PHD Perspectives: Why Merchandising Trumps Storytelling, and How Marketers Can Adapt - Dennis Camlek - MediaBizBloggers

PHD Perspectives
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DreamWorks is reportedly in discussions with Mattel about developing a feature film of the 3D View-Master toy, those clunky old-school devices that allowed kids to look at 3D images via inserted cardboard discs. Some of us are old enough to remember them; you probably tossed them away by the time you were thirteen, or at the very least sold them to a collector at a family garage sale, the same collectors who are now selling "Thriller" View-Master discs on eBay, trying to capitalize on the Michael Jackson resurgence.

This marks yet another would-be popcorn movie based on a popular toy line, other recent exercises being "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and next month's "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra." Perhaps a feature film about The Hamburglar will be next! These "interpretations" beg the question of what exactly is happening at our local movie-houses, besides the fact that movies seem to require colons in their titles (witness "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"). Sitting through the pre-show the other day I saw a trailer that I couldn't even remotely try and explain the plot of – it was quickly-edited, convoluted schlock that made me want a few Excedrin. Then there was Rob Zombie's "Halloween II," a sequel to his remake from a few years ago. Let's say that one more time…a sequel to a remake.

As I drank my fountain drink it dawned on me that we have arrived at a rather troubling time in the entertainment world: the wrong end of an obvious creative drought. It's as if the studios are cranking out movies made for those aimless zombies from Romero's brilliant "Dawn of the Dead," the ones who when shot bled that purplish ooze that never really looked like blood. Where Romero was in on the joke, this summer is nothing but a joyless Renaissance of big budget, would-be blockbusters that never really delivered the goods. "Terminator Salvation." "Angels & Demons." "Land of the Lost." The aforementioned "Wolverine." All big-ticket studio tent poles that vanished before you fetched your free refill (and Excedrin).

What does this say about the current consumer's willingness to tolerate a fast food approach to moviemaking? Box office grosses indicate that people will still show up opening weekend, but when reading between the lines you'll agree that while an Extra Value Meal tastes mighty delicious at the time, you feel bloated, tired and guilty afterwards, vowing to not go back anytime soon. Why have we seen so many "sure things" fail to connect this summer, while cheapie comedies like "The Hangover" and "The Proposal" continue to loiter at the multiplex?

Well, for one thing, it could be that merchandising and film development are becoming dangerously interchangeable, seemingly at the expense of quality storytelling. Screenwriters are buckled up in the back seat as action figures sit behind the wheel. We're choking on an onslaught of toy-based movies, with a rumored "Monopoly" feature on the horizon, which certainly doesn't sound like an award-worthy tale of ruthless hotel moguls, troubled ex-cons and second-place beauty pageant-winners. You get the sense that action figure sales are forecasted before a screenwriter even types a single word. It's commerce fueling art fueling commerce all over again, and consumers seem to be blowing the whistle.

Consumer tastes evolve. We as marketers need to understand this, and it can be very time consuming to try and stay one step ahead of the curve, yet we can't assume the tried and true formula will always work, no matter what the research and focus groups might suggest. While we all still crave good old-fashioned escapism, harried sequels and needless adaptations are starting to feel very five minutes ago. Will next year's "Iron Man 2" conjure up the same magic that the original surprised us with? It's doubtful. Have we not learned anything from the dreadful "Batman and Robin?" Going back to the well time and time again has proved to be a risky enterprise.

Film studios, and even exhibitors, are in a tough spot. They of course need consumers to remain confident about the product, and they're even rolling out titles in 3D to help deliver a fresh experience in the theater. No doubt that the View-Master filmmakers have this in mind. But we're in a consumer-centric age of YouTube, Netflix and VOD, where we devour content how and when we want, usually on the cheap. When you factor in unemployment and rising ticket/concession costs, all of a sudden creativity really means something, and you can't shell out more of the same and expect strong returns. Don't underestimate today's consumers – they are savvy enough to know when they are being sold a faulty bill of goods.

Perhaps we'll witness a reprioritization of storytelling. The last two Best Picture winners, "Slumdog Millionaire" and "No Country for Old Men," were both small budget affairs, and while they certainly didn't put up the numbers of a "Transformers," they gave moviegoers an intelligent, riveting experience that didn't sell out the art form. I doubt the Coen Bros. imagined a kid-friendly Anton Chigurh plastic coin to accompany a 6-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal, although they certainly maintain the warped sense of humor to do so.

Dennis Camlek, SVP Group Account Director, PHD Media, an Omnicom company. You can follow PHD's Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/PHDisSmartMedia

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