For Publicist Marvin Levy, It's All About Eyeballs

Feb 21, 2013
Originally published on February 22, 2013 10:14 am

Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln has earned 12 Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best director. Another Spielberg film — the multi-Oscar winning Schindler's List — will be celebrating 20 years since its release. These films have at least two important things in common: Spielberg and publicist Marvin Levy.

Levy started his career in New York writing questions for quiz shows. He wound up in publicity for MGM radio and TV personalities, but was lured to Hollywood in the mid-1970s. He took a job with Columbia Pictures and was later assigned to do publicity for the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by Steven Spielberg. That began an almost 40-year relationship with the filmmaker.

Levy's office is in the back section of the Universal Studio lot, an area inhabited by DreamWorks Studios, the company Spielberg helped found. Adobe buildings were fabricated for the filmmaker to echo a southwestern motif because Spielberg grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz. This was a thank you from Universal, which financed and distributed Spielberg's 1982 megahit, E.T.

Looking Back At 'Schindler,' 20 Years On

Marvin Levy is 80-something, small and peppy in a blue jacket, jaunty baseball cap and black-framed glasses. And he's still going strong.

On this day, Levy is meeting with Universal Home Video publicists and a representative from the USC Shoah Foundation about the 20th-anniversary marketing campaign for Schindler's List. Spielberg won Oscars for best director and best picture for his 1993 film.

Levy is overall coordinator for the anniversary campaign, which includes the re-mastering of the film on Blu-ray and a push for an education program that engages middle- and high-school students in the history of the Holocaust.

On any project, Levy knows he is the carrier of the mission statement. He upholds Spielberg's vision and keeps the pitches and promotions consistent. That's the marketer's job — although, Levy has a punchier definition.

"It's all about eyeballs," he says — getting people to see a film, whether it's in seats at a theater or on a sofa at home. And these days, he points out, "they could be standing up with some device in their hand."

Wherever they're watching, the publicist needs to craft a pitch that will lure an audience. Not an easy task. And veteran Levy is a realist. He knows that pitching films is an imprecise science. Some films don't get the marketing campaign right the first time.

His example is the 1973 film Walking Tall. He wasn't working with Spielberg then. He was with the Cinerama Co.

"Walking Tall, a true story about a Southern sheriff, Buford Pusser," Levy says. "A name not easy to forget."

The first ads for the film highlighted the violence. "He was the fighting sheriff," Levy recalls. "It opened, didn't do much. Everybody went back to the drawing board and came up with another campaign."

They realized that the movie also had a poignant story line about Pusser's wife and family.

"That part of the story really resonated," says Levy.

A new poster played down the action. It showed Pusser and his wife and just the holster of the sheriff's gun. It worked. The film went back into release and was so successful — especially throughout the South — that theaters had to hold it over for weeks and weeks.

Decades later, Levy is still tackling pitching issues — this time as part of the immense team that put together Spielberg's big, but challenging, new history film about Abraham Lincoln.

But how do you market a movie about a president who lived long ago, wears funny clothes, is not particularly handsome and is trying to railroad a really hard-to-understand and not very popular amendment through the Congress of the United States?

Levy's answer? "You have to say: 'What are the elements that make it so an audience might want to see it?' "

We all know Lincoln, says Levy. He's a part of our American psyche.

"But what we really know is very little," Levy says. So his job is to make it clear the audience will see a Lincoln they haven't seen before.

Two decades ago, Steven Spielberg showed audiences a hero they really hadn't seen before: Oskar Schindler. And it's hard to believe it's been that long since Schindler's List. But Levy remembers.

He pulls out a tattered folder — the original press kit — filled with black-and-white photos and pages of press material.

"The hardest thing," Levy says, "is the first page. What we call the positioning statement." He reads it:

"Oskar Schindler was a man of great talents and even greater contradictions. A born salesman, an inveterate gambler. He sought his fortune in the aftermath of the German invasion of Poland. Like many an enterprising businessman, he joined the Nazi Party to make deals. But he was himself indifferent to politics. The only thing he truly believed in was enjoying life to the fullest."

The next paragraph begins:

"His conscience gave him little trouble, at first."

But would that wording hold up today? Maybe it would need faster bulletins, such as: He was a big businessman, he was a ruthless merchant, he was a Nazi. And yet, he saved more than 1,000 Jews.

Levy's response?

"No. It would not have been true to the film. That would work for some other movie. Not for this one," he says emphatically. "That sounds too much like another one of those action movies. This is nothing like it. This is a movie about humanity. You can't get away from it. Once you do, you're putting out the absolutely wrong message."

And finally, is there a movie Levy didn't get to do and wish he had?

"Probably something like Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia, a big epic," he says without hesitation. "Or the great big musicals — I mean, to have spent every day on Singin' in the Rain, with all those people around? I'd have loved every minute of it."

One thing about Hollywood: You meet a lot of people who are crazy about movies. Marvin Levy, clearly, is one of them.

The Hollywood Jobs series is produced by Cindy Carpien and the NPR Multimedia team.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Academy Awards are this Sunday. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" has 12 nominations. Now, as you may recall, and earlier Spielberg film, "Schindler's List," will soon be re-released in its 20th anniversary edition. These movies have at least two things in common: one of them is Spielberg, of course. The other is a publicist who's been with the filmmaker for more than three decades. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg continues her series on Hollywood jobs with movie marketer Marvin Levy.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: His office is at DreamWorks Studios, a cactus and palm-lined cocoon on the big Universal lot. It's a fabricated world of adobe buildings that echoes, Arizona where Spielberg grew up.

