How a young virtual currency exchange got Hollywood’s resident skeptic to film his first Super Bowl commercial.
SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Larry David, on the fourth and final day of filming his first Super Bowl commercial, was struggling to deliver the punchline because he couldn’t stop coughing.
“My throat’s going,” he croaked partway through a 16-hour slog, gesturing to an assistant for another swig of tea. “Sorry, I’m old. I’m raspy. Can we come back tomorrow?”
Mr. David joked about taking a break because he knew it was not possible — the production did not have another 24 hours to spare. The big game was weeks away, giving the editors little time to finish production of a commercial that they normally would have had months to wrap up.
The accelerated time frame was partly the result of routine scheduling issues. Mr. David was not available until January.
But there was also the Omicron surge, and therefore a strict Covid-19 protocol that cost $100,000 a day for the 112 actors and 134 crew members and personnel on site. The builders had one week to erect seven sets on a cavernous soundstage north of Los Angeles. And a reporter angling for a rare behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Super Bowl commercial was sometimes hovering a little too close to the cameras.
Together, it made for a Super Bowl shoot that was more complicated and compressed than most.
“It’s a higher-risk, higher-reward situation,” said Nathaniel Whittemore, the head of marketing at FTX, the two-year-old virtual currency exchange that the ad was for. “So maybe it’s not that surprising that a bunch of crypto guys decided that it was a risk worth taking.”
In the commercial, which was broadcast near the end of the first half of Sunday’s game, the famously crotchety actor plays his skepticism for laughs by mocking humanity’s great innovations. The wheel, he declares, is “a miss.” He informs Thomas Edison that the light bulb “stinks.” And in the scene that was supposedly responsible for Mr. David going hoarse, he tries to tear up the Declaration of Independence while hollering at the founding fathers about the ridiculousness of democracy.
The commercial closes with Mr. David rejecting FTX, and then a warning: “Don’t be like Larry. Don’t miss out on the next big thing.”
FTX was one of several crypto companies airing Super Bowl commercials for the first time Sunday, a sign of the industry’s surging growth and its hope to gain mainstream legitimacy. The spot is part of a huge marketing push by the company, which was valued at $32 billion after its most recent fund-raising round. FTX declined to say how much it spent on the Super Bowl ads, other than that it was millions of dollars.
In recent months, FTX paid $17.5 million to sponsor the athletic teams at the University of California, Berkeley; introduced a $20 million advertising campaign with the football star Tom Brady and his supermodel wife, Gisele Bündchen; and teamed with the Coachella music festival to offer NFTs, or nonfungible tokens. It has the naming rights to the Miami Heat basketball team’s home arena, which it bought for $135 million.
But the ad unfolded at a particularly frenzied pace. After buying Super Bowl slot in August, FTX and the ad agency dentsuMB spent about two weeks fielding a flurry of ideas and some 80 scripts before a concept by Andrew Hunter, a creative director at dentsuMB, was picked. In November, Mr. David said he wanted in, and six weeks were spent ad-libbing and negotiating with his team over video calls.
The ad then went through 280 hours of editing, winnowing 7.5 hours of raw footage into 60 seconds. (A further 200 hours went into crafting teasers.) A rough cut was presented to FTX on Jan. 17, a mere nine days after filming ended, followed by a volley of revisions alongside work on teasers and special effects. The final commercial was delivered to NBCUniversal on Monday.
NBC charged as much as $7 million for 30 seconds of commercial airtime during the game. And there were other expenses: the ad and public relations agencies 360i, dentsu X and Mitchell in addition to dentsuMB; the production company Partizan; and editors at Mackcut.
Then there was the cost of decorating, for one of the 12 scenes shot for the commercial, the great hall of a castle with mounted stag skulls, a stuffed peacock, hundreds of candles with artistically hand-melted wax, two Irish wolfhounds, courtiers with plastic face shields resting lightly on pearl-lined ruffs. All so Mr. David, in full Elizabethan regalia, could lambaste the invention of the toilet.
As the FTX spot was shooting, a surge of coronavirus cases led to the shutdown of several other productions around Los Angeles. Partizan asked workers to produce negative PCR tests, submit vaccine questionnaires, upload proof of vaccination and sit for nose swabs inside their cars. The production company handed out more than 900 high-filtration masks.
The intensive screening procedure caught several positive Covid cases. None were detected on the set itself.
A glossary. Cryptocurrencies have gone from a curiosity to a viable investment, making them almost impossible to ignore. If you are struggling with the terminology, let us help:
Bitcoin. A Bitcoin is a digital token that can be sent electronically from one user to another, anywhere in the world. Bitcoin is also the name of the payment network on which this form of digital currency is stored and moved.
Blockchain. A blockchain is a database maintained communally, that reliably stores digital information. The original blockchain was the database on which all Bitcoin transactions were stored, but non-currency-based companies and governments are also trying to use blockchain technology to store their data.
Cryptocurrencies. Since Bitcoin was first conceived in 2008, thousands of other virtual currencies, known as cryptocurrencies, have been developed. Among them are Ether, Dogecoin and Tether.
Coinbase. The first major cryptocurrency company to list its shares on a U.S. stock exchange, Coinbase is a platform that allows people and companies to buy and sell various digital currencies, including Bitcoin, for a transaction fee.
Crypto finance. The development of cryptocurrencies spawned a parallel universe of alternative financial services, known as Decentralized Finance, or DeFi, allowing crypto businesses to move into traditional banking territory, including lending and borrowing.
NFTs. A “nonfungible token,” or NFT, is an asset verified using blockchain technology, in which a network of computers records transactions and gives buyers proof of authenticity and ownership. NFTs make digital artworks unique, and therefore sellable.
The director, Jeff Schaffer, who has worked with Mr. David for decades on the TV shows “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” said he sometimes had to stand by as key personnel who were stuck in their cars in the parking lot waited more than an hour for their test results.
“The mornings were always a little ragged because of that,” he said. “We always knew we were going to have to shoot at this time, but we just didn’t know it was going to be in an Omicron hailstorm.”
Sam Bankman-Fried, the co-founder and chief executive of FTX, signed off on the tight time frame and the sizable expense despite being hard-pressed to name a single recent Super Bowl commercial that had stood the test of time. Few ads have seemed “transcendent or really that exciting,” he said. Even the better ones, he said, are just “sort of, you know, moderately clever.”
But Mr. Bankman-Fried, 29, who has a penchant for haphazardly tied shoes and company-branded T-shirts and is worth more than $24 billion, is optimistic about his ad.
“Obviously, we think it’s pretty good,” he said.
Other crypto companies, in their recent surge into marketing, have also turned to top celebrities. But critics have warned that the star power fueling crypto’s popularity can lure vulnerable investors — often young men — into risky bets in a market that has seen boom-bust swings and scams.
Crypto.com released an ad this fall in which Matt Damon compares the trading of virtual currency to, among other things, the pioneering of aviation and spaceflight. The spot was savaged by critics and scrutinized as an example of the dangerous “Hollywoodisation of cryptocurrencies.”
In the FTX ad, the concept of cryptocurrency is not broached until the final few seconds, and only in passing. The commercial, and others like it, aims to make crypto seem less daunting.
But even Mr. Schaffer said he was still a bit fuzzy on how it all works.
“I’m excited to have someone try to explain it to me at some point,” Mr. Schaffer said, laughing.
Needless to say, he was not paid in virtual currency.
“That’s what I should have done — then I would understand it,” he said. “Maybe. Or I would simply lose it all.”