When The Internship, a comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, hits movie theaters on June 7, Google will be taking more than a little interest in how the film is received.
In an unusual collaboration, the internet giant was closely involved with the film, a $58 million Fox production which features two middle-aged watch salesmen who are determined to get a job at Google.
Amidst the comedic hijinks, the film indeed delivers a picture of a kind and gentle Google, a company that offers free food and exercise classes and is in every respect the place you'd like to work. Various Google products get plugs in the film, and co-founder Sergey Brin gets a cameo role.
The favourable PR comes at an opportune moment for Google, whose unofficial motto is "Don't Be Evil" but which is often portrayed in far darker tones by privacy advocates, antitrust regulators and competitors such as Microsoft. The US Federal Trade Commission recently began exploring a new set of antitrust allegations against the company, sources told Reuters last week.
"It's a good move. It's going to enhance and warm up Google's image perception," said former Coca Cola chief marketing officer Peter Sealey, who is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and worked as a consultant for Google seven years ago.
The movie is a far cry from the Hollywood experience of rival Facebook. The social networking kingpin did not collaborate with The Social Network, which focused heavily on the conflicts between founder Mark Zuckerberg and his early partners and didn't make any of them look very good.
"Movies like this are always a risk," said Howard Bragman, a Hollywood publicist and vice-chairman of the internet image-management firm Reputation.com. "They can be great for employee morale or they can drag it down."
Early signs suggest Google's gamble may pay off. The website Marketingland.com said the film was "A fun movie, but also a beautiful Google commercial."
Inspiration from '60 Minutes'
Shawn Levy, director of The Internship, said Vaughn came up with the premise for the film after seeing a '60 Minutes' special that portrayed Google as one of the best places in the world to work.
Vaughn arranged a lunch with Wilson and a group of Googlers at the company's Mountain View campus, and sought the company's participation. Google eventually agreed, and vice president of marketing Lorraine Twohill oversaw the project.
The company did not make Brin or Twohill available for comment. CEO Larry Page said at a recent conference that Google agreed to collaborate partly because executives felt they didn't have much choice, but also to promote science and technology.
"The reason why we got involved in that is that computer science has a marketing problem. We're the nerdy curmudgeons," Page said at the Google IO conference.
Google insisted on creative control over how the film portrayed its products, Levy said. Such agreements are fairly common when auto makers and other companies strike deals for their products to appear in movies.
The company was closely involved in assuring authenticity when production shifted to Georgia Tech, where the film crew built a reproduction of Google's campus, right down to the slides that employees use in the lobby of its buildings and the "nap pods" where they can rest during the day.
Levy said the company's input was limited to technical issues rather than plot.
Accurately or not, the film cheerfully plays into geek stereotypes. Overweight, slovenly nerds appear in many scenes. Interns are shown wearing hats with propeller blades that are painted in Google's signature red, blue and gold colors, modeled on the ones that Google employees and interns wear on their first day at work.
Teams of interns compete against one another in a game based on Quidditch, an invention of the Harry Potter books that's a favourite with computer programmers. Predictably, many of the interns are less than adept at running or catching a ball.
Google executives may have cringed at some scenes, such as one in which interns get drunk at a strip club.
Google complained about the portrayal of the intern group's training officer, who the company thought was mean-spirited and decidedly not Googley, said Levy. By the film's conclusion, the trainer abruptly becomes warm and cuddly - an evolution that Levy says wasn't in the original script, but which he denies was done to appease Google.
The producers let Google executives see an early cut of the film, three months ahead of time, and were prepared for "notes" - Hollywoodspeak for corrections - that Levy said never came.
"It was a nerve-racking moment," he recalled. "The final movie was definitely different than the screenplay Google had read. I was pleased that their desire for a satisfying movie trumped any kind of preciousness about their company and culture."
Google had little choice but to cooperate, said Ruben Igielko-Herrlich, whose Propaganda GEM product placement firm finds roles in movies for clients that include BMW, Nokia and Lacoste.
"The movie would get made with or without a company's input," said Igielko-Herrlich. "You have to embrace the production if you hope to soften whatever bad things they might have in there."