Steve Frankfurt, chairman of Frankfurt Gips Balkind, says he has 60 or 70 stories about Mel Brooks. Luckily, as I'm only in the agency's warren like 58th Street townhouse for the afternoon, he confines himself to tolling me just one. The 61-year-old Frankfurt, a member of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, says he also has a fund of stories about actors Bill Murray and Robert Redford ("Bob and I go way back," he says) and about Hollywood potentate and director Bob Evans. Frankfurt is quick to add that he's liberally mentioned in Evans' forthcoming autobiography.
Frankfurt's penchant for name-dropping indicator something of his own position in the Hollywood pantheon. As he likes to point out, Hollywood, though the auspices of FGB, came to Madison Avenue long before CAA ever considered Coca-Cola as anything more than a refreshing drink. Frankfurt and Phil Gips first lit up Hollywood in 1968 with billborn-ds and postors for Rosemary's Baby that became one of the industry's most memorable promotional efforts.
"Steve set the business on its ear," says his partner, Aubrey Balkind, a quiet, intense man with the aesthetic looks of actor Ben Kingsley. "By bringing traditional marketing ideas to movies, he introduced a whole new way of looking at advertising movies. The main thing Steve did was see the packaging of movies as a totality."
After Rosemary's Baby came ads for Goodbye Columbus, Catch-22, That's Entertainment, Kramer vs. Kramer and Superman, all in collaboration with Evans, then head of Paramount Pictures. Frankfurt was hooked. Although born in the Bronx, movies were almost in his blood, he says. His mother worked as the secretary to a president of Columbia Pictures. The highlight of her life was a date with Rudolph Valentino.
Twenty five years after his arrival in Hollywood, Frankfurt is still creating movie posters. Recent offerings include ads for Alien Fatal Attraction, Mario Van Peebles' Posse, Sharon Stone's new vehicle, Sliver, and the hugely successful Groundhog Day.
"No one's doing it on both coasts, and no one's doing it quite the way we're doing it," claims Frankfurt. "We are a communications agency. We are the agency of the future. We're not unlike a Chiat/Day or a Wieden & Kennedy, because clients come to us expecting to see something different. We tend to come at things in an unexpected way. We offer a point of view on a film. We try and create a strong copy line or image that everything else can be hung on."
The 25-person L.A. office, headed by art director Peter Bemis and former Fox executive Robert Smith, creates most of the posters and commercials for films, while the New York office handles TV promos (for Comedy Central, Roseanne, Cosby and Barry Levinson's Homicide series, among other shows). Frankfurt shuttles from coast to coast. "With movies the whole idea is about creating a cohesive campaign," says Smith. "We're looking for icons--things people associate with." Adds Bemis, "The image is key. The aim has to be to wring an emotion out of you."
Says Frankfurt, "You have to reflect the film's essence. You have a generation of fast-forward kids out there zapping movies. The challenge is to find a way to be different. The people who come here to work are misfits. They don't fit in anywhere else. These people go out and have fun together at night. Bill Murray dropped by and took them all out to dinner. You can't fake that."
Michael Smith is everybody's friend. He, and a handful of others like him, with such super-inflated titles as senior vp/worldwide creative advertising, work for the studios (in his case Warner Brothers), control billions of dollars and make the decisions that keep Hollywood's vendors in business. "It's Michael Smith," he says into the phone and someone, somewhere, jumps to attention.
Michael Smith also is, by general consent, about the best at what he does. "He doesn't set up competitive feelings, he doesn't exclude you from what's going on," says Ron Michaelson, one of the creative directors of Concept Arts.
Smith, ex-art director for GQ and Mademoiselle, exRevlon, ex-McCann-Erickson, ex-Chiat/Day, is in his element. Responsible for the advertising of some 25 to 30 movies a year, the largest output of any studio, the tan, blond, blue-eyed and casually dressed Smith commissions the print and audio-visual advertising for blockbusters like the Lethal Weapon series and Batman Returns, controversial headliners like Falling Down, and esotoric oeuvres such as Naked Lunch and Barton Fink.
"I act as creative director," says Smith, seated behind his executive-size desk in Warner Brothers' executivestyle glass-walled building in Bunbank. "I sit down with all the marketing people here, then try and bring the vendors in from the beginning."
