Missed It by That Much
Note: The following is based solely on my recollection of events. It’s been 20 years, 4 job changes, 3 kids and 2 moves since this story took place, so forgive my .5% fudge factor. Also, I’ve left out the names of most of the people involved to protect the disheartened. They’ve all gone on to better things anyway. Double also, this first appeared on Adland prior to Super Bowl LII, so I’m not totally daft posting here two weeks after the game.
Summer 1997. I was a 24-year-old writer/producer (because that’s what they called us back then) at Bernstein-Rein, an advertising agency in Kansas City, Missouri, famous for creating the McDonald’s Happy Meal, Walmart’s “real people” campaign, and telling folks to “make it a Blockbuster night.” I had started at BR the previous April after two years at a small shop – as in six people.
At this early stage of my career, I could sling copy fairly adroitly, and I was decently knowledgeable in the ways of low-budget local TV spot production. I did not know what I did not know and was thus full of what could euphemistically be called “confidence.” Ah, youth. Yet, despite my obvious way with words and truly outstanding hair (it was not for nothing that I was dubbed J-Fro), I had not been hired to work on the more glamorous accounts adorning the agency roster. I was brought into the ag/industrial group with clients such as Butler Manufacturing (from which my grandfather had retired) and Farmland Foods. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I was excited to have a job at the biggest shop in the Midwest. Or at least how I defined the Midwest.
But imagine my excitement when it was one day revealed that the agency had been asked to create a television commercial for Planet Hollywood. Bear in mind, this was 1997 when PH was still a popular-if-kitschy tourist destination for people who loved buying overpriced t-shirts and deep-fried appeteezers. Ahnold, Sly, Demi and Bruce were still noteworthy investors, and there were no Instagram stories to siphon off production dollars.
Then the good news turned into great news: The account was not being assigned to any one creative group. No, the winning idea could come from any team in any group. Oh, and there was a very good chance the produced spot would debut on the Super Bowl of Advertising, aka the Super Bowl. I can pretty much guarantee whatever time was recorded against other clients during the ensuing concepting phase was even, shall we say, less accurate than usual.
In an attempt to give ourselves an advantage over other teams, my partner, Dan, and I paired up with another writer/AD duo from within our group. I honestly have no real recollection of how many hours we spent trying to crack the macadamia-level brief we’d been given. The challenge: make Planet Hollywood a destination for the local Parker Posey-loving kids in the know instead of a tourist trap for Aunt Zelma. Or something similar. Sure, it seemed an impossible task, but when the windmill of Super Bowl commercial fame looms large before you, you gamely put on your Don Quixote face and tilt away.
In the end, our concept revolved around highlighting how each Planet Hollywood location was a unique reflection of the city in which it was located. I don’t think any of knew if that was actually true or not as we had collectively visited a Planet Hollywood zero times – let alone multiple restaurants in various cities. Setting such minor logical quandaries aside, we christened our idea “What Planet are You From?” and made our pitch to the über-CDs running the show. Was it, in retrospect, a fantastic idea the likes of which ad land (or @adland) had never before seen? Not particularly. But it would involve shooting in multiple locations around the globe, and so had inherent appeal to folks weary of shooting all night in rural Walmart stores. We were in. “In” being one of a handful (or three) of ideas that the higher-ups presented to the client.
Of course, our concept was ultimately selected or this would be a rather pointless story. And so began the months of pre-production work aiming for a November shoot and December edit. Almost immediately, our quartet was reduced to a duet as the other writer/art director team was forced to tend to their actual clients. Stacks of 3/4-inch reels from the day’s top directors piled up in the war room. Treatments were written, scripts rejected and resubmitted, and budget numbers multiplied. It was heady, intoxicating stuff for someone accustomed to a half-day shoot on digibeta preceded by maybe a week of prep.
The “script,” as it were, was in truth an outline of vignettes from which we would, yes, create a, I can barely type it, montage spot. (What can I say? I was young and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I do maintain it would have been one of those rare montage spots that actually works well, had the remainder of this story not taken place the way it did. But I also enjoy lying to myself.) But in between figuring out if we wanted to shoot in London or Japan – hint, both! – I was charged with figuring out the music.
For one of the few times in my life, I was actually on the semi-cutting edge (the nicking edge?) of a rising musical genre. I suggested using the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s version of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “The House is Rockin’” off of their 1996 “Guitar Slinger” album. It matched the vibe we were going for, and, though more blues that pure swing, was still rooted in the increasing popularity of that movement. And the spot would have launched before Gap’s famous “Khakis Swing” commercial that came out later in 1998.
The client would have none of it. Sigh.
