Tricks to battle reader attrition
What makes me a neurotic writer is the fear that you, the reader, will begin to read one of my stories and then abandon me before you finish–maybe the phone rings, or your kid wakes up from a nap, or, heaven help me, you become bored with my story and find something on the same page of the newspaper that draws your attention. I cannot allow this. It will kill me if you go.
I never write a story–or, more importantly, never self-edit my copy–without trying to make it a stone certainty that the reader will be in a continual state of seduction, perpetually attracted to the style and content. The quality I use to describe this to myself [everybody has their own lingo, so take this with a grain of salt) is “density” — a way of reminding myself to give the reader as rich a mixture of material as possible. It forces me to go through my notebook more, to throw away weaker paragraphs, to keep the pace vibrant and the paragraphs loaded with specifics.
Here are some techniques — some examples of how I tried to keep readers in the tent once I got them in the door. As in any case, the style depended on the type of story–how much context the reader had. You’ll also notice I rarely let anybody speak but me–no quotes!–until i am confident the story is set up and running at high-octane level. What follows ran in the L.A. Times feature section between Nov. 23 and April 4. Some of my logic my not apply directly to off-the-news features, but the broader point I want to get across is: Have a plan. Be scared by the concept of reader attrition. Command the stage.
1. The challenge: Profiling a magazine’s struggle for “younger” readers.
If you were over 50, you had some direct or indirect context as you began reading this story. If you were younger, you probably knew nothing and were happy for it–this was a story that forced you to face your own mortality, a yucky proposition.
So I’m thinking: What do I have to do different? I thought I would use the first stanza of a song a friend of mine had coincidentally mailed me a few months before. Even though the song didn’t relate specifically to the piece, it set the tone, let you know this was unusual, made you laugh, bought me a little more time:
I dunno why you love me baby, I dunno why you care
I’m losin’ my memory, I’m losin’ my hair
I lost my car keys around here somewhere
I’m part of the furniture, I’m stuck to that chair …
— “Sox ‘n’ Sandals,” recorded at age 50 by Graham Parker
NOW COMES THE STORY. I WANTED TO HIT YOU WITH A BUNCH OF SHORT, PUNCHY EXAMPLES OF THE UNORTHODOXY TAKING PLACE.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The editor in chief of AARP’s magazine now bans the use of “senior citizen” because he considers it a “dead” term. One recent issue’s cover proclaimed that “Sixty is the new thirty.” Another trumpeted a survey of middle-aged singles that found a third of the women who dated preferred younger men. The March/April cover teases with a promo crying: “Help! My Husband Loves Porn.”
THE SECOND GRAF IS A MINI-NUT GRAF–IT TELLS YOU, GENERALLY, WHAT YOU’VE JUST READ, BUT IT DOESN’T STOP VERY LONG BECAUSE I WANT TO CAPTURE YOUR IMAGINATION WITH MORE EXAMPLES…THEN, I BELIEVE, YOU WILL FOLLOW ME ANYWHERE.
These are scenes from a high-stakes demographic drama in which the preeminent magazine for seniors puts on a younger face to seduce the aging baby-boom generation — people ages 40 through 58, some of whom cringe at the thought of ever joining AARP, its wide-ranging discounts be damned.
THE THIRD GRAF EXPANDS ON THE SECOND WITH THE SAME TECHNIQUE AS THE FIRST GRAF-THREE SPECIFIC DETAILS, SO THAT THE READER UNDERSTANDS THE MARKETING STRATEGY THAT SHAPED THE WACKINESS HE READ IN THE FIRST GRAF
In this marketing battle, o-l-d has been replaced by s-e-x. Traditional notions of accommodating physical frailty have been replaced by tales of relentless vigor. And three editions — one for members in their 50s, another for those in their 60s and one for people 70 and older — are published to navigate generational chasms.
THE FOURTH GRAF INTRODUCES THE CONFLICT INHERENT IN THIS PUBLISHING STRATEGY.
If you’re a 50-ish AARP member, you might find this surprisingly seductive, particularly because the magazine is usually well written and knowingly sprinkled with pop-culture asides. (Like: “Seinfeld is 50. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”) If you’re 60 or older, like 70% of AARP’s 35 million members, you might be feeling a bit left out, shoved aside by the kids.
