The Rise and Rise of the Brand Movie

Emojis. Playmobil. Lego. Brands seem to be here to stay in movies. Ryan looks at its rise and rise...

On paper, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl probably shouldn’t have been a hit. Earlier movies based on Disney’s theme park rides certainly hadn’t been a success – least of all The Country Bears, a family film released a year before Pirates and largely shunned by audiences. Disney boss Michael Eisner moaned at Pirates’ steep $140 million bill. Did it have to be so expensive? And could Johnny Depp – hardly known as a bankable star – really lead the movie to box office glory?

The answer was a resounding yes; released in the summer of 2003, Pirates Of The Caribbean made over $650 million worldwide. Pirates also appeared to break two curses in one blow: first, it proved that adventure movies set on the high seas could still sell after the disastrous Cutthroat Island scared Hollywood away from the genre in 1995. Second, Pirates proved that audiences would actually flock to see a movie based on a Disney theme park attraction – even if the links between the ride and the film itself were kept deliberately vague.

During a discussion at the New York Film Academy earlier this year, screenwriter Max Landis talked about the changing face of the spec script industry. Studios, he said, were increasingly ignoring spec scripts in favor of intellectual properties – that is, recognizable names.

“There’s more and more IP-based stuff coming out,” Landis said, in his typically effusive style, “except what IP means is getting looser and looser and looser. There’s gonna be a Jack Daniels movie, and it’s gonna be an adventure movie. I hope you have a good spec, because the assignment’s open right now…”

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Studios’ interest in hunting down bankable properties was, Landis believes, due to the success of Pirates Of The Caribbean – after which point, he says, “all bets were off.” To a young man in the audience who’d asked about the state of the spec script market, Landis asked, “What does Pirates Of The Caribbean have to do with the ride, Pirates Of The Caribbean?”

The young man thought for a moment. “Um. Nothing?” he offered.

“That’s not true,” Landis fired back. “It has the same name.”

The audience tittered.

“The second [Pirates Of The Caribbean] happened,” Landis said, “it was, ‘Ahh, what else can be a movie?’”

As it turns out, just about anything can be a movie as long as it can be attached to a recognisable brand. In the past decade or so, we’ve had Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, loosely based on Hasbro’s line of toys and worth billions in cinema tickets and merchandising. We’ve had The Lego Movie, which was a phenomenal success in 2014. 

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Looking ahead, there are movies on the way based on Playmobil, Play-Doh, Tetris, Stretch Armstrong and View-Master.

When it comes to storytelling, most writers would say that inspiration is where you happen to find it. Hollywood has a long tradition of turning to novels, plays, myths, legends, fairy tales, Bible stories and magazine articles into movie ideas. Yet the projects listed above represent something different: in most instances, they’re movies based not on characters or stories, but on objects, images or logos. Somewhere in Hollywood, there’s a production based on the Magic Eight-Ball trying to get off the ground.

A generation or so ago, it’s arguable that most Hollywood executives would have dismissed the idea of a movie based on a brand – say, the Jack Daniels production Landis mentioned – as being a thoroughly tacky enterprise. But things have changed in recent years. Not only are producers casting their net ever wider for safe, recognizable hooks on which to hang their movies, but attitudes among audiences have shifted, too. We have no problem with a movie based on a theme park ride if it’s thrilling, and we don’t mind an animated comedy based on plastic blocks if it’s funny and smart.

Simply put, we don’t mind advertising as long as it’s entertaining.

Max Landis cites Pirates Of The Caribbean as the ground zero of brand movies, but the seeds were sown much earlier. Up until the early 1980s, rules set down by the Federal Communications Commission explicitly forbade the promotion of any product within the midst of an American television program – the idea being to drive a wedge between regular TV content and advertising. All that changed when Ronald Reagan swept to power in 1981 and, in a bid to boost the economy, pledged to deregulate those restraints on television.

“In this present crisis,” Reagan said in a rousing speech, “government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.” 

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That deregulation led to a mini revolution in children’s TV programming, with such shows as Masters Of The Universe, G.I. Joe, and Transformers all plying young viewers with a steady stream of animated entertainment and related toys, comics and other merchandise. Star Wars may have led to an explosion of action figures and pillow cases in 1977, but by 1984, companies like Mattel and Hasbro could capture kids’ imaginations in their own homes.

