The Sad Effect of Secondary Product Marketing on the Film Industry

Try to think back to the last time that you entered a movie theater and watched some celluloid images on the big screen that was intent on selling you some ideas rather than selling you small plastic figurines, T-shirts, lunchboxes, and Happy Meals. Kind of hard to do, isn’t it? 

Even though I recently railed against the shocking lack of Simpsons merchandise so close to the release of The Simpsons Movie, the bigger complaint is that too many movies seem to exist only for the purpose of getting you to walk into Wal-Mart or Target and plunk down some serious change for a piece of shoddily made merchandise that is also overpriced. I think the only movie I went to a theater to see this year that doesn’t seem to exist primarily to sell what used to be secondary market items was Zodiac. The kind of movie that is made simply because someone wants to tell a story is fast becoming as obsolete as a statesman-politician. (For the love of all that is indecent, Fight Club spun off a video and it is a movie that is specifically about the adverse effects of rampant consumerism on contemporary society. How could they?)

Throughout most of Hollywood’s history movies were made with the intent of selling only one product and that was the movie itself. 

In a day and age in which there are actually action figures for the characters in the movie Clerks, one can only wish things were as they were back in the 1930s when the far more interesting gangster characters played by James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or Paul Muni were never immortalized in Chinese plastic. Even The Wizard of Oz which if were being made today would result in a mind-boggling amount of cheap merchandise to be found at Target and Wal-Mart and Toys R Us didn’t produce anything in the way of merchandise in 1939. You didn’t see every little girl on the street wearing ruby red slippers the way you might today. It was during the brief period of time between when stores sold little rubber sharks to commemorate the mania surrounding Jaws and the time a billion dollars worth of original Star Wars toys hit the malls of America that movie marketing changed for the worst. 

Focus groups and the effect of conglomeration between movie studios, television networks and toy manufacturers have turned the “pitch” to studio execs into something far different from what it was when a big budget for a movie about a shark attack was proposed. There are precious few producers left who take a meeting with a studio head with the power to green light a film who carry with them an idea for a movie that they are sure will win an Oscar and give them cache as a serious artist. Studio execs don’t even green light an idea on the hope that will be merely a blockbuster. Most of today’s movies are nothing but two to three hour long commercials for the merchandise that the movie is really meant to move.

J.K. Rowling is richer than God, but is there anyone out there who honestly thinks her great wealth has come from the royalties associated with her book sales and the points off the profit of the movies? Rowling can buy and sell the Queen of England because of the stunning amount of money made by everything from Harry Potter wands to Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans. I have a feeling that the reason you’ll see sequels to the Chronicles of Narnia and the Incredible Hulk has little to do with their box office receipts and everything to do with the truckloads of cash that their associated merchandise has brought in. The Chronicles of Narnia is an especially troubling case since it was ferociously marketed among certain religious quarters as a Christian movie. I know Jesus Christ means many things to many people, but you’ve got to be ridiculously elastic in your interpretation of the New Testament to convince me that Jesus was a soulless capitalist who would approve 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 a movie isn’t just that it’s creating a bunch of useless crap for people to waste their money on, nor even that all that plastic sitting in landfills can’t be good for the environment. 

Mass marketing and secondary product marketing is hurting the film industry

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Dating back to the earliest days of the medium, will tell you that there is no question that movies have never been worse. When The Lord of The Rings twenty-hour cure of insomnia is considered the decade’s highest reach of intellectual achievement on celluloid, you know you’re in trouble. 

The reason is that every movie is designed from the bottom up to maximize profit potential. Screenwriters are carted in one after another and asked how they can change their script so that it can easily be adapted into a video game. Set designers and customers are brought in to work with toy designers. It’s lunacy.

What is the extent of the lunacy? 

Well, let’s hop in the wayback machine and go back and remake a movie as if the media culture in the early 70s was the same as it is today. Let’s bring in the producers of The Godfather and begin pitching some ideas. Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone? Nah, he’s way too fat for an action figure, nobody will want it. Better to replace Brando with Robert Redford. He’s hot now and we’ll get both boys and girls to want an action figure that looks like him. Oh, and we need to keep that scene where Sonny gets killed because it’s really exciting, only he shouldn’t die. We’ll put him in the hospital for a few scenes. Sonny Corleone is the most charismatic character in the movie, we want him to stick around, but we want to keep the tollbooth shooting scene because that will be the centerpiece of our video game. I don’t know, maybe have Sonny wearing a bulletproof vest. They didn’t have bulletproof vests in the 40s? Well, you know what, the kids of the 70s really aren’t interested in ancient times, let’s update The Godfather to now, the early 70s. Then we can give them all long hair like all kids have today and they’ll be able to relate to it better.

Here is my totally unsolicited and, I’m sure, totally ignored advice to producers, screenwriters and studio heads. First make a good movie. You can always worry about making the video game later. Just look at The Godfather video game, made thirty years later after the movie and the kids still love it.

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