When Ride Along drove into theaters last month and rode off with a record-breaking $48.1 million over the long Martin Luther King Day weekend, the Kevin Hart-Ice Cube comedy was branded a ''surprise success.'' (As of press time, it had raked in $92.7 million.) Also a surprise? The $32.2 million Hart made last July with his theatrical release Let Me Explain, which went on to become the fourth-highest-grossing stand-up concert film ever. And would you like to take a guess how the $91.5 million earned by the 2012 Hart-starring gender-role comedy Think Like a Man was characterized? I'll give you a hint: It starts with an ''s'' and ends with ''urprise.'' The high-energy comedian is fast proving that he has what it takes to fill seats, and with two more films still to go this year the charming romantic remake About Last Night hitting theaters on Valentine's Day and Think Like a Man Too this summer it looks like he's right on the cusp of bona fide megastardom. But the one person who isn't surprised by any of this is Kevin Hart.
''I'm just happy to be finally getting my just due,'' says the Philadelphia-born comedian, 34, who also had a supporting role in last December's Grudge Match, starring Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone. ''You're looking at 17-plus years in the entertainment business. I've put the work in.'' Hart's words may strike you as typical Hollywood hubris, but in reality it's less actorly braggadocio and more the matter-of-fact declaration of a CFO reading a bullish quarterly earnings report. If there's one thing you learn talking to Hart, it's that he is a businessman above all else. He has a detailed 10-year plan and throws around the word ''brand'' more often than a cattle rancher. Even his collaborators adopt a similar style of corporatese when speaking about him, such as when the comedian's long-standing producer and close friend Will Packer calls him ''a great content-generator.'' Over the years, he has gone from small parts in peripheral comedies to leading roles, hitting a particularly important milestone in 2012 when he got the gig as host of the MTV Video Music Awards on the recommendation of longtime champion Judd Apatow, who years earlier had cast him on the sitcom Undeclared. And Hart claims each step of the way was mapped out from the start (even if they occasionally turned out to be missteps, like his starring role in the 2004 bomb Soul Plane).
''I've learned it's not just about talent, it's about positioning yourself as a business as well,'' he says. It's hard to think of another actor more involved in directly managing his image. Hart uses social media relentlessly in order to reach out to fans, alerting his nearly 10 million Twitter followers to anything he may be involved with and using Facebook, Instagram, and Vine to promote, cross-promote, and cross-cross-promote his many projects. (For example, on Feb. 14, when About Last Night is released, he's slated to play and undoubtedly shill in his third consecutive NBA All-Star Celebrity Game on ESPN.) ''He's a studio's [fantasy], in terms of marketing,'' says Ride Along and Think Like a Man director Tim Story. ''He just eats and breathes this stuff.'' Hart organizes surprise appearances and free-popcorn giveaways on opening weekends, and he even plays trailers for his upcoming films during stand-up tours anything that might galvanize his fans. ''When you think of a lot of actors and actresses, they're not involved with their fan base, not like I am,'' he says. ''Nobody can promote me like me.''
As a fast-talking comedian with successful stand-up films and a buddy-cop movie under his belt, Eddie Murphy is an easy comparison point, but Hart points to Chris Rock as his career exemplar. ''He's been a mentor,'' says Hart, who has a cameo in Rock's upcoming directorial project Finally Famous. ''Chris is a large part of the reason why I started to tour internationally. He said, 'Kevin, don't just tour here, tour everywhere.''' In an episode of Hart's BET reality-show parody Real Husbands of Hollywood, a guest-starring Rock joked that Hart wasn't actually famous, just ''black famous.'' The fact that Hart's films predominantly do well with audiences of color may be one reason their success is so often framed as a fluke by an industry that has consistently underestimated that portion of the moviegoing populace. For his part, Hart says he's always looking for ways to extend his reach and hit every possible demographic. ''My goal is to make everyone and anyone a Kevin Hart fan,'' he says. ''Expect me to continue what I've been doing, which is trying to take over the world.''