The about-to-be-fired movie marketer needs a Hail Mary but finds Typhoid Mary. 1,503 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Sy Mishkin threw down The Hollywood Reporter in disgust. His name had appeared nowhere in the stories in the trades about how Excelsior Studios had just released the bomb of the year. Costing $150 million to produce, Teen Pirate had everything going for it: a hot young star, a script based on a best-selling television series, and cross-genre appeal as the modern-day pirate faces both zombies and vampires. The reviews on RottenTomatoes.com had been terrible — only 18% Fresh compared with 82% Rotten — but who cared? This was a project that should have been critic-proof. Instead, as the old Hollywood joke put it, audiences stayed away in droves.
Mishkan, at 45, was the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Excelsior and he had been through the mill many times. When a film was a success, it was because of the vision of the director or because the star could open a movie at number one at the box office. When it failed, the talent might take some of the blame, but usually they’d live to fight – or, at least, have stunt doubles or CGI special effects do it – another day. To keep the stockholders satisfied that the drop in price was only temporary, one or more of the suits would have to pay.
Often it was the head of the studio, who would fall on his or her sword for having greenlit a project that turned out to be a turkey. However the new CEO of Excelsior had just assumed his job and Teen Pirate had been the “passion project” of his predecessor. Since that guy already vacated his office, with his name removed from every piece of tangible property at the studio including his parking space, there was nothing more anybody could do to punish him. Indeed, his $20 million golden parachute had already cleared his bank account.
So Mishkin feared the blame would fall on himself for failing to come up with a brilliant marketing campaign that should have made Teen Pirate the must-see movie of the year or, at the very least, last weekend. The way Mishkin saw it, he had only two options. He could start clearing out his office and letting people know that the debacle was due to the underlings he had inherited. Or he could come up with such a brilliant campaign for the the next release so he would be deemed the hero who had pulled the studio back from the brink.
Sitting in his third office in ten years, he decided he liked going to a job where he no longer had to program his GPS to find a route to work. He was going to stay.
It was to that end that Mishkin agreed to take a meeting with Double Helix Associates. They were a research firm out of New England that sought to pitch a revolutionary new way of promoting movies. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have given them the time of day or, at most, shunted them off to an assistant. But if they actually had the goods, it was something he needed to get his fingerprints all over.
An online search of the company turned up little. Their website didn’t provide much except contact information. This was hardly a promising start for a company professing to be on the cutting edge of marketing.
Mishkin glanced down at the headline in THR: “Will Excelsior Go Down with Teen Pirate Ship?” and knew he had no choice. He picked up his phone and buzzed the outer office.
“Stefan? Will you show in my 10 o’clock?”
The door opened and his assistant ushered in the two visitors from Double Helix. The woman was strikingly attractive with long reddish brown hair. Mishkin had always had a thing for gingers, but he noted – twith approval – that she was dressed strictly for business. She reached out her hand. As Mishkin rose to greet his guests, she took his hand in both of hers and shook it firmly.
“I’m Linda Balsamo, president of Double Helix. Allow me to introduce Dr. Burton Hollister, our head of research.”
Mishkin turned to shake hands with Hollister, a gray-haired man of inderterminate age who was clearly the oldest in the room. But the scientist had already moved to take a seat at the far side of Mishkin’s desk. Instead, Mishkin turned his attention almost exclusively to the woman who was favoring him with the warm smile.
“Ms. Balsamo…,” Mishkin began.
“Please, call me Linda.”
“And I’m Sy.” He looked at Hollister, who said nothing.
“Don’t mind him,” Linda reassured. “He’s here to answer any technical questions that might come up. Burt isn’t usually part of our outreach.”
The older man looked at Mishkin, although it was hard to say if he was simply acknowledging the truth of what she said or was daring Mishkin to challenge it. Instead, the studio exec kept his attention focused on the woman, unable to help himself from admiring her looks but determined not to be the defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit. Being able to compartmentalize was a good skill for someone in his position, who often had to promote movies he knew were abominations.
“As they say over on the creative side,” Mishkin said, raising his eyes to the upper floors where the production executives held court, “I’m ready to hear your pitch.”
She smiled and then looked at Mishkin directly and said, “What do you know about microbiota?”
“I think it was one of the appetizers at the Asian fusion restaurant I ate at last night,” he joked, not having the vaguest idea what she was talking about.
Linda responded with a warm laugh. He relaxed when she didn’t make him feel stupid about his ignorance. Maybe she knew a thing or two about marketing after all, Mishkin thought.
“Microbes – miniscule flora and fauna – live in our bodies in such large numbers that some estimate we have more of them than actual human cells.”
If this was some gambit to start a scientific conversation, it wasn’t working. Mishkin knew all about advertising and promotion. Microbes? She might as well have been speaking in Mandarin for all the sense it made to him. When he said nothing in response, she continued.
“I take it you weren’t a biology major.”
He pointed to the diploma on the wall. “I’m afraid not. MBA in marketing and communication.”
Hollister gave what sounded like a derisive snort. But when Mishkin shot him a look, it seemed the old man was snoring. This meeting was going nowhere fast. The studio exec was on the verge of pressing the hidden button under his desk that would summon Stefan to announce that Mishkin was needed for an urgent meeting upstair when the woman changed her expression.
“Okay, then what do you know about memes?”
Now she was talking Mishkin’s language. “It’s a fancy word for what I try to achieve for a film: word of mouth.”
“Exactly,” Linda said, favoring him with a broad smile. “All advertising and promotion is really geared to getting people to do the work of selling the film for you. If a family member or friend or co-worker tells you that they saw this great movie, it’s much more likely to make you go and see it than the best review or the most exciting trailer.”
“Unless the trailer goes viral.”
She sat up in her seat and slapped his desk. “Yes, that’s exactly the right word.”
Mishkin looked confused. “What is?”
“Viral. Your goal as a marketer is to infect as many people as possible with the irresistable urge to see your movie.”
“Infect? You make it sound like a disease.”
“Sy, that’s exactly what it is. Your job is to infect people with the desire to see Excelsior Studio’s latest release. If you do your job well, the people you infect will be like Typhoid Mary, spreading the meme for your film as widely as possible. The more people infected, the bigger the box office.”
Linda seemed to positively glow with excitement. Mishkin wasn’t sure how to respond. “You make that sound like a bad thing.”
“Oh no, quite the contrary. It’s the way world works. When Coca-Cola introduced Diet Coke, they didn’t run ads about how it was as good as the real thing or that it was low in calories. Their message was, ‘Have you noticed how many men are drinking Diet Coke?’ They were transmitting a meme that this was a diet soda that was okay for males to drink. And it worked. The strategy was a huge success.”
“Okay,” agreed Mishkin, cautiously, “but what’s that got to do with me?”
“We’ve come up with a new way to spread your memes.”
Mishkin was beginning to wonder if he was being punked. “Linda, I’m not following you.”
She nudged the old man seemingly dozing in the seat next to her. “Burt, you’re on.”