MJZ: The Inside Story

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Spike Jonze is struggling good-naturedly to express just exactly why he joined Los Angeles-based MJZ: "I didn't really know anything about them, other than Rocky [Morton, the 'M ']. They're low-key and focused on the commercials business and nothing else. And it's organized, and clean . . ."

Spike, Dante, Tom, Mike and David. In the unlikely event that you had not heard of any of them before, they have certainly been the names on an industry's lips since December. Money, control, talent, hubris and relationships - all are present in a story that creates its own sex. Out of the ashes of the once-great Propaganda, a job-lot of some of the industry's leading directorial talent together join the good, healthy, but stubbornly unsexy, MJZ. It's a move that casts MJZ president David Zander firmly into the spotlight for the first time in his long career. And, depending on whom you listen to, it was a move that was firmly about money, control, talent, hubris or relationships. What's more, it even caused some to question the viability of commercials production as a business.

Of course one has to beware "loser envy": there are many across the country who would relish the names Jonze, Ariola, and Kuntz & Maguire on their roster. But, there are enough A-list producer names who vouch for the veracity of the respective $1.1 million, $900,000 and $500,000 signing-on-fee demands that have so polarized the business since the deal.

In his first real interview since, Zander won't talk about the money - which only fuels more speculation. Tom Kuntz, Mike Maguire and Jonze skirt the subject too, each maintaining any decisions were not about money - as if there is anything wrong with money being a reason.

Dante Ariola, however, is refreshingly honest. "Obviously money factored into any deal that I looked at," he admits. "I don't give people a hard time about the focus on the money. But I've known Zander for years. He was the first person ever to contact me and suggest I shoot commercials. And, he is a great businessman. He doesn't sign any deals that don't make sense for him."

It's true, that on all evidence to date, Zander has been a canny businessman, steering MJZ through the turbulent waters of the business for years to a position where it is one of the few companies around that could afford to sign such an expensive, if talented, foursome. Unsurprisingly, he sees things differently. "I did not offer them the moon - even if others did," he insists. "Money will never be the focus of their thinking. Guys who do great work do not think like that. We have been very, very careful to grow slowly, but it's very rare that a company like Propaganda/Satellite goes down and throws up so much talent. The three entities are really talented, and the business is driven by talent. There is no risk."

Zander also insists that an existing roster of directors, headed by Rocky Morton, are happy about the deal. No, he has not had any of them asking for money as a result of all the publicity - an occurrence that other "heads of families" noted immediately. The hires bring the roster up to 12 directors, and has thrown the spotlight on the company in a way it hasn't known before. "Absolutely, the level of interest has been felt," admits Zander, "but we did have interest before." So, what exactly did Zander see in each of the "entities"? Why did MJZ, a company that has succeeded through concentrating almost entirely on commercials, need them? And, will he have Jonze, in particular, available for commercials when he is such a hot property in movies and music video?

"I'm thrilled to be in business with all these guys," says Zander. "I don't know what's in their Wheaties, but it makes me feel like a fucking knucklehead." He insists Jonze will be available for commercials - although it appears the date has already been put back because of delays in post on Jonze's first movie since Being John Malkovich. "We'll wrap it up, hopefully, in May," Jonze says. Right now he has one of TBWA/Chiat/Day's last Levi's commercials, "Crazy Legs," on air, and music videos for Weezer and Tenacious D. All four directors have to figure out how they will be represented for videos, says the creator of last year's extraordinary music video of the year, "Weapon of Choice," for Fat Boy Slim, starring Christopher Walken.

Ariola missed most of the fuss. He spent weeks in the fall shooting new BMW Mini commercials in Budapest, for the hot German agency Jung von Matt. Like the others, he is relieved to be out of the Propaganda situation, which had started to affect him personally. "We all knew it was going," he says. "Crews were not getting paid, or we were paying them with cash." But he adds, "When it went, I was surprisingly sentimental. At Propaganda there were people like Steve Dickstein, Dave Morrison, Colin Hickson and Dana Balkin. The vibe was incredible."

Ariola, like Jonze, claims his desire to continue to work with directors he admired was partly behind the group move. He says that despite his past history as graffiti artist, graphic designer and music video director, these days he is only interested in commercials - although he reluctantly admits to "doing some film stuff. Any video that has a budget, the music is more commercial than commercials," he argues. "There's no outlet here in the U.S. - you see so much more in Europe. Even M2 doesn't really play avant-garde stuff."

Zander sees Ariola, like Jonze, as "gifted, unassuming and reflective," describing the former's work as "considered, thoughtful and planned. He has learned so incredibly fast," Zander says, recalling how he had approached Ariola to be a commercials director on the strength of a video for a band named 311, but lost out to Propaganda.

