Moviemaking becomes commercial art

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Jordan Yospe has a job you couldn't make up. He is, according to a report in Monday's New York Times, a Los Angeles attorney who works with screenwriters and producers to place name-brand products in movies.

As the cost of filmmaking continues to rise, "product placement" has become a serious source of production funding. The more a product is shown or used in a movie, the Times reports, "the more a brand pays for the appearance, offering fees ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to several million a film."

But Yospe's niche -- "brand integration," as his law firm's Web site nicely terms it -- takes the concept further by starting the process earlier. Rather than have studio executives arbitrarily edit in a scene set, say, in an Exxon gas station as production is wrapping up, Yospe meets with filmmakers and writers while their pictures are still on the drawing boards to help the product placement become more integral to the narrative and thematic flow. And clinching deals for certain brands can affect the casting and other major aspects of a film.

The Times story begins with a script conference between Yospe and the writer of a thriller-to-be. Yospe suggests that at a certain point in the picture, the heroes might get hungry. "There's no fast-food scene at all," he points out, "but they have to eat."

Golden Arches, here we come.

Running a studio has always been about making money, of course, and moguls have ever been subject to the demands of the bottom line. In 1941, RKO studio chief George Schaefer was even offered a pot of money by other studio heads not to release "Citizen Kane"; they feared the wrath of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, whose life served as the basis for Orson Welles's masterpiece. (Schaefer, fortunately, declined the offer.) But suppose attorney Yospe had been around when Welles, producer John Houseman and co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz were working on the script.

Yospe: It's great, guys; it's terrific. But I have this suggestion, right here on the first page. Kane is holding this snow globe; he says "Rosebud" and croaks. I think we can get a bundle with just one little switch. Instead of "Rosebud," how about "Flexible Flyer"?

Had Yospean perspectives only been given their due in earlier times, the historic tension between art and commerce might have diminished. Imagine:

Isolde belting out "Liebestod" over Tristan's dead body and a tastefully arrayed casket from Munich's leading mortician.

The Seder table in "The Last Supper" festooned with flagons of Manischewitz red.

Or Denmark's most famous prince contemplating whether or not to be:

"Who would bear the whips and scorns of time," he asks,

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