DOUBLE INDEMNITY;IT MAY BE VERBOTEN AT NICK COHEN'S MAD DOGS & ENGLISHMEN, BUT PLENTY OF CREATIVES HANG OUT AT THE CORNER OF MAD AVE. AND SUNSET BLVD., AND THEY ALL BELIEVE THEY'RE THE RICHER FOR IT
WELL, TALK ABOUT OPENING UP A CAN OF WORMS. IT'S certainly no big secret in the ad business that creatives pull all-nighters for more than a print ad, and at times sneak off to do lunch with an after-hours writing partner. But ever since Nick Cohen's "To Hell With Hollywood" Viewpoint appeared last month (it originally ran in the One Club newsletter), there's been no shortage of fledgling screenwriters willing to come out of the closet with their own views on mixing advertising and Hollywood.
First off, it's fair to say that not everyone totally disagreed with Cohen, president at New York's Mad Dogs & Englishmen, who challenged the commitment of creatives attempting to balance both a full-time job in advertising and a screenwriting career. Well, he more than challenged it; he essentially claimed that if you're working on a script you ought to get out of advertising. Says freelance copywriter/screenwriter Paul Spencer, "If someone working for you is not doing the work, for whatever reason-they're having a baby, they're a hack or they're writing a screenplay-you have a legitimate reason to fire them. And if an employee basically thinks that advertising's worthless and Hollywood is all that matters, that's an attitude problem."
"I agree with Nick that if you're in the business of trashing advertising, then you should probably get out," adds Bill Miracle, a creative director at Hal Riney & Partners, Chicago, who, with his partner, has a script titled "Small Towns are Murder" currently in preproduction at Capella Films in Los Angeles. "But I look forward to going to work; it's not like an albatross around my neck."
But beyond collectively trashing the my-job-sucks mentality, creatives pretty much take issue with just about every complaint registered by Cohen, not the least of which is Spencer's contention that "it's not the hacks who are writing screenplays." In fact, his point is well taken; those with Hollywood aspirations have generally proven their talent and dedication in the ad world (as has Spencer, who won numerous awards for his hilarious New York Lotto work while at DDB Needham).
Looking back, Hollywood has gained many crossover talents, such as director Lawrence Kasdan, who started his career with W.B. Doner in Detroit. Former Leo Burnett creatives Peter Seaman and Jeff Price left the agency for Hollywood and together wrote the screenplay for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
More recently, former New York agency principal Tom DeCerchio sold a screenplay (with then partner Bryan Buckley), moved to L.A., sold several more and is now directing both commercials and features; DeCerchio, in fact, was the original director of "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," but was let go by Jim Carrey shortly after production began. DeCerchio, however, has two other projects in the works. A film he wrote, "Amanda," will be released by Sony Pictures this spring; another film he directed through Caravan Pictures, "Celtic Pride," is due out in April.
Others have successfully juggled both careers; back in the '80s, BBDO's Phil Dusenberry wrote the screen adaptation of Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," while another Burnett pair, Jim Ferguson and Bob Shallcross, wrote last year's "Little Giants" after being "discovered" at the agency by Steven Spielberg.
The story behind Ferguson (now creative director at DDB Needham/Dallas) and Shallcross, of course, is every struggling screenwriter's fantasy: The pair creates "Perfect Season," a heartfelt McDonald's commercial that runs on the Super Bowl (it's the spot with the cute tykes playing Pee-wee football). The spot tugs at the heartstrings of Spielberg, who has his producers track down the pair. Next thing you know, they're flying to Hollywood to take a lunch with the master himself and are asked to write a script based on the spot. Ferguson and Shallcross' script, "Little Giants," was released by Amblin Entertainment last year.
But Ferguson will tell you the process isn't as glamorous as it sounds. If creatives sometimes feel that selling a good idea to a client is like rolling a boulder uphill, try getting a movie made in Hollywood. It's like a scene out of "The Big Picture"; taking endless meetings with hoards of producers and writers who constantly rework your idea, having executives sneer at you because you're seen as "just a clever little ad guy," and then waiting months, maybe years, for anything to happen.
"It's hard, because in advertising you reach a certain level of notoriety and then you go out to L.A. and you're just a little fish in this big sewer," says Ferguson. "We're used to being involved in all the steps. With a script, you write it and then send it into the abyss."