Instead, we attempted to license the track we had used to produce a rip-o-matic to sell the concept: “Ready to Go” by the British band Republica. I have no idea if the band arrived at their licensing fee because they imagined PH had deep pockets or just wanted to price themselves out of consideration, but they effected the latter with an ask of $400,000. This was not an altogether outrageous number at the time, but still too rich for Midwestern sensibilities. Or even the client’s L.A. version of good sense.
Instead, we turned to a much more economical alternative – me. I would write the lyrics and we’d use a top-shelf music house to flesh it out. Having found my way into writing in general via lyrics, I was ecstatic at this idea. What I wouldn’t give to have my original lyric ideas for this project, as what was initially sold was better than where we ended up. Alas, all my Planet Hollywood files are not to be found. One of the few casualties of a computer transition, I am sure, as I have electronically horded all my ad-related files since I started in the industry. But such is life, and I doubt you care.
Of course, the music was, in a way, ancillary to finding a director, production company and cast. For directorial duties, we went with Jason Farrand – a young, L.A.-based Brit who’d already helmed a few national, youth-oriented campaigns. Also, Samuel Bayer wouldn’t return our calls. The production company he was with, Fahrenheit Films, has long since ceased to be (unless they changed the locks, their look, and relocated to Vancouver), but they did have cool hats. I think my dad still has one because, of course, I asked for two.
Meanwhile, back in the producer’s office, a budget had been submitted, laughed at, taunted, beaten with a stunt toupee from “Die Hard” and left to bleed out. The client, who fell in love with spanning the globe to bring you and yours the thrill of Planet Hollywood and its star-studded cheese sticks, was less enamored with the idea of paying for it. So we would be shooting across Los Angeles, dressing streets to look like faraway lands. In theory.
Casting quickly became an all-consuming project of its own. Wanting to shoot five or six vignettes around Los Angeles plus a one-day shoot at the Phoenix Planet Hollywood (as it was much more architecturally interesting than the one in Beverly Hills), and needing three to six principal talents per location, well, math ensued. The call went out across the land, even into the San Fernando Valley, for all SAG card-carrying youths between 18 and “can play 25.” Every few days, we would receive two- to four-hours’ worth of video tapes with hopeful hipsters for us to cull. How many did we see? The Magic 8-Ball remains murky, but I’m guessing around 600. Including the once-notorious Puck from MTV’s “The Real World.” He did not receive a callback.
Eventually, we winged our way out to L.A. for some in-person casting sessions and final callbacks. Over the course of two days we watched approximately 200 hopefuls strut one-by-one and three-by-three before us – all to the strains of Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun.” Obviously, the casting director hated us for reasons I knew not then nor understand now. Amongst the hopefuls were a smattering of commercial veterans like the couple from Levi’s Wide Leg Jeans “I Think I Love” elevator/flash-forward spot. Another person, whom we wanted to cast, was a still-undiscovered, pre-argan oil empire Josie Maran. Her agent informed us that, as she was “the next big thing,” she would not work for scale, which meant she couldn’t work for us. Her agent was smart.
In the end, we cast 17 principals. Most of the picks were made by Dan, our group CD Diana, and the director. Which was fine, as I – being a full two years away from purchasing a single piece of attire from somewhere as hip, trendy and on point as, say, Banana Republic – was not exactly the most stylish of youths. I’ve spotted a few of actors in more impressive roles over the years (assuming Pamela Anderson’s TV show “V.I.P.” was a step up), and even follow a few on Twitter. Apropos of nothing, after the project was completed I learned we had a cast a former Playboy Playmate as well as a former (alleged) Mossad agent.
The shoot itself spanned four days in mid-November. We began in Phoenix, shooting restaurant exteriors and a quartet of principals arriving in a convertible. I believe we shot some interiors, as well, because nothing amps up the energy quite like watching our future leaders asking for a table and possibly getting carded. But at least the filming went off without any real issues. Feel the foreshadowing.
A few days later we reconvened in Los Angeles for three fun-filled evenings of increasingly stressful situations. The first and third nights were to be spent filming our coterie of cool kids as they journeyed towards oblivion. I mean, the restaurant. The middle night was spent after-hours at the Beverly Hills PH shooting food. Yes. Shooting food. Our plans to avoid turning this into a bedazzled bite-and-smile spot were already starting to unravel.
I recall an assortment of random images from those three nights. Many involving yelling. Others involving glitter. A few involving mocking the line producer for wearing a coat in 60-degree weather. I believe Beck was playing across the street from one location, still touring for “Odelay.”
