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Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

From Maverick to marketers?

After going off on a rant last week about how greed and corporate marketing have taken so much joy out of movies, allow me to switch over to the other side of the argument. (Among my many talents is not only the ability to take both sides of an argument but also to talk out of both sides of my mouth.)

My rant was prompted by the complete lack of imagination in the recent Academy Awards telecast—ostensibly celebrating an industry whose chief product is imagination. But others can and have made the argument much better than I. For example, in a well reasoned article in GQ, Mark Harris has analyzed the problem and, as he sees it, it boils down this. He blames Top Gun. In that moment in 1986, he says, movies truly became product. As Harris writes, “If movies were now seen as packages, then the new kings of the business would be marketers…” In other words, it wasn’t just about the movie anymore. Soundtrack CDs, toys, spinoffs, sequels and, most importantly, the marketing campaign were now part of the beginning vision of the film rather than a by-product.

He has a point. Of course, picking one single moment in history or one single movie as the point where everything changed is going to be an over-simplification. One could go a step farther and say that the slide into marketing-mandated mediocrity perhaps began nine years earlier with the release of Star Wars. As far as I can remember anyway, that is the first time that I am aware of that a key demographic found a movie it was willing to pay to watch over and over again. What is the definition of a marketable product if not something consumers are willing to pay for over and over again?

But is that so wrong? If Star Wars had not been my cup of tea, no one would have forced me to go see it. Well, except for maybe the pressure of enduring conversations in which I was always the one person who hadn’t seen it. But if the success of Star Wars gave George Lucas the clout to go out and make wonderful, small, imaginative auteur-like films, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Okay, that’s a bad example since, as a director, Lucas has made only three films since—all inferior prequels to his breakthrough success. The irony is that the clear reason Harris did not cite Star Wars as the beginning of Hollywood’s downfall is that, unlike Top Gun, it was not conceived as a merchandising package. It actually was Lucas’s auteur film, the one he always dreamed of making, which he got to do because of his success with American Graffiti.

So things are not as simple as they seem. Hollywood marketers may be able to create profitable franchises by cannibalizing well-tested properties (books, comic books, TV shows, earlier movies), but sometimes the purest, most personal and heartfelt idea becomes a franchise as well. George Lucas is Exhibit A of that fact.

There is a counter-argument to Harris’s, and here it is. Hollywood is an industry that employs a lot of people. It would be unreasonable to expect this industry not to want to make profits. It is, after all, a business. And, as Harris’s own article illustrates in its opening paragraphs, there is a silver lining to this state of affairs. He laments the fact that the industry did not embrace Christopher Nolan’s Inception because it was too hard for the marketers to get a handle on. As a film, it was dismissed as a favor that Warner Bros. did for Nolan because they needed to him to direct a third Batman movie. But, if that’s true, so what? Didn’t it get made? Warner Bros. are getting their money-making Batman flicks and Nolan got to make his tricky movie that he really want to make. And they all make money. And zillions of fanboys are happy with all the movies Nolan makes. It’s a win-win-win.

But I suppose what Harris is saying is, what about all the other Inceptions that do not get made? What about all the great filmmakers who do not have the clout of a Christopher Nolan whose films are not getting made? Well, there’s an answer for that too. The tools to make slick-looking movies have gotten amazingly cheap. There are lots of stories about filmmakers who have put together successful features for pocket change (Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, Gareth Edwards and Monsters). Sure, maybe without the backing of a studio and marketing department no one will see such films (except perhaps on YouTube or at film festivals), but what we are now talking about is not marketing in general but just disagreeing with which movies that the marketers choose to back. And let us not forget that marketing is just a department within a company. If that department has final say over major decisions, it is only because the company management has let it be so. If we have any faith in the free market, we have to assume that management in another company, in pursuit of a business advantage, will at some point try a different approach.

The reality is, sometimes Adam Smith’s ideas work just like in the textbook and sometimes they don’t. But one thing we can count on is that the longer an industry is stuck in a frozen paradigm, the more inevitable it is that someone new will come along and shake things up. In the meantime, we have directors like Clint Eastwood, who alternate between clearly commercial fare and more personal flicks. And lest we subscribe blindly to the idea that giving a director free reign always results in a better movie, it doesn’t. It may be sacrilege among artistes to say so, but sometimes the purely commercial movie is better than an extremely personal one. Indeed, lightly attended film festival screenings and DVD store clearance bins are littered with legions of budding filmmakers’ dearest, most personal concepts. Once you get past blaming marketers, you wind up in the position of blaming the general public.

On a somewhat tangentially related note, I read another thought-provoking article recently. On the io9.com web site, Charlie Jane Anders posed the musical question, “Why do your favorite heroes get bogged down in continuity and inside references?” She had some interesting observations on (mainly) long-running TV shows drawn from sci-fi, fantasy and/or comic books. I may add my own two cents next week.

-S.L., 10 March 2011


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