By Chuck Ebeling
Copyright 2016 – All Rights Reserved
Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that matters.
The recent death of Gene Wilder reminded me of an incident of some years back involving his sometime partner-in-crime Mel Brooks.
The year was 1985, and McDonald’s was receiving more and more requests to have its restaurants and products appear in commercial films. Hollywood hadn’t yet really figured out how to exploit the full marketing potential in placing commercial locations and other recognizable branded items in films. Prop masters would pour over film scripts for potential commercial tie-ins, as they were responsible for identifying and stocking locations to be used for filming, preferably at little or no cost to the production. McDonald’s had recently retained a Hollywood firm named Unique Product Placement (UPP), to assist in identifying the best and most appropriate opportunities to place their brand. They were paid a handsome annual fee for reviewing scripts, identifying the good opportunities and coordinating between the studios and our company. They knew and worked closely with prop masters and set designers, and in fact, were made up of such former professionals. When they found a good match, they would contact us with their rationale, and send us the scripts where McDonald’s might fit in. This saved us time and money, and helped screen out the potential movie bombs and inappropriate applications from those with high potential exposure for our brand.
As head of corporate communications, I was responsible for managing the relationship with UPP, and coordinating with our own marketing and other operational departments in implementing such movie tie-ins. One day the phone rang, and it was an international call from Spain. It was our Spanish marketing manager, saying the set decorator for a new science fiction film being shot in a desert region of his country under the aegis of Brooksfilm, the production company controlled by Mel Brooks, had referenced a letter, apparently authorizing our Spanish subsidiary to allow its equipment and signage company to cooperate with the film company and loan them a full-sized McDonald’s restaurant outdoor sign. I asked why, and he said he had a copy of the letter from McDonald’s chief marketing officer written to Mel Brooks himself, agreeing to the sign loan. So I called our marketing chief and asked him about it. He said he vaguely remembered a brief call from Mel Brooks that he said he took because of Brook’s Hollywood fame. Brooks had told him he was executive producer of a science fiction movie set a thousand years in the future in a post-cataclysmic Earth and they wanted to use some McDonald’s signage. The story was something about a boy who found a mysterious orb called Bodhi, lost it, searched for it and at the end, the orb helped bring water back to a parched earth. Our guy agreed, saying Brooks suggested the film and scene in question would be creative, and knowing Brooks great reputation for comedy.
That call had apparently been some months back. I called UPP and asked if they had reviewed the project, and they said it was the first they had heard of it, but they would get hold of Brooksfilm and look over a script and get back to me with their thoughts. I put the guy in Spain on ice, though he seemed in a hurry, as they would be filming the scene involving the sign in a few days. UPP was back to me in a flash. They said they were shocked Brooks was backing such a bizarre film, and they described the scene involved as one of a gang of filthy futurists crossing a post-apocalyptic desert and setting up camp in what would in the film appear to be the ruins of an ancient McDonald’s, and include a vulture or some such motley bird landing on a tilted, falling down McDonald’s road sign, while rape and torture were portrayed amidst a bacchanal going on around campfires within this crude setting. I quickly called our marketing chief, and he said “get us out of this!” So I talked it over with UPP and our legal staff, and they agreed that we could refuse to cooperate with the film people in Spain on the grounds that the film had been miss-represented to our marketing chief. Thus, we turned down the request, to the great chagrin of the Spanish production company.
The film, Solarbabies, was released in 1986. Some had predicated it would become Mel Brooks’ “Star Wars.” It had cost $25 million to produce; a giant overrun, and Mel Brooks sold it to the U.S. distributor for just $14 million. The U.S. box office proceeds for the film were only $1.5 million. It has been widely critiqued as Mel Brooks’ worst film and one of the worst movies ever produced, with legendary film critic Gene Siskel crowning it “pure trash.”
Years later, I finally saw the segment of the final film that had been targeted for the demolished McDonald’s, and instead of the bird landing on a tattered Golden Arches sign, he landed on piece of tilted wood hung with rusty cans, amidst a despicable yet unidentified desert campsite. No Golden Arches. Indeed, sometimes it’s what you don’t see that matters. Disaster averted.