It’s no secret that Stephen King is my all-time favorite author (with Lords Moore and Adams coming a close second). I’ve read almost all of his books (including On Writing, a delightful exploration of the art of writing) multiple ties. Minus a new book that I’ve never read before (especially if that book is by the previously mentioned Lord Moore), I’ll always reach for one of his for a little light reading. (Light, as people familiar with King’s work well know, being a relative term.) Typically I view his work as a modern Dickens or Poe (just with more F-bombs) because just like them he is enjoyed by the masses. One could easily see a group of his fans rioting on a dock at the release of one of his books; or perhaps just the weight of an uncut copy of The Stand.
Generally speaking; and this is an extreme generalization; King’s books can be placed into four categories: non-fiction (On Writing, Danse Macabre), supernatural (11/22/63, Joyland), scary supernatural (It, The Shining), and realistic (Rage, Gerald’s Game). (The Dark Tower series and Eyes of the Dragon are in entirely different categories, and yet, as most people know, they tie into almost all of his other books.) His newest book, Mr. Mercedes, falls into that final slot: realistic.
Mr. Mercedes follows a retired detective, Bill Hodges as he begins to track the killer that got away, the eponymous Mr. Mercedes who a year before had killed a number of people. The novel begins with the horrible crime, which the dust cover might give away, but I won’t, and then moves forward a year where we are introduced to Hodges, the former detective contemplating suicide and watching his fill of day time television. (And what an awesomely mythical channel he has: “Jerry Springer,” “Dr. Phil,” and “Judge Judy,” one after the other. If this is a schedule other areas have, I live in the wrong market.) Contact from the infamous Mercedes killer sets him off on a newfound quest to bring him to justice. From there he journeys through his unnamed mid-Western city, back-tracking the case that he never closed. The question then becomes how soon will the killer realize he’s being hunted instead of playing mind games with the detective, and what will he do when he does realize.
Like almost all of King’s books, Mr. Mercedes is a fast paced book; a tight, quick read. (To me, only a few of his earlier books have a slower pacing. One of the things I like so much about King is that he continued to mature and grow as a writer, his voice remaining ever present to the Constant Reader, but always maturing and becoming surer.) His characters, like almost always, are richly developed, and each is easy to keep straight because the consequential characters have their own separate personalities.
Like much of his work it is dependent on occasional coincidences, an idea that often seems to bother readers of books and viewers of movies. My personal hunch is that they find it annoying because they know how much real life often depends on coincidence (which we give cute names like synchronicity because it makes us feel better to think something controls that coincidence). This book is a story of an ex-cop tracking down a mass murderer, not a detective story. From almost the beginning the reader knows who the killer is and where to find him (King excels at the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator, which always gives the reader a privileged perspective). The question for the reader is the same one that runs throughout almost all of King’s books, “Will the Monster be bested? Or will he feed?”
This is not King’s best book by any means; that honor in my mind will always go to It, which I’ve read more times than I can recall. It’s also not his worst book by any stretch; an unfortunate distinction that I hand off to Cell. It suffers from his current obsession with 9-11, but it is a watershed moment in the world and obviously made a huge impact on King. It runs through much of his recent work like a theme and sometimes rises to the top, which is a common trait of King and his writing. Once upon a time, the Kennedy assassination was his underlying theme, and understandably his accident a few years back was also ever present. This is a sign of why people get drawn to his work, because his personality and what is important to him is always there.
This book works, there can be no question about that. As an exploration of modern day terror, it shows that we don’t always have to look over seas, that sometimes what we really need to fear is right here at home. King’s writing is crisp and clean and makes you want to rush through to the end. And yet at the end, as always with him, you’re left with the deep desire that it would go on and on, perhaps a conversation that you could keep having underneath Debbie’s umbrella.