FIFTH GRAF: LET ‘EM KNOW ITS PART OF AN ONGOING EFFORT. THEN USE SIXTH GRAF TO MORE DEEPLY EXPLAIN THE MOST RECENT CHANGES. THERE ARE NINE SPECIFIC EXAMPLES IN THE SIXTH GRAF-ENOUGH TO EITHER CLOSE THE DEAL AND KEEP YOU READING OR SEND YOU AWAY IN HORROR.
This is the fifth year of AARP’s trial-and-error campaign to remake its bimonthly membership magazine into a hip lifestyle journal. The organization, which 20 years ago lowered the membership age from 55 to 50, stopped calling itself the American Assn. of Retired Persons in 1999 in favor of initials , because the “R word” scared many boomers.
Last year, borrowing a page from ESPN The Magazine, it changed the magazine’s name from Modern Maturity to AARP The Magazine. It recruited its top two editors from the quirky intellectual journal Utne Reader and the sexed-up physical-culture magazine Men’s Health. It religiously puts a celebrity on every cover. (The current issue features 57-year-old new grandfather Billy Crystal. Coming next: Cybill Shepherd, 54, and Kevin Spacey, 44.) Recently, the magazine hired a veteran L.A. entertainment writer as its “celebrity wrangler,” in part to convince female actresses that posing for AARP is not career suicide. The magazine long known for five hints for a cleaner house now runs a story on the virtues of tardiness. It celebrates curmudgeons. It publishes a guide to “Viagra etiquette” (Guys, tell her you use it but don’t swallow the pill in front of her).
THE SEVENTH THRU NINTH GRAF SERVES AS A “NUT” SEGMENT, EXPLAINING THE TRANSCENDENCE OF AARP’S EXPERIENCE, AND THE STAKES FOR THE ORGANIZATION.
To watch the magazine’s editors at work is to witness the wrestling match that virtually every institution is going through–trying to cater to aging boomers without alienating the rest of its customers.
AARP is huge: So huge that it shrugged off about 60,000 membership cancellations late last year by members angered by AARP’s support of a Medicare bill that added prescription drug benefits but will partly privatize the system. So huge that its magazine’s circulation of 22 million is the biggest in the nation, more than Reader’s Digest and TV Guide combined. So huge that it takes six weeks to mail out an issue of the magazine. So huge that a full-page ad in the magazine costs $385,000.
Yet to stay huge, AARP needs to attract younger members at a rate as fast or faster than the older members are dying off. The first wave of America’s 78 million boomers began joining AARP when they turned 50 in 1996, but they have tended not to renew their $12.50 annual membership as frequently as older members. Some (like the writer of this article) were too vain to join at all , throwing each membership solicitation in the trash.
ONLY NOW DID I FEEL LIKE I’D GIVEN THE READER ENOUGH OF A TOUR AROUND THE MAIN POINTS OF THE STORY TO BEGIN INTRODUCING THE CHARACTERS AND THE WAY THEY MADE THEIR EDITORIAL CHOICES. (THEY WERE KIND ENOUGH TO LET ME HANG OUT AND OBSERVE FOR A FEW DAYS.)
The point man charged with overcoming this visceral response is Steve….
WANT TO KEEP READING? YOUR ANSWER IS YOUR VERDICT.
2. Chronicling the plight of the famous–well, famous to some.
THIS IS THE TOP OF A STORY ABOUT HOWARD STERN’S VERBAL WAR ON GEORGE BUSH, WHICH WAS INTERESTING IF YOU LIKED HOWARD STERN AND PROBLEMATIC IF YOU DIDN’T. I WAS WORRIED ABOUT THE PROBLEMATIC READERS, THE NON-STERN LISTENERS. SO I TRIED FOR A FIRST GRAF THAT USED EXAMPLES FROM OUTSIDE THE STERN SHOW.
For four weeks Howard Stern has been sounding like Lenny Bruce crossed with James Carville.
THEN I TRIED TO DRAW THE KEY CONTRAST-POTTY MOUTH GETS POLITICAL.
The sexually obsessed talk-show host, who reaches between 8 million and 9 million people a week, has been regularly interrupting the off-color juvenility of his show to rail against President Bush and urge listeners to vote for — and send money to — rival candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Stern, who supported Bush effusively for his response to Sept. 11, including the invasion of Iraq, now dismisses the president as a tool of the religious right.
