World traveler: Fox's Craig Dehmel savors Passepartout honor
The character of Jean Passepartout in Jules Verne’s 19th-century comic adventure novel, and later, the 1956 caper, Around the World in 80 Days, is the consummate valet. When his boss Phineas Fogg accepts a wager to circumnavigate the globe in what, for 1873, is an almost impossibly brief 80 days, it is Passepartout—whose name translates to “goes anywhere,” a French idiom similar in meaning to “skeleton key”—who spends the next several months extricating Fogg from bind after jam. “He’s the miracle worker. The guy who has to make everything happen,” explains Craig Dehmel, senior VP of sales and strategic planning at 20th Century Fox and the recipient of this year’s CinemaCon award named for the intrepid Passepartout.
Each year, CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), acknowledges the accomplishments of one industry executive “who demonstrates dedication and commitment to the international marketplace”—who’s willing to do or “go anywhere,” if you will—with the bestowal of the Passepartout Award. Past honorees include Richard Fox of Warner Bros. (2011), Universal International’s Jack Ledwith (2012) and Disney International’s David Kornblum (2013). When Dehmel first learned he was this year’s recipient, “I thought, well, that’s cool that they do this. That they recognize somebody who’s behind the scenes and really keeps the wheels of the distribution company running.”
In addition to serving as the resident problem-solver, Passepartout provides the story’s comic relief: He gets lost, kidnapped and left behind. Dehmel also likes to keep things light, although “I’m more one of those accidental comics,” he says with a laugh. “When I try and tell a joke it typically lands flat on its face, but then of course I’ll walk away and trip over the podium… The comic genius of me is in my inadvertent comedy, I’d say.”
Dehmel’s admittance of clumsiness belies the competence with which he has navigated the international marketplace for the past 14 years. His knowledge of the world’s viewing habits by age, society and geography should fascinate anyone with an interest not only in film but, concomitantly, in the vagaries of taste.
“It varies dramatically,” Dehmel says of the breakdown of movie preference by region. “You have Europe, where you go from country to country and the tastes differ dramatically.” In Italy and Spain, “family is a really strong element of the culture. So when we have movies with a strong family message, let’s say like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, for instance, they tend to be really strong.” Moving further south, viewers who live in “the southern cone of South America” tend to exhibit different tastes than their continental neighbors to the north. Russia, Southeast Asia and China all have a “very young moviegoing population, so typically the films that skew younger tend to work better there.” Asian audiences also turn out in droves for blockbusters, even the John Carters of the world, because their tastes skew towards the “bombastic, big-action spectacle.”
Which is not to say Asian viewers are unappreciative of films that emphasize personal characterization. Recently, Dehmel was pleasantly surprised when The Secret Life of Walter Mitty performed the best in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “He kind of represents an everyman,” says Dehmel of Mitty. “There’s a term in Asia called ‘salary man.’ And the salary man is the guy who just goes to work and does his job and doesn’t make waves and doesn’t speak up. He’s a cog in the wheel…he helps society keep going because he isn’t a burden to society, but he also isn’t noticed.” What Dehmel and his team realized, he continues, is “in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I think, people can relate to just being a number. So they really liked the message of this story where this guy finally gets to branch out, and live his life, and express himself individually.”
Walter Mitty in fact aptly illustrates the differences between domestic and international distribution. While Dehmel was pleased the film exceeded his expectations in Asia, he was disappointed it didn’t catch on in the United States and in other areas abroad. “We get a little jaded here and in Western Europe,” he says. Within the latter market, regions like Scandinavia and the U.K. may exhibit “a little more cynicism towards the message of the movie. They might see it as a little more saccharine-y or syrupy.”
Dehmel admits he’s often more surprised by films that don’t work than by those that go on to enjoy success. “The films that work really well, the big blockbusters, there’s really not a lot of surprise there,” he states, before ticking off several movies that were panned here in the States. “Battleship, John Carter and Pacific Rim. Those films are incredibly successful in Asia. Here, those films are written off as, oh, this is going to be a bomb… but then, in Southeast Asia, they end up doing really, really well.” Citing Pacific Rim as an example of a film maligned by many American critics, who called it “generic and derivative,” Dehmel counters, “it was something that, it didn’t matter what culture you came from, you could understand the situation there… Disaster movies, films that have people coming together for a common good, to fight a common enemy, tend to be really strong.” The more relatable the plot, Dehmel explains, the better the movie performs in many regions overseas.
