Tuesday 12 February 2008

Publicity Successes of a Titanic proportion


Almost a century after the "Great Ship" went down, people continue to cash in on the mystic and the draw of the Titanic. Pictured above are two pictures I took at a Titanic / Minister of Culture press conference held at the Toronto Science Centre today - Feburary 12.08. The third from the top photo shows Aileen Carroll, Ontario's new Miinister of Culture talking about the new Family Day holiday that was created by the Liberal government late last year. What does Family Day have to do with the wreck of the Titanic? The Ontario Science Centre is owned by her Ministry and is currently staging a travelling Titanic exhibition. The Minister suggested families might consider seeing the show on Family Day!

The bottom picture, taken at the same event, shows Hugh Brewster a Titanic children's book author telling the story of the shipwreck to a class of Grade 5 students. Dressed in Edwardian clothes, the Canadian author has made a career out of explaining the tradegy of the Titanic to school age kids!

The two smaller images at the top of the page are frame grabs from the 2007 BBC / CBC production of Dr. Who. The popular Time Lord somehow managed to land his Tardus inside a Titanic space liner, and, like its Earthbound namesake is about to crash! How in all the gin joints across the galaxy Dr Who could wander into, I can' t imagine the odds of landing in a futuristic flying Titanic spaceship!

Being at the press conference made me reflect on the drawing power of the world's most famous shipwreck and how over the last 20 years I have managed to get millions of dollars worth of publicity for half a dozen projects cashing in on the Titanic brand. Explorers. Underwater Researchers. Escape Artists. Authors. Film Makers. Phantom SOS signals. Nutbars. All of the projects were different -- the only two common threads were the wreck itself and the nutty people the almost mythical Titanic attracts. [ I am busy working on a number of projects and will continue this thread later today or tomorrow or ....]

Sub-Title: Later that same month ... It was early in life I learned that blood and guts and accidental death sells. Monster Miller would give anything to see the Titanic.

Back in the 60's living in Renfrew, Ontario, I noted that for many teenagers entertainment on a hot summer night was visiting the downtown parking lot of the local GM dealership. Given that the Trans Canada Highway ran right down mainstreet (A new by-pass has now pushed Renfrew out of the motoring limelight) wreckage from nearby highway accidents were routinely towed to the lot and left
on display until the police and insurance agents had a chance to document the twisted bits of metal. The more blood, the more deaths, the larger the crowd. I remember one student, Ralph Miller (dubbed Monster Miller) would crawl inside those cars that had been involved in fatal accidents and retrieve bits of bloody metal for his trophy case. No one in town thought it weird or macbre (except when the accident involved a local), in fact the two town papers, the Mercury and the Advance raced to see who could get to the lot first and get the best pictures for the next edition! They rarely beat Monster Miller to the scene. He was a local hero.

Renfrew is a backwater community and its communal taste for disaster is much baser than society's fascination with shipwrecks. But, that same raw passion that transformed Monster Miller when he recovered bits of bone from the front seat of a crushed Pinto, is probably that same primitive rush - albeit draped under a mantle of science and history - that shipwreck hunters feel when they find a ship underwater. The bigger the casuality list the more press, and cash you will garner. Guaranteed.

My first encounter with the Titanic was while I was giving publicity assistance to Underwater Canada. Stephen Low, a Canadian film director was onboard a Russian research vessel (with its two deepwater minisubs) and produced an amazing IMAX large format film of the recently rediscovered passenger ship. Footage from that film was shown at Underwater Canada's annual film festival and team members took turns talking about the adventure. I got a lot of press for the project. Involved in the project were two Canadian researchers; Stephen Blasco and Dr. Joe MacInnis. Both men added an element of science to the filming and both came to annual dive show to talk about the film and their experiences underwater. Stephen, a government researcher based out of Halifax, made some startling discoveries about deepwater ocean currents and about how water pressure was crushing the hull of the Titanic and overtime creating huge metal rusticals to form on Her.

I am not sure or I have forgotten what Dr. Joe's role in the project. However, he did often give moving public talks about the filming expedition and somehow got the 3-D rights to portions of the footage shot on the wreck. He went on to write a book about the Titanic. And, a few years after the movie came out I tried, on behalf of the late great Toronto Maritime Museum (the Harbourfront Pier), to set up a small theatre to show Joe's movie to visitors! We never did get the movie up and running, lighting concerns and costs scuttled the project. I am not sure how Joe's book did, he has since gone on to write a book about the Edmund Fitzgerald and another about Canada's most northerly wreck, the Breadalbine. Joe, a medical doctor by training, frequently writes for Diver Magazine, however he doesn't talk to me unless he really has to, he has a hate-on over a Globe and Mail review I wrote about one of his books. Sigh - not an uncommon occurrence in the dive industry, where bragging rights are more important than commerce.

A few years after the Imax movie I was once again schilling for the wreck. James Cameron, a Canadian diver turned Hollywood movie maker, was filming Titanic. The project was behind schedule and way way over budget. Cameron, worried that the film might be sunk by the studio before it was even finished, actually gave up his share of the film to help finance its completion and began a global PR campaign to show investors and journalists images from the sunken ship.