I TRIED TO ADVANCE THAT SAME POINT IN THE SECOND GRAF WITH MORE DETAIL ABOUT THE JUVENILITY AND THE POLITICAL RANTS.
Sterns’ fans have listened to his marriage crumble. They’ve listened to his tales about visiting a psychiatrist. They’ve listened to him fall in love again. They’ve listened to him savor last night’s lap dances and paddle the naked bottoms of beautiful women to the beat of rock songs. And now they’re listening to him mock Bush as a draft dodger and a president of low intelligence. These daily diatribes fly seamlessly in and out of wacky, tasteless contests or interviews. Friday, Stern put as much energy into condemning Vice President Dick Cheney’s congressional voting record and youthful drunk-driving arrests as he did into belittling Courtney Love’s bizarre on-stage disrobing.
THIRD GRAF EXPANDS ON THE END OF THE SECOND SO THAT WE CAN APPRECIATE HOW PERSONAL THE ATTACKS ARE.
Bush, a onetime problem drinker who gave up alcohol, and Cheney are “out-of-control men who need Jesus to keep them in line,” Stern said pugnaciously. “You know what, man? The Republicans are owned by the right. It’s time to reject them summarily. Let’s start with Bush. We’re taking the biggest guy out first. Him and Cheney.”
FOURTH GRAF IS ANOTHER CONTRAST–SHOWING HOW THE POLITICAL RANTS ARE MORE FOCUSED THAN HIS USUAL TANTRUMS.
Stern has always been an angry man on the air, but his war — despite frequent Federal Communications Commission sanctions — was often an unfocused rant against hypocrisy. Ever since Clear Channel, which ran his show on six of its stations, canceled Stern on Feb. 23, contending he did not meet corporate standards, he has channeled his anger into hardball politics. His show is still heard on three dozen stations, including KLSX-FM (97.1) in L.A. Stern says he had begun blasting Bush days before and that Clear Channel was acting in the name of pro-Republican politics, not decency. (Clear Channel says Stern allowed a guest to utter a racial slur and will resume broadcasting his show when “we are assured that his show will conform to acceptable standards of responsible broadcasting.”)
FIFTH GRAF MAY HAVE BEEN INSIDE BASEBALL–IF I WEREN’T A SHOW LISTENER I DON’T THINK I WOULD HAVE FOUND THIS INFO OR USED IT, IF I HAD FOUND IT. BUT I LIKED THE WAY IT SET THE TONE FOR THE QUOTE THAT ENDED THE FIFTH GRAF
Stern also has long reveled in his ability to move his listeners. He endorsed two Republican gubernatorial candidates (Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey, who reciprocated by naming a highway rest stop after him, and George Pataki in New York) and two presidential candidates (Democrats Bill Clinton, twice, and Al Gore.) He once gave some on-air thought to running for governor of New York as a Libertarian. On Friday morning he boasted: “My fans are energizing, 18-to-25[-year-old] white males who sometimes vote, sometimes don’t. They just need a cause and their cause is me…. They’re the only people that you can swing…. We, the Million Moron March, we will vote against Bush.”
THE NEXT GRAF IS MY FAVORITE BECAUSE I HAD READ SOME CLIPS THAT SPECULATED ON THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS, AND I THOUGHT THEY WERE SILLY BECAUSE THEY DEALT WITH THE GROSS VOTE TOTAL, NOT THE STATE-BY-STATE IMPLICATIONS. IT WAS EASY TO COMPARE THE LOCATION OF STERN’S STATIONS WITH THE KEY STATES, ENABLING ME TO SAY:
Just how much difference Stern can make is questionable. Of 10 states with close races between Bush and Al Gore in 2000, Stern is not on the air in five: Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and New Mexico. He has a strong presence in only two of the 10 states, Ohio and Nevada; in one of the most crucial states — Florida — he is now heard only in Fort Meyers. Clear Channel removed him from its Miami and Orlando stations, which means that angry Stern fans may rise politically in those cities or — no longer able to hear the show and his call to arms — make little difference.
NOW WE MOVED TO HIS THREAT TO QUIT RADIO
Stern has vowed to quit radio if a bill to raise FCC fines for indecency is approved. (The House earlier this month passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act; a similar bill is moving through the Senate.) Skeptics note that Stern has made the same kind of threat dozens of times in past, often in response to the way his flagship station, WXRK-FM in New York, bleeps out extreme sexual content.