While movie studios are perceived as places where Barton Fink-type executives spread fear and loathing, Smith says the reality is very different. "Warner Brothers is like IBM or AT&T," he says. "It's very solid, very family oriented. Executives have been here 10 or 12 years, and when a movie rafts, heads don't roll."
Which is just as well for Smith, a friendly, unpretentious man who is willing to take chances. He's not afraid to give smaller, less obvious vendors work on mainstream pictures, or to use stills photographers like Albert Watson, who have never worked on movie posters.
"In other companies, my job is not always held by people with art direction backgrounds," he says. "They're often marketing people."
Halfway through the interview, one of Smith's underlings enters clutching a video of an about-to-be-released trailer for a new movie called Dave, in which Kevin Kline impersonates the president of the United States. After we watch it, Smith says, "This is going to make a BIG STAR out of Kline." The trailer, like everything that comes out of his office, will be tested heavily before it reaches any theaters. "We preview a movie for audiences and do cards at the end to help us distill who the audience is," explains Smith. "For instance, if it doesn't test well to the female audience we might put a little more love in it--directors want the biggest possible audience, and we work very closely with them."
According to Smith, whether a movie campaign is artistically or aesthetically pleasing is not important. "I don't care about winning awards anymore," he says. "I've done that, and now I take much more pride in a campaign that truly communicates. I've worked on two of the most successful movies ever, Lethal Weapon 3 and Batman Returns, which had the largest opening in history. It's impotent to get as many people to see the movie as possible. That's truly where the art is. It's much more gratifying if three million tickets are sold on a Saturday night."
Born in Arkansas, Smith went to art school in Memphis. He won an art competition (like the heroine of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, as he puts it) and landed a job on Mademoiselle in New York. Spells with GQ and Esquire followed, then a job with a small agency that specialized in beauty before Dianne Von Furstenberg offered him a job as head of advertising for her company. By 1984, he'd joined McCann-Erickson to work on L'Oreal's Preference ("I helped launch mousse," he says). In 1986, Smith went to Chiat/Day, and in 1988 he moved to the agency's LA. office, where he worked on Arrow Shirts, Calvin Klein's Obsession, Nynex and the Reebok bungee-jumping spots.
In 1990 he was brought back to head up the agency's troubled New York office. "I was like the Dutch boy trying to fill the holes in the dike," says Smith. "It was the beginning of the firings. I saw where advertising was going. I was bored. So I put feelers out."
His L.A. friends came in handy. "Back in 1990 it was very hip in the movie world to bring in advertising people," he says. "The industry was starting to pay more attention to advertising than ever before. Joel Wayne, my mentor and boss at Warner Brothers, came from Grey Advertising. He understood my sensibilites, we liked each other. I could utilize my fashion and cosmetic background. Selling movies is a bit like selling perfume--it's an emotional sell."
Another plus was the movie business' immediate gratification. "You see the fruits of your labor much quicker," he explains. "I find it infinitely more satisfying to work for the studio heads than for some junior account executive at the product company. It's fascinating to distill a movie into a 30-second TV spot."
When he first arrived, Smith met with every vendor and every art director. "I was new to the business; I had to educate myself. Vendors think more graphically than advertising people. Advertising is more concept-driven. Ad agencies don't seem to adapt well to movie advertising-they're more used to building brands."
What makes a great movie campaign? "There's no science to movie making other than having a good idea," he says. "We follow a very guarded but forward-looking path. We like to forge ahead and try new things, but not without thinking about what we do very carefully. We're following a tradition; we haven't reinvented the wheel."
The politics and pressures of Smith's position translate into an average job tenure of three years. Smith's been there two. "For a creative person it's hard, there are a lot more egos to juggle than I've ever had to juggle before. Everyone is very passionate, and there's so much money riding on every film. One reason I'm surviving in this business is because I have a talent for knowing which battles to pick. I told someone recently that for the first time in my career I don't want to move somewhere else."
Steve Perani, creative director and founder of Poetic Justice, is the nearest movie marketing gets to the avant-garde. Known as something of an enfant terrible, he was responsible for placing a large tomato rather than a large star's face on the poster for Fried Green Tomatoes and for juxtaposing film footage with new and archival footage of author William Burroughs on the trailer for Naked Lunch.