Cameron had leased that same Russian research vessel and its deepwater wide -windowed submarines that were used in the filming of the Imax movie. Shooting for Hollywood rather than for Science Centre audiences, Cameron took amazing images of the downed ship. He sent his submarine pilot to Toronto with a tray full of slides to show auidences at Underwater Canada and to an eager press what would be in his movie. We were front-page across the country.

The dive show was held in late winter, early spring. A few months after the Titanic slide presentation had sailed through town I got a call from a location manager working for Cameron in California. She wanted to know if I knew of any ships that had steam driven boilers - Cameron was thinking of filming a sequence showing Arnold Schwartznegger madly shoveling coal to power the Titanic as she tried to full-steam ahead past the iceberg. I told them of an abandoned ship my wife and I had seen in Palau, but, the Arnie idea was dropped and I never heard from them again.

I was also hired to briefly help with the Toronto launch of the Titanic Exhibition by Premier Entertainment. It was held in the Better Living Building on the Grounds of the CNE. It was the first of what is now 7 travelling exhibitions showcasing artifacts removed from the wrecksite of the Titanic. Many say it is grave robbing. Premier Entertainment say that they are protecting artifacts that would soon be crushed by a crumbling mass of untempered steel.

The Toronto show was not very successful even though the set-up was spectacular and the media to-die-for. The whole front of the Better Living Building had a massive mural of the Titanic. On opening night there were various food stations serving dishes from the various classes of passengers and crew. (They served a boiled cabbage and corned beef to show what people in steerage ate). The downfall of the show was the location. The CNE grounds are not known for museum exhibits and in winter it is a blistering cold and windy half-mile unprotected walk from the streetcar station to the Better Living Building ... and when you got there? Well the building wasn't heated.

Premier got their act together and now have a very slick, albeit expensive, presentation that is drawing spectators in across North America. I've caught the show in San Francisco and my wife saw it in Vegas. It now finishing an extended run at the Toronto Ontario Science Centre - hence the need for a media boosting press event in February.

Not to be outdone by the Better Living Building show the Toronto International Boat Show, put on a display which I helped promote. They worked with a Nova Scotia magician, the Great Santini, who also owned a private collection of real artifacts from the Titanic. Steve Santini's holdings were not plunder from the wrecksite but were floatsom that was collected by East Coasters following the accident. Including in the exhibition he installed at the Boat Show was a deck chair and a life presever.

Steve Santini would dress up like Captain Smith (in a real White Star Line uniform) and yell at visitors as though they were panicky steerage passengers wanting to be allowed on the upper decks so that they could get on life boats. And, if you tried to rearrange the deck chair on the Titanic deck, he would almost foam at the mouth. He scared children, deafened adults who wandered into hearing range and titilated the media! During breaks he would perform card tricks and bemoan the fact that he didn't have chains or a straight jacket to break out of.

Santini was a hard working man, he got just one day off from the ten day show. He was orginally from Toronto but had moved to Halifax to look after his Titanic Collection. Rather than visit his family on his one free day he had me drive him around the countryside tracking down Ontario graves from Titanic victims. Although he does have a career as a magican and escape artist all he could talk about was the Titanic.

As I remember it, we got as far as Stroud. If we had have travelled farther north we could have stopped at the Lands Inn Bed and Breakfast in Tobermory. The hotel is owned by a dive historian who annually hosts a meeting of wreck experts, a group which includes Steve Blasco and Dr. Joe MacInnis. [Art Amos, the owner of the Inn accompanied me once inside a Canadian Navy mini-sub as we looked for shipwrecks in Lake Erie]. Legend has it that due to freak atmospheric conditions, the Titanic SOS was heard at Lands End in Tobermory!

Experience has taught me if you need press find a Titanic angle. I was working with a PR company - Crane Communications - and we were trying to get attention for the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo. As part of the Expo the organizers were putting together a wine auction with the proceeds going to Sick Kids. Believe me, there is nothing more difficult to push than charity wine auction. Calling newsrooms and assignment desks got the response all PR people hate - Been There, Done That, Excuse me while I Yawn. The Titanic changed all that. Through dive contacts I was able to acquire a bottle of French champagne recovered by divers from a shipwreck in the Baltic. The boat, filled with chamgagne for Russian troops fighting in Sweden, was sunk by German torpedoes in 1911. The Baltic is so cold that the wine was perfectly preserved (and the wave action kept the contents in constant motion). We brought a bottle over, found out it was the same brand and vintage as was served on the Titanic, and suddenly we had our hook. I took the bottle, along with a bulked out security guard to a number of TV shows and we pumped up the interest in the charity auction.

As a footnote, the bottle was bought by a relative of Lord Thomson of Fleet. He paid a couple thousand dollars for the bottle. He opened it right after buying it. He took a drink and gave the bottle to Linda Crane and myself to finish off. How did it taste? The bubbles were light on my tongue, the taste was sweet and then it sank to my stomach like the ship we named it after. It was a Titanic moment in wine drinking.

I don't seek out Titanic work, yet, every two or three years I find myself writing about Titanic topics or doing PR for projects that have a Titanic connection. Younger audiences may yawn at the topic, however, the media will almost always come out and cover a Titanic story, even if it is a Nova Scotia escape artist dressed like Captain Smith yelling at kids trying to touch his deck chair.