Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Genius or stupidity? It might be both.

There's a rumor swirling around the blogosphere regarding a front-page story in The New York Times on June 9th about Chevy. I mean, Chevrolet.

Apparently, a memo was issued that week urging employees –– the ones that are left –– no longer to refer to their employer as Chevy. “We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising, or speaking with friends and family, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward,” said the memo, which was signed by Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim Campbell, the G.M. division’s vice president for marketing. (This is a quote from the article in The New York Times.)

The buzz in the ad world was that the "news" story was actually a crafty bit of PR, managed by Chevrolet's ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

I know what you're thinking. You're wondering what a memo about a car company reported in The New York Times has to do with a blog about filmmaking. It connects, trust me, but just barely. 

But first, this.

Let's say Goodby managed to pull off a stunt like this. They're an amazing ad agency. It's not outside the realm of possibility.

If they did, they also managed to simultaneously blow a massive opportunity and take down a bastion of objective journalism.

Let's take those one at a time.

If you're going to get a story on the front page of The New York Times, is the "news" you want to communicate that you want people to stop calling you by your nickname? Or to put it a different way, isn't there anything more substantial you want people to know?

A brand is different from a name. The Gap is –– when you think about it –– an admission that something's missing. Frigidaire makes ovens. And Toyota has a truck named after Tacoma. So what? Would those brands do any better if they were called something else? (No.)

The name Apple has absolutely nothing to do with clean design, and if you're selling a line of upscale, urban, metrosexual clothing, you'd have a hard time coming up with a worse name than Banana Republic.

Besides which, it's not as if people don't know that Chevrolet and Chevy are two names for the same thing. The cars all say Chevrolet on them. And people still buy them, even when they call them Chevys.

So, yeah, it's the kind of thing Goodby might think of, but they'd be stupid to squander the opportunity on something as mundane as this.

As for The New York Times' sterling reputation as a bastion of objective journalism, sure, an article about a memo requesting employees to call a company by its name is questionable material for the front page of such an august periodical. But a single editorial decision is forgivable. The damage that would be done if it ever became known that such a placement could be bought is irreparable. Is that a risk The New York Times would seriously consider taking? 

I doubt it. 

I mean, do the math. How many subscribers would you lose –– and how many advertisers would maintain the conceit –– if something like that were to become known? And how likely is it not to become known? A story like that screams PULITZER! I guarantee you, every single ambitious investigative reporter in the English-speaking world fantasizes about getting the scoop on the mother ship.

I may be wrong, but I say let's just chalk this up to a lapse in editorial judgement and move on. 

And now to the part where all this has to do with filmmaking.

Your reputation is based upon not just one thing, but upon your body of work. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has earned a reputation for breakthrough advertising not for doing one ad or even one campaign, but for years and years of consistently creating breakthrough advertising. The New York Times has earned a reputation for objective journalism not for breaking one story, but for years and years of breaking stories. 

A single piece can't create your reputation. But a single act can destroy it. Remember that before you consider taking an offer to shoot 'Rambo XIV'.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Here I go again, picking on poor Wieden + Kennedy.

I feel like I need to start this post by backpedaling. Wieden + Kennedy is one of the greatest ad agencies in the history of advertising. They've done incredible work over years –– some of the most persuasive, iconic, spectacular advertising that truly moved the marketing communication business forward.

And no, I'm not just talking about the "old" Wieden + Kennedy. Last year's  Old Spice work is nothing short of spectacular. Their 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' spot defies conventional advertising's narrative structure and continues the brand's wry, post-modern take on both male sexual identity and advertising itself. The Target work has been extraordinarily well-targeted and beautifully executed.

But enough preamble. I'm here to take the unpopular position on probably the biggest piece the agency has produced this year: Nike's 'Write the Future' epic for the World Cup.

I hate it.

More than I hate their most recent Jeep commercial, which I blogged about on June 11th. And more than I hate the Dodge spot where George Washington rides into battle in a Dodge, which I didn't blog about, but railed against privately to anybody who would listen.

Sure, 'Write the Future' is beautiful. As a piece of film, it's an achievement on par with 'Lawrence of Arabia'. And even as advertising, it's powerful. But it's utterly, completely, absolutely the wrong message for Nike.

