I wrote this for Variety

Despite a paper-thin marketing budget, a bare-bones website, and very little lag time between completion, its Sundance screening and April 16 release, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the film by notoriously secretive street artist Banksy, has emerged as the top-grossing limited-release documentary so far this year with $2.4 million.

That's music to the ears of the handful of industry veterans brought on by "Exit's" producers to devise what was probably the most lo-fi marketing campaign of their careers.

"We didn't have the kind of advance time that one would ordinarily prefer to prepare the marketplace, to organize trailers and posters and materials and screenings -- the things one ordinarily does to create awareness," says marketing consultant Richard Abramowitz, who says that though the marketing budget was tiny, the film created substantial awareness and word of mouth beyond the limited arthouse audience.

The pic's minimalist one-screen website features a six-minute movie trailer, a list of screening dates and venues -- and that's it. There are no Facebook or Twitter widgets. No links. And unlike most indie film sites, visitors are not asked to leave their email addresses for later communication.

John Sloss, who was repping the pic at Sundance, decided to release it himself via his Producers Distribution Alliance label.

Sloss purposely relinquished control of the film's Web and social networking presence, allowing Banksy's fans to do the work for the marketers. And work they did, generating a wave of Twitter, Facebook and FourSquare activity about the movie -- data which the "Exit" team carefully monitored, and responded to, in real-time. A fan created a Foursquare badge which became a badge of honor for artsy filmgoers to unlock.

"If the film was sold out at 7 p.m. in a market, then we'd tweet, '7 p.m. is sold out -- 10 p.m. is available,'?" says Marc Schiller, founder of street art blog Wooster Collective and CEO of boutique media agency Electric Artists. Adds Sloss: "We know for a fact that the people who were coming opening weekend are not regular moviegoers. They don't read the newspapers or traditional movie advertising -- we were connecting with them online, from within their community."

Prior to release, at least two tastemaker screenings were held in every market, with "very specific" people invited from the creative community. Once the film opened, if a community said it wanted the film, the "Exit" team responded, allowing for quick shifts in the distribution pattern.

Since the April 16 opening of "Exit Through the Gift Shop" in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, which widened eventually to 46 theaters, the energy has continued, with audiences gradually skewing older and more mainstream.

"There are two basic approaches to the distribution of a specialized movie," Sloss explains, "One, that there is a finite audience that is incrementally used up by doing pre-release screenings, or two, that there is a potentially infinite audience that is accessed and expanded by doing such screenings. We chose the latter approach and it worked."

