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.