Are Movie Marketers Too Mighty?
As filmmakers boost their profits with toys and other merchandising deals, critics ask:
POCAHONTAS dolls, miniature Batmobiles, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are flooding toy-store shelves as well as multiplex screens. And once again, a perennial worry is being aired: Are marketers taking over the movies?Skip to next paragraph
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Hollywood observers have been asking this question almost as long as Hollywood has existed, wondering where to draw the line between art and commerce in a medium that often thrives on both.
Almost everyone pays lip service to the artistic side of the equation, agreeing that movies should improve and uplift as well as divert and entertain. Yet cinematic success is often measured by box-office standards.
Woody Allen once noted that film is the only medium where a key creative tool is big money. In such a setting, who can blame studios, producers, and directors for maximizing the figures on their bottom lines?
Today's filmmakers have three main methods of boosting profit potential. Perhaps most important is the marketing of tie-in merchandise aimed primarily at children and young adults. This strategy came of age about 20 years ago when budding mogul George Lucas engineered the ''Star Wars'' bonanza, and has been going strong ever since. The entertainment paper Variety reports that tie-in products of the 1989 hit ''Batman'' outdid the worldwide box-office take of the movie itself, earning a cool $1 billion in retail sales.
A second technique is ''product placement,'' charging a fee for displaying merchandise within a movie. Few profit-watchers have questioned its effectiveness since 1982, when ''E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' made Reese's Pieces the candy of choice for untold millions - after the manufacturer of rival M&M's turned down Steven Spielberg's offer to feature their product instead.
Still another profit-boosting strategy is to construct a film project with an eye to optimizing its prospects on the international market - through television showings via cable and satellite, video-cassette and laser-disc sales, and old-fashioned theatrical engagements, which remain the surest source of income for a production that catches on with the public.
This technique reached maturity in 1977 with Richard Attenborough's war movie ''A Bridge Too Far,'' then the biggest-budgeted film ever put into production. Presold around the world by producer Joseph E. Levine before photography had even begun, the picture boasted a high-profile cast that provided each major market with at least one locally popular star to advertise: Robert Redford for the United States, Laurence Olivier for England, Hardy Kruger for France, Liv Ullmann for Scandinavia, Maximilian Schell for Germany, and so on.
Given the huge popularity of Hollywood stars in international markets, US studios haven't relied too heavily on this practice, since they can use American talent without fear of diminished ticket sales. Some overseas producers still employ it, however - which helps explain why US star Harvey Keitel has recently shown up in an Australian production like ''The Piano'' and a Greek production like ''The Gaze of Ulysses,'' both big winners at the Cannes Film Festival.
In a related strategy, some European producers film parts of their movies in English rather than their native languages; examples include ''The Big Blue'' and ''A Man in Love,'' two French productions shown in the Cannes filmfest's prestigious opening-night slot. Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner has sharply criticized this trend, claiming it's reducing the particularities of national film industries to ''Europudding'' monotony.