Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Movie Business: The Birja Model

In Georgia, the world moves by word-of-mouth. Traditional norms of marketing barely budge the movement of Georgian business. One has to take a closer look at Georgian society - and in general, any society - in order to understand the best marketing models. The Georgian society for centuries has evolved around what I call "the Birja Model." The birja in the olden days was the primary source of most information, as the interlocking social groups were able to communicate by hanging out on street corners and news would quickly spread from one corner to the next. Across Eurasia - not just in Georgia - the birja was the primary area to gather information and even to develop business. Any business enterprise could be advertised along the network to gather workers or sales. In the modern days, the birja has waned as an outlet for business, but it's importance shouldn't be held much less. Today, most birjas can be characterized by shady looking men wearing black fake-leather jackets, eating sunflower seeds and drinking wine, vodka or beer. But they still have some significance on spreading information. Need to find an apartment? Put the word out in a few of the local birjas. Need to find a job? Often that can be solved even through the birja circuit.

This is what George and I were discussing as I sat in his office down at the movie studio. "You know about birjas?" he asked, his face glowing and almost laughing.

"How could you live in a village and not know about birjas?" I answered back. "But they're even all over the place in Tbilisi."

"Yeah, it's one of the things we want to make fun of in the movie. But it's basically how you heard about the movie, right?"

"Exactly, that's how marketing works here in Georgia," I replied. I had gotten a text from one of my old Peace Corps colleagues. She said that she had been talking with the director of Peace Corps, and there was something the United States Embassy wanted - and then the text cut off. I was a bit in dismay. Did I do something really bad lately? I couldn't recall. I was hesitant in texting back, but eventually I sent an email to the director.

"The Embassy said that someone is looking for an American to cast in a movie," the Peace Corps director told me.

The same day, I got word from another source. During one of my classes, one of the girls, who had been working for a magazine, told me, "One of my friend's told me that they were looking for an American to cast in their movie. Do you want me to send your info along?"

What was more telling though, was that sitting in the movie studio office with George, I found that he didn't exactly know how he found out about me and who he got my information from until I told him about my own contacts. "Oh, yeah, that's right," he said, smiling and nodding as I told him. Though that might even have meant that still he wasn't aware of where he heard of me from, just that somehow, my name had ended up on his desk.

"So the movie," he said. "Let me tell you about the story. So the show we do, it's basically an improv comedy show, like 'Who's Line Is It Anyway.' The movie is basically about what if we decided to make a movie of it and sell the movie to an American producer. The American producer comes and the guys lost the tape and have to find it in Tbilisi."

"Got it, so it's something like a Georgian 'Dude, Where's My Car?'"

"Something like that. Are you ready to do the casting call?" he asked.

"Yeah, I guess so," I said. "Are there any lines or anything I should read off?"

"You know," he said, "this is Georgia and anyways, your lines will be in English and it will be dubbed all over, so acting really doesn't matter too much. We're just looking for a specific look for the part."

"Oh, right," I said. "That's cool."

While we were waiting for the cameraman to come in, George continued talking. He told me about how the last time they had an American for their movie, the American actually spoke some Georgian in the part. They had used one of his American friends, and had come up with the idea to have him in it while they with some of George's other friends were eating in a restaurant. "He became like an instant celebrity in Tbilisi. People were recognizing him in the streets." I won't lie, but in that instant I had my own delusions of grandeur - flocks of Tbilisi virgins crowding around me at the market, pushing each other aside to get my autograph. I snapped to when the cameraman came in.

"Just sit over there," George said, motioning to the opposite side of the room.

"Sure," I said, while watching the camerman. "So when do I start? Or is it going already? And what should I say? Just my name and stuff? Should I smile or be straight faced? I guess the character's more straight faced so I'll keep it straight. I'm Shawn, from 'merica, where freedom was invented. Um, what else to say?" I slapped my knees. "Is that enough George, or should I continue?"

"No, that was enough."

The cameraman left.

"So, we'll give you a call then if you'll be in the video. But I think you have pretty good chances. You've got the right look. But we still have two more guys to talk to this evening, so I'll get back to you."

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