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'East Broadway': Clever Rom-Com Debut Flirts with Commercial World

Fay Ann Lee'sstands out as both a legitimately funny (if heavily contrived) romantic comedy and a dynamic glimpse of ethnic and class stratification in New York City.
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Amid Tribeca 2006's narrative features, Fay Ann Lee's East Broadway stands out as both a legitimately funny (if heavily contrived) romantic comedy and a dynamic glimpse of ethnic and class stratification in New York City. And although she may be the first filmmaker to run a sweatshop indictment through the prism of a Cinderella story, writer/director/star Lee tweaks rom-com conventions with an assuredness that belies her status as a first-time filmmaker.

But besides boasting winning performances from Lee, Ken Leung and a scene-stealing Margaret Cho, East Broadway is notable for its producers' unapologetic use of product placement. The practice of accepting money or services in exchange for incorporating brand-name objects onscreen, product placement has been around for decades; it probably reached its zenith when Reese's Pieces made an appearance in Steven Spielberg's E.T. Cell phone companies and automobile manufacturers are among contemporary cinema's most active branders, while, by one count, Coca-Cola has made almost 60 theatrical product placement appearances since 2001.

Product placement is just as entrenched a fund-raising trend in independent cinema, though obviously not on the same scale as mainstream movies. Other films at Tribeca feature specific brands almost as motifs (check out the ubiquity of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in William Tyler Smith's Kiss Me Again), while Lee conspiciously features a selection of products from Coke to Dunkin' Donuts. The latter company's pink and orange logo pops up on several occasions, and an incident in which the main character, drops a donut on the sidewalk provokes a brief, donut-related dialogue exchange between her and her love interest.

"We actually did need a lot of product placement," Lee told me. "Most companies didn't give us money, but they were very gracious to just give us things for free. I had a great production designer, Eloise Stammerjohn. ... Eloise is a great production designer, and she came in and she actually got a lot of product placements because she had worked on big films before. So that's how it happpened. And then Dunkin' Donuts came along, and they actually gave us some money, too. Which was very nice of them, because we need every penny we can get from anywhere. So I kind of wrote that into the script."

Lee also described finding that balance between East Broadway's narrative and commercial expressions. "When they don't give you money, there are no requirements," she said. "When they give you money, sometimes there are requirements. They'll say, 'We want to be in four shots in the movie.' I felt like they were giving me enough money for me to consider it carefully. And so the way I approached it was that I wanted to work it into the script. I basically gave Grace a little bit of a quirkiness in terms of junk food. So I gave her the Dunkin' Donuts, and also she drank a lot of Coke. The Coke thing is really not quite product placement. A lot of people are saying I should go to Coke and ask them for money. Maybe I should."

Another line in the script has Lee propounding Sub-Zero as the appliance brand she wants her working-class Chinese parents to upgrade to: "They're the best refrigerators in the world!" Lee said this was less product placement than an indicator of what her own upper-middle-class executive wants for her family. "I went to Sub-Zero and I asked them for permission," she said. "For me that was a character choice--that the character would choose Sub-Zero because it is a very high-end refrigerator. And that's how it happened. A lot of it wasn't product placement. A lot of it actually came from the character and the choices she would make."

But the filmmaker herself cannot help but be influenced by cinema's tough economics as well.

"It is a reality of the business," Lee said. "It's a reality of independent filmmaking. If you can get products for free, you kind of have to."

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