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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Donald Trump's birther crusade: Is it politics or old-school Hollywood marketing?

April 14, 2011 |  4:40 pm

Donald_trump From the days of Sam Arkoff and Joseph E. Levine to the modern-day media gamesmanship of Harvey Weinstein and Michael Moore, the movie business has always been full of wily hucksters willing to use any outrageous stunt to get moviegoers to see their film.

Back in the 1950s, the B-movie producer William Castle released a cheesy horror film called “Macabre.” Patently awful, the film is remembered today only for Castle's bravura marketing gimmickry. The producer took out a policy with Lloyd's of London, insuring every ticket buyer for $1,000 in case they died of fright, displaying a huge reproduction of the insurance policy over every theater marquee. Castle had hearses parked outside the theaters with fake nurses on hand in the lobbies. The movie was a huge hit, with audiences showing up just to see if anyone dropped dead.

I'm only guessing here, but I have to believe that as a boy, Donald Trump caught a matinee presentation of “Macabre.” After all, when it comes to showmanship, no one can hold a candle to the bombastic real estate tycoon who has been using an old Hollywood staple — controversy-based marketing — to bamboozle the media and put himself front and center in the GOP presidential race. According to a CNN poll released last week, Trump is now tied with Mike Huckabee atop the heap of GOP presidential aspirants, with 19% of likely Republican voters saying they would vote for him for president.

Trump's political ascendancy has been achieved by his single-minded focus on one hot-button issue — his incendiary claim that President Obama wasn't born in the United States. As Trump famously said on “The View”: “I want him to show his birth certificate!”

I won't waste any space here shaming the media for being so gullible — or so cynical — that it's given Trump's charges de facto legitimacy by providing him with free air time everywhere to hurl his stink bombs. Nor will I attempt to rebut Trump's charges, starting with the fact that Obama has long ago produced a certification of live birth showing he was born in Hawaii. As Trump has undoubtedly figured out, the point isn't whether he can prove his case. The point is that by raising the issue, he can generate a tsunami of publicity.

To anyone who spent time in Hollywood, this is an all-too-familiar strategy, especially in the hands of a modern-day Svengali like Weinstein. Dating to his first big hit, “The Crying Game,” Weinstein has shrewdly relied on controversy-based marketing, seeing it as a fountain of free publicity, allowing him to compete with larger studios with more lavish marketing resources. When Weinstein acquired “Priest,” a 1995 film about a Catholic priest who was persecuted by the church for being gay, Weinstein counted on blowback from the church to make the film a cause celebre — his initial plan, just to fan the flames, was to release the film on Good Friday. As one of his lieutenants said at the time, fueling the fire “is the way he marketed movies. He saw controversy as an opportunity to create greater publicity and greater awareness.”

More recently, Weinstein has counted on ratings controversies with films like “The King's Speech” and “Blue Valentine” to provide kindling wood for box-office success. So you might say that the Trump birther scam is right out of the Hollywood playbook. When the Wall Street Journal reported on the marketing campaign for Moore's 2007 film “Sicko,” financed by Weinstein, the paper's Merissa Marr wrote: “Mr. Moore's formula is simple: Pick a divisive topic and goad opponents into a public debate.”

Of course, for Moore and Weinstein, the divisiveness was designed to sell movie tickets. With Trump, it's not so easy to figure out the end game. Trump insists that he's gearing up for a presidential run. But most political observers agree that Trump, who has flirted with presidential bids in the past, has no intention of putting himself under the media microscope by officially declaring his candidacy, since it would inspire a raft of stories rehashing his messy financial deals and questioning his financial acumen. (The Smoking Gun has already released a damning look at his charitable contributions, dubbing him perhaps “the least charitable billionaire in the United States.”)

People in Hollywood are especially appalled by Trump's malicious birther claims and not just because most of them are Democrats. Having seen so many cynical marketing ploys in their own jobs, they're hip to Trump's shuck 'n' jive. After all, narcissistic personalities are a dime a dozen in showbiz — and equally coddled by the media. Mark Harris caught the Trump vibe perfectly in a recent New York magazine piece, writing that “he started talking and never stopped, venting his inflamed sense of entitlement to every radio show, Internet site and camera crew that was willing to serve as enabler, gawker, exploiter, concern troll or cheering section.” Except Harris was actually writing about Charlie Sheen.

Without changing a word, Harris could've been describing Tom Cruise in his couch-jumping phase or Lindsay Lohan in her self-destructive spiral. Or Paris Hilton or Courtney Love. Or Kevin Smith, out hustling a new movie. “Trump is Charlie Sheen without the drugs,” says 42 West principal partner Allan Mayer. “He's making his wild charges about Obama in much the same way he took a very shaky financial empire and sold it to the public as the epitome of capitalist brilliance — he's willing to exaggerate anything to get attention. It's his version of tiger's blood.”

For Terry Press, the former head of marketing at DreamWorks, Trump, Sheen and for that matter Glenn Beck are reminiscent of the central character of Elia Kazan's “A Face in the Crowd,” Lonesome Rhodes, a hillbilly singer who becomes a populist sensation and incipient political demagogue before spiraling into self-destruction. “Trump and Sheen exhibit the same kind of grandiose behavior you see in the Kazan film,” says Press. “You realize how close we are to embracing that kind of character: a media-made celebrity whose influence over the public could be used to pursue any sort of political agenda.”

I wish I could argue that if Trump's cynical fear-mongering is rooted in a movie made nearly 55 years ago, then things really haven't changed for the worse. When Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay for “A Face in the Crowd,” he was trying to scare us with a nightmarish vision of the future. But it's no longer a madcap, invented vision — it's business as usual in our soulless media culture. Hearing Donald Trump peddle his nonsense is just like hearing Lonesome Rhodes say of the “idiots” who follow him: “I can make 'em eat dog food and think it's steak.”

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Donald Trump at an April 5th "Dressed to Kilt" charity fashion show in New York City. 

Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters