The film marketer learns the secret science behind box office fever. 1,780 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The rumpled old man looked peeved, as if awakened from a particularly pleasant dream. Dr. Burton Hollister cleared his throat ink front of his colleague Double Helix president Linda Balsamo and their hoped-for client Excelsior Studios SVP of Marketing Sy Mishkin, and went into what was clearly a rehearsed pitch.
“Double Helix has discovered a way to link memes and microbes. We can literally infect people with ideas without their knowing it, making them think their actions are completely self-motivated.”
Linda beamed with approval. “You understand what that means, Sy?”
Mishkin was beginning to think not only had he wasted his morning, but perhaps he ought to pack up his belongings and freshen up his résumé. But, in for a penny, in for a pound.
“I’m afraid not, Linda.”
What she did next surprised him. She pulled out her cell phone and glanced at the screen. “It’s been ten minutes since we’ve come into the office. Tell me, Sy, how do you feel about Excelsior Studios going into business with Double Helix now?”
That’s it. He’d wasted enough time on this. “I think it’s a complete waste…” the studio’s SVP of Marketing paused as he considered how he really felt. Then he completed the sentence. “…of time talking any further about it. Of course we want to do business with you.”
Hollister had gone back into his dozing mode, but Linda now locked eyes with Mishkin. “Before I go on to explain what we’re offering, I want you to think very hard. Is that what you originally intended to say, or did you suddenly realize what a good idea it was for us to work together?”
Mishkin replied that he had been highly skeptical in the beginning but now that attitude seemed so foolish. Working with Double Helix made a lot of sense. Linda sat back with a smile that might have been chilling had she been trying to trick him. But, in order for her company’s magic to work, she had to pull the curtain back.
“Sy, I’m telling you this because I want you to fully understand the effectiveness of our new product. Just before I came into your office, I sprayed my hand with microbes that included a meme for us doing business together. It’s an utterly harmless microbe that, doubtless, you already carry. The only difference is that it contained the additional message for Excelsior to work with Double Helix. Now imagine this message was for people to see your studio’s newest release.”
It took Mishkin several moments to process what Linda said. She had manipulated him. Indeed, she had infected him. He’d had no intention of hiring her company and yet now he couldn’t imagine not doing so. He ought to be angry at her but, after all, she did prove that this microbe meme worked – and she had done that beyond a shadow of a doubt. If moviegoers could be motivated to buy tickets the way Mishkin was now motivated to cut a deal with Double Helix, this was something Excelsior needed to have – and needed to make sure nobody else did.
The studio’s A Whiff Of Evil was the next movie that would lend itself best to the new campaign. For more than a month prior to the release, Excelsior had directed its P.R. agencies around the country to screen the hell out of the film in a series of sneak previews. Ordinarily, there would be anywhere from one to three such screenings, ensuring that both local exhibitors and media had the opportunity to see the pic prior to release. There usually would be a few more promotional screenings, sometimes with particular partners, geared to generating even more word of mouth.
Linda had explained to Mishkin that actual physical contact was not necessary to spread the microbe meme. Breathing it in was just as effective. So, to promote the film, everybody who attended an advance screening – amounting to thousands of people across the country – were given a small can of “air freshener” just like the one the murderer used in A Whiff Of Evil. It contained a pleasant and not clearly identifiable scent as well as the microbe meme that motivated those infected to see the film.
To make sure they would actually spread the microbe meme, the local publicists were handed additional cans that they were to spray before the screenings as well as at home and in the office. Given the sorts of gimmicks that have been done to promote movies – including actual weddings, cocktail parties for critics, and a wide variety of swag – the aerosol promotion was actually considered rather mundane.
It was perfect.
A Whiff Of Evil opened as one of the summer releases on the Wednesday before Fourth Of July, which is why Mishkin was largely unaware of what was going on until Friday. The lines started forming at theaters across the country on Tuesday night when smany multiplexes would start offering public shows. By noon, every show in every theater booked with the film was sold out for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and still people were demanding tickets. Theaters which had already booked the opening of A Whiff Of Evil on two or three screens were demanding the ability to expand. With movies now being largely digitized, reprogramming the software to allow for additional screenings wasn’t a problem – except those additional screens were supposed to be showing new or recent releases from rival studios. Instead, exhibitors were dumping other product to provide more screens for A Whiff Of Evil. But there still weren’t enough.
