Commentary: 'Copy' is real look at Mad Men


Creative conversation: It wasn't the best of times at Sundance for sales this year, but not everyone went home empty-handed.

A case in point is the documentary "Art & Copy," about the 1960s creative revolution in advertising, which secured a distribution deal with Arthouse Films just as the festival was ending. Directed by Doug Pray ("Surfwise," "Big Rig"), it was written by Timothy J. Sexton from an original concept by Gregory Beauchamp and Kirk Souder. "Copy" was produced by Jimmy Greenway and Michael Nadeau and executive produced by David Baldwin, Gregory Beauchamp, Kirk Souder and Mary Warlick.

"Copy" is actually a very different take on Madison Avenue than AMC's award winning "Mad Men," which I'll confess to being addicted to since it premiered in July 2007. Where "Mad" studies the ins and outs of life at a traditional '60s ad agency, the fictional Sterling Cooper, "Copy's" focus is on how the creative side of the advertising business actually exploded in new directions at about the same time. If you're attending the Santa Barbara Film Festival this weekend, there's a Saturday screening of "Copy" at 4:00 p.m. that you should try to catch. This is one film you'll definitely find yourself talking about over dinner afterwards.

Shot and edited over a four year period, "Copy" was funded by The One Club, a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to the craft of advertising. After enjoying an early look at the film, I was happy to be able to talk about it with Mary Warlick, who besides being an executive producer is CEO of The One Club, and Doug Pray, for whom this is his tenth movie. Pray's documentary "Surfwise," about the unique Paskowitz family of surfers, was the subject of my conversation with him here last April 29. If you missed that column, you can read it by clicking here

"We have both North American and worldwide distribution through Arthouse Films and we're just delighted," Warlick told me.

"We had six sold out screenings (at Sundance) and a lot of buzz," Pray said. "People see that (this is) a movie about advertising and if they know my earlier work they may think this is an underground film about advertising or maybe a critique of advertising, but the funny thing is it's a very inspirational film and (because) it's inspirational and about creativity and about taking risks against all odds, it actually fits really well into what I call a 'Sundance-type dialogue.'

"For years the Sundance Institute and the Festival and (Robert) Redford's own language has always been about creativity and the process. Sometimes till you're blue in the face they've talked about creativity and that's what's different about this movie. I think this is probably the first movie ever made about advertising that is actually about the humanity behind it and the process of creating it rather than just (being) about the facts of it."

Asked how he became involved in the project, Pray recalled, "I was approached by Michael Nadeau and Jimmy Greenway, who had earlier been approached by The One Club, who had wanted to do a film about some people who are in The One Club Hall of Fame. The film was originally conceived as something quite simple, but a couple of executive producers who early on, before they even approached me, thought, 'We should really do an actual movie, not just like a tribute film.'"

Pray gives credit in particular for the concept of doing a movie rather than a tribute film to Kirk Souder: "He had this idea because there's something very powerful in what each of these individuals have done. They all had fought the status quo. All of their work was actually very rebellious and it all kind of came out of advertising's creative revolution in the 1960's. It came to me framed as something like, 'Look, it's a film about advertising, but these individuals are pretty unbelievable in terms of what they've done.' And that's what excited me."

"Copy" tells the stories of such advertising visionaries as: Lee Clow, who did the campaigns for Apple Computer 1984 and today's iPod; Dan Wieden, who created Nike's 'Just Do It' campaign; Phyllis K. Robinson. whose 'It lets me be me' campaign for Clairol invented the 'Me Generation;' Hal Riney, who played a key role in getting Ronald Reagan re-elected president; and George Lois, whose campaigns saved MTV and launched fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger overnight.

"Mary and Kirk Souder agreed to make it something more than a tribute film," Pray continued, "and that's when they went to this company in Los Angeles Art & Industry and a producer named Michael Nadeau, who I'd worked for some years ago. They came to me and said, 'We're going to do this movie and what do you think?' Even though I do work in advertising some, my first thoughts were it's really an interesting subject because most people have preconceived notions of advertising -- what it is and what it means -- and those notions are often negative."

Advertising is often seen, he observed, "as being manipulative and mediocre. And yet here was this group of people who throughout their careers had done groundbreaking work. You could really argue that here's a group of people who changed our culture or influenced our culture as much as anyone in any medium and yet nobody knows who they are. I found that completely intriguing.

