by John Sciacca
I am fascinated with product placements in movies. Seriously. I *live* for those subtle things that so many other people just gloss over. Like the brand of watch that a character is wearing, or the bottle of wine on the table or perhaps the pen they use to sign a contract. Someone went to the trouble of hand-selecting each and every one of those items and likely put some thought into why the character would have or use the particular prop. And when done correctly, it totally fleshes out the character and the scene. And, of course, since I love AV tech, there is nothing I like seeing better than the gear that fills the imaginary dwellings in these imaginary worlds, entertaining these imaginary people.
For many years, Bang & Olufsen was the crown-prince of AV film product placement. Their BeoPhone logged so much screen time that it should have its own IMDB page. And even in the latest Transformers movie – that 7.5 hour, marathon of a film that just kept going and going and exploding and exploding, and OK, I get it, they had like a $200 MM budget and needed some financing help. But for the love of Hollywood, WHY DOES AN AUTOBOT HAVE A TARGET LOGO ON IT?!? There is no Target on Cybertron World! There is no reason AT ALL for one of these ALIEN ROBOT CARS to have a TARGET LOGO ON IT! That just KILLS my suspension of disbelief. And, simultaneously proves my point about product placement. That was a TERRIBLE example of it. Every time I saw that Target logo, I was forced to make a loud groaning/sighing moan and say, “OH, BROTHER!” which I’m sure did not help Dana’s suspension of disbelief either. Though, she was reminded that she needed to go and buy something at Target so, DOUBLE DAMMIT! OK, like I was saying before my little tirade, even in Transformers 3, there is a B&O on-wall, CD-music system. Sure, it almost immediately transforms into a maniacal killing Decepticon, but what else would an elegant music system do in a Michael Bay universe?
And whenever I see a cool bit of tech in movies, I’m quick to point it out to Dana. “Eww! Do you see that!” “What?” “That! That speaker!” “Where?” “RIGHT THERE! The speaker!” “Oh. Yeah. I see it.” “Cool, right?!” “Uh, yeah, sure.”
But lately, I have been noticing another company’s products more and more up on the silverscreen (OK, it is on our Draper screen, and it’s not silver; it’s matte white.) And that company is Meridian.
So the other night while we were watching Morgan Spurlock’s doc, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which is a film entirely about product and brand placement in films, it got me to thinking… “Hmm. I wonder what is involved in getting a product into a film? How do you arrange that? Who picks the product? What kind of legal is involved in making that happen? And what does it cost?”
And since the products I’ve been seeing lately more than any other are Meridian, I reached out to Meridian’s ace PR rep, Sue Toscano, and asked if she thought Meridian would be interested in telling this story and could she put me in touch with the person that would know these answers. Turns out Meridian thought the idea was cool as well and that they were down with a chance of sharing this story and shedding a bit of light on an often overlooked bit of the movie-making process. And the person to talk to is Jeff Dean, director, strategic business development, Meridian America, Inc. And he DOES know all the answers. I fired off a barrage of questions to Jeff, and he was kind enough to reply with some terrifically thorough answers.
Jeff, how long have you been with Meridian?
I’ve been working for Meridian since 2008. The company was looking to develop closer ties to the entertainment content community, which created a need for a presence in Southern California. Bob Stuart (co-founder of Meridian) and I had worked together to develop and promote DVD Audio and Dual Disc when I was the head of Silverline Records (DVD Audio, Dual Disc only label). Bob introduced me to Meridian’s chief marketing officer, Graeme Taylor, who brought me onboard.
How did you get involved in brand/product placement?
Other than overseeing a cable TV production designed to promote new album releases when I was at A&M Records, I had never been involved with brand/product placement prior to Meridian. About a year before I joined the company, Meridian had brought in an investment group that included the film and television production company, New Regency Enterprises. While Meridian had provided some products to a couple of film productions prior to the relationship, it was the New Regency connection that got Meridian to look at product placement as an ongoing thing. Once I came on board, I actually had an office in the New Regency offices. I hadn’t figured out where the mailroom was before I was coordinating with the production of Bride Wars and our U.S. and U.K. headquarters to get a variety of products to the set in Boston (even though the story takes place in New York City). Product placement responsibilities came with this job.