Theaters started going on 24/7 schedules to deal with the nonstop demand, and even stopped cleaning the theaters between showings. Never had there been anything like it. People wanted to see this movie, and they wanted to see it now.
The film had cost a modest $50 million to make and, using Hollywood math, needed grosses in the neighborhood of $150 million to break even. By Monday morning, A Whiff Of Evil was amassing nearly $300 million, and that was just from the U.S. and Canada. Audiences in Europe, Australia, and Asia were demanding the release date be pushed up, in spite of the fact that no test screenings – and no aerosol sprays – had been offered outside North America.
“How is that possible? We haven’t done any spraying outside the U.S.,” Mishkin said when he met with Linda.
“Sy, it’s like a disease without the harmful side effects. If someone in the U.S. is infected and then travels elsewhere, the microbe memes are still active. Each person is a walking/breathing advertisement for the film.”
By the end of August, theater complexes were able to cut the film back to a half a dozen screens or so as some filmgoers who’d seen A Whiff Of Evil four or five times already built up an immunity to the craving to see the movie. Even so, Variety, which periodically runs a chart of the biggest box office winners of all time adjusted for inflation still named Gone With The Wind as number one. However now the trade was noting that, even by that measure, the phenomenal success of A Whiff of Evil was beyond anything box office analysts had ever calculated.
It was not only the biggest hit of the year, it was the most successful film in the history of Excelsior Studios. Last spring’s Teen Pirate debacle now was all but forgotten. Other studios began trying to hire Mishkin – lauded in headlines as the “Marketing Maven Making Magic” – so he was called upstairs and presented with a raise, a bonus, and a new car. Excelsior was not going to let him get away.
As for Double Helix, Linda was no longer meeting Mishkin at his office. After the film became a phenomenon thanks to her company’s microbe meme, she’d made it clear that his personal advances would not be rebuffed. Mishkin didn’t need any further encouragement. They began taking long meetings at a secluded restaurant in a private room paid for by Excelsior Studios, of course. But on this evening, Mishkin was ill at ease.
“Sy, I can tell something’s bothering you,” Linda said after their drinks arrived.
Mishkin hesitated. “I want to continue working with you but we have a problem. Every so often a film comes along that is a phenomenon, like E.T. or Avatar. It’s the movie that everyone feels they have to see. But we can’t expect that reaction for every film on our schedule, or even most of them., or people will get suspicious.”
Linda took a sip from her pinot noir. “Of course. The only way this works is if it’s under the radar. If people start questioning how you do it, not only will other studios investigate, but they might find out the reason and replicate the formula. Then there could be a move to make it illegal.”
“Exactly. I think we can’t go overboard,” Mishkin said. “Success was nice. But driving every other film out of the theaters was a bit much.”
“I also was thinking we might try something a little more lowkey,” Linda agreed. “Are you familiar with The Gorgon Trilogy?”
Mishkan thought it sounded vaguely familiar but he was drawing a blank.
“Can’t say that I am. What is it?”
“It’s an exotic space opera written by J. Brent Sprat. We have a connection with his estate…”
Something clicked. “Sprat? That hack writer who invented his own crackpot religion?”
“Now, Sy, some of the stars of your own movies are members of this religion in good standing.”
“No offense, but that guy was a terrible writer. I’m willing to do business with people regardless of their beliefs or lack of beliefs, but I don’t think the studio will want to adapt his turgid books to the big screen.”
Linda gave him a look. “Okay, it was just a thought. Listen, why don’t you order us some appetizers while I go freshen up?”
She leaned in and exchanged a long sensual kiss with Mishkin and then got up and headed to the restroom.
Mishkin signaled the waitress and ordered two shrimp cocktails. Then he pulled out his cell phone and checked for messages. When he was done, he sent a text to the head of production at the studio: Check on availability of J. Brent Sprat properties. Could be next big franchise. I think I can get us a deal.
When Linda returned to the table, all Mishkin could think of was how lucky he was that she had come into his life.