I'll Take Manhattan: Woody Allen and Marketing a Sense of Place


Mayor Ed Koch of New York City passed away last week and besides being reminded of "How am I doing?" it had me thinking about depictions of the city in the late 1970's. It was a place that journalist and photographer Allan Tannenbaum described as "dirty, dangerous and destitute". There were blackouts and riots, a declining population, and a corrupt police department. Tannenbaum said "Times Square, the crossroads of the world, was seedy and sleazy. Pimps, hookers, and drug dealers owned the night there. The crime was rampant, and the police were powerless to stop it. Random killings by the "Son of Sam" made New Yorkers even more fearful. The parks were in decay, with and litter and bare lawns, and it was home to muggers and rapists." This all sounds pretty grim but because to the power of visual media, that was not my perception of or the way I felt about New York. 

In 1979, I was a suburban, cul-de-sac kid living in "Presidential Estates", taking in JD Salinger and seeking a way out, when two things happened that changed my life. The first was an english teacher who gave me tickets to a Grateful Dead show (Billerica Forum on May 9, 1979). More on that in another blog. The second was an introduction to Woody Allen through the movie Manhattan. The film affected me deeply. I was also an art kid and budding photographer who carried a Nikon F2 camera as both an identity and a way to get girls. I loved black and white images and wanted to be Robert Frank when I grew up. The power and artistry of Woody Allen's film making have always colored my view of New York. To me, New York is romantic. 

Manhattan was different than the films being produced at the time. Block busters and Oscar winners like Heaven Can Wait, Julia, Rocky and yes, dare I say it Star Wars fans, almost everything Stephen Spielberg came up with, felt either derivative or trite to me. Manhattan was different. It was a love letter to "place". From the moment Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue swelled and those beautiful images of New York City by Director of Photography, Gordon Willis came out of a fade from black, I was awestruck. For the very first time a "sense of place" entered my vocabulary. 

The best films are an ideal balance of script and cinematography. Manhattan is Woody Allen's expression of adoration for New York City. It's uniquely tied to a particular time in the history of the city. From his well known, wide angle, landscape scene, shot below the Queensborough Bridge to his choice of Elaine's, The Russian Tea Room, Central Park and the Museum of Modern Art as locations for dialog, the camera captures his joy and fondness for each place. 

If the brand and identity of your company is closely tied to a sense of place, like a restaurant, hotel, residential development or condominium a lot can be learned about positioning and marketing through watching this film. Gordon Willis said, "Good films are not made by accident, nor is good photography. You can have good things happen, on occasion, by accident that can be applied at that moment in a film, but your craft isn't structured around such things, except in beer commercials." Allen and Willis chose a visual syntax and a long tonal scale that mimicked fine art photographs. This was different from the edgy, high contrast, black and white images that summoned photojournalism and consequently reality. In the Queensborough Bridge scene, (See the photograph above) they chose to use a distant camera view with a slightly low angle of view and framing that is more reminiscent of a Karl Straus landscape than typical dialog scenes. This makes the-the bridge and the city seem important. 

The following is the opening dialog from the movie. To better understand how strong visual content, photography and a thoughtful soundtrack can drive the perception of place, read the script first and then watch the embedded video. New on line technology has made it relatively easy to "broadcast yourself". YouTube, Vimeo, and Wistia make posting video content easy. Unfortunately, most video marketing comes across as Crazy Eddy style advertising. Just so much noise. Your place, whether a restaurant, development, condominium, city or school is unique. Demonstrating that value with emotion so that others want to be there is what good marketing is all about. 

Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. Uh, no, let me start this over.  

Chapter One: He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street smart guys who seemed to know all the angles. Ah, corny, too corny for, you know, my taste. Let me, let me try and make it more profound. 

Chapter One: He adored New York City. To him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of individual integrity that caused so many people to take the easy way out was rapidly turning the town of his dreams in - no, it's gonna be too preachy, I mean, you know, let's face it, I want to sell some books here.

Chapter One: He adored New York City. Although to him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitized by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage - too angry. I don't want to be angry. 

Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be." 

Michael ConwayComment