Monday, December 23, 2013

My Christmas gift to you: Three secrets to making a great commercial

Good ad agencies, like good businesses of any ilk, have a point of view. And back in the 90s, BBDO was one of the best. Their point of view enabled them to do a particular kind of advertising and they did the shit out of it for Pepsi, Visa, Skippy, and Frito-Lay.

I know this well because from 1993 to 1995 I was Senior Vice President/Creative Director at BBDO.

I'm going to tell you a secret. The BBDO secret.

The quintessential BBDO commercial (the agency almost exclusively did TV commercials) relied on three things: 1) Intrigue, 2) Misdirection, and 3) Making the product the hero.

Intrigue means it's a story and the story sucks you in.

I wonder what's going to happen next, don't you? You do. We all do, especially since we establish that two boys are watching her. (Remind me to share John Cleese's brilliant observation about comedy in a post someday.)

Misdirection goes to the dramatic structure. If you know how your story is going to turn out, why would you continue watching? Well, yeah, there are reasons. Like, for instance, it's Cindy Crawford. 

Sure, we know Cindy is going to put money into the vending machine and push a button. Will a Pepsi come out? It does. Will she drink it? She will. But what of the two boys?

Here comes the misdirection: As Cindy slugs down the Pepsi, the two boys watch, slack jawed. One of them comments, "Is that a great new Pepsi can or what?"

Which brings me to making the product the hero. That's shorthand for "the product is not just integral to the story, it is the very thing that makes the punch line satisfying." When your product isn't the hero, you may have something funny –– like shooting gerbils out of a cannon as did in a Superbowl spot back in 1999 –– but you don't really have a commercial.

The hero of the spot with Cindy Crawford is the can. Pepsi had redesigned their can. Implicit in the commercial, whether believable or not, was that Pepsi's new can was even more beautiful than Cindy Crawford's... well... can.

It's twenty years later and the same approach still works magic. A magnificent example is Apple's "Misunderstood" holiday commercial.

We think we're watching a kid playing with his iPhone at the expense of engaging with his family during the holidays. Misdirection. Turns out he's shooting a movie of the family on his iPhone to share with them on Christmas morning. 

As for product as hero, yep. Apple made a big point about its improved video capabilities with the introduction of the new iPhone earlier this year. I'm pretty sure the brief the agency worked from directed them to create a spot that highlighted the feature.


That's an important word and it brings me to Secret #4. (I know. Look at me being all generous.) There are features and there are benefits. Features are what a product has or does. Benefits are what you get from having a feature. The ability to make a movie on your phone is a feature. The ability to bring your family together and share memories almost as they're being created? That's a benefit.

This is an extraordinary spot. Beautifully conceived and well-crafted.

I'm grateful to both Apple and TBWA\Chiat\Day (the ad agency) for giving me a gift I so appreciate as this most difficult of all years finally comes to a close: Proof that it's still possible to create truly great advertising.

I'm entering 2014 inspired. I hope you are, too.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sometimes the only way you can tell something is art is because it was made by an artist.

How's the weather up there, Mr. Lincoln?
Did you see 'Lincoln'? Go see it. 

Not the whole thing. The first five minutes will do. Go ahead. I'll be here when you get back.

Okay. Notice anything… funny? I'll give you a hint. It's the scene at the beginning, where Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is talking to the soldiers. Lincoln is sitting on a covered platform; the soldiers are standing on muddy ground. Tents are pitched around them. Campfires burn.

When we're looking at Lincoln, it's raining. Hard. That backlight thing Steven Spielberg likes so much –– with shafts of light that illuminate the weather –– makes it impossible not to notice. But when we're looking at the soldiers Lincoln is talking to –– same time, same conversation –– nary a drop is falling.

It's tempting to call this a mistake. It isn't. 

It's not a mistake because while in real life, we have to put up with whatever weather we're given, as directors we get to make whatever weather we want. 

If we want rain –– even if the forecast calls for a 90% chance –– we bring in water trucks and hire crew members to build and operate the rigging necessary to make it look natural. 