Remember when Nike came up with the line 'Just Do It.'? Probably not. That was back in 1988. That line crystalized a brand positioning that catapulted Nike to what it is today: A company that stands for individual achievement, pursuit of athleticism as its own reward, and disregard for convention. The brand positioning allowed them to execute a range of incredible work, some of it so powerful and iconic that many sub-campaigns could have stood on their own better than 99% of the stuff most agencies were doing. 'There is no finish line' and 'Either you ran today or you didn't' are two extraordinary examples.

Until now.

'Write the Future,' if you haven't seen it, presents a simple message: You're either famous and rich or you're a failure. And that's so exactly, completely counter to everything Nike represents that I cringe every time I see it. Frankly, Nike would have accomplished more for its brand if they'd run the exact same spot and put the Adidas logo at the end.

(I know, I know. Nike is responsible for the very celebrity its athletes purport to eschew. The premise, however, has always been that the fame seeks the athlete, not the other way around.)

Is this the demise of Nike? I doubt it. Too many smart people, on both the client and agency side, will realize that the piece, while magnificent, ultimately sabotages the fundamental message of Nike. I feel like the lone smart ass for pointing this out now, but I feel so strongly about it that I'm willing to commit, publicly, to the position that both Wieden + Kennedy and Nike will ultimately consider the piece a mistake.

That, or Wieden + Kennedy isn't as good as it used to be. Based on some of the other work coming out of there, that's a possibility I refuse to entertain.

Friday, June 18, 2010

See? Somebody else thinks I'm pretty swell (not you, Mom).

Brian BelefantIf you're not familiar with pdnonline.com, now would be a great time to check it out.
Why? Well, they're the go-to resource for a ton of really talented photographers I'm honored to be among. But more important, they wrote a nice article about me.
Please check it out. The article. You can get to it via this link.
When you're done reading all about my exploits, take a couple of minutes to peruse the rest of the PDN site. You might find some inspiration. I always do.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

When is a boondoggle not a boondoggle?

A lot of people in the advertising business think of a boondoggle the way the Supreme Court thinks of porn –– they can't define it, but they know it when they see it.

I don't think it's that hard to draw the line.

It all comes down to responsibility. If you're doing something you honestly intend to help your client, you're not engaging in boondogglery. If you're doing something for your own personal gratification at the expense of your client, you are.

Take me, for example. I like to travel. So I'm extremely open to finding alternative destinations we can use to produce work for clients. Most of the time, the solutions I find are actually less expensive than the conventional solutions. So if I take a job to Spain and save a client $60,000 over shooting in LA (as I've done), that hardly counts as a boondoggle.

If shooting in Spain costs exactly the same as shooting in LA, money has nothing to do with the decision. If I want to go to Spain and the commercial wouldn't suffer from having been shot there, fine. That doesn't count as a boondoggle, either. As long as the end result is the same.

Where it becomes a judgement call is when shooting in Spain costs more than shooting in LA. And the answer is simple: Do you get more value from shooting there? Not just the "what shows up in the frame" added value, but also the other intangible stuff. Working with a talent pool that isn't overexposed, trying out a new crew, getting to sample the local cuisine. The reality is that for all the positives about shooting elsewhere, there are negatives as well, which I listed pretty extensively in my post on February 26th. I speak Spanish, but I speak English better. So while I can work with a crew in Spain, I'm working harder in order to do so.

On balance, if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, and I mean mostly to the client because that's who your responsibility is to, then it's not a boondoggle. But if it's a way to make a client pay for a bonus you want to give an employee who's done a really good job this year, it is.

The bottom line is that work is work and vacation is vacation. You can love your work. In fact, you should love your work. But it's still work.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hope and the magic lottery.

As much as I want you to read my blog, there's someone else's you might consider reading.


It's Seth Godin, who is not only a lot more famous than I am, but a lot more prolific with his blogs.

He generally writes about marketing and technology, not filmmaking, but once in a while he posts something that is absolutely, perfectly relevant to you, Aspiring Filmmaker. Like this gem.

Read it, enjoy it, then come back.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The things we make, make us. What do you make of that?

