Hollywood Report: Seinfeld pitches 'Bee Movie' by mocking it
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As a 10-year-old, Jerry Seinfeld dreamed of what he'd do when he grew up. "I fantasized about working at an ad agency and carrying one of those black Samsonite briefcases," he says.
While the New Yorker ultimately made his fortune in another career, he has always harbored a special interest in advertising. So when it came to preparing audiences for the November release of his movie debut, "Bee Movie," the comic decided to take a crack at it himself.
The result is an unusual two-part "teaser trailer" that rips apart his upcoming animated movie about a disgruntled bee taking on New York. In the deadpan style that made his "Seinfeld" television show a hit, it depicts a production in chaos as he and his team attempt to make the movie in live action rather than animation. The trailers -- the second of which airs next week -- have Mr. Seinfeld struggling to act in a ridiculous bee costume before director Steven Spielberg comes to the rescue by suggesting it might be easier to make a cartoon instead.
Mr. Seinfeld, who is writing and producing "Bee Movie," and voicing the lead character, Barry Bee Benson, says he wanted the previews to cut through the clutter in a crowded Hollywood marketplace. "Who's not tired of the usual trailers with all the excitement, loud music and quick cuts," Mr. Seinfeld says. "They're exhausting and annoying."
In that way, he says, attracting attention for his movie is no different than the challenges he faced on TV or in comedy clubs. "They all desperately crave a breath of fresh air," he says.
The 52-year-old comedian has pushed the envelope before in the advertising world. He co-wrote and appeared in a series of high-profile commercials for American Express, including an innovative series of Internet ads in 2004 dubbed "Webisodes." The big budget campaign had him goofing around with an animated Superman and jumping off cruise ships.
"Then the money ran out," he jokes. "Cheap advertising isn't as fun." He found other opportunities, though, including a European television campaign for Mercedes-Benz. For his documentary "Comedian," he also co-wrote an ad that spoofed traditional movie trailers. The "anti-trailer" made fun of the dramatic voiceovers common on Hollywood movie ads.
At one point, Mr. Seinfeld says he even considered starting his own advertising boutique after his show ended, but he got busy instead with his return to stand-up.
"I never got the briefcase, but I got to see what the advertising world was like," he says.
It was the American Express campaign that indirectly led to "Bee Movie." Mr. Seinfeld initially approached fellow East Hampton, N.Y., resident Steven Spielberg about directing the Webisodes. Mr. Spielberg was busy on other projects, but the two met for dinner and, during a lull in the conversation, Mr. Seinfeld says he mentioned an idea for a movie about bees called "Bee Movie." Mr. Spielberg liked the idea and passed it onto Jeffrey Katzenberg, another co-founder of DreamWorks SKG.
Mr. Katzenberg had previously approached Mr. Seinfeld about voicing a character in another animated movie, but Mr. Seinfeld declined because he wasn't happy playing a role he hadn't written himself. Now, Mr. Katzenberg asked whether Mr. Seinfeld wanted to do an animated film of his own.
Mr. Seinfeld wrote "Bee Movie" with a couple of friends from his television days. He says he soon found himself involved in the animation as well. He spent many hours poring over everything from the design of the costumes to the hand gestures of the characters. "It's not that I'm a control freak or anything," he laughs.
When he went to DreamWorks Animation with his trailer idea, it took some convincing. DreamWorks Animation is a well-oiled machine when it comes to marketing its movies, and Mr. Seinfeld's plan was risky. Trailers usually involve pulling footage from the film -- a relatively inexpensive exercise. Mr. Seinfeld's idea of using live actors required a separate production.
But grabbing the attention of audiences is tough, especially in animation, where there has been a flood of movies about furry animals. If a movie doesn't take off on its first weekend, it's often toast. Studios are therefore under increasing pressure to build buzz in advance of a film's release. That has made early "teaser" trailers more appealing, especially if they can make a splash on the Internet. (DreamWorks plans to release both "Bee" trailers online and in movie theaters.)
Last year's comedy "Borat," for instance, made its mark by releasing four minutes of the movie online before its appearance in theaters. Within hours, people were frantically emailing it to friends. Matt Rosenberg, who heads the entertainment practice at interactive ad agency Organic, says such teaser material has to be strong to make that work. "If not, it's just another ad for a lame movie," he says.
To help make the trailers, Mr. Seinfeld turned to Christian Charles and Gary Streiner, both of whom worked with him on the American Express job. He brought in Chris Rock and other stars whose voices are in the movie for the live-action sequences, including one where the characters are pelted by powerful hoses and have to dodge giant windshield wipers on an oversize car window. "It was terrifying," he laughs. "You could have screamed 'my leg is caught' and no one would have heard you."
The second trailer depicts more chaos, with Mr. Seinfeld wriggling in his ill-fitting, furry costume and the set falling apart. Audiences get their first glimpse of the animation in the finale, with Mr. Seinfeld morphing into his animated character and performing a number of stunts after Mr. Spielberg's suggestion to make a cartoon instead of a live-action movie.
Mr. Seinfeld says adjusting to movies was tough at first because of the sheer length of the project compared with making a TV show or 30-second ad. "By the time you get to 60 minutes, you're so tired of everything," he says. "Coming up with a satisfying third act takes a long time."
But animation was appealing for a number of reasons: like stand-up, there's time to polish the material and even go back and reshoot scenes. There's also no restriction on where the scenes are set.
Still, he says his new movie has the feel of his television show. "It's dialogue driven and adult in some of the tones it has," he says. "There are things for kids, too, but it feels more like watching an episode of my sitcom."
In the film, a college-educated bee voiced by Mr. Seinfeld becomes disillusioned with his sole career option: making honey. He takes an adventure outside the hive and finds himself adopted by a New York florist. When he discovers that people eat honey, he launches a campaign to get justice for bees. Mr. Seinfeld's co-stars include Renee Zellweger as the florist, Matthew Broderick as his best bee friend and Mr. Rock as a mosquito.
Would he do an animated movie again? "Absolutely not," he jokes. "This has taken four years out of my life. My next move will be cutting the engines and coasting on my previous accomplishments."
Jerry Seinfeld's 'Bee Movie' joins a crowded field: Studios have released a raft of animated films featuring animal characters over the past year. Here's how five fared at the box office:
FILM: Happily N'Ever After
RELEASE DATE: Jan. 5, 2007
DOMESTIC TICKET SALES: $14.9 million
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: A fairy tale with a twist
MARKETING CHALLENGE: A hard sell with "Shrek," another fairy tale with a twist, already a huge hit
FILM: Happy Feet
RELEASE DATE: Nov. 17, 2006
DOMESTIC TICKET SALES: $192.1 million
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: A young penguin has a gift for tap dancing
MARKETING CHALLENGE: Took off thanks to its appealing lead character and musical format
FILM: Flushed Away
RELEASE DATE: Nov. 3, 2006
DOMESTIC TICKET SALES: $63.5 million
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: A rat's adventures in a sewer
MARKETING CHALLENGE: Making rats and English in-jokes appealing to American audiences
FILM: Open Season
RELEASE DATE: Sept. 29, 2006
DOMESTIC TICKET SALES: $84.3 million
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Forest animals do battle against hunters
MARKETING CHALLENGE: Overcoming complaints that Hollywood was releasing too many animated family films.
RELEASE DATE: Aug. 4, 2006
DOMESTIC TICKET SALES: $72.6 million
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Farm animals gone wild
MARKETING CHALLENGE: Released a week after "Ant Bully," the tale of an ant colony gone wild.
First Published February 2, 2007 12:00 am