The Los Angeles Times’ Trump Card

A role on The Apprentice!

TheLos Angeles Times has not only dumped the special Sunday section that was to be guest-edited by producer Brian Grazer but is now examining past opinion sections to see whether other assignments smelled of conflict.

For those who don’t follow media controversies, editorial page editor Andres Martinez resigned in a huff—on his blog, no less—last week after the Times killed the Currents opinion section that was assembled under Grazer’s auspices. The reason was not that it’s profoundly embarrassing for a major daily to turn over a section to a prominent figure in an industry that this paper is supposed to be covering in its own backyard. No, the reason is that Martinez has been playing slap-and-tickle with a publicist who works for Grazer.

Certainly Martinez was painfully clueless about the conflict issue in this case. But the relationship-with-a-publicist tree obscures the forest—that is, the embarrassing idea on which the whole exercise was based. The Times has reported that Publisher David Hiller canceled plans to invite future guest editors that included Hiller’s friend and associate, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as ex-Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Rumsfeld was a former director of the Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times.)

As if all this weren’t embarrassing enough, now we have an NBC press release announcing another prestigious association for the Times. We’ll pass along the first couple of paragraphs verbatim:

Candidates for NBC’s “The Apprentice: Los Angeles” try their hand at advertising this week by creating a newspaper supplement for The Los Angeles Times promoting a new brand of mouthwash on Sunday, April 1 (10-11 p.m. ET).

This week’s task is delivered at The Los Angeles Times’ printing facility, where Trump is joined by his daughter, Ivanka, and two executives from Smartmouth, a new brand of mouthwash. The candidates are asked to design, photograph and create a supplement for The Los Angeles Times advertising a new product that keeps breath fresh. While one team adopts a sexier approach for the supplement, the other trusts science. The losers face Trump in the boardroom, and the winners get a gourmet dinner they’ll never forget prepared by some very special surprise guests. 

It’s tempting to wonder if the gourmet dinner is goose cooked by the executives who thought this was a good idea.

The episode was shot over the summer (and approved by Hiller’s predecessor), so clearly it long predated the current brouhaha at the Times. But what possible benefit the Times could have hoped to reap lending its facilities and name to a faltering NBC-Universal show is not clear. A spokeswoman for the paper says she doesn’t see any issue because no money exchanged hands. “Given the fact that the show’s based in L.A., if they were going to think about reaching the L.A. audience, they had to come to the Times,” she says. “I actually think it’s kind of cool that it’s running this weekend. Life goes on.”

Maybe the paper will get to avail itself of Trump’s services. After all, somebody needs to say that signature line.

(Full disclosure: I have written for and discussed employment with the Los Angeles Times in the past.) (link)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Stick the landing: If you want to go out to the movies this weekend, but you’re feeling a little tapped out, you could be in luck. In an unusual deal, Universal is giving away $15 million worth of free tickets  for Peaceful Warrior, a film about a gymnast who finds salvation through a New Age-style coach named Socrates (in the form of Nick Nolte).

Peaceful Warrior is based on an autobiographical novel by Dan Millman—a hit with such seers as Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, and Sting. If reading about this movie gives you a sense of déjà vu, that might be because the film was released by Lionsgate last spring, though not on many screens. Peaceful Warrior has now become part of an experiment to see if a movie that presents a marketing challenge, to put it mildly, can benefit from a very cheap strategy that relies on word-of-mouth.

Peaceful Warrior was produced by a company called Sobini, which financed it at $14 million plus a bunch more in marketing costs—and it got absolutely clobbered last time out. The picture grossed barely $1 million, which may not be surprising given that it scored a dismal 21 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes critics’ meter, with the New York Times calling it “blatantly ludicrous.”

The mere fact that the picture went from its death spiral at Lionsgate to re-release at Universal is almost enough to make even hardened doubters believe in New Age healing. It happened because Sobini CEO Mark Amin and the company’s president, Cami Winikoff, worked with Universal’s marketing chief, Adam Fogelson, some years back. When Amin and Winikoff couldn’t figure out how to sell their movie, they turned to their old friend.

Fogelson says he’s long been interested in developing ways to release movies that might have potential (and we emphasize might) but don’t do well using traditional marketing techniques. Some movies can’t be summed up in 30-second spots or pitched on posters, and apparently Peaceful Warrior is one of them. So Fogelson came up with the idea of selling Peaceful Warrior by giving away lots of tickets. The hope is that people will see the movie this weekend and then talk it up. If the movie doesn’t catch on at the box office, the chance remains to make money on DVDs.

Sobini agreed to pick up the cost of those free tickets and to pay Universal a distribution fee, so Universal gets to try the experiment for free and maybe even make a buck. Universal recruited Best Buy to offer the free tickets through its Web site.

Since Sobini is picking up the tab once again, it would seem that this may be a case of throwing good money after bad. “We’re not lunatics,” Winikoff says. “You can either go home or risk a very little bit more [money] … When in Hollywood do movies get a second chance like this?”

There’s one more twist that may be worth mentioning: Peaceful Warrior was directed by convicted child molester Victor Salva, who had sex with a 12-year-old boy who performed in one of his earlier films. After confessing in 1988, Salva served 15 months in prison. Some years later, in 1995, the victim picketed theaters when he learned that Salva had directed the Disney movie (yes, Disney movie) Powder.

Winikoff says she and her partner knew nothing of Salva’s past when they approached him about directing Peaceful Warrior, but they did learn that Salva had discovered the book while in prison and credited it with changing his life. “I’m not going to lie to you and say it was an easy decision” to hire him, she says. But she adds that the book “is about redemption.” (Universal is aware of Salva’s past, and according to Winikoff, the same is true of Best Buy.)

Interesting to note that Peaceful Warrior is about a troubled young (male) gymnast and Powder was about another troubled (male) teenager. Of course, unlike certain other directors named Roman Polanski, who drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old before going on the lam, at least Salva did his time. (link)