Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Changing Titles ... The Uncool ...

Along time ago in a life now far, far away, I once worked for a large company that was in the business of conducting Market Research for the Film and Motion Picture Industry. How I came into such a job is a bit foggy, but it was both an interesting and strange occupation for sure. I thought it would never end when I was headlong in its employ, but looking back it felt like a moment that never really happened even though I have the scar to prove it.

It was the spring and summer of 1999 and I was living in a large one bedroom apartment on McCadden Street in Hollywood which overlooked the intersections of Sunset and Highland. Lounging in the front room all day and night you could lock yourself fully into listening to the continuous traffic, car crashes and people on the street five stories below and never get bored.

Part of my job with this marketing company was to analyze screener cards from the free viewings of the general public and minor press members who would attend out of interest in seeing either an almost complete film with their favorite star and starlet in, or a rough cut of something big before it hit theatres. Nowadays things are a lot more secretive and these free screeners of major blockbuster films are almost non-existent. Independent and minor titles though, probably still create the bulk of the workload for these folks now.

When the audience would attend a pre-release film, they would receive a screener card that was a quick questionnaire that had a variety of carefully worded and carefully chosen questions. For example:
  1. What did you think of the title of the film?
  2. What did you think about the name of the main character?
  3. What was your impression of the Period Costumes?
Some were direct, and some were not. The Producers and the Writers were often looking to gauge very specific things to test the quality of the storyline or find out how it might fare in opening weeks. These companies have often been derided in the industry for these practices as foolish, meddling, art-tampery and so on, but as an overall statement, they've probably done Hollywood more good than harm at the end of the day. My experience was a little different.

Often between 150-200 people on average would see these pre-release films and my job would entail counting up hash-marks made every time a box was filled, or something specific was written.

“Goddamn, this film sucks ass!”

The longer I worked there, the better my duties became and I went from hash-mark counting Grunt to an Organizer. This person would begin to consolidate these hash-marks into an overall report and total everything up into a two page document that looked an awful lot like an excel spread sheet. After too many months of that, I was then promoted to do what I've always thought I was born to do (write) and I was then put to the task of making a one page written statement that would resemble Don Draper-esque Ad Speak to satisfy the Studio Execs. I thought I had arrived and someone was finally giving me my shot. It was beautiful.

Except it wasn't, because the majority of the films were completely forgettable and worthless. Most of them I barely remember even today, but after all this time – one film stands out above all of them and it was this particular film that got me fired from this job. Yes, it goes all downhill from here.

Let me say that the culture of this company where I worked was a bit weird. The employees were pretty much split up into a few main groups. A lot of the people who did the grunt work counting hash-marks were folks that seemingly played in Rock Bands late at night, after hours, had really long hair, wore Megadeth t-shirts and always had a glazed over appearance. There were approximately thirty odd people in this pool, and it was really evident that the bulk of these people were just happy to have a sit down office job inside a big building with AC. These people were the burn-outs and people came and went rather quickly. The turnover was pretty bad.

There was another sub-set of this company, both Grunts, Organizers and the Writers who all had a very strange penchant for wearing pajamas to the office several days a week. Several of them wore pajamas to the office every damn day. I had quickly figured out that if you wanted to advance – you needed to fit in – and wear pajamas. It was a fad started by a couple of the older, crafty, college-educated girls that had banded together and began rising up the food chain quick. Others followed their lead creating an almost 'new generation' or hipster feeling in the office.

Let me say, as an Honorably Discharged Marine who saw battle in a foreign land, this idea was about the most bizarre and frightening thing I had ever faced. I knew if I wanted to advance, I would have to swallow this pill and get over it. When I explained what was going on to my then-first-wife, she was equally shocked and thought I was joking. It did sound like a really bad joke. However, she was always resourceful and very practical. She said this, and to this day I can still hear her voice in my head, saying these words forever:

“Well, Steffan, if you have to wear pajamas to work, So be it. But don't be a slouch. Go to Nordstrom's, buy five pair of dark blue, pinstripe, two-piece jammies and I'll make sure that they're dry-cleaned and pressed so you don't look like a complete fool.”

She also recommended buying me a pair of slippers with hard soles, which in 1999, weren't as ubiquitous and normal as they are today. This situation occurred about a year to nine months before the craze had actually swept across the nation and became something of a running joke until just after the turn of the century where it was clearly time to let it go.

And so, I did exactly as she suggested and I purchased five sets of pajamas from Nordstrom's at the Beverly Center and had them all dry-cleaned. If this was the culture, and it meant me getting more money per-hour, I was going to embrace it.

Then, a film entitled The Uncool written, produced and directed by Cameron Crowe came to us. The office was pretty excited landing the project and everyone went above and beyond trying to get as many people into the theatre seats as possible to capture a well-seasoned and hopefully accurate gauge on the film so that the Studio execs would be grateful and utilize us further down the line. It was at this time as well, that Market Research firms were getting bad press because of this intrusion, so the company rightly felt the threat to their livelihood.