If we don't want rain it's a little easier. It takes a serious downpour to register as rain on film. Still, if there's money in the budget and we're not shooting in Southern California, we bring in tarps or silks and rigging and hire crew members to build and secure the rigging and light through and/or around it. 

That's what we do. We make daytime look like night, winter look like summer, and sunny look like cloudy. 

This goes a long way toward explaining why movies are so damn expensive to make. 

When the UPM and the Assistant Director (Susan McNamara and Adam Somner) broke down the script for 'Lincoln' with Spielberg, they went through every single scene and asked Mr. Spielberg, among other things, whether he wanted any special weather effects. That's their job.

It’s the UPM’s job because it affects the budget. Rain takes trucks and water and rigs and all sorts of ancillary characters that need to be added to the number of people to be wrangled and fed and provided parking spots and restroom facilities on that day. It’s the AD’s job because it affects both the shooting schedule and the safety of the crew members and actors. The three of them have more than 100 films under their collective belts. This ain’t none of them's first rodeo.

Then there's the script supervisor whose job it is to make sure that continuity is maintained. When Anna Rane showed up on the day they shot that scene, she would have asked Mr. Spielberg if he was sure the scene was going to cut, what with rain when the camera was pointing in one direction and no rain in the other. You don't get to be script supervisor for Steven Spielberg by letting huge continuity lapses happen. 

And don't forget the crew. As in the entire crew. The gaffers who lit the scene. The grips who rigged it. Maybe they didn't all notice, but I'll bet some did. I guarantee you Ryan Cole did. He's the sound recordist who had to fight the sound of the rain in one shot and didn't have to deal with it in the reverse. 

I figure one of two things happened here: Either a) somebody made an announcement to the entire crew that yes, they knew the rain gag was going to be inconsistent, but that's what they were going for or b) Spielberg had to contend with a relentless parade of helpful people pointing out to him that they were shooting rain when there wasn't rain before or that they weren't shooting rain when there was rain before. 

I mean, seriously, if you were one of the more than 60 production assistants on this show –– even if it was your first time stepping onto a film set –– wouldn't you go out of your way to be helpful in hopes that you’ll impress someone enough be invited to the next one or get promoted to a better, higher-paying job?

No, I'm certain this scene was shot just the way Spielberg intended it to be. And it must have worked for the members of the Academy, too, because he got nominated for Best Director.

All of this is leading up to a point and the point is this: I don't get it.

I don't get what he was going for. I don't understand why you'd shoot a scene that is so clearly discontinuous. 

I suppose it's art. To me, it smells a lot like Kool-Aid.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Hey, John Lasseter, my six-year-old has some choice words about the dialogue in your latest film.

Let me start by saying that John Lasseter is truly one of the greatest filmmakers alive. His oeuvre is dominated by sophisticated explorations of the father figure as an archetype, particularly with regard to redefining his identity in a world that shifts beneath him.

I never hesitate to take my kids to any film John Lasseter is associated with, and if you're getting the impression I'm raising film snobs, well, yeah. I guess I am. Film snobs who can differentiate between a Pixar film and a Dreamworks film. 

Did I mention they're five and six?

Yep, at five and six my kids appreciate structure, character development, performance, and theme, just like any ordinary five- and six-year-olds –– who happen to have a father who can't help but encourage them to identify what works for them and what doesn't. 

So of course I took my precious little film critics to see 'Frozen'.

I'm not going to do a movie review here, other than to say that except for the tight structure, engaging characters, clever dialogue, and thoughtfully crafted world the story takes place in, you'd never know John Lasseter had anything to do with 'Frozen'. The story is entirely devoid of a father figure. 

More than once, a bit of unexpected dialogue made me laugh out loud. But then, halfway through the third act, the good guy says to the bad guy, "You'll never get away with this." The bad guy replies, "I already have."

My six-year-old daughter leaned over and said, "Dada, we already heard that line in something else."

She was right. We had. (Three days before we'd watched 'Escape from Planet Earth', which in an interesting bit of irony is not a John Lasseter movie at all and yet is –– you guessed it –– an exploration of the father figure as an archetype, particularly with regard to redefining his identity in a world that shifts beneath him. Go Weinsteins, right?)