“My head wants to explode with everything I’m angry about,” Stern said about an hour into Friday’s 6-to-11 a.m. broadcast. “Then I get nervous I’m talking too much politics. I know what you guys want….”
JUST TO SHOW WHERE HIS LOYALTIES WERE…
And with that he introduced a snippet of sound by a champion gas-emitter, set to a sports anthem.
…AND THEN BACK TO BUSINESS.
Then it was back to politics.
3. A conflict that almost nobody ever heard about.
That’s how I approached a feature about a TV movie sympathetic to its star–a convicted killer on Death Row.
FROM COVERING STREET GANGS IN THE ’80S I KNEW A LOT ABOUT THE BACKGROUND, BUT I HAD TO FORGET THAT. SO I USED THE SIMPLEST LANGUAGE I COULD THINK OF FOR THE FIRST GRAF:
Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a legend in street-gang and law-enforcement circles for three decades, is about to join the long parade of little-known souls turned into TV-movie celebrities.
I SAVED THE REFERENCE TO CONTROVERSY FOR THE SECOND GRAF BECAUSE I WANTED TO VERY DELIBERATELY SET THE PARAMETERS OF THE WILLIAMS CONTROVERSY–“BAD GUY WRITES GOOD BOOKS.” I DIDN’T WANT THE READER TO GET LOST. I KNEW THIS WAS ALL NEW TO HIM
This figures to cause plenty of consternation in family rooms across America, because Williams is the co-founder of the Crips gang and a death row inmate convicted of four Southern California murders. He has attempted to redeem himself by renouncing his gang days and writing a series of children’s books on how to avoid the undertow of gang life.
NOW WE COULD ADDRESS THE MORALITY:
Such competing evils and virtues provoke questions of biblical intensity: Can a sinner ever truly atone for his sins? Should society applaud what Williams’ supporters call his “second life”? Or, in the service of an eye for an eye, should we still put him to death?
FROM THERE THE STORY INTRODUCES THE “WHO” — WHO MADE THE TV MOVIE, WHO STARS IN IT. IT WAS VERY IMPORTANT TO ME TO MAKE IT CLEAR THAT THIS WAS NOT AN OBJECTIVE TREATMENT, BUT RATHER A FILM SYMPATHETIC TO THE CONVICT. WE OWED OUR READERS THAT; WE DIDN’T WANT THEM TO TUNE IN EXPECTING A BALANCED PRESENTATION.
These qualities convinced the FX basic-cable network — hungry for original programming to refute its early reputation as a home for prime-time reruns — to make the openly sympathetic Williams biopic “Redemption.” The movie, in which Jamie Foxx reverently portrays a soft-voiced, philosophical Williams, premieres next week at the Sundance Film Festival, a badge of honor for a made-for-TV project. It begins running on FX, which reaches 80 million households, in early April.
I WANTED TO STRESS THE URGENCY OF THE MOVIE-THE FACT THAT WILLIAMS’ FATE WAS STILL HANGING IN THE BALANCE.
The few TV movies that venture into social quagmires like abortion, AIDS or war usually get there long after the mud has dried. “Redemption” is set on a still-shifting landscape: Williams, 50, confined to San Quentin State Prison since his 1981 conviction, is nearing the end of his appeals and could be executed within the next year or two if the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear his argument that he was framed. A federal appeals court ruled against Williams in late 2002. But the court — citing his books and passionate renunciation of gang violence — took the highly unusual step of recommending California reduce his sentence to life in prison.
HAVING RAISED THAT POSSIBILITY, I HAD TO ADDRESS IT, ALTHOUGH IN READING THE NEXT GRAF TODAY I FIND IT AWKWARDLY WRITTEN:
It’s doubtful that will happen. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in contrast to the rigid stance of previous Gov. Gray Davis, approved the parole of two convicted murderers during his first week in office. But granting Williams clemency would carry a higher price in California, where polls show the vast majority support the death penalty.
I HAD GONE TO TORONTO TO WATCH THE FILMING AND DO INTERVIEWS, AND I FELT THAT THE CAST’S EMOTIONS WERE CRUCIAL TO TELLING THE TALE. THAT BECOMES THE FIRST EXTENDED SEGMENT OF THE STORY:
Armed with this sense of urgency, the actors and crew who shot “Redemption” last August in an abandoned Toronto warehouse-turned-prison-set brought a noticeable solemnity to their work. One minute Foxx would be drawing a crowd with a hysterical verbal assault on his manager for questioning the nobility of the Dallas Cowboys. Then it would be time to go back into prison mode, and suddenly Foxx’s countenance — hardening of eyes, slower, more dignified pace of walk — would shift. Some days that expression never changed.