Back before you were born, this was a different country. For a lot of reasons, but most relevant to this particular blog because people were defined by what they created. A butcher was a butcher. A mechanic was a mechanic.

Thanks to advertising, over the past 50 or 60 years that began to change. And today, people are no longer defined by what they make, but rather by what they consume. A butcher can be an Apple person. A mechanic can be a Nike person.

The marketing of four-wheel-drive vehicles is really emblematic of this phenomenon. Most advertise their ruggedness and durability, yet in spite of the skid plates, brush guards, and other accoutrements, by some estimates fewer than 5% ever actually leave the pavement at all. Except for the occasional shower they might have to endure as they cruise along the freeway, most spend their entire lives either coddled in the garage or shuttling along well-maintained roads from the covered parking at the grocery store to the parking structure at the office.

And yet, Range Rover drivers sneer at Ford Explorer drivers as somehow unworthy, who in turn sneer at people driving sedans.

So it's interesting that Jeep's new campaign is based on the line, "The things we make, make us."

You could argue that the "we" is ambiguous enough to refer to Jeep and not consumers, but the first spot in the campaign refutes that. The spot talks about Americans as craftsmen. All of us.

The spot is meant to be an anthem. To instill a renewed pride in American craftsmanship, with Jeep leading the charge. I can't tell you whether the advertising is going to work, but if it does it will mark an interesting development in the deepening of American consumerism. Because implicit in the advertising is a question: What do you actually make?

Middle managers, soccer moms, and salespeople are being told that they should buy a Jeep because, like them, the people who make it make things well. Upon even the most cursory self-reflection, those very consumers should realize that even if they believe that the people who make Jeeps can identify themselves as such (a specious claim if there ever was one), the vast majority of people who buy Jeeps cannot.

"Nice conference report, Bob. I can see you crafted it with pride," says one Jeep owner to another?

So for most people, buying a Jeep now means aligning yourself with what you are not. It's crossing the line from aspiration to appreciation, affiliation to fandom.

It's an interesting flag for Jeep to plant. My own hope is that it will fail. My fear is that it will succeed.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I don't get it.

My three-year-old daughter has been extraordinarily good lately, so my wife and I told her she could choose a treat. She dedided she wanted to see a movie in a theater. She wanted to see 'The Green Man' ('Shrek 3').

I was hesitant. After all, isn't Shrek a little mature for a three-year-old?

The movie's rated PG, which didn't assuage my reluctance, but on the way to the theater, we passed by a McDonald's, where all the Happy Meals feature the lovable green ogre.

Well, there it is. Happy Meals are made for kids. I know that because I used to shoot tons of Happy Meals commercials. So what if they're increasingly marketing tie-ins with movies? My feeling was that having their imprimatur conferred legitimacy on the film as something genuinely for kids.

The film itself was pretty benign. My daughter got a little scared toward the end, but she didn't cry or scream or even avert her gaze, so I guess we did okay. But one thing about the film struck me as odd. 

The soundtrack.

The music –– almost all of it –– was from the 1970s. One of the songs was 'Top of the World'. The original version. The one sung by Karen Carpenter.

'Top of the World' was a Billboard #1 hit in 1973, which means if you remember that song at all, you're not just way too old to be eating Happy Meals, but your children are probably too old to be eating Happy Meals. 1973 was 37 years ago. The fact that I remember the song is anomalous. I was young when it came out, and super old when I started having kids. 

If you were 17 in 1973, you're 54 now. If Happy Meals are meant for kids 12 and under, you gave birth when you were between 42 and 54. So what gives?

The way I see it, there are four possible explanations.

1) 'Shrek 3' is meant to have a dual appeal, to kids and their parents, specifically older parents.
2) 'Shrek 3' is meant to have a dual appeal, to kids and their parents, and nobody bothered to figure out that most kids don't have parents that are more than 42 years older than they are.
3)  'Shrek 3' is designed to occupy a really narrow niche –– appealing to grandparents who take their grandkids to the movies.
4) Everybody making the critical creative decisions on 'Shrek 3' is an old guy –– between 54 and 70. And is completely oblivious to the fact that their musical tastes are antiquated.

I'm going to go with #4. But only because I know that it's possible. I've seen Hollywood egos up close and for every executive who tries to manufacture a product to appeal to a demographic, there's another executive who doesn't give a crap about demographics and does what he knows is best. 

