Where's the Beefsteak?

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Here's a trivia treat for bad-movie buffs: What's up with John DeBello, director of the 1978 candidate for Worst Film Ever Made, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? He's still at the same company in hometown San Diego, Four Square Productions, that he co-founded back in 1973 - not long after he and his filmmaking buddies won a Kodak prize for a student film made at the local campus of the University of California. But now he's also shooting titles like Dominate the Battlespace for the U.S. Navy, and Vision for a New Millennium for the CIA. This is not a joke, we wouldn't kid about a national security matter. Clearly, the man is very versatile. He also directed Black Dawn, starring Lorenzo Lamas, and he's had a thriving commercials business going for years. Indeed, DeBello, 48, has produced, written and directed more than 300 corporate communications and broadcast advertising projects for clients like Sony, Qualcomm, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, and Chrysler. "I've always focused on things that interest me, and a lot of things interest me," he shrugs.

Despite the movie's unforeseeable success - Killer Tomatoes has so far spawned three DeBello-directed sequels, an internationally syndicated CG cartoon, and a Mattel toy line - the Four Square president/creative director never expected to squeeze an entire career out of the phenomenon, "Anticipation"-style. On the other hand, "We're definitely aggressively pursuing exploiting the property," he says (a fifth Tomatoes movie is in the works). "For some reason, little kids continue to love it." Nor is he trying to live down his beginnings, although he readily admits that the film has "no socially redeeming value." Despite its grotesque amateurishness, it remains a great marketing tool. "The irony is that every organization we've ever worked with has gotten a kick out of the fact that we did Killer Tomatoes - because it shows we can think outside of the box." DeBello firmly believes that in order to be competitive, Four Square must remain diversified. "Part of that is being in San Diego, because it's not a major market," he explains. "If you're in L.A., New York, or Chicago, there's so much competition, to cut through the clutter you almost have to do just one thing."

Four Square offers a wide array of content development services, and many of its film productions are designed to bring the near future of technology to life for technically inept laypeople. Employing what it calls VeriVision, for instance, Four Square has created a series of videos for a company called WingCast that presents its artificially intelligent dashboard computer system for Ford cars to the media, auto dealers, and the marketplace. "I position myself as someone who can understand the basic concepts on one hand, and understand the basic needs of the consumer on the other," says DeBello.

Sports have always been a basic need at Four Square, and DeBello's television credits include writing and directing The Story Behind the Spectacle, an inside look at the 1984 Olympics in L.A. During the early Four Square years, the company thrived on sports marketing, and by the '80s, it was a major producer of recruiting and highlight films for college athletic programs. Nowadays DeBello gets his game on through one of his biggest clients, DirecTV Sports. Four Square turns out 40 to 50 spots a year for the digital satellite company, polishing concepts in conjunction with DirecTV's in-house creative team and its ad agency, Deutsch. A number of the ads, including a recent series of spots with Mark McGwire, feature sports celebs. Thankfully, DeBello realizes that we've all seen too many excruciating ads with spokes-athletes who'd be better off moonlighting as rocket scientists than thespians. "I'd much rather show off an athlete as a great athlete rather than an amateur actor," acknowledges DeBello, a man who knows a few things about bad acting. Among his sports hits, a Four Square broadcast production highlighting Cobra's King Cobra II irons for a PGA show in Orlando won praise from Sports Illustrated. That, along with TV spots starring Greg Norman and none other than professional cynic and rampant endorser Dennis Miller, who at the time was an unlikely sporting goods spokesman, helped set Cobra apart from the competition.

"Although it sounds completely different from Killer Tomatoes, there are some similarities," says DeBello of Four Square's commercials productions. "You're trying to create some kind of emotion and actually make a point." Of course, the whole point of the Killer Tomatoes flicks was to "make people laugh and have fun," he acknowledges. Not surprisingly, Four Square hasn't entirely ditched its droll days of yore. A TV commercial produced for San Diego's classic rock radio station, KPLN 103.7, known as The Planet, harkens back to the humor, this time centering on the door-to-door antics of rock 'n' roll worshipping missionaries as opposed to vengeful subjects of a government experiment gone awry. Mormon-like fanatics in white shirts and black ties ascend on an unsuspecting neighborhood to "spread the word," as the Doobie Brothers' "China Grove" blares. "Do you love the planet?" inquires one good shepherd of a dubious couple trapped in their living room. Another grooves zealously to Steppenwolf's overused "Born to Be Wild." Before working local residents into a rapturous frenzy on the front lawn, a Planet prophet preaches into the camera: "103.7 plays `Stairway to Heaven.' Think about it."

So DeBello and the Four Square staff of 35 still get a kick out of being comedically challenged. But why hasn't the company done more to promote this sillier side to the ad world, especially if his experience has been that clients aren't put off by his wretched cinematic past? "I think we're definitely going to raise the profile a little bit," DeBello asserts. "We should have done this years ago. I sorta kick myself for not being more aggressive."

Nevertheless, DeBello can take pride in the knowledge that his Tomatoes are even loved by eggheads. "I did an alternative energy project in Germany once," he proudly recalls. "I was at a scientific conference and a guy there, a major player at MIT - a professor! - heard I'd done Tomatoes, and he lit up and said, `That's my favorite movie of all time.' To this day, I think he was serious."

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