Islands of Adventure

11.11.2011

The date seems auspicious, of what I don’t know.  A set of three elevens.  It’s the end of a week I’ve spent in New York, connecting, and reconnecting, with family, friends, business colleagues—who are also friends.  My ecosystem.

I met up with my friend Paul Wolfe, arguably the most creative writer I’ve ever worked with.  To call Paul a copy-writer is far too limiting: he’s a brilliant, and funny, all-round creative genius.  Paul’s also a Cabalist, a player, a father, a charmer.  We were Partners together at MVBMS/EuroRSCG—and collaborators on the stupendous disaster of an over-ambitious, extravagantly produced, TV commercial for Universal Theme Park’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando.  Messner had launched the new park the year earlier with a series of multi-million dollar CGI commercials featuring Spider Man, dinosaurs, even Dr. Seuss.  In a last ditch attempt to retain the business, sparked by new Universal management, Paul and his art director partner John Tumulty—the wonderful, out-there John Tumulty—created a visual theme and TV concept based on Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video.  Therein began the problem.

I remember the day the agency presented four campaign concepts to the new team of Universal executives.  Paul and John’s presentation was last—and it was a performance.  John wore a blue mechanic’s jump suit with a banana in his breast pocket.  Paul always wore black—still does. First showing the “Ray of Light” video, they described how the high-speed time-lapse photography would be similarly used to film the park, incorporating stop-action and full screen titles to emphasize the drama and excitement of the rides and attractions.

Part of the equation of how successful this commercial would be involved hiring the same Swedish film director who shot and produced Madonna’s video: Jonas Ackerlund.  The “Ray of Light” music video had won the 1998 MTV Best Music Video of the Year and the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video.

Ackerlund had never produced a TV commercial before.  His most recent production was a blatantly violent and pornographic music video for The Prodigy’s  “Smack My Bitch Up.”  Universal was thrilled to hire him.

The disaster began with the shoot.  Literally miles of extra, above budget, film was needed to film the fast-action backgrounds.  Miles and miles.  Then, all the film had to be shipped to Stockholm to be edited at Ackerlund’s studio.  Paul went to supervise the editing.  All of the editing took place over the Christmas holiday.  We had Paul in Sweden, the clients in Orlando and Hollywood, John and I were in New York.  Universal used a creative consultant and he was at home in Santa Fe.

The first rough-cut was so astoundingly confusing Universal’s consultant wouldn’t let it be shown to the clients.  Ackerlund insisted on handling all aspects of the production, including the music, which was even more bizarre than the footage.  When the Universal clients finally saw the cuts, they were speechless.  Rough-cut after rough-cut was edited and sent to New York, where we would present it to the clients.  I remember Christmas Eve being on the phone simultaneously with Paul in Stockholm and the consultant in New Mexico, each hysterical over what was happening.  Paul couldn’t control Jonas, who ran a closed shop, never listening to any of the agency’s recommendations and eventual demands.  I was the go-between with the creative team, the consultant, and the clients.  No one was remotely happy.

Finally, all of the footage was shipped back to New York, at which point Ackerlund washed his hands of the project and was never heard from again.  The agency pieced together a final edit, which was true to the concept but hated by Universal.  To kill it once and for all, Universal threw it into an ARS television test to prove it was hopeless and could never air.  As a gift from Santa himself, the commercial scored higher than any other theme park ad in the history of ARS—higher than any from archrival Disney.  The clients again were speechless. The spot aired a few times and in a fit of pique Universal fired the agency a few months later.  I forgot to ask Paul whether he still has the original spot on his reel.

I don’t think even Universal Studios mounts these extravagant, and extravagantly expensive, TV commercial productions anymore.  Branding today is more about igniting conversations than about creating images.  Budgets are lower.  ROI must be determined before a campaign hits.  Still, for the practitioners, those earlier days were tremendously fun, creative and filled with drama–truly Islands of Adventure.

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