When Mr. Demographic has the power, you end up with a rap song being played over the end credits of a film in which it would be otherwise utterly inappropriate in order to broaden the appeal of the soundtrack and presumably, the film. When Mr. Ego has the power, you end up with 37-year-old songs being used in films that are targeted at people who have little frame of reference to appreciate them.

But I could be wrong. There could be another explanation. 

Anybody got one?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Directing... cooking... the same rules apply.

I've spent a disproportionate amount of the past eight months shooting out of town, and living in hotels, I've had a disproportionate number of meals in restaurants. Some of them quite frou frou.

And you know what? I've learned something.

The fancier restaurants used lovely ingredients and prepared them well, but most of them did something that pretty much spoiled every dish. They tried too hard.

Usually that meant they added just one ingredient too many. The smoked salmon appetizer had both goat cheese and chutney. The sushi-grade hamachi was seared, then slathered in teriyaki sauce.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, what does a restaurant meal have to do with film making?" Well, I'll tell you.

Strangely, a lot.

Directing, like cooking, is about honesty. And when you get too tricky with either, what you gain in style you lose in directness.

Obviously, I'm not advocating bringing out a slab of meat (actor) on an unadorned plate (set), and leaving it up to the restaurant patron (viewer) to appreciate it in all its raw glory. What I am advocating is finding the best ingredients possible and combining them in ways that they work with each other –– ways that they emphasize each other's strengths without masking what makes each of them unique.

Take that a step further. You need a good recipe (script) and the equipment to prepare the meal (crew, equipment). And when all is said and done, the presentation should look appetizing (mise en scene, lighting) without creating expectations counter to what the meal can deliver. And each course (act) needs to work with the others, so that there's a satisfying flow from the appetizers (opening credits) to the dessert (denoument).

Or, to put it another way, if you have Meryl Streep performing Shakespeare, you probably don't need to shoot it underwater.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I did a bad thing. And I'm not sorry.

Last week, I shot a commercial in New Brunswick. The cast included a 7-year-old and if you know anything about New Brunswick, you know it's 4,000 miles from Hollywood. Which means you're not likely to find a lot of professional 7-year-old actors there.

That's okay, actually, because at seven what you want from an actor is enthusiasm more than experience. The kid we cast was actually great. Totally adorable, totally enthusiastic. But even the most enthusiastic, adorable kid can only perform so much. And thanks to common sense and child labor laws, we were limited in the amount of time we could spend with him.

So when we had two more critical shots with the kid and I could tell he wasn't quite getting the meaning of the line he had to say, I did something I normally never do. I gave him a line reading.

In case you're not familiar with the term, a line reading is when you say a line the way you want your actor to say it. And it's usually a bad thing to do because a) unless you're an actor yourself, you don't really know what you sound like when you say something, b) even if you're an actor yourself, how somebody else says something is going to be different from the way you say it, and c) even if you're an actor yourself and you can get somebody else to say something the way you would, it demeans their talent. It's like you're saying they don't know how to communicate when that's fundamentally what actors do.

But like I say, I had limited time and an inexperienced actor. And very little hope that taking him aside –– one more time –– and explaining what the line meant was going to improve his understanding of it.

I like to think I handled it fairly well. For one thing, I didn't go to the line reading until I was sure we weren't going to get what we needed any other way. And for another, I enlisted the help of another actor to deliver the line reading.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, if you can't know how you sound to an actor, why would you make things worse by playing telephone with the information?" Well, I'll tell you.

Because I wanted there to be a bit of a cognitive gap. If the kid were to parrot me, I'd be evaluating his readings based on my delivery. But if I ask someone else to deliver the lines, I have no preconception about how the line sounds before it comes out. So I can disregard the older actor's delivery and concentrate on the kid's as if it's fresh.

As it turns out, I happened to have a really talented, generous, helpful actor on set, who was not only willing to give the kid line readings, but did so with enthusiasm and variety.

We got the line we needed, delivered a bunch of different ways. And we had time to set up, light, and shoot the other shot we needed of the kid. Best of all, nobody's feelings got hurt.

Okay, best of all, we got a really lovely performance.