July 28th, 2009
Fellow Graduates, Before We Greet The Future, a Word From My Sponsor
By Ethan Smith and Sabrina Shankman
The Wall Street Journal
Marketers Get School's Valedictorian to Plug Movie in Her Speech, but the Flick Still Flop
Last month, 18-year-old Kenya Mejia closed her valedictory address at Los Angeles’s Alexander Hamilton High School on a startling note: publicly professing a secret passion for a classmate.
“I cannot let this opportunity just pass by,” said Ms. Mejia, who is to enroll at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. “I love you, Jake Minor!”
The crowd roared. Mr. Minor stood and pumped his fists in the air. A few days later, Ms. Mejia cashed a check for $1,800.
The commotion Ms. Mejia created was actually part of a ploy cooked up by marketing executives and consultants for Twentieth Century Fox, the Hollywood studio whose headquarters is less than two miles from Hamilton High.
The goal of the plot, which included a marketing company called the Intelligence Group and at least one other contractor, was to create a “viral” buzz online for the romantic comedy “I Love You, Beth Cooper.” The movie opens with an unassuming valedictorian using his graduation speech to proclaim his feelings for the most popular girl in school. Fox and its consultants hatched the ruse to recreate the scene at a real high school before the film’s July 10 opening, say people familiar with the matter, in hopes of creating online chatter about the way the movie supposedly inspired copycats.
The incident represents an increasingly common Hollywood tactic: staging events that look spontaneous to inspire online buzz.
“Brüno,” a Universal Pictures comedy that opened the same day as “Beth Cooper,” relied on similar methods. At the MTV Movie Awards in May, the movie’s star, Sacha Baron Cohen, was lowered abruptly by wires onto rapper Eminem in an apparent technical malfunction that tangled the two men in a suggestive position. After days of speculation about whether the episode was really an accident, the rapper acknowledged it had been staged by the filmmakers.
In 2007, Walt Disney Co.’s Hollywood Records helped singer Marié Digby produce several homemade-looking music videos that were posted online. Only after the videos began to attract millions of viewers did the record label send out a news release announcing it had signed the “breakthrough YouTube phenomenon”—even though her record deal dated to 2005. Ms. Digby’s career still hasn’t taken off, though.
A few weeks before the June graduation season, an employee of the Intelligence Group asked members of a focus group to help find valedictorians. The company, a unit of Creative Artists Agency, regularly polls thousands of teens to identify consumer trends. One panelist was a friend of Ms. Mejia and approached her with the company’s proposition: It would pay her $1,000 to $1,500 if she would mention the movie by name and say its trailer inspired her to make her own confession of love.
Ms. Mejia, who describes herself as “like, the biggest introvert ever,” says she still can’t quite believe she participated in the stunt. “I really don’t know what I was thinking,” she says by telephone from Cambridge, Mass., where she’s already taking summer classes at MIT in physics, chemistry, calculus and humanities in preparation for her freshman year.
Fox hired another firm to videotape the episode in a style that emulated a home movie. The company then posted it on YouTube—a tactic employed by a growing number of marketers seeking to create seemingly amateur videos that appear more authentic than conventional ads.
Unfortunately for the studio, lightning didn’t strike. “I Love You, Beth Cooper” has been a bomb in an otherwise buoyant summer movie season. The movie, which cost an estimated $19 million to make, took in $13.4 million domestically its first three weeks in release, according to Hollywood.com. Even Ms. Mejia hasn’t seen it.
Nor has the 67-second YouTube clip become the blockbuster Fox hoped for. More than a month after it was posted, the clip had garnered fewer than 2,000 views. That is a far cry from the millions of views attracted by successful viral ruses like “Lonelygirl15”—the supposedly amateur video series that became wildly popular online in 2006 before being revealed as a production of professional filmmakers with Hollywood connections; it continued to be popular after that revelation.
The stunt did succeed in outraging officials at Hamilton High and the Los Angeles Unified School District, who were horrified when informed by a reporter that a movie company had essentially planted a paid advertisement in the midst of a graduation ceremony.
Hamilton High Assistant Principal Roberta Mailman says neither she nor anyone from the school was contacted for permission—either for the stunt itself or for filming it. Before learning of the payment, she says, “I thought it was a great speech.”
School District spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry says she is unsure whether the episode violated any policy, but adds that Ms. Mejia’s diploma is safe. In a statement, Local District Superintendent Michelle King wrote: “Obviously, this is not condoned by the District. It’s unfortunate.”
A spokesman for Fox, a unit of News Corp., which also owns Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, said: “We hired an outside company to look for viral opportunities for this movie, and this is one of the opportunities they found.” A spokeswoman for CAA declined to comment.
Ms. Mejia says she essentially fell into the plot when she was contacted by the friend who was in the focus group. He couldn’t be reached for comment. A few days later, Ms. Mejia received another call, this time from an Intelligence Group employee whose name she doesn’t recall.
“First they were just saying that I had to share a secret,” Ms. Mejia recalls. “But then the next day they said it had to be about my crush. I was like, ‘Oh that changes things a bit!’”
Ms. Mejia says she plans to put the $1,800 she earned toward expenses at MIT. People familiar with the transaction confirmed the amount, but it isn’t clear why she was paid more than the initial offer.
She ran the plan past her boyfriend—not Jake Minor—who endorsed it. The strongest opposition came from her parents. “They were shocked that I was willing to do it,” she recalls. “I don’t really know why I agreed. It was just the thrill of the moment.” Her parents, Luis and Maura Mejia, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
The prospect of making a public declaration for a boy other than her boyfriend still gave Ms. Mejia jitters. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m crazy,’” she recalls. “But it wasn’t too bad after I did it.” Ms. Mejia was also able to work in the requisite plug for “Beth Cooper.”
Though it was less spontaneous than it appeared, Ms. Mejia’s “confession” contained a grain of truth. She says she really had a crush on Mr. Minor for at least part of her senior year, but kept it to herself.
She did give Mr. Minor, who is headed to the University of California, Berkeley, an oblique heads-up just before the graduation ceremony began, asking that he pay attention to what she was going to say. “She came up to me and said, ‘Will you please listen to my speech?’” he recalls. “So I figured something was up.”
Ms. Mejia and Mr. Minor agree the episode didn’t spark a new romance. Nonetheless, he says that he—along with his girlfriend at the time—was taken by surprise when Ms. Mejia delivered her message.
“I had no idea that she liked me,” Mr. Minor says. “She’s pretty quiet.”