Thursday, May 24, 2007

STAR WARS: the selling of a movie

Despite my rather crazy schedule now in preparing for a last-minute theatrical performance on Friday, I desperately wanted to participate in the STAR WARS blog-a-thon that Ed Copeland was hosting in commemoration of its 30th anniversary. Though this post doesn't deal with the STAR WARS series itself as much as it addresses the transformation of movie merchandising over the past few decades, my thinking on this subject was prompted by STAR WARS and, thus, I thought it would serve as a fitting contribution to this celebration of what is arguably the most influential franchise in movie history.


I doubt there are many who would deny the historic and cinematic significance of Star Wars, how when it was released in 1977 it "changed everything" (from the way we watch movies to the way movies were made), how it became a phenomenon of virtually unpredented proportions. While it may not have been the first "summer blockbuster event" movie (that "honor" belongs more to Steven Speilberg's Jaws released two years earlier) but it is probably the biggest movie event of all time, not just in terms of box office numbers but in how it penetrated the cultural cosciousness in a manner that no film has been able to accomplish since. If Jaws lit the fuse, Star Wars was the explosion.

Another area in which many have spoken of the influence of Star Wars was in the realm of movie marketing. By marketing I am referring primarily to merchandising. Star Wars was just as much a phenomenon in terms of toys, book, video games and other media, again, in numbers that had never been seen before. The merchandising became part of the event, but the Star Wars phenomenon was first and foremost a cinematic one. Before all else, it was a movie and everything else Star Wars-related (magazines, mugs, t-shirts, calendars, etc) built upon that foundation.

Of course, movie/TV merchandising was not a new concept. Grown-ups in the 70's (who had been children in the 50's and 60's) had already grown up with Davy Crockett coonskin caps, James Bond toy cars, Superman dolls and so forth, but with Star Wars merchandising had reached "critical mass," a sort of atomic explosion, and the movers and shakers in Hollywood began to see the enormous profit potential with extending a movie's success into other areas of entertainment. People have argued that since Star Wars Hollywood has basically been approaching movie merchandising in the exactly the same way, that the studios, their parent corporations and affiliates have all adopted the "Star Wars philosophy" of how to sell a movie. While it seems clear to me that it certainly started out that way, and remained that way for a while, I actually believe that that philosophy is now quite different.

I was recently watching Kevin Burns' Empire of Dreams, an excellent documentary about not only the making of the Star Wars movies but their legacy, and was struck by something that I had never really thought about before. One segment of the documentary focuses on the merchandising of the original Star Wars and, in particular, the infamous "empty box campaign" is discussed. Because Star Wars was not expected to be a big hit at all, the amount of toys produced in conjunction with it was minimal. When Star Wars took off the toy companies were caught completely by surprise and despite rushing to production were unable to meet the huge demand. Their plan of attack was to sell vouchers for Star Wars toys several months in advance. The customer would essentially buy an empty box with the promise that they would eventually get a Star Wars figure once enough had been manufactured.

In watching this, I realized that this was a tactic that would never EVER fly today, but in 1977 people were so hungry for Star Wars toys that they went along with it. As I remember my own childhood, I can understand this. My friends and I played with Luke, Han, Chewie, Vader and Obi-Wan figures in my backyard because we loved the movies and this was part of our way of sharing that love with one another. Owning Star Wars paraphernalia was a way to express one's affection for the movies. So, in a way, the attitude towards merchandising was (to use its most vulgar terms) to promote the movies. However, somehere along the way a shift took place. Whether that shift was sudden or whether it happened gradually I do not know, but it seems pretty clear to me that we live in an age where the concept of merchandising has radically altered from the 1970's.

If I were to try to depict the two distinct ideas in visual terms I would do so like this. The following diagram represents, accurately I think, the relationship between the movie and its merchandising tie-ins back in the late 70's-early 80's.


Notice that the Star Wars movies function as the central "entity" in the overall scheme, the main unit from which the various other merchandising outlets stem. This was because the Star Wars movies were essentially personal artistic expressions of their creator George Lucas. Star Wars was never produced with the sole intent of making money; they were produced with the intent of telling a story and communicating an idea held by their creator. The merchandising served as subsidiaries to that intent. Granted, there would have been people involved in the Star Wars series whose primary motivation was to make money (probably more at the executive level) but in general the money-making ventures of the various toy, clothing and book endeavors were merely extensions of the Star Wars movies.

This dynamic between the movies and their merchandising served adequately for many years (the model accurately represents, I think, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and even Gremlins), but by the time Batman was released in the summer of 1989, the "shift" was already taking place and by the end of turn of the millenium (a period of The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and even more Star Wars movies) the change had, to use Star Wars terminology, "now been complete." The emphasis on merchandising had reached a level of equal, if not perhaps even greater, importance to the movie itself. By this time, the quality of the movie wasn't nearly as crucial as the degree of which the merchandising was being consumed. This is probably the reason why the majority of these movies aren't that good anymore. They are merely one more element in a large multi-faceted, money-making corporate campaign.