To be fair, 'Frozen' was actually directed by Chris Buck. John Lasseter was the executive producer. And 'Escape from Planet Earth' was directed by , not Harvey and/or Bob Weinstein. Add to that as far as critical acclaim goes, while John Lassiter has only won two Academy Awards (not counting the two Student Academy Awards he won while at California Institute of the Arts), the Weinsteins have won 75. 

So why am I picking on John Lasseter?

Because he has such a clear, consistent vision. And the power to insure that every single thing that comes out of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar meets his extraordinarily high standards. As for the Weinsteins, while some of the films they've been associated with are transcendent ('Silver Linings Playbook', 'The King's Speech'), some are pretty crappy.

Sorry, John. That's what you get for being so damn good.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tip O'Neil and 'The Princess Bride'.

Remember Tip O'Neil? Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987? 

He was famous for saying "All politics is local." He first said it back in 1935 and was, of course, referring to The Princess Bride, truly one of the greatest movies ever made and which by a remarkable coincidence came out the year he retired from politics.

Sort of.

What Mr. O'Neil was saying is that we all tend to evaluate stuff in terms of how it relates to us. If it's a health care law and I have diabetes, am I going to have more access to coverage? If my child is autistic and it's The Princess Bride, what lessons can I take away from this story that will help me raise my kid?

If I write a blog about directing and it's a post telling me "17 Things The Princess Bride Taught Me About Autism Parenting," are my readers going to find this valuable? 

See where I'm headed with this? 

The blog I'm referring to is Snagglebox, written by Bec Oakley, and when I stumbled across it I thought exactly that. Here are a few of the highlights: 

2.  Optimism can get you through the fire swamp

Just because you haven’t tackled a problem before doesn’t mean there’s no solution, even for POUS’s (Problems of Unusual Size).

3.  Having a target will help you stay focused

You don’t have the energy or resources to tackle every challenge that’s in front of you. Find your six-fingered man - prioritize your goals, work out which of those you can tackle and then pursue them with everything you’ve got.

16.  Mostly dead is slightly alive

Even when you’re too tired to breathe and the odds stacked against you seem enormous, you will survive to fight another day.

See what I'm saying? Bec thinks she's talking about parenting a kid with autism. And she is. But she also happens to be talking about building a career as a director. (And running for office, I'd bet.)

I'm not going to give you all 17 of Bec's lessons because I think you ought to check out the entire blog. Here's the link:

Go on. You'll come back. 

And if you don't, well, that's okay. The reason I write this blog is because I want to help others figure It out. My It –– the one that I focus on –– is the It that I know: the craft of mass communication. If Bec's It –– parenting kids with autism –– resonates better, great.

An interesting tidbit about Tip O'Neil. Once he came to realize that all politics is local –– in other words, that each and every one of us is dealing with our own It –– he never lost a single election. Not only that, but he got to be Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

He became the guy who represents the people we send to represent ourselves.

And that, for those of you who clicked on Bec's link and actually came back to finish this post of mine, is the meta-lesson for the day: Pay attention to your It. Because if you're true to your It, your It can't help but resonate with others' Its.

Thank you, Bec.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

La Iglesia de Pedro Almodóvar

Estaba pensando sobre la noción de la coincidencia en la pelicula “Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios” y por qué me molestan tanto. Lo que me ocurre es que la razón que no me gustan las películas que dependen en coincidencia para moverse la historia es que coincidencia implica que lo que sucede es fuera del control de los personajes. 

Para mí, una buena historia es una en que lo que pasa es determinada por los actores, no por poderes externos. Y esas acciones son determinadas por los propios caracteres. Quien algien sea determina lo que hará. (Y sí, en mi esquema, fuerzas naturales pueden ser “actores” en el sentido que hacen lo que deben de hacer por su propio “caracter”.) 

