easter Sunday” and “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Smith doesn’t just want to show the big movies of the day — he plans on welcoming filmmakers, too.
“My dream is to get Martin Scorsese into that theater because that’s where I saw ‘Goodfellas,’” Smith says of the acclaimed director, whose comments about Marvel movies started a debate about whether or not those films are “cinema.”
Smith, who has become maybe just as famous for being a professional fan as he is for making movies, heaps praise upon Marvel films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (he maintains it should have been nominated for an Oscar for best picture ). He says he fully intends to host special screenings of superhero flicks at the theater.
“We feel like it’s also a music venue as well,” he says of the theater.
The filmmaker, a Red Bank native who grew up in Highlands, lives on the West Coast but is never away from New Jersey for long.
Smith, who owns Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, a comic book store in Red Bank, was just at The Atlantic Moviehouse on Aug. 2 to celebrate his 52nd birthday. Pairing up with fellow Highlands-to-Los Angeles guy Jason Mewes, his friend onscreen and off, he hosted a “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old” show at the theater to mark a combined 100 years of existence (that’s what you get if you add Mewes’ 48 to Smith’s 52).
While they were there, Smith toured the property, which occupies two buildings at 82 First Avenue.
But he’s been thinking about it for longer than that.
“You get to shoot a whole-*ss movie in a movie theater,” he remembers thinking.
It’s not even a done deal yet, and Smith has already finished a screenplay inspired by the purchase. It takes place in the 1980s of his youth and is set at the theater.
Ashley DiGennaro is one of Smith’s business partners in the movie theater alongside his hometown friends Jeff Swanton and Ernie O’Donnell, who co-owns the SModcastle in Leonardo.
“To keep these ‘mom and pop’ kind of places from your childhood still alive is so important,” DiGennaro says.
O’Donnell was the first to mention that the buildings were for sale. They were looking for a space to host one of the newest additions to Smith’s repertoire — the SModcastle Film Festival, after receiving about 1,000 film submissions, much more than they anticipated for the 48-seat SModcastle. There was already a connection: In May, the Atlantic Moviehouse hosted the Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash 25th anniversary celebration Q&A.
“For me and Ernie, it’s like going back to grade school, going back to high school, to own the movie theater that we used to go to,” says Smith, an alum of Henry Hudson Regional High.
Although the Smith crew plans additional uses for the space, the primary function of the theater will continue to be showing movies.
DiGennaro wants to bring back the time when “going to the movies was a treat.”
They’ll likely lean into the retro look and the building’s own long history, she says, which predates the 101-year-old movie theater. So far there are no plans to close the theater for renovations.
DiGennaro, who lives in New City, New York, met Smith about four years ago through a private autograph signing. She co-owns Leeloo Multiprops, a business that hosts signings and salvages and restores movie props, with her husband, Joseph DiGennaro. Some of their finds: a shrimp hand from “Beetlejuice” and a helmet from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
“They’re gonna bring in props from all these movies,” Smith says. “I’m bringing in all this artwork from all my movies and stuff.”
DiGennaro became friends with Smith and told O’Donnell she was interested in investing in the director’s projects.
About 10 minutes later, she got a text from Smith.
“He’s brilliant at self-marketing,” she says, pointing to his movie tours (she calls him the “Iron Maiden” of the circuit, for good sales) and “self-contained universe.”
DiGennaro says that while Smith and company will own the theater buildings, daily operations will still fall to the current theater owners.
Tony Zertuche and Susanne Zertuche took over as owners of the Atlantic Highlands theater last summer, as the Two River Times previously reported.
Current building owner Fred Rast, a former mayor of Atlantic Highlands who was once an usher at the theater, closed what was then called Atlantic Cinemas in the fall of 2020. The longtime theater proprietor made the decision to sell after the mandated shutdowns at the start of the pandemic, which shuttered the cinema house from March 2020 through September 2020. In June 2021, the Zertuches, instead of buying Rast’s two buildings for the $2.6 million asking price, entered into a two-year lease with Rast, who maintained ownership of the theater buildings.
The theater that would become The Atlantic Moviehouse (the Zertuches changed the name) opened in 1921. Leonard “Lenny” Edwards assumed ownership in 1961 and went on to defy local competition from newer multiplexes.
Later, the venue debuted a second screen as Atlantic Twin Cinema.
“That was huge news in our world,” Smith recalls. “You gotta remember, we didn’t have cable or the internet back then.”
After that, it became Atlantic Triplex, then Atlantic Cinema 5. Edwards died in 2012, and Rast kept the theater open until the pandemic hit. He briefly reopened the venue in October 2020, after the state shutdown was lifted, but the damage had been done.
Looking ahead, Smith isn’t stopping at a movie theater, or even a movie based on a movie theater. From the home base of SModcastle Cinemas, he wants to create a film school.
But not just any film school: Jay and Silent Bob’s View Askewniversity.
The director says he won’t be teaching how to make films. His goal is more specific. He wants to teach people how to make a Jay and Silent Bob film. He says he may start with instruction in film shorts in the form of a camp next summer.
“People always ask him at Q&As: ‘How do I get started? How do I do what you do?’” DiGennaro says. “Here’s your opportunity to learn from him.”
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Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at email@example.com and followed at @AmyKup on Twitter.