Director Andrew Renzi loves to find stories that have some special ingredient which he refers to as "a Trojan horse."
And that's certainly the case with his Netflix four-part docuseries, "Pepsi, Where's My Jet?" The effervescent series chronicles college student John Leonard's quest to convince the beverage behemoth to give him a multimillion-dollar Harrier jet, simply because the company did not include a disclaimer in one of their commercials.
"I think the Trojan horse for me was really just the glitz of the '90s advertising world, and specifically Pepsi and what Pepsi meant at that time," Renzi told Wisconsin Public Radio's "BETA."
In the spring of 1995, the Cola wars between PepsiCo and Coca-Cola were in full force. One of Pepsi's efforts to win the war was a loyalty program called "Pepsi Stuff." This program gave customers the opportunity to use points to buy a wide array of premiums, including T-shirts, hats, leather jackets and mountain bikes. People could obtain "Pepsi Points" from specially-marked packages of Pepsi.
Leonard, the college student, was 25. He happened to see one of Pepsi's commercials encouraging viewers to use "Pepsi Points" to buy "Pepsi Stuff." The end of the commercial showed a young actor landing in a Harrier jet on his school grounds, quipping, "Sure beats the bus."
These words appeared at the bottom of the screen under this image: "HARRIER FIGHTER PLANE 7,000,000 PEPSI POINTS." Leonard was surprised to notice that there was no disclaimer, indicating that Pepsi was serious about this offer.
As Leonard says in the documentary: "No fine print. That is a legit offer."
He proceeded to crunch numbers and do the necessary research. He learned that a Harrier jet retailed for $32 million and tried to figure out how much Pepsi he would have to buy to make this crazy dream come true.
Then he realized that there was one person that might be able to help him. That person was Todd Hoffman, a businessman, investor and entrepreneur.
The bizarre case comes to Netflix
Nearly 30 years later, the case of "Leonard v. PepsiCo, Inc." is still talked about and even taught in law school. That's part of what drew director Renzi to the story.
"Every lawyer studies this case in law school. And it is so much fun to hear that the legacy of this bizarre, absurd case from a 20-year-old kid in the '90s has literally changed advertising law forever," Renzi said. "I mean, you certainly will not see a promotional campaign that does not have a disclaimer ever again because of this case."
Renzi was 11 years old when the advertisement aired. But even at that age, he was tuned in to the media landscape, in part because of the influence of his dad, a real cinephile.
"I just kind of had a sense of media and I just I loved it," Renzi explained.
As for Leonard's story, Renzi loved the spirit of the college kid's attempt to get himself a jet.
"I was so drawn to this sort of Spielbergian, kind of like Peter Sellers in "Being There" — just the innocent quality of this kid where he genuinely felt like these guys were offering this jet and that he was going to go get it," he said.
"The spirit of John Leonard is something to be celebrated because had this sweepstakes existed today, there would have been 10 million people on Twitter pooling their points to go get that jet. And it would have just been democratized in a way that would have been so exciting and fun," Renzi added.
A universal story
To make the documentary, Renzi had to first track down John Leonard. And that took a while.
Renzi started doing some research on the internet, and he found a phone number in Denali State Park in Trapper Creek, Alaska.
"And so I call this place. This woman answers in Denali State Park. And I said, 'Hi, I'm looking for John Leonard. And she's like, 'Oh, can I ask what this is about?' And I was like, 'Oh, I'm just I'm a documentary filmmaker.' And that she goes, 'This must be about the Pepsi story,'" Renzi said.
Two weeks later, he received an email from Leonard.
"He was basically like, 'You're persistent. I really appreciate that. I never really wanted to tell this story again. I've moved on from this, but this sounds interesting,'" Renzi recalled.
Then Renzi met Hoffman, Leonard's friend and businessman.
"Once I met Todd (Hoffman), it kind of all clicked. I was like, the whole story here is so much less about this actual case from the '90s and so much more about this friendship between these two people. And I just loved how universal that felt," Renzi said.
Hoffman and Leonard met during a mountain climbing expedition in Alaska.
"I think that their friendship is really boiled down to kind of that wonderful thing that happens on the mountain where if you're a 20-year-old kid (which Leonard was at the time)," Renzi said, "and you're helping a man who's much older than you, who had just come off of a brain tumor, the idea of age and success and all those things just goes out the window, and you become equals."
Renzi believes that their friendship was "based on this kind of mutual need of one another where Todd represented this guy that was worldly and knew a lot about the world and had a lot of success. And John represented somebody that was helping Todd pursue this dream that he wanted to do and get back on his feet and really kind of become whole again."
"And so I just love the spirit of that, where it's like Todd took a swing on this kid, and that's the spirit of this whole show," he said.