"If you work in advertising, you definitely know the name Goodby, Silverstein (the agency behind campaigns like 'Got Milk?' and the Budweiser lizards) or Wieden & Kennedy (Nike's 'Just Do It'). But if you don't, you really don't. I mean, there's a lot of people who might claim that (the Apple campaign) '1984' is the best commercial ever made, but very few people who know the name Lee Clow."

What Pray wanted to do, he emphasized, "was make a movie that was more personal. I didn't want to make a movie that was just showing you thousands of commercials. I also didn't want to do a movie that was just a basic social critique of advertising, which I think has been done and is a fairly easy film to make. It's easy to make a movie that trashes advertising because I think most of us know and agree that a lot of advertising needs a lot of help. It's not exactly improving the quality of life. I thought let's make a really personal film that gets into their heads and is about the nature of creativity and taking risks and what they go through to get ideas out there in this form."

All of the advertising figures interviewed in "Copy" are in The One Club's Creative Hall of Fame, according to Warlick. "These people are very, very private," she pointed out. "These were very rare interviews. They are totally inundated with requests (from) people seeking jobs and (from) clients and they have to retain a certain amount of privacy to keep their sense of self."

"Advertising is anonymous, which is kind of interesting," Pray observed. "It's the one art form where you don't put your name on it."

"And that's the whole purpose of the Creative Hall of Fame," Warlick said. "It's a lifetime achievement (award) for a few really special individuals. It's a very, very difficult process (of creating) for these people, but they just extend themselves every day. I mean, sure it is for commerce, but it's no less creative than many other fine arts that get recognized. As (someone has) said, 'It's art for commerce.'"

We're living now with a heightened sense of awareness of advertising thanks to the success of "Mad Men," which won the Golden Globe for best television series-drama in both 2008 and '09 and most recently won the Screen Actors Guild's award for best drama series ensemble. "We've been working on this film for over four years," Warlick said. "I think the time is right for us right now. Everybody seems to be very polemic about 'Mad Men.'"

"I've had some people say, 'Oh, of course, you're doing something on advertising because of 'Mad Men,'" Pray added. "What's funny is that (with) the people in the movie who came up to Sundance -- we had five or six of them up there at the premiere -- the first question from the audience was, What do you guys think about 'Mad Men?'"

How did they respond? "Almost to a name they basically felt that, first of all, 'It's not about advertising. It's just a great series," he replied. " In other words, they respected it as a show (and) as drama quite a lot, but not one of them thought it had anything to do with advertising in the sense of, 'This isn't really how we work. This isn't what we do.' It's kind of reflecting almost the old school of advertising that the Creative Revolution did away with or tried to. It was interesting (that) they were quite defensive on that point. Maybe as the series goes further into the '60s and '70s they'll start seeing themselves more."

"I think that they do agree that's what they were revolting against," Warlick noted.

"Our movie is about the Creative Revolution, which is largely attributed to Doyle Dane Bernbach and Bill Bernbach especially, and the people who are influenced by that," Pray explained. "A few people have asked, 'How come David Ogilvy's not in the movie? Or how come Leo Burnett and other major names in advertising history (aren't included)?' The fact is it's pretty simple and it also reflects who's still living in The One Club Hall of Fame, as well, which is sort of a separate issue. Obviously, it's hard to interview people who are deceased. But, the way I've looked at it is, this film starts where the Creative Revolution started.

"You have some people in the movie like George Lois ('I Want My MTV'), Mary Wells ('I Love New York') and Phyllis Robinson (Polaroid, Clairol, Levy's Bread) who are right in the dead center of that revolution. And then you have the people who were inspired by them. So you meet some of the West Coast people like Hal Riney, who started in San Francisco, and Lee Clow, who was out in L.A. with Chiat Day. Every person in the movie you can trace to that (Creative Revolution)."

Looking back at the film's interviews, Pray told me, "The one interview that really stands out to me is the Hal Riney interview -- not just because he died in April, but there's something about some of these interviews where (people like Riney) had never been interviewed before and they just kind of unloaded on my camera. It was so special. There was something really rare about having time with them and having them step back for the first time ever and really talk."

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