“It weighs on you,” said Foxx, who had four lengthy visits with Williams in San Quentin and has corresponded since shooting ended. “When I left him the first time, he said, ‘You gonna come back, man?’ I say, ‘Yeah,’ and he says, ‘Man, you ain’t gonna come back to see me, man. You just gonna do your Hollywood thing.’ It kind of forces the ball in your court.” Foxx and most of the principals are, like Williams, African American. Most had known little of the gangster, but all were aware of his gang’s legacy and his legal limbo. In interviews they focused on their admiration for Williams’ conversion and tried to avoid thinking about the day he might be strapped down and given a lethal injection.
“No one wants to die,” said director Vondie Curtis-Hall (“Glitter”), who also met with Williams in prison. “But if it comes to that I think he has released the outcome. He knows that his work will speak for itself.” (Williams, unhappy with a previous Times article, declined to be interviewed.)
“I feel very responsible for the story,” said Lynn Whitfield, who plays Williams’ editor, spokeswoman and confidante, Barbara Becnel. “It’s important to have a contemporary version of ‘Scared Straight.’ … The bottom line is, how did a man who is this poetic, this bright, this focused, how did he fall through the cracks of a community?”
BECNEL’S QUOTE HELPED TRANSITION TO A THREE-GRAF SEGMENT ON THE TRUE BELIEVERS ON BOTH SIDES OF THIS TALE. BECHNEL TOLD ME ABOUT MISS ILINOIS. I WENT BACK TO THE GANG INVESTIGATOR BECAUSE HE USED TO BE A GOOD SOURCE.
Williams’ life seems suited to the screen because so much about him is larger than life: The tree-trunk biceps he once chiseled on his 5-foot-10, 300-pound frame through weightlifting. His dominance of death row Crips during his first decade in confinement. His ability to write eight well-received children’s books during his second decade there. His talent for attracting earnest sympathizers, who have nominated him for the Nobel Prize in both peace and literature.
The arguments “Redemption” ignites are also likely to be oversized. There is no middle ground here. You may believe the movie’s portrait of Williams’ sincerity, as does Miss Illinois 2003, Andrea Fritz, a white suburban woman who reads from Williams’ stark “Life in Prison” to junior high school students as a cautionary tale. “What he’s doing from prison is more powerful than what most people are doing in freedom,” Fritz says.
Or you may believe, like veteran L.A. street gang investigator Wes McBride, that the books and the gang-renunciation campaign are the work of a cynical con. “He doesn’t want to get executed,” says McBride, who left the county Sheriff Department’s gang unit two years ago and remains president of the California Gang Investigators Assn. “Even if he has [reformed], he still killed four people. The fact that he’s sorry now is a little late.”
FROM THERE, IT WAS A NARRATIVE RIDE — THE HISTORY OF WILLIAMS, THE CRIPS, THE MURDER THAT PUT HIM IN PRISON, HIS MEETING BECNEL….BUT BECAUSE I WAS CONCERNED ABOUT THE AUDIENCE’S LACK OF CONTEXT, I INVESTED A LOT OF WORDS–900, WITH 2,000 MORE TO COME–SETTING THE STAGE. WAS IT WORTH IT? WOULD YOU KEEP READING?
4. When you have a universal connection, exploit it.
Here’s a marketing/pop culture story that was easy because it was about remaking a face most people could imagine as they read.
I TOOK ADVANTAGE OF THE FAMILIARITY TO WRITE IN A CONVERSATIONAL TONE
A lady spends 10, 20, 30 years with a man, she’s bound to get tired of him. The bushy haircut she loved to tousle now looks like a John Denver parody. The mustache that was sexy starts to remind her of an undercover cop. The ruggedness that promised protection becomes too forced, too much like Arnold. She wants a man who’s as comfortable in the kitchen as he is in the garage, a guy who’s — here it comes — sensitive.
THE SECOND GRAF WAS THE PLACE WHERE THE STORY EXPLAINED ITSELF.
Which is why there’s a new face on Brawny paper towels.
