My First (and Probably Last) Press Junket

As a contributing writer to a University newspaper, I have access to movie passes, sneak previews, press screenings and celebrity interviews. Recently, I attended the screening of Dead Man on Campus. A mediocre film at best, I never would have imagined that DMOC would translate into such a memorable experience: an all-expenses paid weekend in Los Angeles, courtesy of Paramount studios.

The day after the screening, I am off to Planet Hollywood (in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor) to interview Lochlyn Munro (the freakishly-whimsical, Cliff) and Poppy Montgomery (the acute-and-cute coed, Rachel), two of the stars in DMOC. Although Munro and Montgomery are infants in Hollywood, it’s a surreal experience to talk face to face with two people I had seen the previous night on a giant screen.

Content with a positive interview and free nachos, I have no idea that the following weekend, I will be partying in LA, shmoozing with other writers and interviewing Mark-Paul Gosselaar, best known as Zack Morris in the hit television series “Saved By the Bell”.

Two days after the Planet Hollywood interviews, I receive yet another call from the publicist: “Do you want to go to LA to interview Alan Cohn (the director) and Mark-Paul Gosselaar? Your flight and hotel are paid for, plus you get a $200 expense account at the hotel for the weekend.” Um, ok. The following weekend, I’m on my way to a junket in LA.

Day 1: DMOC Screening at Paramount Studios

Having no idea what my hotel will be like, I will settle for a Howard Johnson. After a twenty minute cab ride into the heart of Beverly Hills, my cab pulls up right in front of the Hotel Nikko. A quick peek in the lobby told me this is no Howard Johnson. The design combines the ancient beauty of Japanese landscapes with superior business-meeting furniture: beautiful fountains, miniature brass bridges and the sleekest Corinthian leather (fine enough for Ricardo Matalban). At the registration, the expense account is explained: $200 for the weekend will cover room service; mini bar; lobby bar; pay-per-view; gift shop; phone calls and any other hotel expenses (massages excluded).

Peering into my room, I realize for one weekend, the good life will be lived. The room is part Tokyo penthouse, part Wall Street office. I ask myself, “All this for Dead Man On Campus?” A Japanese screen stands in front of a rolling mural depicting a James Clavelle, “Shogun”-like landscape. Fully loaded, the room also includes a CD player with 10 CDs to choose from, fax machine, a cell phone and an all-purpose remote control that will come in handy later in the night.

Bathrooms are a good indicator of a hotel’s elegance. Nicer than most families’ dining rooms, the bathroom included a phone and television. I could listen to CNN and call my friends long-distance, all while doing my “business.”

The press screening still hours away, I bake pool-side in the inviting LA sun. The first dent in the expense account is a $40 tab of Heinekens and assorted frozen spirits (the writer is of legal drinking age and didn’t have to drive).

Back in my palatial quarters, I order room service. Another $40 for three spring rolls and a medium pizza. This is Beverly Hills; instead of duck sauce for the spring rolls, Thai peanut sauce. On the pizza … no, not cheese, baked salmon. Within five hours the tab is $80 out of the allotted $200. Will I begin to spend conservatively? Hell no; “This ain’t no disco, this is LA.”

With the press screening only 45 minutes away (although I had already seen DMOC, reviewing the film with other writers will be a good experience, I reckon), I decide to access the mini bar’s Absolut baby bottles; I have to rationalize seeing the movie for the second time in a week. Sobriety at this point is irrational.

With mini-bottles in pocket, I board the limo-van with other college/alternative publication writers. Seven hours after my arrival in LA and a ten minute stroll down Melrose Avenue, the limo-van parks at Paramount Studios.

Walking towards their BMWs are director/producer types in typical Hollywood wardrobe: black sport jacket over plain white tee-shirt; blue jeans and sun glasses.

The movie is actually better the second time around. Is it the Absolut? It’s definitely helping. The weaker parts are more tolerable and the comedic episodes are funnier. Maybe it was the 25 inner-city grade-schoolers, bussed in and apparently instructed to crack up at the top of their lungs throughout the movie.

Back at the hotel lobby bar, I sit with some of the other writers, all of us sharing opinions on DMOC. We all agree that the film would have been better as a dark comedy and without the forced drug references. After trying six different martinis, it’s definitely time to call it a night. Back in the room with the aforementioned all-purpose remote control by my side, I turned on the CD player (De la Soul in rotation), clicked off all lights (with one push of a button) and punched up my on-screen tab. I’m up to $150.

Day 2: Interviews with Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Alan Cohn

Forgoing the $25 Eggs Benedict, I choose to explore other breakfast options on South La Cienga Blvd. I don’t have to look far. By divine intervention, located right across the street from my sassiest-of sassy hotels stands a shack: Fatburger, home of the best burger west of the Mississippi. After devouring a $3 eggburger with fries, I head straight to the hotel pool, intermittently dozing and devising questions for Gosselaar and Cohn.

With cobwebs still in my head, I struggle to think of a question for Gosselaar other than, “So did ya nail Tiffany Amber-Thiessen and Elizabeth Berkeley?”

Arriving early at the press check-in suite, I put a significant dent in the ten-foot long buffet of chips and salsa, brownies, brie and Perrier. Finally, other interviewers begin to filter in. The half-hour interviews are to be in a round-table format with three groups of eight.

I strategically sit next to the head of the table so I can see first hand if Gosselaar is worthy of all the female praise. I sit patiently and reviewed my questions.

In walks Gosselaar. Sexually secure, I have no problem admitting he’s one handsome bastard. Then again, he probably had a makeup artist wax his eyebrows and elongate his eyelashes. Among the handful of questions I pose to Gosselaar, I ask him if he noticed any similarities between his characters in “Saved by the Bell” and DMOC. (His answer isn’t that interesting.)

Aside from mentioning his recent marriage and lack of contact with Amber-Thiessen and Berkeley, Gosselaar does not have many interesting comments. Twice he declares how much he loves his job, that he takes it professionally, gets paid well and has much time to pursue his hobbies (one of them, car racing). Although his answers are honest, they come across as shallow.

I laugh to myself as Alan Cohn walks in wearing the requisite black sports jacket and blue jeans. A shaggy red-head with John Lennon-style glasses, Cohn (formerly with MTV’s “Real World”) answers every question with a director-as-mad scientist approach. Analyzing his direction, Cohn provides an insightful yet melodramatic analysis to every question. With my tape recorder doing all the work, I sit, anxiously waiting to get back to the pool and my expense account. Though a cool experience, the interviews are not the most exciting part of the junket. After one hour, the interviews end. I make preparations for repeating the first night’s events.

Day 3: The Flight Home

I manage to barely stay within the limit of my expense account. Besides a couple of pit-stops to the Fatburger, my trip to LA was free of charge. Paramount studios spent well over $1000 on each journalist to cover DMOC, an otherwise mediocre movie. On the flight home I realize Paramount’s strategy: Pay for the critic to get drunk, have an unforgettable time, hopefully translating into a positive review. Paramount’s strategy works. Dead Man on Campus was better the second time around. Although too brief, I’ll always remember my junket to LA. To be a non-celebrity, pampered in Hollywood … now that’s a strange reversal of fortune.

©Judd Handler, 1999