Joe Helfgot: A Hollywood Classic

Hollywood used to have big, colorful characters like Joseph Helfgot. He ate too much, he drank too much, he used foul language and threw out Yiddishisms with the authority of a man raised on Streit’s matzah, which he was. (His mother worked for the company.) He had a great, big heart. And a really lousy […]

Last Updated: March 12, 2010 @ 3:28 PM

Hollywood used to have big, colorful characters like Joseph Helfgot. He ate too much, he drank too much, he used foul language and threw out Yiddishisms with the authority of a man raised on Streit’s matzah, which he was. (His mother worked for the company.)

He had a great, big heart. And a really lousy one, it turned out.

Joe died last Wednesday. Everybody who knew him – which included an awful lot of folks from the marketing departments up to the mogul suites of Hollywood’s major studios – was shocked, and horrified.

Who will explain to them how to fix their trailers now?

I met Joe because we moved in across the street from one another more than a decade ago. I’d come from Paris with two toddlers and a French husband. He’d just moved from Boston with a shiksa-goddess, Susan (now one of my closest friends), and two towheads about the age of mine.

My aim was to figure out the movie industry and get my calls returned. His aim was to take on the monopoly power on movie research in town, National Research Group, and make them irrelevant.

Somewhere in week two, I bummed a cigarette. Thus started a lifelong friendship between our families, and a lifelong argument between myself and him about his work. (Don’t worry, I quit; so did he.)

Movie research was one of those fascinating, mysterious, behind-the-scenes things that powered the industry, and that only rarely was allowed to slip into public view.

People knew, but never talked about, the phone surveys, focus groups and test screenings that movie studios relied on to make box office projections, and, increasingly, even cast and green-light their movies and tv shows. NRG was notoriously anti-press, being distinctly uninterested in discussing its odd position of being privy to all the competing marketing plans of studios around town.

Despite Joseph’s love of the shmooze, MarketCast, his company, learned to be in that same position. Marketing info: not forthcoming.

Joseph’s statistical approach and penetrating analysis of social research was perfectly timed for the decades when marketing took over the movies. His insights were the answer to the high-flying anxiety of movie executives ahead of opening weekends, as budgets soared out of control along with marketing costs.

“Sherry Lansing calls me every morning at 7:00,” he would tell me, in the run-up to some Paramount campaign that needed his daily input.

Whatever the movie he was analyzing, I would ask: how’s the movie? And he would roll his eyes and say: “Who cares? You’re missing the point.”

The point I was always missing was the core of his business: any movie could be marketed, with the right insight. Joseph’s ability to offer some reassurance in an inherently high-risk business, in the form of knowledge, was worth a good deal.  He would take a sheaf of responses to a phone survey and quickly hone in on the key element that made the difference.

Not very many people in Hollywood  could (or can) do this.

Joseph did it brilliantly when he was well, and he continued to do it as his struggle with his heart left him weary and weak. Last summer I was visiting colleges with my now high-school-senior and stayed with his family in Boston.

Joseph was seriously sick, facing a daily struggle in his wait for a donor heart. But he was still working. Together we sat at the kitchen table and I typed as he dictated his analysis of a trailer he was working on. The professor in him surfaced as he penetrated which parts of the movie appealed to young women, and which to older women.

 At the end of the process (which saved him hours of exhausting typing), he sat back and looked at my stenography with the comment: “You’re a pretty good writer.”

Then he ordered Chinese food. That was Joseph. Or as he knew him in our house: Jo-phes. R.I.P., you will always be missed.