Sunday 04 Dec 2016

Movies as Ads
Tim Sexton

Don't you just love when a movie comes out designed to sell ideas and not merchandise?

"Syriana" and "Good Night and Good Luck," intended to sell ideas, not action figures. Don't expect an "Edward R. Murrow" action figure, wearing a trench coat, with cigarette and microphone in hand, any time soon. Nor is there a George Clooney or Matt Damon action figure or video game, yet.

"Fight Club" is one movie that shouldn't merchandise. The superficial notion of fighting as a solution doesn't work. Yet, you can buy a video game based on "Fight Club."

For most of the time that Hollywood has made movies, the only product a movie intended to sell was the movie, itself. You didn't see a bunch of gangster action figures resembling Cagney, Bogart or Edward G. Robinson. You didn't see Scarlett O'Hara and Mammy Halloween costumes, at the time. Even the munchkins from "The Wizard of Oz" merchandised only recently.

Sometime between the little plastic sharks that hit the market after "Jaws" and all the toys that hit the market after "Star Wars," ideas about what a movie sells changed. No longer did producers green light films because they want to win an Oscar or viewed as deep thinkers and caring individuals. They don't even green light movies in the hopes of it just becoming a blockbuster. Most movies, today, are two or three-hour commercials for the merchandise the movie must move.

"Pirates of the Caribbean" is one example. The movie promotes an expensive ride at Disney theme parks and a far-flung range of clothes, toys and videos. It's winning all the way to bank for Disney, which makes millions from the movie, millions at the theme parks and millions on the merchandise.

"Spiderman," the 2002 movie starring Toby McGuire, grossed $404 million, worldwide; about 40 million people, mostly children, saw the movie. The sale of "Spiderman" merchandise, mostly to and for children, exceeded the money spent on tickets. The original "Spiderman," on its own, is a billion dollar industry.

The sequel grossed $373 million in theatres and surely that much, again, in merchandise. It's another billion-dollar industry. A third "Spiderman" movie is on the way.

I'm willing to bet that even modest blockbusters, such as the recent "King Kong," and "Chronicles of Narnia," made at least twice as much through product spin-offs as they did in ticket sales. "Kong" grossed $218 million, so far, and "Narnia"," $292 million. Of the two, the case of "Chronicles of Narnia," is most egregious.

The push for "Chronicles of Narnia" was as a Christian movie; that is, a movie encouraging core Christian values. I know Jesus means many things to many people, but it takes a ridiculously elastic interpretation of the New Testament to convince that Jesus was a soulless capitalist, approving of exploiting children in his name by selling them inferior toys made by people working in sweatshops in Singapore.

The problem, with trying to soak every possible dollar out of film, isn't just that creativity fades and a movie ticket is a waste of money. No, it's hurting, some say killing, the film industry. Let's face it: movies have never been worse. When "The Lord of The Rings," a twenty-hour cure for insomnia, is the peak of intellectual achievement in movies, you know you're living in one sucky time for film. It seems every movie begins with a focuses on how to increase profit. Studios ask writers to change a script so the movie can spin-off one or more video games. Designers focus on costuming easily transferable to action figures. It's madness.

How maddening is it? Did you know there are now action figures for characters from "Clerks" and "Napoleon Dynamite"? To be hones, I admit I've a "Vote for Pedro" shirt, so I'm not against the idea of merchandising. To get my out of this corner, I'll call my "Pedro" shit retrofitting merchandise. Still, it sets a dangerous precedent. If studios executives believe, and they do, that they can create action figures for any movie they make, it sets a slippery slope from which recovery will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Let's retrofit movies ourselves, and see what can see. Let's say we could go back in time, and bring in Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the "Godfather." Try to show him how merchandising will revolutionize movies. Marlon Brando? He's too fat to be action figure. Nobody will want it, takes up too much valuable self-space, maybe if he's a wrestler. Replace him with, hey, how about Paul Newman. He's about the same age, but thinner, better looking and a definite action figure. We need to change the script so Sonny doesn't die. He's the most exciting character in the movie and we need him to stick around. Keep the tollbooth shooting scene, it'll make a great video game sequence, but have it so he knew what was what and wore a bullet proof vest. Did they have bullet proof vests in the 1940s? Maybe he wears a couple of heavy sweaters. Well, you know what, the kids of the 1970s aren't interested in old times, let's update the "Godfather" to now, the early 21st century; call him "G-daddy." Then we can give them all long hair like all kids have today and they'll be able to sell to the kids.

I would imagine the conversation would only have gone downhill from there. Here's an idea, Hollywood. First, make a good movie. You can always worry about making the video game later. Just look at "The Godfather" video game, which came thirty years after the movie, or "Grand Theft Auto."

Tim Sexton is a writer, living in Florida, at last report.

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