I can recall my frustration in discovering, for example, that the second Matrix film (a movie which I was very much looking forward to) was going to be connected with a video game, entitled Enter the Matrix, which gave somewhat of a different perspective (an almost parallel storyline) to the events depicted in the film. It was going to contain details that could actually "deepen" one's understanding of the "Matrix universe." Thus, the accessibility of the films now relied on elements outside of the films themselves. Prior to the film's release there was also an anthology of animated vignettes (called the Animatrix) which provided some backstory to the first movie as well as further information on individual characters in the Matrix "mythology." In other words, fully understanding the Matrix movies now depended on playing the game and the viewing the animated DVD. The movies could no longer stand on their own. They relied on the merchandising for their comprehension and perhaps even existence (as opposed to Star Wars where the movies were "stand-alone" entities; the merchandising hinged on the movies rather than the other way around).

The visual that I think best represents this mode of thinking would be as follows:


Notice, now, that the merchandising is no longer an extension of the movie, because the movie itself has ceased to be the main "entity" in the overall picture. The movie is just part of an extensive package that is being sold to the public. If the movie was once considered the "body" of the octopus, it was now merely a "tentacle." Consequently this mode of thinking has started to affect the production of the films themselves. Kevin Smith tells of the period of time in which he was writing the screenplay for a re-launch of the Superman franchise (a script that would ultimately be rejected). In discussing the project with producer Jon Peters, Smith was encouraged to create characters of a certain nature (robots, aliens) such that a corresponding toy of them could be made and sold. The script was being altered not for artistic, storytelling purposes but merely for commercial merchandising intent. In this final regrettable step of the metamorphosis, the merchandising had become the main "entity" and the movie merely a subservient extension. Toys were no longer being produced to promote movies, the movies were being made to sell toys.

In the summer of 2007, predicted one of the biggest moneymaking summers in history, we find ourselves surrounded once again by a number of big-bidget Hollywood products including Spider-man, Shrek, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, Transformers (a movie that, not coincidentally, derives its inspiration from a line of toys). Though the quality of these movies will certainly vary, the merchandising machines attached to each one are already in full swing. One cannot look anywhere without seeing fast-food tie-ins, comic book adaptations, video game commercials and so forth. As a movie-lover I find myself more more inclined to "buy the movie" rather than any of these other related products, but it doesn't escape my notice that what Star Wars created in innocence and naivete has grown to become an enormous "empire" of crass commercialism and has changed the identity of the public from movie-going audiences to mass market consumers.

12 comments:

cineboy said...

Great observations. I reminisced before: The Mayflower and the Life of Cinema. I also remember once when the dog chewed several of my storm-trooper figures. I took the opportunity to use my model paints and make it look like they had lost a gun battle. Ah, those were the days.

Damian said...

Thanks, Tuck. I remember reading your "Mayflower" post and loving it. I think you should make it your contribution to the blog-a-thon.

Burbanked said...

Excellent, Damian! I enjoy your posts so very much because they often begin with a kind of innocent simplicity, yet then branch out into ever-more complex and deep-reaching analyses. Really fascinating stuff.

One element you don't include in your diagrams is the burgeoning merchandising allure of home video. While obviously this was not a concern in 1977 when SW was still a babe in the woods, the lure of a constant money stream from home video has also helped the SW juggernaut to erode into narrative mediocrity and audience disdain. And while I think that, to some extent, the emergence of video games and story elements like The Animatrix have helped *build* the mythos behind some movie properties, the increasingly shrinking home video window - and the now-familiar reliance on double, triple and quadruple-dipping - looks to only degrade the future of Big Cinema Movie Watching.

Dan E. said...

Sometimes, though, I think some sort of transmedia creation is a healthy endeavor. I remember reading somewhere that Richard Kelly's Southland Tales is actually a continuation of a series of graphic novels. If I recall correctly, Episodes 1, 2, and 3 would be released in paperback and Episodes 4, 5, and 6 would be released on the big screen. This is a design completely without the desire for merchandising, but rather an extension of the story into multiple media.

Something like The Animatrix must be considered carefully. It is there to expand the story beyond the traditions of the films, but it is not necessary for enjoyment and understanding of the films.

These extensions, while they distract from the big screen experience, add to the stories, and a good deal of them are made for the sake of artistry, not profit.

Chris Stangl said...

The timeline charted and shift perceived in this piece is, I think, a little more complicated.