En el universo de Almodóvar, lo que tenemos es una historia que depende en fuerzas fuera del control –– y del caracter –– para mover la historia. Que Pepa intercepte una llamada de Iván a la abogada. Que el hijo de Ivan viene a mirar al apartamente de Pepa. 

Lo que dice Almodóvar con una histora tan llena de coincidencia es que el mundo –– a menos el mundo de su construcción –– cosas que pasan que determinan el destino de los actores están fuera de su control. 

Y esto produce la pregunta obvia: ¿En el control de quien están esas cosas?

La repuesta es Almodóvar. 

Él creó ese mundo, y él está en control. 

En el mundo real, cuando nosotros no tenemos control de las cosas que influyen nuestras vidas en maneras importantes, entendemos (o creemos) que hay otra fuerza que sí. El Dios. 

Y por eso, lo que dice Almodóvar cuando sus historias dependen en serendipidad para progresar, es que sí hay un dios y más, el dios es el mismo.

Quando entendemos su trabajo en ese contexto, otra cosa se pone evidente. La razón por los ataques a la iglesia católica. Una función importante de qualqier sistema de creencia es desacreditar otras sistemas de creencia. Su iglesia debe ser la única con razón. Las otras nececitan ser disminuidas. 

Esto es lo que Almodóvar está construyendo con esa película y todas las otras que también confiar en la coincidencia. Una iglesia en oposición a la iglesia católica. Y tal vez por eso, aun que no sea obvio, explica su éxito. 

Sabiendo todo eso, todavía no me gustan las películas que dependen en coincidencia para mover la historia. Y tengo otra razón, una más fundamental: Que yo no creo en Dios.

Friday, July 19, 2013

This blog is no substitute for film school.

What film school feels like, kind of
Every week, I get together with a group to watch a film by Pedro Almodóvar and discuss it, all in Spanish. For me it’s a two-birds-with-one-stone thing. I love film. I speak Spanish. Why not get a little bit smarter about both at the same time?

Turns out, I also get a third thing. A reminder that directing is an extraordinarily solitary pursuit.

Sure, it’s possible to learn a bunch of technical stuff about filmmaking from a blog or an online course or a book. And sure, when you actually make a film you work with a team. But as much as you may –– and should –– collaborate with all the people who are crafting your little masterpiece with you, it’s not the same as banging minds with others whose perspectives may be totally in opposition to yours, but who deserve as much deference and respect as you do. 

That’s what you get from film school. And presumably, that’s what makes the better film schools better. They have teachers who have been selected because they’re more knowledgeable and students who have been selected because they are more passionate. It's insanely invigorating to hear why something you think is a piece of crap can be considered art. Or to have someone point out a symbolic structure that you weren't aware of. 

Lucky me, this group I’m in is every bit as intellectually stimulating as any of the classes I took at NYU. 

After the films and discussions, we generally follow up with a little piece each of us writes on our impressions of the film we saw. If you’re interested, here’s what I wrote about the first film we saw together, ‘All About My Mother’.

Todo Sobre Mi Madre

Lo que me parece interesante es que creo que la película que vimos anoche era mí primera película de Almodóvar. Creí que había visto una de sus películas antes, pero lo que recuerdo es que no me gustó para nada, y la película anoche me sorprendió porque me gustó mucho.

Y ¿por qué?

Bueno. En adición a las temas sobre que hablamos, habían otras mas profundas: 

Las de identidad, de relaciones interpersonales, dependencia (no simplemente en algo físico, pero también de dependencia interpersonal como de Humo Rojo con… no puedo recordar el nombre de su compañera). Lo mas interesante a mí era la tema de cambio. Todas las personas en la película cambiaron, o por su propio voluntad o por factors externos. 

Eso no es algo nuevo. Peliculas dependen en cambio, particularmente del cambio de la protagonista. Lo que me parece interesante en esa película es que todas las caracteres cambian:

  • Manuela cambia de prostituta a enfermera a madre a monja (simbólicamente);
  • Rosa cambia de monja a Manuela de la empieza de la película (excepto que muere, tal vez por que no tiene lo que necesita para cumplir el cambio)
  • Lola cambia de camionera a transgénero a prostituta;
  • La Agrado de algo (no me acuerdo que) a mujer fabricada a prostituta a asistente;
  • El padre de Rosa cambia de padre a Blanche Dubois; etc.

