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.


  1. Mebbes aye, mebbes naw.

    I was 10 when the first film came out. For clarity - that means 'Star Wars' later amended to 'Star Wars - A New Hope' released in 1977. I was of course aware of it as a major pop-culture phenomenon at the time but was never drawn to it. Having missed the boat (starship?) I never watched any of the original films until having kids of my own relatively recently. Have never bothered with the prequels.

    But - I really enjoyed this film. 'Seamless' is a description I've heard used about it and I think that's accurate.

    Of course there is a commercial juggernaut behind it (who knew?!) but I didn't feel it was empty as a result. The only difference between the latest Star Wars and countless fondly-remembered-westerns-from-ye-olde-golden-days is that the makers of the latter didn't know how to monetise the sale of hats, tomahawks etc. The concept of 'Official Merchandise' didn't exist.

  2. In 1955 I had a Davy Crokett hat, so maybe the idea of 'Official Merchandise' isn't quite as new a concept as we think.

  3. The Force Awakens reminded me of one of those albums that artists from the 60s and 70s occasionally make with whoever is currently in vogue - Supernatural by Santana is a successful example.

    It's designed to appeal to people like me who saw the original trilogy in the theatres but its eye is very much on building a new audience.

    I went in with book-ended expectations. It will be better than the dreadful prequels. It can't possibly be as good as Mad Max: Fury Road. In that regard I was not disappointed.

  4. Peter Walker said:
    "In 1955 I had a Davy Crokett hat, so maybe the idea of 'Official Merchandise' isn't quite as new a concept as we think".

    My brother had a Davy Crockett hat and a real plastic flintlock pistol to go with it. I had some sort of US Cavalry outfit with a flap holster and a Colt 45 Peacemaker cap pistol, though I can't recall which film sponsored it.

    I also had a Captain Video ray gun. It was a torch with red/green/white lenses. Quite a decent beam. Any number of kids had a Batman mask and cloak, too.

    Sponsorship and merchandising was fairly common back then, though not as virally endemic as nowadays.

  5. The prevalence of Star Wars throughout the media in the the UK and the USA has been nothing short of astonishing. This level of exposure, I would argue, wasn't totally bought and paid for by the Disney publicity department; there are enough aging fans, in positions of influence, who want to brandish their loyalty to The Force for free. Nary a chat show or breakfast TV couch escaped the blunt end of someone or other willing to pun on familiar Star Wars incantation - ..Dark Side, ..may The Force..etc or mangled Yodaism; even some Today presenters couldn't stop themselves from joining in the 'fun'.

    I thought that the high watermark of cynical symbiosis between film and the marketing of....just about anything really was reached when a film was made based upon the characters of a themed fun fair ride ie The Pirates of The Carribbean. Let us not forget also that somewhere in a London suburb is a lock-up packed to the ceiling with unbought hats, macs, shower caps, door mats and sushi boards bearing the impress of Dick Tracy.

    These points are made by other posters I know but this new Star Wars film is out at a time when there has never been more ways for anyone or anything to digitally inveigle its way into our consciousness; I'm a little surprised that for those of you live by Facebook, for example, that knows you are a Star Wars fan, aren't distracted by your pinging cell-phone as you walk by a shop with merchandising tie-in. Perhaps it is happening and I just don't know about it.

    The critical observation that companies used to pay us to advertise and expose their brand is now such a commonplace that it is rarely remarked these days but I think that with Star Wars we have even surpassed the point of the metaphorical tax upon manhood. The reaction to this 'event' makes me think that for just a short while a stupid blummin' sci-fi film has acquired the status of Christmas Day or Remembrance Sunday; something historical and statutory: who wants to be left out of the love-in?

    ''Without poppy, with bah humbug, cast out as the leper you will be''.

  6. You don't have to make a bad film to make toys from it. In fact I feel that a good film produces better toys because they can rely on story and character. It's not just a toy gun, it's Luke's lightsaber and you're Darth Vader and we're battling on the Death Star and quoting the lines and making lightsaber noises. Much more interesting. There aren't many films I can take my 7 year old son to which we'll both enjoy, but we both loved this so I don't much care whether its designed by committee or not.

  7. Whatever Disney's end game, It's a hugely enjoyable film. Despite being a bitter, middle-aged cultural cynic I don't mind if Disney sell a few toys off the back of it! Or indeed off the many brilliant Pixar films.
    I don't agree that the majority of people were largely apathetic about Star Wars but were somehow brainwashed into believing they were required to see it. There was huge anticipation and excitement around the film. The media coverage was excessive, but does reflect the huge interest in the film.