1) Walt Disney, for example, never went through a period where his box office revenue outweighed ancillary merchandise. Selling Mickey Mouse dolls always kept the film studio afloat, plush toy sales funded the expensive production of animated features that routinely failed to generate profits. This cannot be dismissed as a brief fad for Davy Crockett hats; Disney began building a multimedia empire on merchandising before before George Lucas was born.

2) The TRANSFORMERS movie is indeed inspired by a toy line, and/or the cartoon created to promote those toys, but the property dates from 1984. TRANSFORMERS as a media-verse, is contemporary with GREMLINS. The decentering of the movie/TV text in certain marketing campaigns was well underway by the early '80s.

3) HARRY POTTER began as a highly personal YA novel by a single mother living below the poverty line. Likewise for SHREK, which began as a modest, mellow picture book. These are works born far more of passion for storytelling and in "innocence" than STAR WARS, invented by a savvy movie brat already in the film business, with assistance from his superstar friends.

4) The toy voucher idea is still manifest in product pre-ordering. It not only flies today, but consumers pay in advance for products more regularly.

5) A stronger case might be necessary to demonstrate that LORD OF THE RINGS films aren't the true center of their marketing campaign.

6) Don't sweat the MATRIX tie-in media, if you don't want to; THE ANIMATRIX and ENTER THE MATRIX supplement the story for the hungry fan, but are not necessary to understanding or evaluating the films. If anything, the casual RELOADED viewer is more likely to be confused by ANIMATRIX than find any clarification. That the MATRIX games, comics and animated shorts contain semi-canonical story elements created by the film artists may also be regarded as respectful to fans and born of understanding of fan culture, rather than the crass attitude that "oh, by the way, you also have to buy a PlayStation game". The definitive story is still in the movies.

I hope these points indicate a more optimistic take on film merchandising; I do tend to believe the world is not changing all that much, the numbers simply get bigger.

Damian said...

Burbanked:

First of all, thank you for the compliment. :)

Secondly, while I never intended for my diagrams to be in any way comprehensive (I know there are at least dozens of avenues for merchandising that I failed to mention) your bringing up the home video market is a very good point. I actually hadn't even thought of that in my conception of the overall movie campaign. If it had occurred to me, though, I probably would have placed it in the "movie" box rather than giving it its own extension. Not because I think it's an illegitimate or unimportant piece of movie marketing (I think it's essential) but because going to home video has always seemed, to me at least, simply one more step in the "life" of a movie (the last step probably being its broadcast on network TV). So, I don't really consider the video/DVD aspect of movie-making part of the "merchandising" because I always saw it is as basically a logical, even necessary, byproduct of movie production, whereas merchandising is not. A movie pretty much has to go to DVD now. A movie doesn't have to have a line of toys associated with it. Otherwise, we'd have little "Music and Lyrics dolls" fashioned in the guise of Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore.


Dan E.

It is not necessarily transmedia storytelling that I have a problem with. I agree with you that there are many good examples of different outlets for a single story/world through which to be told/depicted and that they are all just as capable of being produced for the sake of artistry as for the sake of money. The animated Clone Wars is a case in point. Here was an endeavor that expanded upon the new Star Wars movies very well, deepening the events and characters seen in the films and, in many ways, actually surpassing them in terms of storytelling. In this case, the intent might've actually backfired. The movies ended up paling by comparison and probably made people more disappointed in realizing what "could have been."

The main question I was really asking was "Where is the story's identity?" At what point does transmedia storytelling or a multi-faceted marketing and merchandising campaign become an end in itself rather than the means to an end? It seems to me that the mechanism itself has now taken over its operator and in many cases the "right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing." I don't think one can deny that with the original Star Wars movies, the movies themselves was where the identity lay. Lucas wanted to make movies and he did. He also wanted merchandising to connect to the movies and he got it, but the movies were always the main thing.

I don't think we can say that about the new Star Wars movies though. In the time that elapsed between the original movies and the prequels, the way merchandising was conceived and executed had changed. Episodes I, II and II really became just another "cog" in the grand Star Wars machine of multi-media saturation. What is truly sad about all this, though, is that this machine (which was started by the original movies) has now grown so big that it has subsumed the original movies. While I was absolutely thrilled that the trilogy I had loved/grown up with was finally being released onto DVD, there was also a bizarre sense of emptiness because, despite all the fanfare that accompanied it, Star Wars had grown so big that the DVD release felt like just another attempt to "sell me something Star Wars."

I'd like to think that years from now, when people think of Star Wars they think of cinema first and not all the other outlets/media it has also inhabited. Star Wars was a movie so significant that it changed everything... even itself.


Chris:

You make some good points, and I would like to address some of them if I may.