Fuera de esto, es interesante la facilidad y gracia con la que la mayoría de los caracteres navegan los cambios. No es que las transiciones no vienen con dolor, pero sin excepción, hacen las transiciones con aceptación de los cambios. Tal vez eso puede ser una debilidad de Almodóvar –– no presenta nadie que resiste haciendo un cambio –– pero a mi, es una característica que me encanta, como la característica que tengan la mayoría de las caracteres también, de entrar fácilmente en nuevas relaciones profundas con gente totalmente extraña. 

Una cosa que quiero explorar es la importancia simbólica del color rojo o a Almodóvar en general o en esa pelicula en particular. Fijé que el usó el color selectivamente en casi cada escena, aun no podí entender lo que era haciendo con el. Me pareció que era simplemente algo estilistico, pero entonces me acordé que dos de los caracteres tenían nombres derivantes de la palabra "rojo" –– Rosa y Humo Rojo. Me interesa de que me peude decir de eso.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Exactly *not* the movie I wanted. Exactly the movie I needed.

I finally saw ‘Silver Linings Playbook’. I know. Back off. I’ve had a rough last couple of months, what with friends passing away and an increasingly vitriolic divorce from a woman whose moral compass points to an entirely different north from my own. 

So you can understand my reluctance to see a movie about a guy whose wife betrays him meeting up with a woman dealing with the death of her husband. 

It was exactly not the movie I wanted to see. But it was exactly the movie I needed. 

Why? Because it's a  good story. And at this moment in my life I've had so much bad that I need all the good I can get.

I have a theory about good stories. That good stories require a protagonist overcoming obstacles in order to achieve something.

That’s nothing new. All of us story geeks will tell you pretty much the same thing. Where I go a little different is that I look for one more wrinkle. I like to see the protagonist’s Want in opposition to his or her Need.

Silver Linings Playbook’ is a textbook example. 

The main character wants to save an unsavable marriage (hmmm –– that sounds familiar). What he needs is to accept the truth that his marriage can’t be saved. 

I’m going to tell you how it ends. He gets what he needs. But you know this already, even if you haven’t seen the film, because I said I liked it. For a story to be satisfying, the protagonist must fail to achieve what he or she wants in order to achieve what he or she needs. 

Yeah, there needs to be more. Otherwise, my going to see the movie would make a good movie. The Need has to be life-altering. The protagonist has to be single-mindedly dedicated to achieving his or her goal. The forces conspiring to thwart the protagonist must be formidable. 

This film had all that. Plus extraordinarily good acting, nice writing, and fresh, likable characters. 

In short, it does what any good film does: Provide an escape from our own miserable lives. 

I know, speak for yourself, Brian.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Everything I Ever Needed To Know About Advertising I Learned From A First Century Babylonian Rabbi

Rabbi Hillel making fun of crappy advertising. 
My nephew just called with a “quick question”. His high school Spanish teacher gave his class an assignment to create a TV commercial that communicates the value of speaking a foreign language. He wanted to know how to make a TV commercial. 

Oh, and the assignment is due tomorrow. 

When I was a kid, I remember a hearing a story in Sunday school about one Rabbi Hillel, who was challenged to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot. The Torah, in case you didn’t happen to have the good fortune to be raised Jewish, is, to quote Wikipedia, "the foundational narrative of the Jewish people: their call into being by their God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with their God, which involves following a way of life (halakha) embodied in a set of religious obligations and civil laws." It's five books long, plus, oh, 58 centuries of commentaries and interpretations by a people who, to put it mildly, have a thing for commenting and interpreting.

Okay, so what my nephew was asking me wasn’t quite as daunting. If you count the entire history of TV commercials, you can’t really go back before 1939, when RCA began broadcasting TV signals. 

Still, Dude? Seriously? You want me to tell you how to make a TV commercial while standing on one foot?