Increasingly, these regions include emerging markets. In Dehmel’s experience, the areas that consistently perform the best include Latin America, Southeast Asia and often Russia (in addition to Australia, which boasts a robust moviegoing population similar to ours in the United States). “In the last 10, 15 years, you have a lot of markets that are pulling a significant portion of their population out of poverty and into the middle class. Brazil, under [President] Lula, raised the minimum wage,” says Dehmel, an initiative that propelled millions of people “into a class where they actually start to have some disposable income.”
In Brazil and other areas, including India, China and Russia, as well as regions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, “we’ve seen literally perfect parallels [between] the growth of the middle class in these countries and the growth of cinemagoing… There are certain macro-economic factors in the marketplace that then drive a higher percentage of the population that can actually go to the movies.” The relative novelty of the theatrical experience may also help explain why these markets exhibit “less sophisticated” tastes, certainly in comparison with the proclivities evident in the United States and portions of Europe, where viewers “have been seeing movies for a long time and they know what they like. So it’s more complicated [there].”
Though certainly not unenjoyable. For all the variances among markets, or perhaps because of them, Dehmel derives obvious pleasure from his work as a modern-day Passepartout. A self-proclaimed “student of culture,” Dehmel majored in history and minored in geography as an undergrad at UCLA. Although he always loved movies, he “didn’t necessarily expect to get a career out of it.” He took a circuitous route to his job at a major film studio. Dehmel’s first gig out of college was another sales role, albeit one that required he hawk a product “that was very much a commodity. Everybody had the same thing, so it was hard for me to sell it. When they asked me, ‘What makes your product better than the other guys’?’ You know, really, nothing… My first sales job was a disaster.”
Luckily, Dehmel’s strong grasp of the English language and the writing skills he had acquired while studying history served him well in his next job at an ad agency, which he landed through a friend who suggested he might make a good proofreader. That agency, JP Advertising, just so happened to service several major film studios, including Disney, MGM and Columbia-TriStar. Dehmel’s exposure to these companies rekindled his love of movies: “I realized during that process I really wanted to be on the marketing side of the studio business.” So, after six years in advertising, he went back to school to earn his MBA in marketing and entertainment management. However, although Dehmel already had several years’ worth of work experience behind him by the time he graduated from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, it took him several more years to finally land a job at a large studio, 20th Century Fox (prior to joining Fox, Dehmel worked for Ocean Park Pictures). Once there and serving in his desired marketing capacity, his newly earned business acumen attracted the attention of the company’s sales division, to which he was consistently “loaned out.” Eventually, he transitioned to sales altogether.
Dehmel’s journey from unhappy “commodity” salesman to a senior vice president at a studio that recently exceeded $2 billion GBO for the fifth year in a row, an industry record, exerts twofold importance on his current standing as this year’s Passepartout Award recipient. First, his inability to sell something he doesn’t believe in makes him all the more effective a champion of those projects he does enjoy or, at least, understands. “What I tell my people in the field [the different international territories with which he works], is, ‘You have to convince me. I can’t convince the chairman unless you convince me. Once you convince me, then I will go argue your position. But if I’m not convinced, I’m not going to go argue your position.’ I’m a good salesman, but I’m not like a snake-oil salesman. I have to personally believe in something to sell it,” and sell it well enough to gain the recognition of his peers.
Secondly, the career difficulties he encountered post-business school informed his decision to help other students, via lectures at his old alma mater, UCLA. Every year, Dehmel and a colleague teach a two-and-a-half-hour seminar on the fundamentals of the worldwide film business. “What started out as comparing international to domestic has really morphed into [a lecture on] the key things we look at in the film business: This is how it’s been changing over the years, these are the films that work, these are the films that don’t work, this is some of the terminology we use.” The goal, he says, and what he derives the most satisfaction from, is “helping people who don’t have an entertainment background try and break into the business,” people similar to himself. “And also, I felt like, this is going to be better for the companies. It’s going to be better for Fox. The more MBAs I can help to get hired, the way I look at it, the better it is for the company.”
It’s certainly beneficial for the company when its employees speak as enthusiastically as does Dehmel about what they do and with whom they work. “Getting to be in a room with people from 20 different countries around the world, it’s like, I can’t have enough conversations,” Dehmel enthuses. “All their opinions are so interesting and so different. It’s just fascinating to me. I eat that stuff up.” For all the ways in which Dehmel embodies the spirit of Passepartout—successful in his role, intrepid, the occasional comic relief—it’s his “love of people,” their histories, cultures and tastes, that might be his greatest professional asset. So much so, the organizers of this year’s CinemaCon may want to consider tweaking the title of their award to better fit their effusive recipient: the Parlepartout Award.