MY LIFE IN THE MOVIES
No, I'm not talking about the two movie theatres I was asked to manage upon my college graduation. Those offers came from film distributor contacts I had made while I was my college paper's film critic for three years. No. I'm talking about working on two of the most memorable films ever made! (Granted, my contributions were relatively minor, but still...).
Yes. I worked on the original Star Wars film. I admit, my place in the film's history wasn't flashy. I didn't play a Storm Trooper (as Daniel Craig reportedly did on the recent J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens release). I wasn't a key grip or best boy on the set. But my contribution was essential to the success of the franchise and helped transform the peripheral revenue streams that make so many movies financial successes even after mediocre critical responses.
You see, my first year of public school teaching ended in June of 1977, just days after the initial release of the very first Star Wars film. My first annual salary had been an impressive $9,700.00, so I immediately needed to seek employment in order to pay the bills. During those first few years of my teaching career, in a Bible-Belt farm community near the Ohio River, just north of the Kentucky state line, I took almost any job. I delivered newspapers. I worked for the US Government on a river facility. I taught summer school. Whatever. I applied for a summer job with a marketing firm in Cincinnati, where I lived. Cincinnati, home of Procter & Gamble, was one of the marketing hubs of the United States because it had representative demographics. So, I began my multifaceted marketing career. Among my tasks: I had to stand in the middle of a shopping mall and demonstrate and distribute hair product samples. I had to go door-to-door on days with rain-forest humidity and hawk some brand of new and improved dog food. And...I was hired by Kenner Toys to work on the Star Wars account. The Mego Corporation, in perhaps a short-sighted corporate move, had turned down the offer to make Star Wars toys, so Kenner stepped in. Prior to Star Wars, there were few options for figure-based play, except of course for Barbie and G.I. Joe. Kenner asked me to go to a morning screening of the film with an audience of about 500 kids. After the universe was saved and the children marched up the aisles I was to stop each of them and ask a series of questions. Most of the kids said they would love to have toys that replicated the characters in the movie, droids and Chewbacca included. Everyone wanted a Han Solo toy. Many wanted a Luke toy. No one wanted a Princess Leia toy! I tallied up my surveys and months later Kenner released action figures that were unique in size and detail. I wish I had purchased them and kept them in pristine condition.
They would be worth a fortune today. An "As New" Han Solo toy might get you a thousand bucks on the current market! Of course, the trend begun by Kenner has infiltrated all aspects of our culture. I'm sure I can get Star Wars: The Force Awakens cups and toys, etc. at Subway restaurants today, but I can also find Star Wars: The Force Awakens paraphernalia in everything from cosmetics to cereal to clothing. If you are exhausted by the product lines and sales pitches for every Marvel movie and every James Bond movie and every Disney movie, you have me to blame!
Even more fun for me that summer was my employment via American Zoetrope Studios to do prep work for the distribution of a film that wouldn't be released until two years later! That film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, of Godfather fame, was tentatively titled Apocalypse Now. I say tentatively because the survey I was asked to conduct offered many possible titles for the project. I had to help determine how the public would respond to the varied titles. "What do you think a movie titled Apocalypse Now would be about?" was one of the questions I posed.
I was supposed to call people on the phone or visit them in their homes and conduct a full survey. I was to tell my contacts that the survey would last "about twenty minutes". That length of time put many people off, but some people seemed excited about being part of the preparation of a film. In actuality, it would probably take most people almost a full hour to complete such a comprehensive survey, so I continually had to assure people that "we are almost done", when I knew darn well that we hadn't even reached the halfway point yet!
Though principal photography had been completed the previous month, the production was truly in its early stages. Clearly, it was going to be distributed in a way unlike any previous film had been. I had to ask questions such as: Are you familiar with the book Heart of Darkness? (Conrad's novel was the basis of the story). What is your opinion of Marlon Brando? Would Brando's presence in a film make you more or less likely to want to go? Are you familiar with the name Martin Sheen? Would you want to see a film about the Vietnam experience? (Remember, the war had just ended badly). If the movie were only released in big cities, would you travel an hour or more to see it? Would you pay ten dollars to see a spectacular film? (Most films had admission price of $2.00 or so).How would you feel about ordering tickets ahead of time as you might do for a play? If you knew the picture was directed by Francis Coppola, would you be more likely to go see it? On and on. Page after page.
A couple of times people got annoyed, but one time I was invited to the home of a man in his late 30s to conduct the survey. It became apparent to me that he and his roommate were a gay couple. In Cincinnati, I thought? Cincinnati was a conservative bastion of the Midwest. There was a strong puritanical streak that ran through the town that was often tested by agitators or rebels. The city hated gays. The town fathers hated anything liberal. They condemned to hellfire any aberrations at all. You had to leave the city and cross the bridge into nearby Newport, Kentucky to have access to sinful pleasures. Once, Jerry Springer (Yes, that Jerry Springer) partook of the services of a prostitute in Newport and made the mistake of paying by personal check! He was a member of Cincinnati's City Council at the time. Cincinnati was the home of Larry Flynt, the porn king and publisher of Hustler magazine. The back and forth between liberals and conservatives carried on for a generation. Even in the late 80s, the Cincinnati Art Museum was widely condemned for its exhibition of the so-called scandalous gay-themed photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. So, imagine my surprise to be questioning a gay couple who were not ensconced in the metaphorical closet! They were charming hosts, offering me wine and cheese, and ninety minutes later we finished the last question and I said my goodbyes. It was a wonderful conversation. Two years later, I ordered tickets to see Apocalypse Now on the big screen at the now soon-to-close Ziegfeld Theatre in NYC. They were expensive tickets for a movie, but at least I had mine. The lines to see the film, which had won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, were quite long. What amounted to quintaphonic sound, which won Walter Murch an Oscar, was extraordinary. When I first heard the helicopters, I thought they were flying in over my shoulder! It was a great visual and aural experience and a truly memorable film. I'm glad I played some small part in its creation!