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Side effects

"Side Effects" movie targets Big Pharma's sales tactics on the big screen

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 by: Ben Kage
Tags: side effects, big pharma, pharmaceutical sales

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Big Pharma has enjoyed years of positive publicity in the mainstream media through large financial expenditures toward lobbying and advertising; indeed, the industry spends more money on self-promotion than it does on product research.

Now, however, a new kind of exposure is looming on the horizon of Big Pharma's future with the upcoming release of "Side Effects," an independent movie about a pharmaceutical sales rep with a conscience, written and directed by former real-life pharmaceutical sales rep Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau.

The Mo Productions movie stars Katherine Heigl (of the hit TV show "Grey's Anatomy") as Karly Hert, a pharmaceutical sales rep who kind of stumbles into the business. Although she is morally conflicted by what she knows about the negative side effects of the drugs she peddles, Karly immerses herself in her career, drawn in by fringe benefits like a big paycheck and company cars, which the film's official website ( www.sideeffectsthemovie.com ) refers to as the "golden handcuffs" of corporate America.

Karly's world is turned upside down when she breaks the company manual's rule number three: Never date co-workers. Zach Danner (played by newcomer Lucien McAfee) convinces Karly to listen to her conscience and leave her morally corrupt career behind. However, Karly finds that leaving the business is not as simple as it sounds.

With drug commercials -- often with budgets rivaling TV shows and movies -- littering the airwaves and only vaguely promoting a drug and making obscure references to what the drug is supposed to treat, it will be interesting to see how the movie-going public reacts when "Side Effects" hits theaters on Nov. 4. The satirical look at Big Pharma already took the San Jose Cinequest Film Festival by storm as avid festival-goers were turned away from both scheduled showings of the movie.

Mo Productions is offering $1,000 for amateur spoofs of drug commercials that show happy people driving shiny sports cars through the countryside while wearing designer clothing, joyfully enduring some hinted-at disease thanks to some barely acknowledged pill (although the name of the product is frequently acknowledged). The spoof has to be for the movie's fictional product, Vivexx, although the contest rules state that the pill can be said to treat anything at all or, more appropriately, nothing at all, and some of the entries will even find their way onto the special features section of the movie's DVD release.

Moschkau based the movie's storyline on her own 10-year experience as a pharmaceutical sales rep. Like Karly, Moschkau was seduced by the money and the fringe benefits, but as she came to realize that consumer wellness would always be superseded by company profits, she decided she would rather be unemployed than contribute any more to the industry. Luckily, Moschkau kept some notes of her experience, which she used to develop the story of "Side Effects." Because she feared that a major production company would chew the story up, Moschkau decided to make the film herself. That way, pharmaceutical companies couldn't find a way to bury the message of her film with their massive advertising budget, which is about $3 billion a year.

Other than television advertising, there are few types of exposure that can match a motion picture. It would undoubtedly be in Big Pharma's interests for this movie to never come out, but since Moschkau's decision to make it herself cut off the industry's chance to influence the film, the general public will finally see a different side of the drug issue coming to them through a mainstream channel. The challenge now is for the movie to be enjoyable enough for people to recommend it to their friends, and thereby expose them to the lesser-known side of the companies that claim to have the consumer's best health interests at heart.

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