MARVIN LEVY: This was built after "E.T." Universal wanted to make sure, as a thank you, to Steven for bringing such an enormous hit. And also, they wanted you to make this your home.

STAMBERG: Marvin Levy began doing publicity for Steven Spielberg on the 1977 film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Small and peppy in a blue jacket and jaunty baseball cap, Levy is 80-something, and still going strong. He is the carrier of the mission statement. He upholds Spielberg's vision and keeps the various pitches and promotions consistent. That's the marketer's job - although Mr. Levy has a punchier definition.

LEVY: It's all about eyeballs.

STAMBERG: Getting people to see the film.

LEVY: Whether it's seats in the theaters or it's seats at home. Or these days, they could be standing up with some device in their hand.

STAMBERG: Wherever they're watching, the publicist needs to craft a pitch that will lure audiences to the screen. Not an easy task. And veteran Marvin Levy is a realist. He knows that pitching films is an imprecise science.

LEVY: Some movies are marketed more to what they think, initiall,y the core is, and it turns out it was really something else.

STAMBERG: His example is the 1973 film "Walking Tall." He worked on that campaign at the Cinerama Company.

LEVY: "Walking Tall," is about a Southern sheriff, Buford Pusser. A name not easy to forget.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALKING TALL")

JOE DON BAKER: (as Buford Pusser) Wake up, universe. I'm in town.

LEVY: The first ads for that were with guns and real action, you know, he was the fighting sheriff. It opened, it didn't do much. Everybody went back to the drawing board and came up with another campaign. Because we realized that the movie also had a great story - the wife who stood by him - and that part of the movie really resonated.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALKING TALL")

ELIZABETH HARTMAN: (as Pauline Pusser) I'm proud of you, Buford. And I'm not so scared, you know.

STAMBERG: A new poster played down the action stuff and emphasized family. It showed Pusser and his wife and just the holster of the sheriff's gun. It worked. The film went back into release and was so successful - especially throughout the South - that theaters had to hold it over for weeks and weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALKING TALL" SOUNDTRACK)

STAMBERG: Some four decades later, Marvin Levy is still tackling pitching problems, this time with Spielberg's big, but challenging, "Lincoln."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) See, I decided that the constitution gives me more powers. No one knows exactly what those powers are. Some think they don't exist.

STAMBERG: How do you market a movie about a president who lived ages ago, wears funny clothes, is not particularly handsome and is trying to railroad, a really hard-to-understand and not very popular amendment, through the Congress of the United States?

LEVY: You have to say: What are the elements that make it so an audience might want to go see it? They've known Lincoln. It's like part of their life. "But what they really know is very little. So, OK, what is it that you're going to find out that's different? You're going to see a Lincoln they haven't seen before.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LINCOLN")

DAY-LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) And whether any of you or anyone else knows it, I know I need this. This amendment is that cure.

STAMBERG: Two decades ago, Steven Spielberg showed audiences a hero they really hadn't seen before: Oskar Schindler.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCHINDLER'S LIST")

LIAM NEESON: (as Oskar Schindler) I didn't do enough.

RALPH FIENNES: You did so much.

STAMBERG: It's hard to believe that "Schindler's List" opened 20 years ago but Marvin Levy remembers. He pulls out a tattered folder.

LEVY: Yeah, this is the basic press kit.

STAMBERG: Inside, a lot of black and white photographs.

LEVY: That's right.

STAMBERG: A cast list - Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, little-known then. And the original press release.

LEVY: The hardest thing is usually that first page. What we call the positioning statement.

STAMBERG: Can you read to me that first paragraph of this press release?

LEVY: Oskar Schindler was a man of great talents and even greater contradictions. A born salesman, an inveterate gambler. Like many an enterprising businessman, he joined the Nazi Party to make deals.

STAMBERG: And the next line in the next paragraph is? His conscience gave him little trouble - key words: at first.

LEVY: At first. That draws you in.

STAMBERG: I think, today, it wouldn't take nearly as long to get to the but here's the part you don't know. He was a big businessman, he was a ruthless merchant, he was a Nazi. And yet, he saved X thousand Jews.

LEVY: No. And the reason no, is it would not have been true to the film. That would work for some other movie.

STAMBERG: What's wrong with what I did? Too sensationalistic?

LEVY: Much too in your face. Much too making it like it's another one of those action movies. This is a movie that's about humanity. And you can't get away from it. Once you do, you're putting out the absolutely wrong message.

STAMBERG: Marvin Levy, Mr. Mission Statement, keeping the message consistent. One more question before this movie ends. What's the campaign you didn't get to do that you wish you had?

LEVY: Probably something like "Bridge on the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia."

STAMBERG: A big epic.

LEVY: Yeah. Or the great big musicals - I mean, to have spent every day on "Singin' in the Rain," with all those people around? I'd have loved every minute of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SINGING IN THE RAIN" SOUNDTRACK)

STAMBERG: One thing about Hollywood: You meet a lot of people who are crazy about movies. Marvin Levy, clearly, is one of them. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Movieland.

INSKEEP: And all of Susan's Hollywood job profiles for Movieland are at npr.org, including a location scout and key grip. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.