Still, Ferguson and others take offense at the notion that swimming in that cesspool somehow diminishes their commitment to dealing with the kind of flotsam and jetsam they find in adland, or that the two are somehow mutually exclusive. On the contrary, besides admitting that perpetual low self-esteem drives them to constantly seek approval in other areas, creatives claim "external stimulation," whether it be music, films or writing screenplays, makes them more well-rounded and keeps their creative juices flowing. More concretely, many see screenwriting as a kind of intellectual cross-training that enables them to better flex their advertising muscles.
Ferguson, for one, says the challenge of writing in a longer format has made him a better commercials writer, particularly when it comes to dialogue. And Miracle says that when he worked at Leo Burnett, extracurricular activities were encouraged, to the degree that they would aid employees on the job; while account people were encouraged to get their MBAs, many creatives were taking classes at Players' Workshop, an improvisational comedy program that management felt would make them better presenters. In an unusually supportive arrangement, Ammirati & Puris creative director Rick Lemoine has a deal worked out with boss Helene Spivak in which six months of the year he works at the agency and the other six he writes screenplays at home.
"To me, one feeds the other," says Michael Ouweleen, copywriter at Korey Kay & Partners, New York. Ouweleen, who's written pilots for Nickelodeon and dreams about one day writing animated programs full-time, says his sideline "bolsters my energy level and makes me more eager to go to work. Telling me I can't do this is like telling me I can't play guitar."
His former boss at J. Walter Thompson, creative director Larry Volpi, says Ouweleen never tried to hide his alter ego because he didn't have to; the agency, Volpi says, has always been supportive of outside endeavors, mostly because worldwide creative director (and best-selling writer of mass-market thrillers) Jim Patterson has always "preached what he practices." For example, two years ago, Robert McKee brought his screenwriting seminar to the agency, modifying it to a class on general storytelling techniques. Directors Michael Apted-who shot the agency's recent EPT campaign-and Martin Scorsese have also given talks there.
"As a business, we've always tried to pull in the oddballs, people with diverse backgrounds," Volpi notes. "To pull these people in and then penalize them for not pursuing things that give them energy, drive and passion is ridiculous."
But like Patterson, who was notorious for getting into the office at 4 a.m. to put in three hours of personal work before shifting from art to commerce, Dusenberry encourages his employees to pursue screenplays, as long as they do it on their own time and preferably in their own homes. "It's a matter of putting everything into reasonable proportion and using restraint," says Dusenberry, who never worked on his own screenplay in the office. "Putting too much time in an outside endeavor can have a telling effect on the day job." By the same token, Dusenberry acknowledges there are "down days" in this business, times when creatives should take a long weekend and work on their scripts.
Certainly there are other issues that figure in here, like the argument that cultural differences give advertising an elevated importance abroad. "In London, advertising is their Hollywood," notes freelancer Bob Rice, a former Chiat/Day copywriter whose short film, "Ben Day," is making the rounds of art theaters across the country. The other point many make is that advertising has a tendency to take itself too seriously. When that happens "we're in real trouble," says Rice. "It's like someone who would write a print ad for beer and take two pages to describe the brewing process. But really, you're encouraging people to buy a brand of toilet tissue; you're not Dante or Cervantes. Have fun, and be thankful you don't work in a bank."
Neal Howard, creative director at WHM&G, Atlanta, adds that "to equate Joe Pytka with Martin Scorsese is just ridiculous." Howard, who has written screenplays and is currently writing an episode of "Coach," also believes that "walking around with our noses up in the air and saying this is the only creative outlet any of us needs is equally ridiculous. As well-crafted as our ads can be, they ultimately have a commercial, not artistic, purpose."
As for the shortage of good work, which is at the core of Cohen's beef with mixing advertising and Hollywood-he believes if everyone tucked their treatments away and focused on their briefs, the work would have to get better-blame it at least in part on the clients. Everyone agrees that selling visible, breakthrough work on a steady basis was, is and will always be an uphill battle, particularly in the prudent '90s. Giving credit to Cohen's creative leadership, however, many also agree that with hip, open-minded Mad Dog clients, creatives might be less inclined to rush home and work on their screenplays. "But the fact is," as Spencer points out, "most people are working on package-goods accounts."
And yet, most who are writing screenplays have no desire to bid farewell to their day jobs, at least in the near future. Most would agree with Miracle's assessment that Hollywood's "mostly fun to dabble in. There's nothing like the rush of screenwriting and the highs of those several studio meetings in one day, but it's a fickle business. You've still got to wait for the phone to ring.
"You have to be a certain kind of person to juggle both," he adds. "You need to have a compartmentalized brain and love the taste of coffee, because you won't