1) Your mentioning of Walt Disney is actually very good because I think Disney could be considered the real innovator of mass marketing strategies. And yet, it is interesting to note that the merchandising, as you say, kept the studio afloat and helped fund his filmmaking projects which were not always that successful. This says to me that the studio, for a while anyway, came first in Disney's mind. That these other money-making ventures were what made it possible for him to do what he REALLY wanted to do, which was tell stories in a cinematic medium. Again, the movies seem to occupy the primary spot in Disney's "empire" (though I don't deny that it didn't stay that way nor is certainly like that anymore).

2) I realize that Transformers dates back to the early 80's because I was an 80's child myself and even back then when I enjoyed the cartoon series, I understood that I was watching something that was "based on" the toys. My point in mentioning it was merely to illustrate that, unlike the original Sar Wars, where the movie came first and the toys followed, here was a case where the toys came first and the movie has now followed which suggests to me, again, that the movie is just a piece of an overall Transformers "package" that is being sold to us.

3) In the case of Harry Potter I have little doubt that the books will retain their identity long after the movies have lost their popularity and it will always be understood that Harry Potter is essentially a literary character, but if you were to approach children randomly on the street, how many of them do you think could tell you that Shrek started out as a book? In the case of Shrek, I don't think you can deny that, regardless of how pure/artistic the motives were in his initial creation, the "machine" has now subsumed the green guy.

4) I understand that vouchers are still used to pre-order products and I wasn't saying the voucher idea itself wouldn't fly. What I meant was that I think people are too savvy nowadays to the commercial aspect of movie marketing to buy such a product "sight unseen" like they did back in the 70's. With Star Wars people HAD to buy vouchers because that was all there was to buy. There was such a hunger for Star Wars products that people were willing to wait for them. I don't think people anymore (outside of perhaps the most fervent fanboys) have the patience to buy a product associated with their favorite movie AFTER the movie has come out and been enormously successful. Sure, people can still pre-order their toys and wait for them to arrive, but usually these are the people that already know exactly what they're getting, why they're getting it and place their orders well in advance of the film's release. Originally, people wanted Star Wars toys because they loved the movies. Now, people want the toys just because they want the toys. Consequently, if there ever were a shortage, I suspect people would simply move on to something else that was available. Incidentally, think Hollywood is far too "smart" to be caught by surprise in this particular area (i.e. shortage of product) again; now they produce obscene amounts of movie-related toys in anticipation of demand... which, unfortunately, doesn't always follow.

5) Lord of the Rings is actually somewhat of an anomaly to the "merchandising machine" that I describe because in their case, the movies are actually really good and it seems clear to me that the intent all along, at least on the part of the filmmakers, was to make as good a movie(s) as possible and pay respect to their source material. The executives who greelit the project perhaps only saw what could become another Star Wars and hoped the multi-media merchandising would not only help sell the movie but would become a phenomenon in itself. The typical options of movie marketing were, as usual, exhausted with this franchise, but this time they went even further stretching the "umbrella" of Lord of the Rings to include what were, at the time, virtually unexplored areas of movie marketing (including an attempt, albesit unsuccessful, to put the story it on stage). So, while the movies might perhaps occupy a bigger chunk of the "package" than in most other cases (not least of all because of their quality), it does still seem to me that the "idea" of Lord of the Rings was the thing really being sold. And yet, through it all, the real "identity" of Middle Earth lay not in the movies, but in the Tolkien's writing. Like Harry Potter, I suspect the books will be what people are still talking about 100 years from now.

6) My point in mentioning the Matrix movies and their tie-ins was, again, merely to illustrate the shift that had occurred in the way movie marketing was approached. The idea of a video game "supplementing" a movie, for example, is a very new concept. It's as if the idea of making a video game based on a movie isn't enough anymore. That's "old-fashioned." The game now has to offer something on its own, something original apart from the film. I admit that in some ways I actually think this is a good thing because it means the game audiences are demanding more from their product, but, again, I think it can have the effect of taking away from the significance of the movies rather than adding to them.

In conclusion, while I appreciate your points and you are right in that the evolution of movie marketing is more complex than I originally state in my post (and you've certainly given me a lot to think about), I believe one would have to be naive to not recognize the fact that merchandising has now come to occupy a different place in the industry than it ever has before. The numbers are certainly bigger but, more importantly, the perspective has changed... and we failed to see it while it was happening. We were too busy playing with our toys.

dolls like us said...

I liked the first stars wars movie I didn't realize how many different ways they had to market star wars to find out if it could be successful but what they did worked .

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Paula said...

My Husband is a huge Star Wars fan and has toys and merchandise from as far back as the 1980's. My son Ryan loves it too, so I am stuck in my own perpetual Star Wars Universe!

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