These properties weren’t solely aimed at boys, either. The Care Bears, which began as a series of fuzzy characters created by the American Greetings Corporation in 1981, became a hugely successful toy line within a year, sparking TV specials and an animated TV series.

By the mid-1980s, the success of these animated TV shows was such that a gradual migration to the big screen began. The Care Bears Movie came first, released in 1985 and faring far better than expected at the box office. Then came Transformers: The Movie and My Little Pony: The Movie and G.I.: Joe: The Movie. He-Man got his own live-action film in 1987 with Dolph Lundgren cast as Adam, Prince of Eternia. Aside from the Care Bears film, most of the other big-screen spin-offs struggled, though Transformers: The Movie and Masters Of The Universe soon acquired cult status. 

What the success of things like Care Bears and Transformers demonstrated, however, was how effective marketing can be if its advertising doesn’t even look like advertising. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that, as a kid sitting in front of a chunky CRT television in the 1980s, I didn’t care that the cartoons I was watching were expressly designed to make me buy Hasbro’s transforming robots. All I cared about was that characters like Optimus Prime and Jazz and Bumblebee were really cool, and that owning the toys made eight-year-old me feel closer to the good-versus-evil drama played out every week on the TV show.

The generation who grew up with Transformers or G.I. Joe or My Little Pony are now well and truly grown up, and it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that we’ve brought our receptiveness to this cunning form of advertising with us into adulthood.

At the same time, advertising itself has adapted to the way we consume and share things we enjoy. We may sit dull-eyed through TV ads (or skip past them if the opportunity’s there), but tens of thousands of people will eagerly share commercials or chunks of viral advertising if they find them entertaining or amusing. This is something the marketing team who make British marketing chain John Lewis’s Christmas TV ads have learned – their gentle (some might say schmaltzy) commercials have become something of a tradition, and eagerly discussed on social media each year.

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Marketing website Contently ran an article earlier this year about advertisers’ changing approach to making promotional items that viewers will want to share. Prada, a company which owns such brands as Miu Miu and Cornetto, commissioned a series of short films that more closely resemble quirky indie movies than conventional adverts. It’s something BMW experimented with back in 2008, with its Guy Ritchie-directed short The Hire, starring Clive Owen and Ritchie’s then-wife, Madonna.

It’s a softly-softly approach to advertising, designed to entice people to share and chat about a brand rather than thrust a product directly in a viewer’s face. Like a Transformers or Care Bears episode a generation earlier, BMW and Prada hope we’ll be entertained first and maybe think about buying into the brand later – something a marketing guru at Intel thinks we’re becoming increasingly used to as viewers. 

“I have seen that evolution. People become more accepting with every film,” Billie Goldman told Contently. “It’s a fine line we walk with what consumers are willing to accept. We aren’t creating a product video – we’re really creating entertainment.”

Hollywood has also cottoned onto the effectiveness of brands as a means of pre-packaging and selling a movie. Back in 2009, long before The Lego Movie was a thing, Universal Pictures chairman made a bold declaration: “Brands are the new stars,” he told the LA Times.

At the time, Shmuger had just made deals to develop movies on Atari’s Asteroids coin-op, Barbie and various brands at Hasbro, including Ouija, Jem And The Holograms, and Battleship. Those brands, Shmuger argued, were cheaper to purchase than a typical Hollywood star of yesteryear, and yet they have the same – if not greater – global recognition.

A sci-fi movie about robots punching each other may have been a tough sell on its own, but the addition of the Transformers brand created a powerful stew. It’s what marketing types call “unaided awareness” – a pre-installed understanding of what a brand represents before a poster’s been designed or a strapline’s been written. After the 2008 financial crisis, that kind of awareness was vital for studios increasingly nervous about sinking money into unproven ideas. With brands like Transformers and Lego, film studios are tapping into a powerful emotion in audiences: nostalgia.

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“It’s as much connected with the feeling evoked by a brand as it is with the brand’s awareness,” DreamWorks boss Stacey Snider told the LA Times. “The most successful brands are those that connect on an emotional level.” 