I've seen Meridian in more and more films recently; is this the culmination of finally getting the name and brand awareness out there or why the sudden frequent appearances?
Naturally, it’s because I’m totally awesome at what I do! Seriously, I think there are a number of reasons. I have run across a couple of producers and directors who consider themselves audiophiles and have actually requested Meridian based on the product’s reputation. I also believe that we have been successful at establishing Meridian as a high performance luxury brand and as such, our product can help to define a character as a person who appreciates the finer things. The design of our products brings a level of sophistication and “cool factor” to a set design. There are also logistical factors that make Meridian attractive to do business with. When productions or independent production asset firms work with me, they know they are dealing directly with the manufacturer and I know which Meridian products work together in a system. Typically, most of the product placement similar to ours is handled by large firms that represent many different brands and different types of products. The reps from those firms would not necessarily know the products in the detail that I do being able to focus on only one brand.
It seems like Meridian is kind of the new audio go-to brand. Why do you think that is? I'm guessing it has something to do with the iconic, striking styling.
There is no question that I get a lot of placements because of how our products look. Allen Boothroyd gets all the credit for that. If your readers are familiar with the Meridian brand, they are probably familiar with Bob Stuart because as co-founder and CTO of the company he is interviewed and written about in the audio press frequently. Bob is behind the innovative technology that has always set Meridian apart from other audio brands. But in the area of industrial design, Allen Boothroyd is a bona fide rock star. As co-founder of the company with Bob, Allen has designed the look and feel of every product Meridian has sold. His designs are beautiful, luxurious and in tune with people’s lifestyles. There are Meridian Products on permanent display in the New York Museum of Modern Art. The clean, simple lines of Meridian products are easily recognizable on camera, but they don’t upstage what is going on in the scene. On a completely different note, I’m aggressive at getting our products in front of set designers. I make it easy to use our products and I deliver on what I promise. But I know none of that would matter if Meridian products looked like some kind of science project gone wrong. I’m fortunate that I’m involved with a product line that has an exceptional regard for form and function.
How many films/TV shows has Meridian been featured in so far?
We have been in 23 productions to date with many more coming this Fall, Winter and 2012. I’m working on projects now that will be released in late 2012 or early 2013.
How early into the cycle are you brought into the loop?
I’m typically talking with a production towards the end of pre-production. They are usually within a few weeks of the start of principle photography.
Walk me through the process of getting Meridian gear placed in a film.
Sometimes I’m dealing with a request like your “We need a stereo system for a scene” premise. However, I also reach out to productions or the studios that are producing or distributing a film or TV show to see if there might be a fit for Meridian products. With the major movie studios I’m usually working with someone from the product placement or production asset department (roughly the same thing, but under different names depending on the studio). They have a list of requests from the production for any number of things that the production would like to use for their sets without having to buy. With Independent films, there is often a separate firm hired to find and manage the assets that the production is looking for. With TV, it is more common for the set designer or set dresser to reach out directly. Sometimes, they know they are in need of stereo / home theater products specifically. However, many times the script only mentions something like “INT SCOTT’S MANSION – CONTINUOUS Elegant and impeccably furnished…” I see open ended descriptions like this as an opportunity for Meridian products to paint the appropriate picture and I make suggestions for specific products in specific scenes. In general, once I’m in contact with someone from a production, I email them the Meridian product placement catalog I have developed and they email me the script (after I’ve signed an NDA). I can usually make specific recommendations on product per set in a day or two and the production usually takes about that long to put together a wish list based on my recommendations and what they come up with from looking at my catalog.
Do you generally work with the set dresser or prop master?
My main direct contact at the production is usually the set coordinator who is responsible for having all the set pieces delivered for each set based on the shooting schedule. For instance, filming may start on May 1st, but they don’t need my product until May 26th. The set coordinator is also responsible for getting all of the product returned. I do work directly with the set dresser and/or set designer or through their go-betweens (set coordinator or studio product placement person assigned to the production). We work on the wish list of product, theirs and mine.
What is typically the timeline start to finish?
