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Summit at Reykjavik

Story Telling, It’s What We Do

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If I had to sum up in one word my long journey toward developing a full length feature film it would have to be perseverance. However, what an optimist might term perseverance a pessimist might call rejection. But as a PR professional who has spent his life pitching stories to the media and presenting ideas to clients and prospects, I was well suited for the challenge.

In fact, thinking about my day job in the communications field I soon recognized it does not differ greatly from the entertainment industry. In both cases, we are competing for an increasingly distracted viewer – although in our industry we may call them consumers, stakeholders or even regulators. To reach that target audience we have to deliver compelling content, not just a series of messages strung together that add up to nothing. Heck, if you want to hear that, simply attend any political rally these days.

My contention is we are not in the communications business but rather the story telling business. And in the world of go anywhere, view anytime communications channels in which we now live, you better have an interesting tale to tell or you simply won’t penetrate the clutter.

To that point I think both the communications and entertainment industries could learn from one another. The corporate world which constitutes the majority of our clients could take a page from the entertainment sector’s playbook by bringing their stories to life with dramatic visuals and video, something their opposition does quite well. For example, how did the food industry combat the film Food, Inc. which was a dramatic attack on their sector? With a white paper. Game over.

Similarly the entertainment industry tends to engage a launch and leave strategy whereby they promote the latest film, release it and move on to the next release in what has become an endless circle of white noise. I believe they could look at how consumer brands have learned to extend the life of their products beyond launch through programs like the Dove Real Beauty campaign.

Ironically the subject of the film I sought to make had at its very core one of the greatest story tellers in modern politics – Ronald Reagan. By my own admission I was not a Reaganite in my earlier years, but the more I learned about him from my old boss and mentor, the late great Mike Deaver, the more I was intrigued by him. Reagan understood the power of storytelling and he particularly liked telling stories about his number one adversary the Soviets (example below).

So, when I sat down with Mike Deaver, a movie buff like myself, around eight years ago (thus the perseverance reference) and suggested the idea of doing a movie about Ronald Reagan, it soon became evident I would need to figure out a key moment in the Great Communicator’s life to highlight or I would be staring at an eight-part mini-series. I needed to identify what cemented his legacy in American and global for that matter politics. I asked Mike and a number of others close to President Reagan this question and without missing a beat they all said the Summit at Reykjavik. The now famous meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986 in a very cold  and wet Icelandic capital where Vikings once roamed is now viewed by many political and foreign policy experts as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

But, realistically a film about arms negotiations would be lucky to beat out Dude, Where’s My Car?, at the box office. However, when I began researching the story it became obvious there was quite a bit of drama bookending the Summit from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl to the fall of the Berlin Wall, with plenty of colorful U.S. and Russian characters interspersed.

With an idea in hand I set about writing a short treatment and was fortunate enough to garner the interest of famed director Ridley Scott’s (Alien, Thelma and Louise, Bladerunner and Blackhawk Down) company ScottFree and Headline Studios, a major UK production house which (obviously) added real gravitas to the project. With such strong partners we were able to secure acclaimed director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Oscar winners Michael Douglas,to play Reagan, and  Christophe Waltz, to play Gorbachev.

With shooting beginning in March 2013 and a 2014 targeted release, I look back on this exciting project and recognize we all have a story to tell – it’s just a matter of framing it in the right manner… and having perseverance.

Director Ron Howard probably sums it up best, “One of the great things about being a director as a life choice is that it can never be mastered. Every story is its own kind of expedition, with its own set of challenges.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Feature image, of U.S President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland, during the Reykjavik Summit on 11/10/86, by The Official CTBTO Photostream.

Jere Sullivan is vice chairman, international Public Affairs. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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