Saturday, September 1, 2007

Laboring On

It is Labor Day weekend and for most of us that means a work holiday on Monday. Those of us in the freelance filmmaking or college building businesses never seem to get a day off, there is always something to do or something to think about, but at least I don't need to go into the office. I am splitting my work time this weekend imagining my first few weeks of teaching and then writing a proposal for the city of Aspen, CO which wants a documentary on their historic preservation program.

I joke frequently with my colleagues that I don't like to work and I really don't like teaching (if it wasn't for the students teaching would be great!) But that's not true I love both jobs and being a working filmmaker makes me a better teacher and vice versa.

My work time is generally filled creating things and making something (a college, a film, a class schedule) out of nothing. I get to work with clever and creative people who never fail to surprise me with their ingenuity and good humor. My big work complaints these days are along the lines of "Dan, the internet is down " and "What do you mean a January start- it can't be done!"

No, my job is easy and positively cushy compared to coal miners and firemen, and single welfare moms and day field laborers. They are the ones who deserve a day off with pay, so happy Labor Day and thank you for your hard work.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

You Can't Give It Away

Ten years ago this week we were hired to make a pair of commercials for Canada Dry and Schweppes. It was a promotional commercial and we had two build two sets using bottles of Ginger Ale, Club Soda and Tonic Water. One set was for the Canada Dry products and the bottles surrounded a Jeep they were giving away. The other set used the Schweppes products and we created a little putting green as their prize was a trip to the British Open golf tournament.

As filmmaking goes it was easy. Once the sets were built it was like shooting still pictures because nothing moved. The hard part of the job was building the sets with the bottles of soda. A semi-truck full of soda was delivered to the studio and for three days the art department and production assistants built our two sets with plastic soda bottles.

The shoot went well, and as often happens the agency was on a hard deadline so we had to transfer film on a Saturday morning- the morning Diana's death was announced- at double time. At the transfer session we asked the agency producer when someone was coming to pick up the soda and deliver back to the bottler. She told us we can't send it back because it costs too much to ship back to Dallas. The soda was ours to do with what we wanted.

What does one do with 10 or 20 THOUSAND bottles of soda? We had another problem- the bottles were sitting in the studio and we didn't want to pay $750 a day just to store ginger ale, so on that Monday we began the process of trying to give away a truck load of bubbly water. First we offered it to the crew, we all took as much as we wanted. (I don't drink soda, but I do enjoy a vodka and tonic. Note to self, next time get the Stolichnaya account.) We contacted charities and delivered cases of product to a Chicago social service agency called Off the Street Club- they were thrilled, but couldn't take more than a few hundred bottles.

We tried leaving it for the garbage collectors, but they wouldn't take it because the bottles were full. So at the end of the day we had a team of production assistants pour a few thousand liters of soda into the gutter and down into the Chicago sewer system.

I like to imagine all the bubbles cleaning the Chicago sewer system, but I don't think that happened.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Shout it Out

Yesterday I shared a tale about a company (General Mills) that was too cheap to send us enough product for their own TV commercial so we had to go out and buy Raisin Nut Crunch and sell it back to them. Today, I’ll share a slightly different take on the behind-the-scenes world of TV advertising.

A few years ago we were hired to make a pair of TV spots for Shout Carpet Cleaner. It was a nice job- two or three production days and a couple of more days to build the set- plus a day of watching grape juice dry and getting paid for it. (When you do product comparison commercials there is a lot of attention paid to the legal end of things. Here we compared Shout to “the other leading brand" (Resolve) as “real people” tried to get dried grape juice stains off of white carpet. To make the test legal, the day before shooting a scientist from SC Johnson and Dan Dreesen, our ace prop master, poured exact amounts of grape juice on carpeting. The stains had to sit and dry over night to make the test valid and Jim and I had to sign affidavits agreeing to the above.)

It ain’t exactly like working in a coal mine this film business.

The shoot went great, lots of real women being amazed by how great Shout worked. It was one of those shoots where everything we did went as planned. As we worked through the first day of production Dan came up to us and said he had a problem. The prop bottles of Shout the agency supplied were beginning to crack. He was able to rig a workaround but we had to be careful how the women handled the bottles.

The next week Jim and I did the edit, Two spots cut to a re-written version of the song “Shout.” They turned into two great little commercials AND the product worked great too. Win Win, right?


It turned out the problem we discovered in the packaging while shooting was the fatal flaw. To make the product work affectively, the bottle needed two chambers to hold the different “ingredients” that make up Shout. That configuration stressed the spray nozzle and the bottles gave out.

So after millions of dollars of development money and thousands more on marketing- including our fees- SC Johnson pulled the plug.

Next a company that had so much product we couldn’t give it away.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Clients... can't live with 'em, you can't shoot 'em.

The number of odd choices and decisions clients make never seems to end. Most of the times they do something because of how it affects (effects- the dumb filmmaker never remembers?) the bottom line. But if you think about it closely the cost of making and airing of a TV commercial shouldn't affect it at all. A commercial- good or bad- will draw attention to a product but the TV production costs are such a small factor in the overall performance of the brand, the outcome is negligible.

As that is my preamble here is dumb client story number 521.

A few years ago we were shooting a pair of spots for the General Mills cereal brands Basic 4 and Raisin Nut Bran. Over a few days we built a supermarket aisle. We cast a kid to be "the Stock Boy" and were all set to go except for one thing- General Mills refused to send us enough boxes of cereal to stock our shelves. It was ridiculous, they are paying $75,000-$100,000 in production costs, yet can't send us a few hundred boxes of their product. The ad agency was no help, but they did tell us we could go buy cereal and charge it back to them as an overage,

So, a few days before the shoot we had production assistants scour the Chicago area for boxes each cereal. We ended up buying an additional couple of hundred boxes of flakes at $4 a box which we then marked up 25 percent and charged back to the agency, which then marked it up again and charged the client. So General Mills ultimately spent $1500 buying their own cereal from us. Go figure.