If the product they want isn’t already out with another production, I can get their product request sent in a day. Usually, the process of initial contact to product shipment takes about a week to 10 days. Sometimes there is more lead time and sometimes I’m providing product in less than 24 hours. Shooting schedules vary, but the product is usually out for 8 – 10 weeks. Of course, it is usually nine months to a year until the film is actually released in theaters. And even then, there is no guarantee that our products will be seen in the final cut.
Do you get to be on set for the scenes that are filmed with your product?
Generally not. In fact many product placement agreements specifically forbid the manufacturer from being on set without special permission, which is understandable considering the amount of money being spent every minute on a film set. They don’t want someone trying to tell them how to do their job in an effort to make a product look a certain way on film. It’s different if you are paying to have your product featured in a film, but in the “product in exchange for possible exposure” product placement level we don’t get to literally call the shots. However, I have been asked to be on set to put together a couple of systems and to show the prop masters how things work so that they can teach actors how to do simple operations.
Speaking of pay, does Meridian pay anything for placement in films? If so, can you say how much?
To date, Meridian has never paid anything for placement in a film or TV show. Those opportunities exist in terms of cross promotions with a studio which you see with fast food chains, beverage companies and automobile manufacturers. Another “pay for play” model tends to come from independent films that are looking for someone to share in the financing of their film, and they’re willing to trade a significant shot involving the product, or mention in the script to get you to give them lots of money. Meridian isn’t interested in these “pay for play” scenarios. Someday there may be a cross promotion or sweepstakes opportunity that could come up with the right film and the right studio partner, but that is not our focus.
Speaking of putting the systems together, do the “prop systems” actually work?
When I first started, everything worked. Now, not so much. Don’t take that the wrong way. As we’ve introduced new products and retired older ones, I’ve been able to return the older items we no longer sell and get prototype or dummy versions of the new products. This is important, as it lowers our inventory exposure and lowers the replacement cost in the event of any damage. However, I do still have product that works and in the event that a working system needs to be on set, I would go and install it if the shoot is local. If filming is outside southern California, I would either travel to the set, or make other arrangements with Meridian personnel in another part of the country.
Do you have any approval of how the gear will be used, displayed or represented? Could you veto something, like say if it showed someone smashing them or had someone saying how crappy the audio sounded or something?
I push pretty hard to see the script on most productions to be able to avoid a situation where our product would be used in an unflattering manner. Reading through the script also allows me to make informed suggestions about what products would be appropriate on each set. That isn’t to say that set designers always take my recommendations, but they don’t ignore my input because they know I have a feel for how the products are used. There is an important element of trust in all of this. Once I provide the product and sign a release for its use, the production can pretty much put it anywhere in the film they want (or not). However, they generally want things to make sense and they want their product placement partners to be happy because they may want to work with them again on future projects. However, I do remember having to turn down a request from a director who wanted to do a sight gag in a comedy that involved having a line of 8 to 10 DSP7200 loudspeakers ($35,000 a pair) get knocked over like so many dominoes. They accepted my refusal and still had plenty of my products in the final cut.
Have you turned down any requests?
I passed on proposing some product for a film because the set that made the most sense for the product involved a very violent scene between truly despicable characters. I didn’t want our products associated in any way with these characters and I feared there might be a chance that the scene would end up with blood splattered on our product. (Yes, it would be fake blood that would be easily cleaned from our product before return). Obviously, I made a subjective decision based on what was written on the page, but that is all you have to go by. I have turned down a request that would potentially damage and trivialize our product. I’ve also declined to submit product placement proposals to productions that I don’t believe would be a good fit or may be a bit shaky financially where they might cut corners on handling our product, or not be sufficiently insured in case of product damage. I also have to calculate what productions I might miss out on if my product is tied up somewhere else. Ultimately, I need to do what I can to present the Meridian brand accurately as a high performance, luxury audio / home theater brand. With that responsibility comes the potential of being so precious about our product that it rarely has an opportunity to be seen. That has to be balanced against the desire to be in everything.
How many projects are typically going at once?
I’m not sure I can give you a typical scenario. I tend to have at least two projects going at any one time. I think the most I’ve had going at once is five. I have a limited amount of product available for product placement, so I’m often juggling product coming back from one production and then getting it out to another one. Most productions are very understanding and will work with me the best they can. Sometimes there will be a great opportunity and I don’t have a particular requested product available. In that case, I’ve received great support from Meridian America who will do their best to get me what I need to complete a production request.