It’s that emotional connection that studios are looking for when they buy up such properties as Stretch Armstrong and Play-Doh, and why even a videogame with no obvious narrative behind it, like Tetris, can wind up as the basis for a trilogy of movies: a generation of people remember playing Tetris on their Game Boys. If those movies have the strength of storytelling we saw in The Lego Movie, couldn’t they be hits, too? Producer Kassanoff, who’s planning to turn Tetris into a sci-fi series about “creating order out of chaos” certainly thinks so.

What studios can’t always predict is which brands audiences will connect to. Plenty of people have played Battleship – the old game with the plastic pegs and boats – but they didn’t exactly drop a tray of drinks in their rush to see the movie. We’ll have and see whether audiences warm to the idea of movies based on View-Master, Monopoly or Magic Eight-Ball.

Until then, movies based on brands are likely to be around for a while yet. Last year, it was announced that Sony Animation is making a movie based on emojis – the little faces and other cartoony symbols that are just about ubiquitous in texts and on social media. While they aren’t a brand as such, emojis are another cultural artefact recognizable in just about every corner of the world – and Hollywood studios were so convinced of its value as a movie that Paramount, Warner and Sony engaged in a furious bidding war. Sony emerged victorious, after reportedly spending a seven-figure sum on the emoji rights. 

According to Sony Pictures president Kristine Belson, the Emoji Movie will be set inside our mobile phones, imagined as a busy and happy place where emojis work and live together. The adventure begins when the emojis venture into other worlds – or apps – on the phone’s home screen. It’s probably no coincidence that the plot bears a resemblance to that of The Lego Movie, in which its hero Emmet journeyed from his ordinary world to Middle Zealand and then Cloud Cuckoo Land and met various colourful characters along the way, or Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, about a videogame character journeying into other arcade games (the film included cameos from such characters as Pac-Man and Sonic The Hedgehog, and a sequel to it has just been announced).

Making nearly $470 million in 2014, The Lego Movie proved that an exercise in branding could also be a captivating and genuinely funny. Little surprise, then, that it’s sparking a wave of spin-offs and sequels, including The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie out next year and The Lego Movie Sequel in 2019.

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More worryingly, The Lego Movie may also have triggered a wave of rival films that hope to make something similarly crowd-pleasing out of a familiar name or products. The Emoji Movie may turn out to be a thoroughly charming flick, as the Lego film was, but we’d maintain that it’s somewhat alarming to see the amount of marketing jargon attached to it:

“We have a number of power brands returning relaunching or being reintroduced,” Sony’s Tim Rothman told The Wrap in April, “and yet at Sony we also believe that it is vital to maintain a commitment to originality.”

In other words, Sony’s making deals with makers of smartphone apps to have them appear in the film – one of the prominent apps being the streaming music platform, Spotify. To our non-Hollywood ears, this sounds worryingly akin to the ‘corporate synergy’ attempted by the ill-fated Foodfight, an animated movie written and directed by Larry Kasanoff (yes, the same Larry Kasanoff who plans to make the Tetris trilogy). 

First emerging 12 years ago, Foodfights premise involved a supermarket where food comes to life and brands appear all over the place – some of the deals Kasanoff made for venture included Cap’n Crunch, M&Ms, Skittles, the Energizer Bunny, and Spam.

“In a digital world,” Kasanoff told Time Magazine in 2002, “you’re hard pressed to tell the difference between Mr. Clean and Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Those were prescient words, for sure, but the notion of a film infested with brands and advertising didn’t excite everyone – least of all Gary Ruskin, founder of the pressure group Commercial Alert.

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Foodfight isn’t a movie, it’s an ad,” Ruskin said at the time. “ It raises the commercial assault on children to a new level of brazenness, Some people will stoop to any level to make a buck, and sadly, Foodfight is an example.”

Foodfights strange and ill-starred production meant that it didn’t become the hit Kasanoff had hoped (it finally appeared in 2012 looking decidedly worse for wear), but its idea of bringing brands into movies seems to have stuck. To quote Time Magazine’s 2002 article, we’ve entered an age where “blurring the lines between content and commerce seems to be the order of the day.”

The question for Hollywood’s studio bosses, producers and filmmakers is whether they can make their brand-focused movies feel like real, imaginative movies and not like a Tokyo high street full of flashing neon signs. We may have become more accepting of brand-led, corporate-made entertainment as audiences, but only if it moves us, thrills us, terrifies us or compels us to share us. From Hollywood’s perspective, as long as we keep watching, applauding and sharing – well, everything is awesome.