I. “We ain’t one-at-a-timin’ here. We’re MASS communicatin’!”1
Not to belabor an obvious point, but making movies is an expensive process. If you subtract Colin2 and a handful of other extremely low budget movies from the equation, the lowest cost movies, such as My Date with Drew, come in at one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars. Once you get to the 1992 cult classic, El Mariachi3, which helped launch Robert Rodriguez’s career, you begin to see costs edging seventy-five hundred dollars, in early 1990s money. (To give some perspective on just how much money that was, a semester at The University of Texas at Dallas cost one thousand ninety-six dollars in 19924.) At this point, unknown directors who are trying to get their dreams on film begin to come up with creative methods to fund even those relatively mediocre budgets. Rodriguez chose to perform drug trials to earn money for El Mariachi. Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan used friends for his first film, Following, which took over a year to film because they all had day jobs and could only shoot for fifteen minutes at a time on the weekend.
Today, meaning 2012 for future audiences would be film makers have access to online begging (a word used in the kindest possible sense) via their Facebook and other social networks as well as the venerable Kickstarter.com. Kickstarter especially is useful because it enables the creators to directly petition a much larger target audience than they might already have contact with. It also offers an opportunity for them to learn the most effective ways to pitch ideas, as well as a glimpse into the everyday life of people searching for grants. The Guild, on the other hand, went in the PBS direction and appealed directly to its viewers for funding. Obviously, as PBS and NPR find out year after year, this method proved effective for them and was able to sustain them to until they discovered a more permanent source of funding. It’s hoped that this technique can continue to work for many, many years. Even so, the feasibility of using that method to bankroll a two hundred million dollar movie seems unlikely. The long term effect of Kickstarter, meanwhile, has yet to be seen, of course, but offers an interesting study for the future.
Once a film maker finds a way to fund their project, if they find a way to fund their project, then they have the less than glamorous task of promoting it. According to Reuters, “. . . for every dollar spent on producing a major film, the studios have been spending 51 cents-58 cents to release and market it in the United States and Canada.”5 While that might be an easy enough feat for a movie such as Colin, it’s difficult to see how much advertising someone can get out for thirty-five dollars. Worse still, how well could that compete for the eyes of would-be viewers up against a juggernaut such as Iron Man 2, which had an estimated marketing buy for prints and advertisement of one hundred million dollars? 6
To make matters worse, films in the mainstream, movies released by the studios are expected to open big or fade away. In the modern day of make it or break it opening weekends, most films no longer have the luxury of building up a strong word-of mouth campaign. Take one of the classics and most beloved movies of all time, the original Star Wars, and compare it with a more recent film such as The Avengers. When Star Wars opened in limited release in 1977, its opening weekend take was 1,554,475 dollars7, which in today’s money is a little under six million dollars. The Avengers, on the other hand took in eighty and a half million dollars on its opening day8, and that was just its domestic take. While Star Wars was allowed to flourish and reopened on more screens launching a franchise, news reports about The Avengers pointed out that it was only number two in opening day box office. (To put it another way, rather than congratulate the film on its opening, they chose to point out that it did worse than Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows, Part II.)
Both Star Wars and The Avengers benefited from an extraordinary amount of buzz, some manufactured, some genuine word-of-mouth generated. Buzz becomes the life blood of any marketing campaign, for movies or any other product. As Henry Jenkins said in the title of his blog post, “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead.” If word of the film cannot get out, then the movie dies on the vine.
The trick for the modern day movie maker, producer, and even studio is to come up with ways to spread buzz, to create a need that only the film can fill. Many methods have been tried over the years to create that indescribable buzz. Some early movies tried spectacle that would have made the promoter in King Kong blush. There have been examples of reverse word-of-mouth, a declaration from the ads to not reveal the shocking ending. (This in modern times seems to have translated into the ubiquitous “spoiler alert,” where people find themselves self-censoring, saying only that you will not believe the ending. This was both the rise and fall of M. Knight Shyamalan.) Finally, they had good-old-fashioned word-of-mouth, the most untamable of beasts, since so many people have trouble explaining why they tell anyone about a product or movie, even after they just talked about it.
The emergence of the television was a boon to the advertisement of films, but generally only those that had major studio backing. The divergence of cable channels, the no longer exactly true idea that there is a channel for every lifestyle and personality, offered a chance for more obscure films (and bands and books) to have their moment of discussion, to inform more people of its existence. The advent of the DVR has virtually killed the thirty second ad spot, which has led many film makers to fully embrace the goldmine of advertising potential, The Internet. The greatest function of the Net is the interactive nature of it; rather than submissively watching an ad on TV, people go searching for news and information about a film they had just heard of. One person actively searching out the film could be much better than ten people saying that they had heard of it. The Internet has opened up new possibilities of advertising for all types of movie makers, not just those that can afford a one hundred million dollar ad buy.