Production Designers

I wrote this for Variety

Whether they're conceptualizing five-star Persian Gulf Xanadus in between film jobs, or designing immersive retail landscapes on the side, film designers have proved themselves to be adept moonlighters. Some of them take sabbaticals from moviemaking to envision the entertainment environments of the future.
It started in the 1950s when Walt Disney handpicked his favorite staff artists to work on his theme parks. Film folks like John DeCuir, Henry Bumstead and Randall Duell became pioneers of themed attractions. Today, the two major theme-park design companies -- Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Creative -- continue to cherry-pick from Hollywood for their billion-dollar pleasure-domes.
Designer Adrian Gorton ("Changeling," "The Last Samurai") has gone back and forth between movies and themed-entertainment design for 30 years. "If there's a story you want to tell through design, a place-making, transporting kind of experience you want to create -- that's where people like us can help," he says.
Gorton's nonfilm resume is formidable. He was lead designer on Malaysia's Sama World theme park, was one of six art directors who worked on Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando and is supervising art director for entertainment-venue development firm Thinkwell Group, which is working on a major studio-backed theme park in Abu Dhabi.
Burgeoning development in the Middle East has kept Gorton and his peers very busy. NBC Universal, Paramount and DreamWorks have all announced licensing deals for new theme-park ventures in Dubai. While the recent economic downturn has slowed progress (Universal Studios Dubailand's opening has been delayed from 2010 until the first quarter of 2012), the Persian Gulf remains a lucrative hub for Hollywood's design A-list.
Thinkwell hires film designers to help create large-scale developments for its clients -- including Ski Dubai, the Middle East's famous indoor ski resort. Production designers are suited to such projects "because they know how a space can communicate a specific message" says Thinkwell creative veep Randy Ewing.
Veteran film designer Norm Newberry ("Beowulf," "War of the Worlds") is a member of that community of film designers, most of whom have some affiliation with Disney Imagineering and/or Universal Creative, who are regularly lured off-set to work on billion-dollar commercial projects. In 1987, Newberry replaced Bumstead as head of Universal Creative's art department, overseeing projects like the "Jaws" special effects rides at Universal Studios in Orlando and Osaka, Japan; the "Back to the Future: The Ride" in Japan; and the 12-minute "T2 3-D" theatrical attraction in Japan, Orlando and Los Angeles -- said to be the most expensive venture in movie history on a per-minute basis.
Lately Newberry has shifted his focus back to film. "Most designers always want to get back to film, eventually," he says, "although the really nice thing about theme parks is that at the end of it, there's something permanent there that you can be proud of. On film, your work's on celluloid."
Another prolific moonlighter, Jack Taylor ("Million Dollar Baby," "Mystic River") was one of Bumstead's favorite art directors. Taylor is redesigning the 3.3-acre Universal Studios backlot that was extensively damaged by fire last May. "In this industry, the only security you have is your insecurity," Taylor says. "You work for six weeks or six months, and then you could be off for a couple of months. So I always like to keep something on the back burner." For Taylor, this can mean small interior design projects, too -- he converted Robert Duvall's cow barn in Virginia, updated Barbra Streisand's home in Malibu and created interiors for Clint Eastwood's private golf club near Monterey.
It goes both ways. Celebrity designer David Rockwell, for example, primarily known for his commercial work (the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, Gordon Ramsay's Maze restaurant in London), is also a successful theater and film designer ("Hairspray," "Legally Blonde").
Increasingly, film designers are conceptualizing commercial projects that take leisure time to a new level -- like resorts where guests can assume a character and play a role, similar to a videogame adventure -- except it's real.
Hettema Group has created designs for these kinds of immersive concepts. Topper Phil Hettema, a former senior veep at Universal Studios Theme Parks, predicts interactivity, rather than the typical pre-programmed theme park experience, is where the future of themed entertainment lies.
"It used to be that the best way to experience cool new technology was to pay $50 to go to a theme park -- now you can find that technology on your iPhone," he says.

Duchess Georgiana, for Variety, Jan 09.

The Duchess

Be faithful to an 18th-century fashion icon

Challenge: Be faithful to an 18th-century fashion icon in the absence of sartorial records

Regency aristocrat Georgiana Cavendish, subject of Saul Dibb's period drama "The Duchess," is widely recognized as one of the first true influencers of fashion, her giant plumed wigs and sprayed-on gowns sparking copycat trends across 18th-century Britain. And yet very little archival evidence of what she actually wore exists.

"If we had been doing a film on Queen Victoria or Queen Mary, it would have been different," says costume designer Michael O'Connor ("Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day"). "But with Georgiana, there's hardly anything. Even the portraits generally show her in biblical, classical-type robes -- not what she actually wore."

In all, O'Connor created 27 costumes for the duchess, dressing actress Keira Knightley in the most progressive, flamboyant styles of the era, styles Georgiana is known to have had a hand in creating. Dresses were often stitched onto the actresses, re-creating the "desperately tight, maximum bosom" looks that were popular then.

The gender-bending military uniform worn during a political rally is one look the duchess is known to have actually worn. Though Georgiana was known to have originally designed the outfit in red, O'Connor re-created it in blue, the color of the British Whig party. "That costume perfectly illustrated how the duchess always refused to blend in," he says.