In the Torah story, the rabbi thinks for a moment, raises one foot, and says, “Do not do anything to others that you would not want done to yourself. The rest is all commentary.”

So I raised my own foot and told my nephew exactly that. Except that I substituted “inflict anything upon” for "do anything to". 

And then I hung up. I have to come up with a commercial for a client that communicates the value of buying something much less worthwhile than learning a foreign language. And the assignment is due tomorrow. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

'Jack Reacher' breaks the law.

I don't like Tom Cruise. Personally. Which is ridiculous because I've never met him. There's just something about him that doesn't sit right with me.

So whenever I go to see a movie he's in, it's with the expectation that I'll dislike it.

More often than not, I'm disappointed. Meaning I end up enjoying his movies and even liking him in them.

And yet I refuse to budge from my position on him.

I feel like a Republican congressman on an anti-gay crusade who can't help but hook up with strangers in the airport men's room.

Okay, not quite, but you know what I mean.

So I went to see 'Jack Reacher', fully expecting that it would suck. I should have figured that it wouldn't.

Sure, it's a thin premise. The main character has lapses in the very characteristics that are supposed to define him. The story veers from action to farce, sometimes in the same scene. The whole conspiracy (action films are always about conspiracy) is a house of cards built on a huge flaw. And the woman who plays opposite Cruise? Who let her onto the set? Were all the trained actresses in Hollywood out getting their lips Botoxed the day they cast that role?

Still, it's a fun ride. And up until the end, it's a Hollywood movie.

And then it does something remarkable. It breaks one of the biggest unspoken precepts of American filmmaking. Yes, I'm going to give away the ending. (If you don't already know that the bad guy dies in the end of a film like 'Jack Reacher', please stop reading. Not just this post. Stop reading this entire blog. You're singlehandedly bringing down the average IQ of my readership by a substantial number of points.)

What's interesting about 'Jack Reacher' isn't that the bad guy dies in the end. It's how. Tom Cruise kills him. Not in a protracted fight. Not in self-defense. He pulls out his gun and shoots him in the head.

This does not happen in a Hollywood movie.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw the good guy kill the bad guy? I'm not talking about the bad guy's minions. They're not really people, in movie terms, and if you want proof look at the way their characters are usually named in the credits: Henchman 3, Cop With Scar, Tall Guard.

But Hollywood has a rule about good guys killing bad guys and that rule comes down to one word: Don't. More specifically, the bad guy has to set in motion the very thing that causes his own demise. In essence, it's the bad guy's badness that kills him. In the idealized Hollywood scenario, in spite of it all, the good guy (usually) tries to save him.

Two examples:

'Spider-Man' (2002): The Green Gobblin remote controls his own glider, ultimately killing himself.

'The Incredibles' (2004): When Jack-Jack self-immolates, Syndrome drops him and his cape gets caught in the suction of his aircraft.

The reason for this is moral –– and yes, Hollywood films do adhere to a pretty strict moral standard. The good guy wouldn't be good if he were to actively cause the death of the bad guy. There are exceptions, of course. In 'Lethal Weapon', for example, it's self-defense, but even that's not enough. Both Murgaugh and Riggs fire their weapons simultaneously and we don't know who actually kills Joshua.

'Jack Reacher' is notable because the main character is not an anti-hero. He's a good guy. Unconventional, sure. Off the grid, yes. But unimpeachable. A former army cop who served with honor. For him to pull out a gun and shoot an unarmed man sitting in a chair? That's Hollywood heresy.

And that makes me think two things. First, it makes me not like the movie as much. I want my heroes to be heroic. Jack Reacher leaves the film different from the way he entered. He's tainted.

Second, though, it makes me like Tom Cruise better. This was a huge choice. Most of the people involved in the making of 'Jack Reacher' would have had every reason to fight against violating the convention, not least of which Tom Cruise. In fact, few people in Hollywood even have the power to challenge that unwritten law.

Tom Cruise owns that decision, and whether you like the decision or not, it was a brave one.

Maybe I'll go into his next film with a more open mind.