II. “Just an old fashioned love song.”9
Buzz marketing is an old institution, existing back as far as people have had a product that they wanted to convince another person to buy. Like viral marketing it is a “. . . manufactured marketing initiative . . . that [is] intended to capture people’s attention and get them talking.”10 An argument could be made that the earliest word-of-mouth push was Eve’s recommendation of the fruit in Eden. Early in the book printing industry, books were pushed as true stories of adventures in an effort to boost the appeal of the book. Big flashy displays, word-of-mouth, and the hint of truth in the fictional story are just some of the tools that film makers have used in the past to promote their movies.
Hollywood is no stranger to bold marketing strategies, sometimes given the derogatory and strangely quaint nick name “publicity stunts.”
The iconic sign that one upon a time read “Hollywoodland” was once the brain child publicity stunt of a housing developer that stuck around long after its origin faded from the mind. This was viral marketing before viral marketing was cool. One of the earliest forms of movie viral marketing was a push by Cecil B. DeMille to erect monuments of the Ten Commandments near court houses and public buildings in order to publicize his film The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston went to several locations around the United States to dedicate the monuments as a promotion for the film. As the film is still one of the most popular films of all time without the average person being aware of the connection, it is unclear if the strategy paid off in the way they hoped, but it obviously didn’t hurt.
Documenting all the successful and failed attempts at publicity stunts would be an epic work in and of itself. Suffice it to say, from the days that film started out, people were finding grand, sometimes shocking ways to promote it. Modern iterations have used leaked footage from sets, or accidentally recorded on set tirades. (Some people have theorized that Christian Bale’s entire breakdown prior to the release of Terminator Salvation was a carefully orchestrated publicity stunt. While this theory has never been verified, Joaquin Phoenix’s slow descent into insanity was a proven success as a publicity stunt. Rumors of Bale’s bad behavior certainly didn’t hurt the movie.) M. Knight Shyamalan worked with the Sci-Fi Channel to produce a “mocumentary” that was supposed to show an unauthorized view of him and his movie The Village. The original intention was to show it as a straightforward documentary, which as we’ll see in discussing The Blair Witch Project could have had some considerable consequences.
Countless movies have drawn inspiration from the serial killer Ed Gein, from Psycho to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rather than claim something as simple as inspiration, they often make use of the well-travelled “based on a true story” trope.
Claiming that element of truth, or in the modern parlance, “ripped from the headlines,” draws people into the movie, and gets them talking about it. Conversations begin with, “You know it’s true. There really was this family in Texas.” Or, “I drove by the house once, it was scary.” From there the conversation carries on, and the movie is passed from one to another.
The other side of the true story trope is the urban legend. These are stories that latch onto either the making of the film, or to the film itself. Here we see legends about dead munchkins in the background of The Wizard of Oz (or even just the idea that the film syncs up with “Dark Side of The Moon”), a ghost haunting Three Men and a Baby, and rumors of a death curse surrounding Poltergeist.
These legends hang on despite any attempts to discredit them. Most remarkably, they seem to persist through generations, leading ever new groups of people to obsessively watch The Lion King to see how the stars spell out “sex.”
This is marketing that advertisers wish they could do; a multigenerational drip seemingly passed through the DNA.11
One of the first films to try and take advantage of all of these aspects to create a truly viral marketing campaign, was The Blair Witch Project.
The film was made up of footage that was allegedly found after the disappearance of three young film makers. Not only was the urban legend of the Blair Witch presented as fact, but all the elements, how the film was made, how the footage was found, even the soundtrack that was released (based entirely off the tape that was in the car they arrived in) were all presented as true facts. The interesting nature of the film coupled nicely with a relentless word-of-mouth campaign that ensured everyone would eventually see it. (Sadly, its sequel did not fare as well, taking a beating both critically and financially.)