"One of the things we specialize in is fighting against the idiom," he says as we drive east on Sunset Boulevard. "So we do movie advertising either for very small or very large movies." Perani's vision has been used to sell such films as Do The Right Thing, Point of No Return, Singles, Drugstore Cowboy, Cape Fear, Wayne's World and Batman Returns, for which the company won a Key Award for its inspired use of Batman's familiar cowl against a white background bearing only the text, "Returns June 19."
Known also for his less-than-fawning attitude toward movie moguls and others of their ilk, Perani says he's put people off by being too passionate about the business. "The thing that's weird about this business," he says, "is that people are so plugged into preserving their studio relationships no one will say anything. Vendors tend to be either art directors or film editors and they may be passionate about movies but they're not usually passionate about advertising." And the trouble with most posters, he says, is that they're art directors' cut-and-paste jobs. "Look, there's an example of a stupid poster," he says as we go past a bus stop with a series of photographs of couples. "Cut and paste."
A movie poster is different from any other kind of advertising, says Perani, a former ad agency art directer who started out in movie marketing as a consultant. "You have to communicate something that people understand and find entertaining. It's an elusive magic. You can either do it by great workmanship or by strategy. My preference is by strategy, so that we're not just a muscle on a beautiful piece of art."
We are now in the Valley, home of Big Hair, Big People, Big Movie Audiences and Big Malls, the latter of which we have entered in search of a video store. As we enter the shop, Perani explains that there are certain recognizable types of poster campaigns. "Big Heads in Sky," he says, pointing out two stars' heads above a bit of action underneath. "Stars' lawyers ensure equal likenesses," he says. "It's part of the contract." There's also the illustration genre (considered passe), the montage and the big fashion shoot. Perani points out examples of each.
Later, we go for dinner at the Hollywood Canteen. Leopard sharks swim in glass tanks, Hollywood agents move bits of paper about and the walls hum with dealmaking. "Schwarzenegger would be great for this," says the man at the next table. Everyone is either very tall or very thin or sometimes both.
At its peak Poetic Justice, which he heads with exChiat/Day account executive Stacy Osugi, employed around 40 people. "We're rescaling from a full-service creative boutique to a guerrilla creative consultancy," says Perani. "It's become much harder to make a living than it was five years ago. More studios are going inhouse. There's less profit margins, and studios are asking you to do more. But as a category, I'd much rather photograph Bridget Fonda than a hamburger. I'd much rather talk to Michael Smith about a great picture than talk to some guy who's manufacturing a light bulb."
Ron Michaelson and Lucinda Cowell, creative directors of Concept Arts, are not the sort of people you associate with greedy, grasping, power-mad, sycophantic Hollywood. They're shy, quietly spoken, polite, and, by their own admission, not exactly skilled when it comes to marketing themselves. "The problem is we're a pretty quiet group of people," says Michaelson. '"We're not very good at self-promotion--which in Hollywood is no good."
Good or not, Ron and Lucinda, as the husband-and-wife team tends to be known, have a reputation for creating some of Hollywood's most quirky, unusual and offbeat posters, such as the shot of John Turturro's startled, nerd-like expression for Barton Fink. Or David Byrne's dancing image (photographed by Annie Leibovitz) for True Stories. Or the use of African-style graphics and the circle of smiling, impudent faces for Spike Lee's first movie, She's GottaHave It. ("Spike had his own ideas," says Michaelson. "He sent us faxes of how he thought it should be. We won. ") Then there's their work for Sammy & Rosie Get Laid, Slaves of New York, sex, lies & videotape and Miller's Crossing.
"The thing about a poster," says Cowell, "is that it has to be so intense that people rush out to see it in the first week, instead of waiting for the video."
According to Michaelson, "What we saw happening was not just that we could design posters, but that we had a sense of trends and instincts about what people want. A lot of studios and designers justify posters just by how they look, but we were able to discuss how people would react, too. We were able to bring to design a European-style sensibility--strong graphics and a bold, fresh look that didn't fit into any formula."
For Michaelson and Cowell, the instincts about what people want are based on a background that included years of teaching and working in London (they were both born in America). While Cowell art directed the Monty Python books and did animation for the comedy troupe's Holy Grail movie, Michaelson taught at art schools. When they returned to the States in the late '70s, Cowell art directed Rolling Stone while Michaelson commuted to Los Angeles, designed album covers and developed video concepts such as America's Funniest Home Videos.
