Sick & Twisted

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My first job after graduation was at a radio station, but that was still in my little college town and I continued taking classes even though I’d already completed a degree program. I was also still living the college lifestyle, so that felt almost like an extension of my education.

When I got back to the big city (LA) I was lost and I was probably depressed. That’s why I went off to promote a stupid little traveling film festival for a few weeks. I actually wrote, “I don’t get too fucked up much anymore,” in the cover letter. The interview was in San Diego and they offered me the job right away.

The festival itself was actually a collection of independently produced animated shorts. My job was to go into record stores, book stores, coffee shops, cafes, and anywhere else friendly to weird independent art and leave a stack of fliers. They were not actually fliers, though, they were programs featuring the contents of our show. If possible, I’d see if I could put up a poster in the window. We’d also go to college campuses and hand our materials directly to people walking by.

It took me a while to realize what we were really doing there. Promoting the show, raising awareness about our presence in town, sure, but that’s too simplistic. A good street team saturates the market past the tipping point where anyone who might be interested in seeing what this is all about tells themselves to go check it out. That it feels like maybe the universe is insisting they attend the show. They do this by using personal contact as much as possible.

This is more costly but much easier to achieve in real life. Or it was, anyway. I’m not sure how often small outfits use this kind of promotion anymore. Like I said, it’s costly. I was paid a per diem plus transport and lodging on top of my hourly rate. These guys had the capital to make such investments.

At the time it seemed inefficient to me. Would we have been better off getting some air time on the radio? Was a television commercial spot even an option? This was the fall 2002, so online marketing was an infant. There was no social media to speak of. Our website was horrible.

What was the best way to attract 10k people to visit the cinema during our 2-3 week run there?

Handing out fliers didn’t do much for me, but one day while I was on the campus of a community college, I ran into a former classmate from high school. He was also handing out fliers, but the difference was he was in full Marine dress, and his fliers were for recruitment.

We got to talking in what I thought was a real moment. There had been no contact between us in at least five years. There was no Facebook or anything else to see what we’d been up to. I asked him what he thought about the possibility of George W. Bush taking us to war in Iraq. He basically just shrugged and said you have to do what the boss tells you to do. I didn’t realize that having served for the past four plus years, he’d probably moved up into a position that would not put him near combat right away, if ever, but I’m not really sure if that’s true. What I do know is that this kid acted really interested in the weird movies I was promoting and why I was promoting them.

I also mentioned to him that I was looking to get into writing. He told me that if I really wanted to write something meaningful, then I should join up. The stories were on the front lines. He was not wrong, but I was dismissive. Of course.

The thing is, if I didn’t join the military to fight for freedom (or revenge) after September 11, 2001, I wasn’t going to join in October of 2002 to overthrow Saddam Hussein as an excuse for hunting for Osama Bin Laden. But I often think that maybe I should have. If I had survived without getting my arms and legs blown off, or at least keeping my mind intact, I could have come out and gone to grad school for free. Then I’d have all sorts of job opportunities with military training and could possibly have transitioned into government and eventually consulting. Maybe then I could have had a stint as the White House Press Secretary or something. And become a news entertainment talking head.

Despite all that, the thing I really took away from this moment was the direct communication I shared with this fellow face to face. Because he did come to our show, along with a couple of his military buddies. They bought tickets. Whether this was in extended effort to get me on the hook is not relevant.

There was a breakthrough. At first, and for a while afterward, I was offended that this sincere moment had been a ruse, a shifty sales pitch. Now I know that’s just the law of the land. Exploitation. Are you raising money to make a film or are you raising money to make lunch? There’s really no difference going in.

The humanity of that moment remains, exactly because there was humanity in it, as sick and twisted as it was by reducing each other to marks. It does not exist in the emptiness of liking a post, or even RSVPing to an evite or on an event page. There is no weight in clicks.

Corollary:

This is probably true for most writers because, while people are obviously attracted to fame and success, the same principle works in reverse.

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