Are Movie Marketers Too Mighty?

As filmmakers boost their profits with toys and other merchandising deals, critics ask:

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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?

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.

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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.

In a similar vein, Brazilian director Carlos Diegues has remarked that every country has two national cinemas - its own and Hollywood.

Critics of cinema's mercenary impulses have long decried the most blatantly commercial aspects of filmmaking, blaming these for compromising the integrity of movie images, stories, and performances.

Other commentators have taken a more measured approach, however, noting that the complexity and expensiveness of commercial film production almost guarantee that compromises will be made along the way. For every filmmaker like ''Safe'' director Todd Haynes, who has devoted his career to personal projects that may not have long lives in the marketplace, there are dozens who recognize the necessity of recouping investors' money any way they can.

STILL others have found a bright side to cinema's mixture of artistic impulse and commercial opportunism. Toys based on Hollywood films may allow children to exercise their imaginations in ways foreclosed by the manipulative, formula-driven movies themselves. Such respected yet pragmatic screen artists as Jerry Lewis and Roger Corman have long considered product placement a reasonable way to fund underbudgeted projects.

And international casting, sometimes decried as an opportunistic ploy, can have felicitous results. ''The Postman,'' now playing in American theaters, stars French actor Philippe Noiret as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda - in an Italian production directed by an English filmmaker who was raised in India by his Austrian mother. The results of this multicultural mixture, including Noiret's voice-dubbed portrayal of Neruda, have been received by reviewers and audiences with great enthusiasm.

Also worth remembering is the fact that a large and vigorous portion of the cinema world - the avant-garde or ''experimental'' branch - has long dedicated itself to not just avoiding but also energetically opposing commercial preoccupations of mainstream film.

The fiercely individualistic filmmaker Jack Smith, portrayed by actor Ron Vawter in the current movie ''Roy Cohn/Jack Smith,'' decried a greedy ''fishhook'' mentality that he found in all but the most radically independent cinema artists.

Numerous other filmmakers, led by pioneering figures like Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs, have forsaken fame and profit in their decades-long pursuit of cinematic innovation.

Not that any branch of filmmaking is entirely free of commercial temptations: No less an avant-gardist than Alfred Leslie once remarked that he would have sold statuettes of his iconoclastic ''beat generation'' performers if it would have boosted the visibility of his antiestablishment classic ''Pull My Daisy'' in the late 1950s.

But many independent filmmakers are busily at work every year, ignoring market considerations as proudly and consistently as any writer who favors the rigor of poetry to the easy charm of the mass-market novel.

They inspire no toys or tie-ins, and their works are shown more often in museums than in multiplexes. A public that truly valued noncommercial film would seek out their offerings and support them far more actively than has been the case to date.

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