Ultimately, The Blair Witch Project helped to reveal one of the potential pitfalls and flaws in viral marketing. It became increasingly clear that the campaign was being dishonest and that caused a backlash against the film. As AdAge put it, “. . . the viral marketing behind ‘The Blair Witch’ . . . tried to trick audiences . . . .”12 While the film more than recovered its relatively small expenses, it is very difficult to find people that don’t have a negative view of the movie now. That becomes one of the difficulties that viral marketing campaigns face: Not only do they have to pass the TARES Test13, they have to not be so pervasive that “. . . they are at risk of becoming part of the noise or worse.”14
To be continued . . .
1. Joel and Ethan Cohen, “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” movie, 2000.
2. Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com
The official budget for Colin, an independently made zombie movie, is a staggering 70 dollars. According to the director, Marc Price, the movie was made on a camcorder he had, edited on software he had received from his school, and used his friends and volunteers as actors.
Rodriguez earned 3,000 dollars testing a cholesterol drug. Production work on El Mariachi came in at 7,500 dollars. The post-production, on the other hand, has been estimated at 220,000 dollars, which works against him by stealing some of his Indie cred.
4. Susan G Broyles and Frank B. Morgan, Basic Student Charges at Postsecondary Institutions Academic Year 1992-93. Tuition and Required Fees and Room and Board Charges at 4-year, 2-year, and Public Less-than-2-year Institutions. Statistical Analysis Report(Washington, D.C.: ERIC Clearinghouse, 1993.)
5. Larry Gerbrandt, “How Much Does Movie Marketing Matter?” Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/06/11/us-industry-idUSTRE65A13Q20100611
6. multipurposeponi, “How Much Does All This Iron Man 2 Marketing Cost?” Comic Book Movie, http://www.comicbookmovie.com/fansites/Poniverse/news/?a=16786
7. Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=starwars4.htm
8. Associated Press, “’Avengers’ Scores No. 2 Opening Day With 80.5 M http://movies.yahoo.com/news/avengers-scores-no-2-opening-day-80-5m-154806723.html
9. Three Dog Night, “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” 1971.
10. Balter, Dave, Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing( New York: Portfolio, 2005)
11. Snopes, www.snopes.com
12. Aris Georgiandis, “10 Years after ‘Blair Witch,’ Viral Movie Marketing Grows Up,” Advertising Age. http://adage.com/article/madisonvine-news/10-years-blair-witch-viral-movie-marketing-grows
13. The TARES Test was first proposed by Sherry Baker and David L. Martinson in their article “The TARES Test: Five Principles for Ethical Persuasion.” They proposed that for advertisement to be ethical it had to meet five standards. It had to be:
- Respectful (of the viewer)
- Social responsibility
The argument that these five needed to be fulfilled for an advertisement to be considered ethical. Applied to The Blair Witch Project it fails on all levels.
14. Balter, Grapevine.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Our last day. I began my morning by strolling along the beach beside the Mediterranean. I knew that would be leaving soon and had to soak in as much of it as I could, to take a little bit of that old world with me to my home.
We started out by going to the Ghetto Fighter’s Kibbutz, an archive that was established in 1949 with the establishment of the first kibbutz there.
Most of our time was spent in the Treblinka Hall, which, as one person in our group said, was like laying out evidence against the Nazis for the crimes they committed.
Two things really struck me about the archive. The first was how well they worked the reverse of what the Nazis had done. The Nazis were about dehumanizing the Jewish people, and the archive illustrated some of the ways that they had done that.
Conversely, the museum has humanized the victims as well as the perpetrators. As our guide said, it’s important to remember that these were not monsters who did these horrible acts, but people.
The other things that struck me was the scale model of Treblinka that dominated the room. It was hard to look at it and reconcile that just a week ago I was standing in that spot there, where the train platform was, where the barracks were. It brought home to me why Birkenau seemed more powerful than Auschwitz to me. Somehow I feel more there.
After that, we had a short visit with some soldiers at an IDF base. They were so young, and so responsible. In some ways it felt like a frat house, but also a unique world of security that I think we as Americans fail to fully grasp. I’m not sure that we need compulsory service, but perhaps if it were a reality more people would take interest in the country beyond just fearing what seems different.
