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Saturday, January 02, 2016

Is the movie business just the R&D arm of the toys business?

In 1989 I interviewed Jeffrey Katzenberg. At the time he was a senior executive at Disney where he was spearheading their move back into animated features with films like "The Little Mermaid".

"My job," he told me, "is to make sure the parks have got characters."

I was surprised by that line. Now I know what he meant. As Michael Hiltzik puts it in his scorching reduction of the new Star Wars film, this is not a movie so much as "the anchoring element of a vast commercial program, painstakingly factory-made for maximal audience appeal, which means maximal inoffensiveness."

The Star Wars franchise in now owned by Disney. In their boardroom they must smile at the lengths the media go to to pretend that this is a film. They know that it's nothing more than a launch vehicle for a marketing campaign, the endgame of which is the selling of plastic toys and tickets to their theme parks. Unlike most marketing campaigns, this one can depend on airtime donated free by broadcasters.

One of the interesting things I learned from Mark Kermode's The Business of Film is that franchise films don't make their money back until the sequels. Since few people go to the sequels who didn't go to the first one the launch of the first has more in common with the launch of a subscription offer or a partwork than a piece of popular art.

All that's required is to persuade men that they would be foolish to miss out. It clearly works. Over Christmas I've spoken to blokes in their thirties who went to the first screenings, which started at midnight, five-year-old boys playing with their Star Wars Christmas presents and blokes in their sixties who are planning to see the film even though they don't have all that much interest.

I didn't get the impression of genuine excitement from any of them. It was as if a ticket for Star Wars was like some kind of tax on being male. You felt better for having paid it.