Friday, September 15, 2006

know your audience

Since I rarely view homemade vids on YouTube, I never got sucked into the lonelygirl15 phenomenon. And from the professionally-edited clips I did see, can't say I'm surprised that it turned out to be a hoax. Actually, let's call this ambiguously mimetic performance art, or maybe something catchier, like "postmodern kabuki," describing the artistic strategies of creators as diverse as Andy Kaufman, An(thony) Coulter, and the sockpuppetry of Lee Siegel (now with hilarious new site!). It's even possible the brilliant outlaw movie critic Vern is also one of these performance artists, though I can't be sure.

Back to lonelygirl15. Now exposed, we see it for what it is: a stroke of marketing genius.[1] Millions of hits, throngs of fans and addicts and now news stories on the front pages of major dailies. You can't buy publicity like this, and all to launch some mysterious indie movie. And the reason it worked? Let me direct you to the punchline at the end of yesterday's NY Times lonelygirl expose:
On learning that Ms. Rose was an actress whose interests, unlike the scientific and religious issues that fascinated Bree, ran to parties and posing, one fan wrote, “Very cute, but she’s really not into Feynmann and Jared Diamond! (I’m heart-broken ...But a wonderful actress, had me fooled into thinking she was a geek like me.)”
Schhhwwing! Ah yes, the good ol' cute-but-parentally-oppressed nymphette who adores Richard Feynmann. With a bit of luck, maybe I can find a Maria Sharapova-look-alike on YouTube who digs Alan Moore, Walter Benjamin, and Edward Yang and who's just dying to reach out.

What's the old H.L. Mencken saying? Nobody has ever went broke exploiting the sexual frustrations of nerds who spend all their time on the internet?

[1] But wait. Didn't the box office disappointment of the net-hyped Snakes on a Plane demonstrate that an internet phenomenon won't necessarily translate into "mainstream" success? Weren't we treated to a gaggle of articles pronouncing the irrelevance of bloggers?

Two important distinctions must be made here. One, this lonelygirl thing is likely a small-scale movie, and the filmmakers would suck goat balls for a 30 million gross. Let's look at what the viral exposure from the YouTube clips accomplished: it cultivated a core fan base who were totally hooked. And now news stories make non-fans curious. This is an incredible coup. I'm sure some fans feel betrayed, but I bet most of 'em still plunk down their $10 to see the movie. Second, from all accounts, the legion of lonelygirl fans appear to be transfixed by the teen's persona and problems. They're into the text. Contrast that with Snakes' internet appeal, which is always been something of a collective meta-joke. The title tickled culture maven/info junkie/blogger types who loved that the title reduces the movie to its one sentence studio pitch -- which is essentially what these high-gloss b-movies are: a concept movie that can be summed up by one phrase. We're tired of studios laboring to class up these offerings with a generic title ("Terminal Velocity" or "Flight 893" or whatever). "Snakes on a Plane"! How refreshingly honest! You see how the appreciation is snarky and ironic, with the content of the movie itself nearly irrelevant? (Not for everyone, though. A small element of cultists loved the old school purity of the title, and demanded an old fashioned b-movie to match (which is what they got).)

The reality is that relatively few consumers evince this second level of appreciation. Most products that operate on some secondary level end up as niche items. Take satire. There's a reason the Colbert Report won't ever come close to the ratings of Jay Leno, even if they put Colbert on CBS opposite Leno. And there's a reason why satires don't ever hit $300 million at the box office. The fact is there are far more consumers who want face-value entertainment, and who are largely uncritical of marketing concepts and advertising strategy directed at them. Think of product placement. A lot of people snicker at obvious product placement, but it works. It works on the majority of the population who don't disseminate information with a critical eye on advertising/marketing, etc. (I don't work in advertising, but I'm confident Weiden & Kennedy or whatever big ad agency will have tons of research data supporting my contentions.)