I TRULY BELIEVED THAT THERE WOULD BE ENOUGH INTEREST TO JUST PLAY IT STRAIGHT IN THE SECOND GRAF…
For the past two years, the folks at Georgia-Pacific Corp. have researched, focus-group-tested and debated the first significant change of the lumberjack look-alike in his 29 years.
…BECAUSE I HAD A GREAT QUOTE FOR THE THIRD GRAF THAT WOULD HOLD EVERYBODY’S ATTENTION-THE COMPANY’S OWN ADMISSION OF THE OUT-OF-TOUCH ICON:
Old Brawny Man was so out of date that some execs at Georgia-Pacific, which acquired the line in 2000, referred to him as “the ’70s porn guy.” He became “a man female shoppers wanted to break up with,” said Gino Biondi, director of Georgia-Pacific’s paper towel brands. “They want a guy they can fantasize about.”
THAT QUOTE TRANSITIONED EASILY TO A FOURTH GRAF ADDRESSING THE COMPANY’S ECONOMIC NECESSITIES.
Georgia-Pacific wants a guy who can boost slipping sales. Brawny’s share of the $3-billion paper towel business has fallen from 14% to 11% since the ’80s, a distant second to Procter & Gamble Co.’s Bounty. Georgia-Pacific has invested $500 million in a pair of plants to make Brawny stronger, softer and more absorbent and rolled out the new face with the new towel two months ago.
FIFTH GRAF: NUTS-AND-BOLTS DETAILS ABOUT THE PACE OF THE REPLACEMENT IMAGE
Packages of Brawny paper towels with the old icon — blond hair, mustache — have been disappearing from supermarket shelves since November. In their place are rolls featuring the New Brawny Man: younger, clean-shaven, dark-haired, ethnically ambiguous, wearing red flannel over a white T-shirt (instead of Old Brawny Man’s blue denim), drawn with a far more visible, powerful torso.
AND NOW THE FUN, SOCIOLOGICAL STUFF ABOUT OTHER COMPANIES THAT WENT THROUGH THE SAME STRUGGLE.
Companies massage their icons all the time, but usually in subtle ways so as not to jar the consumer’s identification. (Examples: Mister Clean’s new cropped haircut in 1999 and Betty Crocker’s eight minor makeovers in half a century.) A few years ago an ad agency radically put Mr. Peanut in surfer shorts, only to encounter such resistance that it quickly gave him back his supper-club attire. Sometimes social forces demand change, as in 1968 when Aunt Jemima was allowed to give up her head rag for a headband. (She also apparently went on a diet.)
Georgia-Pacific officials said they were forced into a wholesale makeover because Brawny’s previous owner, Fort James Corp., had done little periodic updating. An artist had been hired to update the packaging in the early ’80s, using his son’s facial features, but the grooming still screamed “Village People.” There was no easy way to make Old Brawny Man contemporary; it would be akin to “making the Pillsbury Dough Boy thinner,” said Dave Koranda, a marketing instructor at University of Oregon.
NOW WE COULD GET MORE DETAILED ABOUT HOW THEY DESIGNED THE NEW BRAWNY MAN. I FELT SURE THE READERS WERE COMING ALONG FOR THE RIDE NOW.
How to make an illustrated man project a particular ratio of tough to tender compelled Georgia-Pacific to employ “branding” experts, advertising agency staffers and demographics-loving wonks, the kind of people who will tell you with the crisp efficiency of White House pollsters that two-thirds of women 25-54 imagine New Brawny Man is both stronger and more “well-rounded” than Old Brawny Man. Peter Sealy, a former Coca-Cola executive who teaches marketing at UC Berkeley, said Brawny’s campaign reflected how “icons have….
5. Sex is the easiest thing to get people to read about, but history complicates things.
This was supposed to be a feature about two documentary filmmakers who were making a documentary about a well-known porn film–well-known if you’re over 40. The subject they were exploring as “Deep Throat.” A couple organizing principals made themselves clear: One, time had weakened people’s memories about the legacy of the movie, and, two, the producer, Brian Grazer, had to be given his due. He was the driving force. He is also a fascinating guy. So for my introduction I thought if I could communicate Grazer’s fascination–and how this project differs from most of his others–I could give the story broader appeal, at least get you in the door. Here goes:
HERE IS THE FIRST GRAF:
His hands flying above his spiked hair, Brian Grazer is flinging metaphors, connecting dots across three decades, trying to explain why for years he’s been obsessed with the cultural significance of the 1972 porn classic “Deep Throat.”
