‘Keeping Up’ With Mel Gibson

‘Keeping Up’ With Mel Gibson
Grass-roots marketing hits new high in Jewish community with Miramax bar mitzvah film.
Curt Schleier – Special To The Jewish Week

They may be singing from Mel Gibson’s hymnbook, but those behind “Keeping Up With the Steins” are hoping for a big “Amen” from the Jewish community.

In a grass-roots marketing strategy that bears a striking parallel, albeit on a smaller scale, to Gibson’s controversial blockbuster, “The Passion of the Christ,” Miramax, the distributor of “Keeping Up With the Steins,” has blanketed the Jewish community with special screenings for Jewish groups and Jewish leaders, arranging as many as 20 in each of a half dozen major markets around the country.

Depending on the market, that is five and six times the normal number of screenings, which are usually limited to local press, according to Miramax officials.

A major California rabbi vetted the script and plans to show it to all his bar and bat mitzvah students. Writer-producer Mark Zakarin’s cantor in Pacific Palisades, Calif., also put his heksher on the script. And in a kind of viral campaign that marketers dream of, some rabbis who attended one of the many screenings sent out mass e-mailings to congregants and friends telling them about the film.

“I think ‘The Passion’ definitely created awareness,” said Julie Fontaine, a vice president in Miramax’s publicity and promotion department. “The ability to market to the Christian community had never been tapped into before. It took target marketing to a new level. It made us aware of how much can be done when trying to reach a core market.”

At a time when controversial films in the Jewish community, such as Sandi Dubowski’s “Trembling Before G-d,” about homosexuality within the Orthodox community, have tried creative, almost house-to-house marketing schemes, Miramax has gone grass roots with “The Steins.”

“I don’t know if we changed how we market so much as it made us focus more on the grass roots and outreach,” Fontaine said. “I think that’s true for every studio.”

This film is, she added, is “the kind of movie that’s really dependent upon grass-roots marketing” that generates word-of-mouth in addition to television and newspaper advertising.

“Keeping Up With the Steins,” which opens today, is a story about the race to have the biggest Hollywood bar mitzvah ever. Agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) feels compelled to outdo a former colleague who rented a Cunard liner for a Titanic-themed party. So Fiedler plans to rent Dodger Stadium and hire several ballplayers (and Neil Diamond) for his son’s party.

Sound far-fetched? A woman called Miramax after a screening to ask if the filmmakers had used her son’s Titanic-themed bar mitzvah as inspiration.

Zakarin, 56, wrote the screenplay before recent news reports of multimillion-dollar extravaganzas such as a bar mitzvah in the Rainbow Room, where the parents flew in 50 Cent, Aerosmith, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks to provide the entertainment.

Still, it’s a subject Zakarin is familiar with, albeit on a much smaller scale. He grew up in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island in the ’60s, a time when bar mitzvahs were far less extravagant. “Over-the-topness then meant a Viennese table with extra desserts. Or those flaming desserts where you pour alcohol on them, shut the lights and make a big show of lighting the alcohol. Another big thing back then was the pyramid of champagne glasses.

“I don’t think I ever went to a themed bar mitzvah, but they were ridiculous in their own way.”

Zakarin became a Hollywood player who held executive positions with ABC and Showtime networks; he had teleplays produced and screenplays optioned.

When he finished writing “The Steins,” he was thinking more about “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” than “The Passion.” That film, he said, “told an ethnic story that crossed over to the mainstream. It’s about family and a wedding and shared experiences and people related to it.

“[Steins] is a coming-of-age movie about forgiveness and acceptance. I felt it could cross over in the same way.”

Zakarin asked local religious leaders to review the script. Both Cantor Chayim Frenkel, the cantor at Zakarin’s own synagogue, Kehillat Israel, in Pacific Palisades, and Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, were enthusiastic in their support.

Rabbi Schulweis, an influential rabbi in Southern California, said he found the script sensitive and relevant. “It was art reflecting reality and I found it particularly poignant that it was the kid towards the end who recognizes the shallowness of it all,” he told The Jewish Week.

The rabbi plans to show it to all Valley Beth Shalom parents and children three years before their bar mitzvahs.

Moreover, he was so enthused by the film, he volunteered to get a group of local Jewish leaders together for a screening. It was a pattern repeated around the country. One screening led to requests for more. Rabbis sent out mass e-mailings to congregants and friends telling them about the film.

Zakarin himself spent days calling rabbis around the country to promote the film. “Jerry Bruckheimer isn’t going to sit around and call rabbis all day,” he noted.

Certainly this type of special marketing has been around for some time. Typically when a film is released, the distributor will sponsor junkets — that is press days when the principals are available for roundtable interviews with members of the print media and one-on-ones with radio and TV reporters. When “Schindler’s List” was released, director Steven Spielberg did dozens of one-on-one interviews, not only with the mainstream press but with reporters from Jewish media.

The same was true when Dreamworks SKG released the animated film, “The Prince of Egypt.” Jeffrey Katzenberg arranged a last-minute interview with this reporter to assure coverage in the Jewish press in New York.

But both films had far greater resources. Mark Urman, head of the theatrical division of Think Films, has been “experimenting with groups such as JCCs” for Jewish-interest niche films. Think Films distributed “Fateless,” a Holocaust drama based on the life of Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz, and “When Do We Eat?” a comedy, as well as the documentary “Protocols of Zion.” He believes this kind of marketing became de rigueur long before “The Passion.”

“You have to really target these audiences and make them almost a partner in the success of the movie.”

Ironically, Urman added, “I must say it’s been easier with other groups than with the Jews. I want to preface that by saying I am myself Jewish. And you know that old saying, you get three Jews in a room, you get six opinions…

“I’ve actually had Jewish community leaders say they’d help me if I remade the film ‘Protocols of Zion’. It’s much harder to deal with Jewish groups and community leaders than I’ve had with other groups.”

That hasn’t been the experience of Zakarin, who claims he had no negative feedback.

“I think one of the great things about Jewish culture is that Jews love to laugh. They love to laugh at themselves and they love to laugh at the culture. The reaction I’ve gotten from rabbis is that the values this film ends up with will make people proud of Jewish culture.

“We’ve had rabbis volunteer to send out e-mails. All kinds of rabbis, from Reconstructionist to Chabad. We’ve had nothing but enthusiastic cooperation.”

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