Kuntz and Maguire, says Zander, "are so fucking clever. They're quick and funny. They come from advertising [most notably Kirshenbaum & Bond]. They really get an idea, and what needs to happen. And, they just make me laugh the whole time." In turn, the pair use that word of Zander's again, "focused." They talk of how they sought that focus, having been with a company that "had its hands in so many things. Propaganda was a crazy roller-coaster," says one or the other on the phone from a hotel room in Toronto where they are directing a Budweiser commercial. "We just said we were gonna keep working. To the end, it really seemed like the old Propaganda. The characters were still there then."

The duo have fonder memories of working for MTV making trailers than they do of their Kirshenbaum days, where they describe themselves as "fodder, " but they have had an astonishingly successful first two years, with work such as Volkswagen, Fox Sports and Monster.com behind them. "We're unbelievably busy, but we don't make a lot of money," they say candidly. "We're not, like, big dollars. In the first or second years we were trying to make sure we had a really great reel. Good work for great shops. The business model for us is amazing." So how has the crossover been for the Kuntz & Maguire team? For every art director and copywriter who has succeeded, there are many more who have flopped. What is their learning? "The really interesting thing is learning all the production craft skills, so that you can really take care of the details of your concept. Generally, agencies actually seem more trusting of us because of our experiences there. We write maybe 16 or 18 pages of notes because we know what questions they're sure to ask. And because there are two of us, it's a little like hiring another company. But, we're still winging it."

So, can anyone become a director? "Yes," says Ariola, "but maybe not a good one. I didn't have anything to lose," he adds. "It wasn't my life's ambition. I had a pretty good business going as a web designer. I had 10 people. So ads were not a money-making scheme. It's very much like asking, can anyone create a painting? If the impulse is there, you can do it."

Jonze was in magazines and doing photography when former Satellite heads Danielle Paganin and Julia Reed took him under their wings. He claims he enjoyed Reed schlepping him around the industry and taking conference calls and the rest. However, when pushed, he can only really point to the Nike "Guerrilla Tennis" spot, with Sampras and Agassi, and a London Wrangler campaign he shot through Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO as personal ad favorites to compare with his Fat Boy Slim videos. "In music videos you have much more freedom when you work closely with musicians," Jonze says, adding that his trick to getting good work out in commercials is to be "pretty upfront before we do the commercial to make sure that they [the agency team] know what we're planning." But will he really be available for ads? "There are still agencies I'd like to work with that I haven't worked with before, and MJZ has those relationships," he responds. "But I can't lie. Making movies, you put a lot more of yourself into it. I still like going to make a video or a commercial if it's an idea I'll have fun making."

None of the directors appear to have been particularly hurt by the recession to date: Jonze has been moviemaking, while Kuntz & Maguire and Ariola have all been incredibly busy. All three reveal a yearning to work more in London, where they believe the scripts are better, and Kuntz & Maguire are about to follow up their Monster.com work there by shooting a U.K. Sprite campaign.

It's no surprise, then, that Zander reveals plans to open a London office, despite the recession. Shades of Propaganda? "The market here is what it is," he says. "You can't create a market, but you can help form it. London is a smaller market, but it's an intelligent market. Look at Frank Budgen and Jonathan Glazer's reels. Two of the best on the planet, and all their work is from over there. We need to be there. "

And Zander needs to be in the A-list of production companies. His hiring the famous foursome is an end in its own right. It will never be enough for him, of course, and he has to keep all four extremely busy to make them pay. Ariola and Kuntz & Maguire one can see making enough to repay his faith, but with Jonze, it's a case of how available he is. Perhaps he is onboard primarily as a talisman, anyway. But one must not be churlish about MJZ's prior achievement. Morton, Anabel Jankel (the "J" in MJZ), Marcus Nispel, Victor Garcia and Carlton Chase made up a healthy roster many would have been happy to have. Now it's the big leagues. For all the talk of whether the deal is the beginning of the end of the business, and the loser envy and the coming together of egos, the truth is such a deal is unlikely to occur again. The talent will not become available again simultaneously at a time when a production company has a healthy current account.

The real test is to keep these very current names fashionable and relevant. No easy task, especially with the economy changed. They must not only get more of the fewer cool jobs, but make money on them. "If you stay interested and focused, then you'll stay in the game," says Zander. "Look at Joe Pytka. I don' t think you just arrive. We continue to look at where we're weak and where we're strong, and how we can work through that. If MJZ is branded as having taken a big leap with these guys, then may the goodwill, the luck, continue," Zander concludes. "It's not that interesting to be talked about; it's good to be talked about if it's the work. It's about the directors, not the company."

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