SECOND GRAF EXPLAINS BOTH THE CONTRAST AND THE RUDIMENTS OF DEEP THROAT. IT ALSO ATTEMPTS TO ACKNOWLEDGE A WHO-CARES RESPONSE FROM SOME IN THE AUDIENCE IN THE LAST SENTENCE OF THE SECOND GRAF WITH THREE EXAMPLES.
On first reckoning this is hard to fathom: One of the most profitable movie producers in history (“8 Mile,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13,” “Splash”) is talking your ear off about a crude, 62-minute, unfunny sex farce that starred a mousy young actress named Linda Lovelace whose sole talent was one endlessly repeated sexual gimmick. How quaint in today’s sex-soaked culture, when a porn star is the central attraction of a new teen comedy (20th Century Fox’s “The Girl Next Door”), when a three-story billboard of porn queen Jenna Jameson looks down upon family-friendlier Times Square, when ads for Viagra appear superimposed on the backstop during World Series games.
SO NOW IT’S TIME FOR A BUT-THIS-IS-REALLY-INTERESTING MOMENT, TO SNAG THE DOUBTERS. I LOVED THE STORY GRAZER TOLD ME ABOUT HIS GRANDMOTHER:
But then Grazer, 52, tells you the story about his grandmother and the night in 1973 she came into her 21-year-old grandson’s room.
“This little 4-foot-10 Jewish grandmother, she lived with her husband, Sy,” he says. “Sy and Sonia Schwartz. She comes in, closes my door and says to me, ‘Sy and I saw it.’ I go, ‘Saw what?’ ‘We saw it, we went.’ ‘You went to what?’ ‘Deep Throat.’ ‘You gotta be kidding.’ ‘No, we stood in line,’ she said. ‘We went.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Hollywood.’ ‘Well, what’d you think?’ And she said, ‘It was quite a film.’ I said, ‘Why did you go see it?’ ‘Well, everyone was talking about it …’ “My grandmother,” Grazer says, delighted both by the absurdity and the point it helps him make, “turned me on to ‘Deep Throat.’ ”
SO NOW I’M CONVINCED I’VE GOT YOU–OR THAT IF I DON’T HAVE YOU NOW, I’LL NEVER GET YOU. SO I WROTE A TRANSITION TO GET THE STORY OVER TO THE DOCUMENTARY AND THE DOCUMENTARIANS. IT WAS FUNCTIONAL, NOT ARTFUL, BUT IT ALSO GAVE ME A WAY TO GIVE READERS A PRIMER ABOUT THE REMARKABLE RUN “DEEP THROAT” HAD WAY BACK WHEN:
Grazer may wind up telling that story on camera because the two documentarians he hired to research and direct “Inside Deep Throat,” Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, consider it a charming example of how the film created a furious sexual curiosity in America. “Deep Throat,” made for $22,000 and financed by two men regarded in law enforcement circles as organized-crime figures, was the highest-grossing picture in Los Angeles during the 1972-73 season. The next year it finished sixth. It played here for more than 10 straight years and is believed to have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. HBO liked Grazer’s search for deeper meaning enough to split the $2-million cost with him and give the documentary a theatrical release before its pay-cable debut next year.
THEN A GRAF THAT FLESHED OUT A QUESTION THAT INTRIGUED ME–IS THERE REALLY ANY HISTORICAL LINK BETWEEN “DEEP THROAT” AND PORN OF TODAY?
That one of the kings of mainstream moviemaking is betting he can make you contemplate an oral-sex film speaks volumes about the way pornography has insinuated itself into pop culture. Porn has gradually morphed from taboo to a ubiquitousness that can make the girls of the Vivid Video porn empire seem hardly more threatening than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders used to be.
There are two ways to think about “Deep Throat’s” role in this.
One is to dismiss the film as an aberration, a death rattle of the libertine ’60s. It was the first porn film to draw mass audiences, including many married couples, titillated by the kooky theme, the obscenity prosecutions that nagged the film in city after city, and the film’s relentless celebration of an act unmentionable in polite company. By 1976, Sony introduced the VCR, making private porn convenient and soon destroying more mass communal experiences in adult theaters. Within another decade the AIDS epidemic made the casual-sex ethos of “Deep Throat” a distant memory. Today many Americans get their porn on a computer, spending $1 billion a year on 100,000 sites.
