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To most of us, a mall is just a mall, but to film-studies instructor Danny Sussman, it is a Rosetta stone rife with hidden meaning, a subconscious conversation between marketer and marketee. Had you been at the Century City mall several Tuesdays ago, you might have bumped into Sussman marching his USC undergrad Script to Screen class into the Apple Store in two single-file lines to talk about technology and movies and how the former is simultaneously bettering and wreaking havoc on the latter. “As online media kicks the ass of traditional media, people in this business will have to figure out what moves have to be made,” you’d have heard him say.
The following week, another group, 28 students from UCLA’s Extension Program this time, waits for Sussman outside the AMC box office on the mall’s second floor. These guys are older and wiser; some have had prior experience working in the entertainment industry. So Sussman changes his idiom accordingly (you don’t speak to a 19-year-old college sophomore–slash–aspiring film mogul the same way you speak to a 36-year-old struggling screenwriter). But his bottom line remains the same.
First, the new Century City mall is nothing like the old Century City mall. Obvious at first glance, yes, but not so obvious when Sussman points out what you’ve missed.
“It was garbage,” Sussman says to his students, who have been instructed to huddle into a semicircle around him. “The food court was a fucking sewer before they rebuilt it. The Westfield Company came in and built a palace that makes it very appealing to go to the movies.” He takes in the walls of gleaming glass, the nice potted plants, the brushed-steel chairs and tables, the luxe stores appealing to moms and dads and kids and couples on dates. “This is very thought out. This is strategic planning. Why? They had to make cinema an appealing experience. Because if you have a 50-inch plasma TV at home with TiVo and surround sound, why the hell go out?” Home-theater awesomeness is daily upping the ante for the people who build malls and movie theaters.
The students hustle single file toward a wall of illuminated movie posters, which Sussman then begins to dissect. “This is where he lines us up and shoots us,” one of the students, Bailey Kobe, whispers. Kobe is a young director who is about to make his first film, the subject and plot of which he is not currently prepared to share.
“You will have to market your wares,” Sussman says. “Marketing is the bane of every single movie ever made.”
There is method to the madness, the professor explains. There is a reason why, for instance, Nicolas Cage’s name is above the movie title in the poster for National Treasure: Book of Secrets. (“He’s a movie star, not an actor who stars in a movie,” Sussman says.) Why Nicole Kidman’s and Daniel Craig’s names appear small in the poster for The Golden Compass (because the best-selling book that the film is based on is the draw, and the studio is hoping for Lord of the Rings–style business that transcends even heavyweight stars). Why the word and makes an actor seem “very, very special.” Why, even though the elegant black-and-white lettering and photography in Lions for Lambs’ promotional poster suggests drama and prestige, Robert Redford’s Iraq-war movie could (and would, it turned out) nevertheless wind up being problematic to market (because the war is still going on).
“Millions and millions of dollars are spent on this shit,” Sussman says, and then suddenly points to a student lingering in the corner. “You,” he calls out. “Yes, you. Quiet guy, always taking notes in class. Which of these posters do you like?”
“Are certain billboards more expensive than others?” Mr. Quiet Notetaker asks.
“I’m not asking you to ask me a question. I’m asking you to make a comment.”
Sussman, in addition to his role as teacher and deconstructor of consumer landscapes, was a William Morris agent for a decade and is currently a manager of actors at Brillstein-Grey Entertainment. He has a gruff, gravelly voice, light eyes and a ruddy complexion. Though he has the demeanor of a take-no-prisoners basketball coach (not to mention the corresponding outfit: pink polo shirt tucked into khaki pants, Adidas sneakers), he is instead built like a linebacker — compact and sturdy. He characterizes himself as an “old-school dude.” His students concur. “He’s an energetic guy,” says Kobe. “His class is wild. Someone told me about it and I signed up. Some people have taken it several times. He delineates exactly what it means to represent talent.”
Much to the chagrin of the Apple-employee geeks, the group winds up at the Apple Store, just as the previous week’s students did. Sussman wrangles one terrified sales clerk, Daryl, pressing him for information on which products are best-sellers and why.
“Did you hear what Daryl said? He said, ‘Because they are slick.’ Marketing appeals to the eye. You wanna know why we’re having a strike, this is why,” he gestures grandly at the rows of glossy, delectable iPods and iPhones and iMacs. “Now you are in the hub of the future. Look around. You have two minutes.”
Outside, he sits cross-legged on a bench to smoke his cigarette, which dangles from the corner of his mouth as he speaks. “We did a field trip to Best Buy in Westwood,” he says. “We all stood at the door and I said, ‘Show me typewriters.’ I typed every college paper I ever wrote about politics and cinema! I said, ‘Show me TVs with tubes in them. Show me videocassettes.’ And they couldn’t.”
In a bit, the students meander up to the food court to eat sushi and sandwiches, Sussman’s treat. “Do any of you like meat? There’s a Lawry’s up there,” he calls out. He looks at them with a strict, paternal sort of love, as a team coach regarding his new recruits might.
“I give these guys my blood. I really do.”