On the Delaware County set of Kevin Hart’s most recent movie — shot earlier this year and as-yet-untitled — cast and crew were amazed at the boundless energy of Kevin Hart. He was up at 5 a.m. everyday to work out and spent idle moments between takes autographing copies of his new book, I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons.
And how would fans know about the autographed copies?
That kind of energy acumen has paid off for Hart. On Thursday, it’s officially Kevin Hart Day in Philadelphia, an occasion that will be marked by a mural of the North Philly-born and -raised comedian, performances by Philly rappers Freeway and Chill Moody, arts and crafts, free food, and appearances by local notables, including Mayor Kenney and Hart himself.
But that’s only one of many recent honors: The Hollywood Reporter just placed Hart again on its list of the 100 most powerful people in the industry (he finished at No. 80), after another successful year in which he did vocal work for the animated hit The Secret Life of Pets that made $875 million around the world, and co-starred with Dwayne Johnson in Central Intelligence, which made $216 million.
Forbes magazine pegged his net worth at $128 million and his 2016 income at more than $32 million, mostly from movie box office proceeds — his films have earned $1.5 billion worldwide.
“He’s a legitimate, bankable movie star,” Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal, told Variety last month. “He’s one of the few stars left that brings people to theaters.”
He has achieved this success with a disciplined entrepreneur’s approach — collecting and consulting mentors, building a reliable and loyal core staff, studying his industry, mastering social media, and oiling the entire apparatus with plenty of elbow grease.
Hart plows much of that profit back into his own productions. He put up the $10 million for his 2016 stand-up movie What Now?, which was filmed at a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field, and reaped $24 million at the box office. He’s branched out into producing — he’s put out his own production shingle on a company called HartBeat Productions and has a program called The Studio with rapper T.I. that is being set up at Showtime — and via his carefully managed brand, has endorsement deals with Nike and Tommy John.
None of this would surprise anyone who’s ever talked to Hart. I’ve interviewed him several times over the years, and each time, I’ve been impressed with his drive, focus, and tactical and strategic smarts — he sees himself as an artist (his next movie is his first straight dramatic role), but also a businessman who makes careful decisions about how to move his career and interests forward. Another new venture: He’s launching his own all-comedy streaming service called Laugh Out Loud.
Case in point: The Wedding Ringer, in which he plays the owner of a company that hires out best men for socially awkward grooms. It wasn’t the best script that Hart had ever seen, and it was one of his few box office duds. But he knew it was part of a genre that has played well around the world. Hart, already a fixture at the North American box office, was looking for a way to take his brand overseas.
“You have to get better, and you have to get bigger,” he told me at the time, candidly and bluntly assessing his goals. “To do that, you need international exposure. You know why there are so many wedding movies? Because they travel — it’s a subject that appeals to everyone,” he said.
“I’m improving at the box office. People can look at the numbers and say ‘Kevin will bring you a return at the box office domestically,’ but I want that internationally. So right now, I’m about to put in the work to make that happen.”
Hart said he’s collaborative by nature, which helps in Hollywood. He says he “gets along with everybody,” but is “a leader who’s in charge of people and who delegates, who puts people in a position to do what they do best, and make the whole operation work better.”
It’s in line with what he told the Hollywood Reporter: “You can judge a man’s power by looking at his team. The more successful his team, the more successful that individual is.”
Hart’s inner circle is tight: older brother Robert, wife Eniko (“When I was poor, she was there,” Hart has said), his manager Dave Becky, not to mention his entourage made up of his old Philly stand-up buddies like Keith Robinson, who once told Hart to drop an early stand-up persona and just be himself.
Hart learned the craft of stand-up from Chris Rock and acting from guys such as Ice Cube. He became focused on social media after watching fellow comic Dane Cook collect emails and contacts on tour, but also picked colleagues’ brains for the keys to managing a career and a brand. He regularly seeks the counsel of Tyler Perry, Oprah, and Jay-Z.
“Some of the best advice I got was from Chris Rock. He said, ‘You don’t want to appeal to just one particular audience.’ Everybody likes to laugh, that’s the power of comedy,” Hart told me while touring with Ice Cube to promote the original Ride Along.
Cube remembered the advice he gave Hart: “I told him, ‘Don’t be in a movie that you won’t go see.’ It’s simple, but it makes so much sense. And be true to the art. Learn it. People get caught up in the money, how much movies make, and that’s cool. But there’s another level — how many times would you watch it? That’s the kind of movie you want to make, the kind you watch over and over. And be fans of the people you hire to be in your movies.”
Hart has followed that advice, working with international stars such as Johnson (they’ll star again in a remake of Jumanji). He costars with Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston this fall in Untouchable, filmed in Philadelphia and Delaware County, based on the award-winning French film The Intouchables.
Through it all, Hart maintains his famous high-energy enthusiasm, and also his fear of mistakes.
“My biggest fear is getting caught up in this entertainment thing and losing my … mind,” Hart told me. “I look at Ice Cube, 34 years in the business, producing, directing, acting, and he stays within his own circle. You don’t read about him out partying, going crazy on some yacht. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a yacht. Just means you don’t read about it.”
If you read about Hart’s success, chances are the narrative is one he has designed. The audience he has worked so hard to build is one he can reach directly through social media, leveraging and managing the brand he’s worked so hard to build on stage, on screen and on the page. It’s brought him fame and fortune. You might say that’s unlikely for a guy from North Philadelphia, but not if you’ve spent five minutes talking to Kevin Hart.
Timeline by Nick Vadala
Kevin Hart Day
10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Thursday, Max's Steaks, 3653 Germantown Ave., free.