We finished our day in Tel Aviv, discussing the history of the city, which means something like “New Old Town,” and took a walking tour of Jaffa, which once upon a time was the major port of Israel.
According to Michael it was from there that Jonah set out for his adventure with the whale. It no longer is as vital a city, but has a vibrant art scene.
And then it was time to bid Michael goodbye and head to the airport. It was with a heavy heart that I left, because Israel is a beautiful world, and I loved being in Poland despite the heavy nature of our tour.
Still, I am more than ready to be home.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Today’s journey was about the Crusades. We went first to Caesarea, another city of Herod’s, a beautiful sight on the Mediterranean Sea, filled with ruins, and yet right outside one of the wealthier towns in Israel. From there we headed to Haifa, where we got to view the gardens of the B’nai Brith, which was incredibly beautiful. We then went to Akko, Acre that was, and explored the fortress, which was both beautiful and functional. Again it was just fascinating to see this place where so much history had happened, to put a face to the name, so to speak. After our exploration of the fortress,
which involved a journey through some underground tunnels,
we were lucky enough to go to the Rosh Hanikra Grottos. This involved riding another cable-car down to the sea,
and going into some man-made caves to get a “behind the scenes” look of the waves crashing against the cliff walls.
It was beautiful, and showed the absolute power of nature, for both destruction and creation.
Friday, March 15, 2013
Today was a relaxing day, so to speak. We journeyed to Qumran, the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
That was interesting enough, but then we also learned a bit about the people who had lived their lives there, and the impact they likely had on Christianity as we know it.
We then went to Masada and rode a cable car to Herod’s fortress on the hill-top.
We toured it, wandering through the streets and rooms that once were, high above the surrounding area, and explored the history of it, how it came to be, and how it managed to survive (the key was an impossibly large supply of water).From there, after riding the cable-car back down, we went to the Dead Sea, to the fancy Crowne Plaza Hotel. Floating in the Dead Sea (or Salty Sea, as it is known in Hebrew), is every bit as awesome as you think it’s going to be. What’s most interesting isn’t how easy it is to float, but how difficult it is to do something as simple as standing up. The buoyancy almost feels as if it controls you, but the salt really makes your skin feel good, smooth. Except on the lips, which sting, and god help you if you get it in our eyes.
We finished our travels by viewing Shabbat at the Western Wall. While it was very interesting from a sociological perspective, and gave an amazing illustration of the different kinds of Judaism that in habits the city, from the ultra-orthodox to the more reform minded, I felt very uncomfortable.
I felt as if we were intruding on a private thing, that we were turning them into a spectacle.
We finished the night by having Shabbat dinner at the hotel, which really brought us together, in the way that only a ritual can, and was incredibly illuminating.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
We began Thursday by going into the Gazelle Valley and planting trees. The planting of trees has a long and important history with Israel. All the trees and all the grass there was planted, and it is a kind of pilgrimage for people to come and plant a tree there. While I might disagree with the practice, thinking that in many ways it is a waste of resources (it is, after all, a desert), there was something zen and blissful about pointing that tree. Feeling the earth on your hands, connects you, and planting the tree gives you a hint of hope for the future.
A scheduling conflict lost us our chance to meet with students at Hebrew University, but it gained us the opportunity to have a lesson on security with Michael. It was fascinating. He made the Arab Israeli conflict clear, in a way that the world’s politicians and media have failed at, and a way that I can’t quite explain. He also made I clear the purpose and necessity of building the security barrier, the difficulties involved in making the barrier as fair as it can be. There is a sadness in the fact that it is there, but an equal sadness in the fact that it is necessary.
In the afternoon we went to Yad Vashim, a beautiful museum designed to commemorate the Holocaust and its victims.
This is probably the most beautiful monument that I’ve yet seen; the main museum rising like an arrow from the ground and traces out the path that led the Jews from their old lives, through the Holocaust, and the emergence of what they call the new Jew, who is best symbolized, as I was told multiple times, by a plow in one hand, and a gun in the other. This is a place that the soldiers come to learn, and it shows not just what happened, not just how Israel came to be, but why it came to be.