Friday, May 26, 2006

The High Price of Selling Out

I've been musing on why Over the Hedge didn't quite blow the doors off the theaters last weekend, and I don't think it can all be blamed on the massive success of The Da Vinci Code. . . I worked on Hedge, and knew it was one of the best films DW has produced. Funny, well executed, with a story that pays off. Even the critics, biased as they seem to be towards DreamWorks' animated films, gave it good reviews. Yet, before it opened, I didn't have a good feeling in my gut about the film's prospects. And it just dawned on me why I felt that way. Here you have a film with a playfully anti-consumerist theme, and yet the vast majority of the television marketing I saw portrayed the Hedge characters happily shilling for the world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart! We're all accustomed to some marketing tie-ins. We've also gotten used to seeing our favorite characters selling crap. But I don't recall ever seeing this happening before the movie is released, at least not to this extent. Maybe my TV viewing habits are atypical, but I saw at least three or four Wal-Mart/Hedge spots for every vanilla ad selling the movie itself. As I think about it, I don't think I saw more than a couple of regular TV spots for Hedge. I know I've already seen far more ads for Cars. My impression (and I'll be happy to post info to the contrary) is that the studio made a strategic decision to save some of the massive marketing costs (I believe a typical marketing budget for a theatrical release is now around $50 million) by having Wal-Mart carry a big part of the marketing load. But then they're ads for Wal-Mart, not ads for the film, and that's not the same thing at all. Some might say any publicity is good publicity, but those Wal-Mart ads made me nauseous. Having the public's first associations of those characters as pimps for a corporate behemoth, in ads that aren't particularly entertaining, can't have helped at the box office. I said to a friend before the film opened that, based on the advertising, I wouldn't have wanted to see the film. And I was put in the place of trying to convince skeptical friends that it was worth a look. I know we in the animation biz love to blame the marketing departments of our studios when are films aren't presented well, but this time the problem's been racheted up to a whole new level. After thinking about this, I did a web search to see if anyone else had the same thoughts. I found this posting (from which I stole my title), from before the film's opening, that touches on some of the problem. I also see that some of the critics, despite liking the film, noted the disconnect between the film's theme and the marketing. Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe the Wal-Mart marketing of the film was only a tiny part of the whole, but it didn't seem that way to me, and I can't help but wonder that it hurt the film.


Anonymous said...

What about the State Farm ads featuring Cars characters? Cars hasn't even been released yet either and these ads are playing. How do you feel about this?

Kevin Koch said...

I haven't seen the Cars State Farm ads. My first reaction is that it's disappointing, and a bad idea. If I experience those characters first as corporate shills, I'm going to have a harder time sitting down in a darkened theater, seeing the movie, and just enjoying it for the story that Pixar has labored so long to tell. It will have become something else.

Maybe I'm unusual, but I think people in general have a negative reaction to this kind of stuff. It's similar to obvious, forced examples of product placement -- when I notice those, I'm a little pissed ("Hey," I think, "wasn't my $10 ticket enough for you?"), but even worse, I find myself wondering about the marketing deal instead of enjoying the film. It's instant buzz kill.

I remember a while back when there was going to be a Chester Cheetah cartoon show, and the idea generated tremendous negative publicity. Now, Chester Cheetah would probably have made a better cartoon lead then most of the crap being made at the time, but the integration of marketing and entertainment was just too obvious for many people to stomach. Oddly, I think it's more honest to take a character created to be a marketing icon and then try to do stories with that character, than to create a film that is meant to be a world unto itself and, before the audience has even experienced that, have those characters sell you stuff.

I realize I'm rambling, but there are two things I'm complaining about. One, because the company paying for the ad (Wal-Mart, State Farm, whomever) is first and foremost selling shit, they will call the shots on the ad, and their needs will override the need to effectively advertise the film as a film. If the film is already out there and widely known, then those kind of ads may not matter too much. But if they're the first things you see for that film, you're likely to get a bad impression (and in the case of Hedge, I think those ads made the characters look particularly unappealing). So as information, it's bad information.

Secondly, I think there's a widespread antipathy towards overwhelmingly commercial and mercenary ventures. It creates negative emotion. Yeah, we all know the film was made with a profit in mind. And marketing tie-ins are as old as animation itself. But there's a point where too much is, well, too much, and people start to turn off.

Chrlane said...


I see what you're saying. There's a hypocricy there-- or maybe a divide-- between the creative ideals and the realities of the market place.

I think with all the press about Walmart's prices coming at the expense of it's employees, it's hard to feel good about shopping there. But when the average family is so pinched that making a well-balanced meal depends on how much you spend on socks that year, well, you get the idea… That extra five bucks goes a long way. It's a kind of consumer trap, really.

Plus there's the issue of white noise. With all the super-marketing tactics folding in on themselves these days, no film is really making any kind of splash anymore.

Too much white noise.

Time to get back to basics, methinks.:)

(So where's the new masthead, huh, boys?)

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