Do you have any input on what product will be "scene appropriate"? Like a poor guy would NEVER own a Meridian 800 system. And I have to say, that totally pulls me out of the scene; my blood-pressure spikes and I shout, "Do you know how much that system cost?! There is NO WAY that low-level employee could afford that! Why not have him driving a Ferrari while they’re at it?!" My wife is long-suffering.
You bring up an excellent point, and something that I’m always conscious of. If I have the opportunity to read a script and generate suggestions on product, I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at matching the appropriate products in our line to a realistic set / character combination. There have been occasions when a production has come to me with a product wish list that doesn’t make sense for the set / character, and I’ve explained what the retail value of the products are, and we make changes accordingly. I have walked away from projects that want stereo equipment because there isn’t any credible place for a high performance luxury product like Meridian. But it isn’t always so cut and dried. Sometimes there are great opportunities for placement that are a bit of a stretch as a match between product and character. For instance, I placed a significant system in the basement-turned-Man Cave of Mark Ruffalo’s character in Date Night. The retail value of the product was roughly $45K - $50K. One could certainly argue that the system was too sophisticated for the setting in the final film. The script referred to the house as “suburban” and the basement as a “Man Cave,” which doesn’t give you much to go on. For instance, there isn’t any indication as to what Ruffalo’s character does for a living or if he is or isn’t interested in music / home theater. But it is an important scene between Ruffalo’s character and the lead character played by Steve Carell and I’ll push for inclusion in a case like that because the goal is to have our product seen. In the final analysis, the set designer decided to create a dated, wood paneled environment with at least a nod to the character’s musical passion by including jazz artwork on the walls. I would have preferred something cleaner and more modern, but the final film has several shots of our product, including a close up of Steve Carell with our loudspeaker clearly identifiable behind him.
I'm surprised that we haven't seen the Sooloos system yet, as it's visually so interesting. Any reason why or any upcoming films to watch out for?
Actually, I have received one Sooloos placement in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, but you’ll miss it if you blink. I agree with you that the Sooloos system presents a very strong image. I’ve actually had the control panels shipped to a lot of productions in the last year, so you should see them popping up on screen soon. The challenge with the Sooloos panel is that it looks the most interesting when it has album art images on the screen. In order to do that, you need to control the copyright of the artwork or license the rights to use the artwork from the copyright owner. The latter can be a time consuming process that the productions don’t want to be bothered with in most cases. My first solution to the problem was to have our creative team create faux jazz album cover artwork that I turned into a static cling that can go on the control panel screen and give the appearance that a song from the fictitious album is playing on the system. Since then I’ve been able to license permission to use album art from several different labels for this purpose, which should add to the authenticity of the system in use.
In the movie Limitless the Meridian speakers are shown knocked over. My wife actually recognized thesespeakers as they were the bigger brothers of the DSP3200s that we had in our living room for review! Did the pair from the film have any damage?
Actually there was, but not how you would think. It was from how they packed them for return. The production was great about it and paid for the damage.
And do you always get the gear back?
Could someone buy the ACTUAL products that were featured in a given movie? Say I loved Dinner For Schmucks (for the record, I didn't. At all.) and wanted THAT system. Any way to do that for a true fanatical collector?
This hasn’t come up, but I suppose I would entertain certain requests if they came. The tricky part would be if someone wanted the DSP5200 loudspeakers from Dinner For Schmucks and another person wanted the DSP5200s that were in Limitless because they’re the same loudspeakers. Hey, maybe I could start a bidding war. Before you know it, my speakers will want their own agent!
[Bonus! Two bits of movie memorabilia for the price of one! Put your bids in now, people!]
If I'm a filmmaker – hey, you never know! -- how do I get Meridian in my movie?
The first step would be to contact me at email@example.com.
Here’s a chance for a shameless plug: Where can people go to see the films where Meridian products have been featured?
People can check out the productions we’ve been in at Meridian at the Movies.
Thanks again, Jeff! Really appreciate the answers, and think this is a terrifically interesting story! I'll definitely keep my eyes peeled for future examples of your work!