When all the cards came in and all the hash-marks were counted by the Grunts, and the Organizers had done their job, they passed the football to me to write up a report. Then it happened.

I had been working there for over a year now, eight hours a day, sometimes even at the theatres helping to collect the screener cards and I had witnessed some of the Execs in action and I knew what would set them off. When I saw the remark listed on the Organized report. I about came … un-fucking-glued.

In almost 350 screener cards, two people had written the following statement:

“I don't understand what the title means.” and “I don't like the title.”

Having already seen the movie numerous times and having had fallen in love with it – as is, and completely understood the title, which was based upon a telephone speech in the middle of the second act of the film by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I cringed with fear that some dull spark would grab onto that and panic needlessly and then campaign to change the title based upon two people's lazy remarks on a screener card. Yes, I felt it was time to strangle someone.

So what did I do? Instead of doing the lazy ass thing and letting it sit and ignoring it, I grabbed my pencil and erased the two lines from the Organized Reports and then spent over an hour looking for the two screener cards that were buried somewhere deep within the pile. I found them, shit-canned them quickly and never looked back. This all went down on a late Friday afternoon and the office was about as dead as a doornail.

Monday came around and I had to go into a board room, in my pressed pajamas, with several other pajama clad individuals and read my results in a salesman-like tone to Cameron Crowe and about eight different Studio execs and Producers all attached to the picture.

I was asked several questions, as I was now the front man for the Grunts and Organizers on this project. One of them was this:

Faceless Exec: “What was said about the title of the film?”
Steffan: “Nothing was said about the title. Everyone remarked positively in regards to Philip Seymour Hoffman's speech.”
Faceless Exec: “Wait. No one said anything about the title? How many people were screened?”
Steffan: “Approximately 350 screeners were collected.”

And then the bomb went off.

Faceless Exec: “Wait, I remember seeing one screener card I collected on the night at the theatre and I saw the remark myself that the person didn't understand the title or something like that.”
Steffan: “No, we didn't have any cards like that at all. They're all here for you to look through.”
Cameron Crowe: [paraphrased obviously] “Why are we focusing on the title over one remark. It's my title and I think it's the best title for the project, and even though complaints have been voiced by a few in production, I see no reason to change it.”
Faceless Exec: “But I remember the screener card. So we need to find it and it better be in the stack. I'm not mistaken. I even circled the remark with a red pen.
Market Research Boss: “Steffan, can you please wait outside.”

That Faceless-Exec had actually circled the remark in red pen. I was caught, and it was now only a matter of time before I had to come clean and eat crow. The meeting broke, but the first order of business after lunch, we reconvened into the office and I was questioned about it.

I didn't lie. It was time to 'man up' and exhibit some self-worth.

Steffan: “I tore them both up and threw away the screeners card Friday. Those two comments were made, but they were stupid and not reflective of any of the data collected. I knew it would cause a problem.”
Faceless Exec: “I knew it. I knew he was lying.” [this guy had a really annoying voice]
Steffan: “And let me tell you something, I would do it again, you Jackass!” [at annoying guy] “Why the hell would you tamper with such a perfect title of a film unless you were that stupid as well? Obviously, you don't understand your own title!”

It got heated quick. I wasn't the only one yelling. The room was a complete mess.

Market Research Boss: [defeated tone] “Steffan, you're fired. Please take your things and go.”
Faceless Exec: “Go back to bed, loser!”
Steffan: “Bite me, you fucking crack-baby!”

And that was that. I was fired from my pajama wearing Market Research job to defend a Cameron Crowe film title and guilty for destroying studio and company property. I got a letter about it almost a week later to the day and showed it to my then-wife. She just laughed.

“Steffan, sweetie, seriously. Don't even waste a moment thinking about it for a second. You were wearing your pajamas to work. Get it?”

Later, when I saw the film poster show up sometime later on the marquee at the Mann Chinese on Hollywood, I was agitated and just shook my head. I did my best to fight for Crowe's original title and I threw myself on the tracks. I had little to do with the change and the outcome, but I was just a witness to break-down of it.

In the end, and after all these years, I still think that The Uncool is far better than Almost Famous. They scrambled for that title and took it from the marquee of their tour bus that was shown in a single shot. The substituted title was never as good as the original. The Uncool was honest and unmerciful, to quote the film.

I'm dredging this story up a whole thirteen years later a simple reason. I'm in the middle of an equal dilemma with my current book Shitbird, or Fugue State … or …

As you can see we haven't quite landed on a title. Shitbird causes obvious distribution problems. Fugue State causes confusion if you've never studied psychology or music. For the people that have read the book, they all reported that Shitbird is the greatest and most appropriate title, but I'm not on a suicide mission, so the search goes on. I was reminded of this strange piece of my history after a phone call the other day and felt obligated to write it down before it slipped back away into the file-cabinets of things forgotten.

We'll all be around for the update later down the line.

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.”  -- Lester Bangs.


  1. You're right, that title would have been so much better.

  2. It's all a wash now ... 13 years later ... friendship is still the booze they feed ya.