To use another example, consider those obnoxious Apple commercials, with a casual Mac guy lecturing the dweeby PC man about viruses and such. They've spawned a collection of spoofs on YouTube, with this being the most popular series out there. In Apple's ad campaign, they take the basic "sell the lifestyle" adage (perfected by Apple) to a whole new level, with actors actually personifying the product. The Mac is cool, casual, urban, young, confident, creative and stylish. Dude's attractive, fun-loving, yet on top of it (he doesn't get viruses). And he's tall. The PC is a humorless, bumbling company man. He's overworked and uptight, yet doesn't have it together. The underlying strategy is pretty obvious to anyone who's remotely sophisticated about marketing practices.

The spoofs basically adopt Apple's ad concepts except they invert the players. Instead of the attractive hipster representing the Mac, the funniest spoof showcases an actor who completely captures the urban hipster's less attractive qualities: he's an obnoxiously smug and unkempt child-man with an infantile obsession for pop ephemera. And a trust-funded layabout. Dude's basically Jack Black in High Fidelity. Plus, he's short. In the same ad, the PC guy is sober, serious, uncool, but confident and competent. You may not want to borrow his CDs, but you'd hire the guy to manage your money. Plus, he's tall. The contrast being established here is just as pointed as the one in the real Mac commericals, except reversed. As with the real commercials, the spoofs aren't exaggerating the PC's virtues and the Mac's flaws; what all these ads are saying about their products and the competition are true (or at least unfalsifiable). It's all about manipulating brand image and playing to the viewer's lifestyle and values biases -- the bread and butter of advertising.

If you show every American these spoofs, many will get it. A greater number won't, because in order to get it you have to be appreciate the second-level nature of it. In order to make big money, you have to attract these face-value consumers, the same ones who see the title Snakes on a Plane and think "how stupid is that". In The Tipping Point, Gladwell identifies "connectors" as super-popular social hubs who are able to fan out the ideas first identified by "mavens" to a larger, more general populace, to turn a niche item into a fad. Gladwell's ideas can't work here. With second level products, the connection stops at mavens. Hence Snakes on a Plane, the internet geek joke that stayed an internet geek joke.

Too bad. Catching Snakes on opening night with an amped up crowd at the Mann's Chinese was one of the highlights of my moviegoing season. Scott Foundas', too.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Most Awesome Movie of the Year In Two Years Time

The title is Synecdoche, New York. The creator? Any nerd with two connecting synapses can figure it out from the title alone. It's Charlie Kaufman's new movie, and reportedly it is one for the ages:
If this film gets made in any way that resembles what's on the page — and with the writer himself directing, it will likely gain even more color and potency in the translation — it will be some kind of miracle. "Synecdoche" will make "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine" look like instructional industrial films. No one has ever written a screenplay like this. It's questionable whether cinema is even capable of handling the thematic, tonal and narrative weight of a story this ambitious. [emphasis added]
Wow. Okay. Since Eternal Sunshine was itself one of the all-timers, this supposed exponential advance in Kaufman art will obviously have to supplant the nerd fantasia version of The Black Dahlia, the new Hong Sang-soo, or the new Assayas as the Most Awesome Movie Playing in My Imaginary Kiddie Corner. DVDs of my imagined versions of Demonlover, Not on the Lips, and Purple Butterfly are available upon request.

NB: The Net and the Traditional Media, Part LXII: Curiously, this breathless fanboy missive is fronted on the LA Times Calendar section, lodged in between Patrick Goldstein's interview with the director of the super-controversial Bush assassination mocumentary, and Tim Rutten (the Ikea-grade Frank Rich) annointing Frank Rich as the conscience of our nation. A few years ago, this sort of scoop -- no reporting, just sweaty, gleeful anticipation -- would be left to the likes of Moriarty or Twitch. Now a net-geek piece is given the same prominence as pieces from the LA Times' two most visible columnists. Hmmm....