Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ballyhoo, or the Necessity of Blowing Your Own Horn

It’s been a good week for my self-esteem. Loyal reader Craig Edwards (a former denizen of Movieland himself) has posted on his website a most amusing interview with yours truly, complete with slightly zany photos. And biographer Jack El-Hai (author of The Lobotomist and other fascinating books), chose Beverly in Movieland as one of the history blogs he most enjoys. Naturally I’m spreading the word. We who live and work in Movieland know the value of good publicity.

There’s a fine art to generating buzz, which is why most Hollywood regulars call on the services of a public relations firm. I first encountered publicists when doing celebrity interviews for the Los Angeles Times and Performing Arts magazine. A good publicist wants his or her client to get attention in the media, but it’s also part of the job to shield that client from discomfort of any sort. I remember a lengthy interview I once did with Steve Tesich, who won an Oscar for writing Breaking Away. We spoke in his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and throughout our chat there was a stony-faced publicist sitting in the corner, silently weighing every word. When at last the publicist slipped out for a moment, Tesich looked at me quizzically. “What exactly,” he wondered aloud, “does she think she’s protecting me from?”

Working for Roger Corman taught me all about the other side of the publicity game. Corman folk quickly learned to ramp up public interest in our films through creative exaggeration, not to mention outright lies. When working on press materials, my colleagues and I let our imaginations run wild, announcing that Big Bad Mama actress Susan Sennett was the granddaughter of filmmaking pioneer Mack Sennett, and bestowing on Jeanne Bell, who starred in the martial arts flick TNT Jackson, the coveted (and purely imaginary) Ebony Fist Award, in recognition of her “expert form, flexibility, and muscle tone.” Jon Davison, now a producer (Airplane!), was a master at creating publicity campaigns that essentially parodied serious hype. Jon’s official Piranha press-kit suggested that exhibitors create “exciting pre-publicity” by leaving dead piranhas on the banks of local lakes and streams: “Promote community interest and fear by organizing groups (Boy Scouts, citizen volunteers, etc.) to guard against the ‘coming onslaught.’ Give enterprising kids in your area a few bucks to make themselves scarce for a few days. Watch your grosses soar!!”

Meanwhile, Roger Corman himself pays an off-again on-again publicist to keep his name in the news. One of my duties at New World Pictures was to come up with bogus items suitable for planting in the columns of Hollywood trade papers. Just of grad school, I couldn’t resist giving my items a literary spin. Thus it was duly announced by Hank Grant in The Hollywood Reporter that Roger had signed the legendary Orson Welles to star in a new screen version of The Scarlet Letter, and that he planned to film Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. (I chose The Confidence Man as a quiet in-joke, because it was the least cinematic public-domain novel I could think of.)

Year after year, the game has continued. In 2002 I asked Corman veteran Frances Doel about an item in Variety. It announced that Roger was prepping The Return of the Animator: “The head of an animation company comes back to life in 2066, one hundred years after having been cryogenically frozen.” Part of the joke, of course, lay in the cheeky reference to rumors surrounding the late Walt Disney. Frances was also tickled to learn that she herself was supposedly writing the script.


  1. Ballyhoo indeed! And excellent use of that word! Thank you for linking to my post - my interview with you was a joy to work on - and I hope everyone pops over and checks it out.

    I guess I am continually amazed by how far Mr. Corman could and would stretch the truth - always vaguely assuming he really planned to do all the things he touted as coming soon - boggling to realize how much smoke he was putting out, with far fewer flames actually burning than most would realize. I'm still chuckling at The Confidence Man and Return of the Animator. Thanks for that!

  2. I too hope that everyone (in the whole world) reads that interview on your blog.

    By the way, I've always been bemused by the official Piranha poster, which occupies a prominent spot in the Corman offices. If you look closely, the young lovely on the raft looks drunk -- or at least rather weird.