During the '80s, they started designing movie posters, including The Trip to Bountiful, She's Gotta Have It and River's Edge. "Everyone else was making Rambo, no one else was appealing to that audience," says Michaelson. "We felt passionately about the films, and we worked differently from most other studios. Our art directors build their own ideas both conceptually and executionally, so a designer has to have more skills than a straight art director. And because we spend so much time on the work, we tend not to have time to socialize or get to know our clients." The agency has a full-time staff of seven and staffs up according to workload.
Then current project is for Warner Brothers' Demolition Man, an action-adventure film starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes that's unlike anything they've done before. "Michael Smith liked what we did on another movie," says Cowell, "so he gave us this."
"We've spent a few years becoming the highestprofile design group of the independents," says Michaelson. "And we still have the stigma of having a background in the independents. Now we have to prove that we can work on big pictures."
Cynthia Wick, creative director of Aspoct/Ratio, says I can have half an hour. "Sue, can you give me 20 minutes, no phone calls," she asks her English assistant when I arrive, then proceeds to collapse on the couch, psychiatrist style, and talk non-stop for the next hour. "I'm just getting over Showest," she says exhaustedly, referring to the Las Vegas trade show where everyone who is anyone in movie marketing bonds with each other. "We're all like a small club. These relationships are so complex--all my clients are my friends."
Wick's father, Charles Wick, a Hollywood agent-turned-venture capitalist and advisor to Ronald Reagan, warned each of his five offspring not to go into the movie business. So it must have upset him to no end when all five proceeded to do just that. They all seem to be doing quite nicely, however, especially Cynthia.
The 35-year-old, WASP-ish, yuppie-ish Wick heads Aspect/Ratio's year-old print department and seemingly defies categorization and convention. She has worked for both the studio and vendor side and is one of the most dynamic entrepreneurs on the scene. Since joining Aspect/Ratio, the forner Fox executive has attracted such projects as Dracula, Toys, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Part III, Lethal Weapon 3 and This Boy's Life by sheer dint of contacts and personality.
Raised in Los Angeles and trained as a fine artist, Wick moved to New York and a job at Glamour in 1979. When she received a violet in lieu of a raise one year, she threw the plant against the wall and quit. She started freelancing as a cartoonist for the op-ed page of The New York Times' Op/Ed page. Then a friend suggested there was more money in designing movie posters, and in the early '80s she joined Spiros, a now-defunct New York agency.
Eventually, she returned to L.A. to open Spiros' West Coast office. In 1986 she was offered the job as head of advertising for Fox. "Despite what everyone says, working for a studio can be great if you're lucky enough to have a fabulous human being as a boss," says Wick. The fabulous human being in question happened to be Barry Diller, now head of the QVC home shopping network. "Diller was brilliant, ruthless and he pummeled you into doing things," says Wick. "We became friends and I got a great view of how movies are marketed and made." After five years she left. "I like to be challenged," she says. "The job had become 80% meetings and 20% creativity. I felt unhappy. My brain was atrophying."
She joined Bob Israel and Ron Moler, who ran Aspect/Ratio, a 15-year-old audio-visual shop with a reputation for comedy. They were keen to expand into print, she says, "and I needed to return to being creative."
Last February, Wick assembled "a group of misfits who weren't happy where they were and who happen to be fabulous art directors." She also took over and remodeled the bottom half of the Aspect building and filled it with '40s-style furniture. "This is the girl's touch," she laughs. "We have a hair dryer, Tampax and hand lotion in the bathroom. Upstairs is quite different." Her own desk is a mock executive-style design she had specially made and rendered in plastic.
Although absorbed in her work, Wick also has an eye for the big picture and the long-term. 'Where's a definite trend for more studios to do stuff in-house, but our belief is there's always room for people like us," she says. "My partners and I constantly talk about the future. What this company wants to do now is diversify into things like main titles. I don't want to diversify into everything; we're first and foremost a movie company. I'd love to get into product advertising. CAA did a great job with Coke. But right now we're just trying to be very efficient at what we do. We're taking time to get the maximum synergy possible."
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)