The other way to look at the legacy of the film — the way Grazer, Bailey and Barbato look at it — is to marvel at the way it shattered sexual mores and to ruminate about the connection between that revolution and today’s porn chic. When you see a porn actress running for governor, when you find hard-core porn routinely offered on TVs in middle-brow chain hotel rooms, when a sports talk-radio host invites a different female porn star to make NFL picks every Friday — when porn is that common, the filmmakers suggest, thank “Deep Throat” for helping to set the tone.
NOW THE DOCUMENTARIANS GET THEIR CHANCE ON STAGE:
“So many things weren’t the same after ‘Deep Throat,’ ” says Barbato, who has collaborated with Bailey for more than a decade on eclectic, provocative documentaries on subjects ranging from Tammy Faye Bakker to Monica Lewinsky to a New York City “club kids’ ” murder to the history of pornography. “There was almost like a genuine, innocent curiosity about pornography, about sex and sexuality. It’s almost like ‘Deep Throat’ and its commercial success was the beginning of pornography being co-opted by big business” — the “commodification of sex,” as the directors are fond of putting it.
A NOD TO THE PROCESS OF MAKING THE DOCUMENTARY AND SIMULTANEOUSLY GIVING THE READER A SENSE OF THE LIVES BEHIND “DEEP THROAT”
During the past year, Barbato and Bailey have filmed interviews of scores of people — porn actors, directors, prosecutors, cultural commentators — who lived through “Deep Throat.” “There’re endless tales of the sexual revolution, and every one makes you want to make a left-hand turn and go into someone’s personal story,” Barbato says.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE DRUGS, PARALLELISM, LEADING, IN THE NEXT GRAF, TO A PARAGRAPH THAT ISOLATED LINDA LOVELACE.
There’s Annie Sprinkle, a teenager who’d run off with a guy on a motorcycle, found herself making popcorn in a Tucson theater where “Deep Throat” was playing, and headed west to join the fray. To this day she is a sexual-performance artist. There are male lawyers from the obscenity trials remembering the fear of having to pronounce “clitoris” for the first time in their lives.
There’s also Linda Lovelace, whose celebrity first drew Grazer’s interest in “Deep Throat.” Half a dozen years ago he decided to make a biopic about the actress, who was reportedly coerced into porn by her husband, was paid $1,200 for her work and spent much of her life after “Deep Throat” impoverished or ill, variously condemning porn and basking in its notoriety. Lovelace (nee Boreman) died in a Denver traffic accident at 53 in April 2002. Soon after, Grazer — who said he had already commissioned a script and interviewed several well-known actresses to play Lovelace — decided he’d been moving in the wrong direction.
NOW WE CAN GET INTO THE BASIC NARRATIVE OF GRAZER’S PROJECT:
“The more I learned, the less interested I got in Linda Lovelace and the more interested I got in the profound effect the movie had on the culture,” he says. “Johnny Carson would talk about it every night…. It crossed every barrier, it entered the zeitgeist. It was in our grammar.” (In 1973, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post would code-name a key Watergate source “Deep Throat.”) The once-unspeakable was suddenly part of casual conversation. “It wasn’t shocking anymore. Then you say to yourself, ‘How does that affect all the other art forms that think they’re going to shock you by saying something sexy or showing those images that don’t have the same impact anymore?’ ”
WE CAN ALSO WRITE A LITTLE MORE EXPANSIVELY, KNOWING EVERYBODY IS ON BOARD:
This is how Grazer often talks — a whoosh of leaping notions fueled by an engaging intellectual restlessness. He went to New York to sell his idea to HBO’s documentary executive, Sheila Nevins, who asked skeptically — as many people seem likely to do — why “Deep Throat”? Out rushed Grazer’s hypothesis, and Nevins, who figures she was a bit intimidated, agreed to a deal. “He displayed this enormous passion for the project, and I thought, ‘God, he’s so smart, he must know.’ ” Creatively and financially, Grazer can afford the risk. From a job as a twentysomething law clerk at Warner Bros. in the ’70s he started developing TV pilots, then hooked up in 1980 with director Ron Howard, who was trying to overcome his “Happy Days” image. Together….