But back to the yelling. As I’ve alluded to, the premise, such as it was, of the spot was to follow groups of youngins from around the world as they converged on their local Planet Hollywoods (Planets Hollywood?). The client noticed that none of our wardrobe selections included PH logo gear. No t-shirts. No hats. No letterman jackets. And he took exception to this decision. Our argument against such garish blandishment was twofold. First, we didn’t want to tip our hand as to where the kiddos were headed too early in the spot. Second, we had all seen the 1994 Jeremy Piven movie “PCU.”
For those who have forgotten this nearly shot-for-shot remake of Citizen Kane, only with keg stands, I will summarize the appropriate scene: Mr. Piven, playing a ribald fraternity brother, and his friends are heading to a concert. One of the gang (a youngish, brutish John Favreau) is wearing a t-shirt of the band they’re going to see, drawing the ire of Mr. Piven: “What’s this? You’re wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see? Don’t be that guy.”
The client wanted every guy or gal to be that guy. Because he was spending a ton of money and he wanted his product front-and-center as early and often as possible, dadgumit. The head of account management attempted to placate him with some Cuban cigars, but to no avail (although he did, of course, take them). And so we did our best to obscure the PH-wear as we shot – hiding a t-shirt under a Hawaiian button-up, using a halter top with a very small logo (escpecially in the days of standard definition), etc. Still, we felt like it was akin to shooting an Applebee’s spot and showing everyone heading there wearing suspenders adorned with tchotchkes. Although that could actually be funny.
And then there was the food shoot. Which I violently expunged from my memory long ago and have nothing more to say about it. At least not until get to the edit.
Aside from client-related issues, the shoot continued on rather smoothly. I learned the importance of having good craft services (which we did) and really comfortable shoes (which I did not). I also learned that, even if all the activity swarming around you is the direct result of something that came from your brain, your title still dictates your place in the decision-making schema. Which was probably for best or I would’ve been yelling “Don’t be that guy!” to the client until they hauled me off to LAX.
Shoot over, my partner stayed behind (or went back) in L.A. to oversee the film transfer and color. (If you don’t know what that means, ask your CCO what a powerbox is and watch her start convulsing.) The producer and I headed to New York City for two days of music production at tomandandy, who are actually still around rocking the brownstones. Aside from the lyrics not being the original ones I’d been pushing for, the sessions went splendidly. The most entertaining part of the trip was sitting at a table next to then “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” star David Boreanaz at Angelo & Maxie’s Steakhouse. I did not purposely follow him into the restroom. That would have been rude.
Editing took place back in Kansas City, as days blended into weeks and weeks into a perpetual state of bloat from catered lunches. How I miss them. The problem with piecing together a montage spot, of course, is that there is no clear path to guide you – just your swollen gut and a three levels of superiors who don’t share your love for off-beat cuts.
The real struggle was that we were attempting to assemble four cuts: one agency :60, one agency :30, one client :60 and one client :30. And the agency cuts weren’t just subtle revisions from the final, client-approved pieces. Because, as you may have intuited by now, the client really did want a bite-and-smile piece. Cool kids running! Cool kids eating something towering and fried! Logo over cool kids laughing as they dine and dash! Double sigh. Admittedly, Planet Hollywood’s food was fairly decent. Good enough to not turn people away, but not so amazing as to be the main draw. Which is fine, but you certainly don’t make that your main message.
It was during the edit that rumors leaked that Planet Hollywood would report major Q4 losses. Talk of airing the spot on the Super Bowl faded (thankfully), and we began wondering if the spot would ever air in any form anywhere at any time. When the official losses of $40 million finally emerged, we pretty much had our answer. With 17 principals, running the spot was an expensive proposition regardless of how big or small the media buy was.
Nonetheless, the client hoped to rekindle some branding magic and ordered a trial run in Nashville. The spot ran one time before, on April 16, 1998, a tornado struck the city, including the entertainment district in which Planet Hollywood was located.
The commercial never aired again.
Twenty years on, I maintain a soft spot in my soft head for this ultimately futile project. I learned a lot about how big-budget advertising was done, should be done and shouldn’t be done. Mainly the latter, but still, lessons learned and all that.
Unfortunately, I do not at this time have the client version of the spot in digital form. I did recently dig up a 3/4-inch tape with it, so maybe I can find a production house with an old deck that still works and get it converted. Or not. Some things may be best lost to the fog of memory.
I do have the agency cut, however. And as I look upon it with two decades of the joy of advertising between it and myself, I can say with 100% honesty that it really looks like we spent a lot of money on it. Which is about as much as you can say about most real Super Bowl commercials every year, too.
Here’s the agency version in all it’s 4:3 glory: