I think it's safe to assume, my dear students, that both you and I are serious critics of the cinematic form, yes? I mean, I am the humble film professor of CraveOnline's Nobel Prize-winning Free Film School, and you, kiddos, are regular readers. We are lovers of movies, and are intensely interested in the mechanics, personalities, and artistry that go into making a movie. Most film schools, including this one, will spend the bulk of their time teaching you about abstract film notions like aesthetics, theme, form, genre, and general tone. Some lectures are devoted to the mechanics, shooting, constructing, and completion of actual films from a filmmaker's perspective. Either way, we can all agree that film is a huge artistic enterprise that is rife with theory and ideas.
Precious few lectures, however, are devoted to the other side of the cinematic coin, though. Films, we need to constantly remind ourselves, are still a business. Half of the people (maybe even more) involved in the production of a major studio picture are going to be businesspeople, moneymen, accountants, number-crunchers, and other mogul types who couldn't give two shakes about film theory, aesthetics, or what films launched the French New Wave. Films are immensely expensive, and often require hundreds of people to complete. Art? All well and good. But who is going to pay for all this? I talked a bit on this topic in a lecture called Studio System Shock.
A savvy filmmaker will have to be both a master of artistic craft, and a well-informed spin-master who can finagle the money they need from a rich producer or studio, while still placating the studio's whims. It's very rare that a filmmaker can be both. To offer a spectrum: Look at someone like Alex Cox, the awesome British bad-boy filmmaker behind Sid and Nancy, Repo Man, and Walker. He makes iconoclastic movies to say the least, and his films are not always critically well-received, and often don't do too well at the box office. Cox is a master of speaking his mind and conveying his bizarro punk rock notions through his movies, but he also has actively refused to play the Hollywood game, and has consigned himself to Hollywood exile. In the middle of the mess, look at someone like Terrence Malick. Malick is a serious and poetic filmmaker who has made large and expensive art projects like The Tree of Life. His films are considered by some to be vague and impenetrable, but he still manages to get them made. Indeed, Malick is considered something of a mythic statesman of movies, as he can make boldly artistic movies, and still receive huge amounts of financial backing from major studios who believe in his work. Then, on the business end of the spectrum, you have someone like Uwe Boll, the infamous German filmmaker behind many video game adaptations that are largely loathed by the fanboy community. Boll is a hugely savvy businessman, who knows how to work his way through the money-making system, and can, for better or worse, almost always get his films made; Uwe Boll has made more movies since 2003 than Terrence Malick has since 1969. Problem is, he's not exactly the best filmmaker. Uwe Boll doesn't make art. Uwe Boll makes commercial schlock.
As I have said before in the Free Film School, the vast bulk of films you see are going to be strictly commercial enterprises, intended to make a few bucks and keep you entertained; few have aspirations to be art. I'm going to say something kind of heretical here: Not all films are art. What makes a film art? That's a long discussion for another time.
Indeed, films are such expensive and commercial enterprises, I'm going to give a brief lecture on something that all of us have noticed, but few bother to acknowledge about filmmaking: product placement. In this age of super-heightened advertising awareness, it seems the best way to generate revenue about a movie, TV show, film, website, etc., is to sell advertising within and around it. The advertisers' ethos seems to be visibility at all costs, and they will go to great lengths to make sure you, the consumer, have seen their logo or product somewhere. And, seeing as films are so expensive, advertisers will often pay a great deal of money to film studios in order that their products appear, visibly, within the movies themselves. This is probably the grossest form of common commercialization imaginable, and I can't imagine that many filmmakers, writers, directors, or creative people accept product placement as an aesthetic challenge. Product placement is an insidious, and often necessary, part of filmmaking.
When is it necessary? You'd be surprised. Films about the military, for instance, will likely need many military uniforms, military vehicles, military locations, and military advisers in order to get made. Rather than spend millions of dollars recreating each of those things (how much do you think it costs to build a tank?), films will often just go into business with the actual U.S. Military, and borrow some real-life tanks, uniforms, locations, etc. This is why some critics feel that every film about the military is a pro-military film; they couldn't have made the film unless the military installation that helped them was glorified in some way.
More often than that, though, look at some of the bigger summer blockbusters you may have seen. The budgets for some of these movies now top the hundreds of millions. A great way to pay for a lot of the expensive digital special effects and high-salaried big-name actors is to put ads right in the movie itself. I recall a scene from Austin Powers in Goldmember from 2002 where a character was visiting Dr. Evil (Michael Myers) in prison. She flounced into the room holding a bag of Taco Bell take-out and a large drink. She sat at a table, put the food aside, and began the scene. Why was she carrying Taco Bell food? Was it for a joke? No. Was it referred to in the scene? No. It was, it turns out, a necessary advertisement for Taco Bell that Taco Bell paid handsomely for. It was all part of a vast cross-promotion between the studio and the restaurant. Maybe you'll recall Men in Black II from that same year, which featured so many product logos in the background that even the most casual fans took notice.
I'm guessing that neither Austin Powers in Goldmember nor Men in Black II could have been made without the participation of their fast-food tie-ins. However much you enjoy big-budget mainstream blockbuster films, you do have to recall that, on a very fundamental level, these movies are seen as products more than anything. I'm a film critic, and it's my job to dissect and analyze a film from an artistic perspective, but often I find myself battling the pungent whiffs of commercialization that come off a movie. Often to the point of distraction. How often have you been watching a movie or TV show, and you see someone using a cellular telephone or laptop computer whose logo is plainly and clearly visible? Sometimes those little details speak less to the action on the screen, and more to the product placement. In the recent sci-fi bomb I Am Number Four, the characters all communicate using Apple brand iPhones, and the filmmakers take careful measures to make sure the iPhones are always readily visible. I'm guessing they got a check for that. There was even some controversy over the last James Bond movie Skyfall, in that James Bond was now seen drinking beer rather than his better-known martinis. He was said to be drinking Heineken. James Bond is a very lucrative product tie-in industry in itself. Do you think sales of Aston Martins would be where they are today without James Bond? Would you even know about this car?
Where did this endless and gross cycle of product placement begin? Many would immediately jump to Star Wars in this regard. Star Wars was the first to make something of what was previously called “garbage rights” in the film industry. Before Star Wars, all product and toy tie-ins were considered “garbage” by the industry, and weren't viable forms of revenue. Guess what's changed since then? But that's more to do with product tie-ins than actual product placement. The earliest films I can recall that have actual product placement in them are Joan Crawford movies from the 1950s. Even though I'm sure there are many earlier examples, Joan Crawford may have been the source of obvious modern-day product placement in film. In 1955, the famous, award-winning, (and famously catty) movie star Crawford, star of Mildred Pierce and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, married a fellow named Alfred Steele, who was CEO of Pepsi Cola. I cannot comment on the strength or motivations of the marriage, but it was a savvy business move on both their parts. Crawford enjoyed the riches of being married to a CEO, and Steele now had a sort of built-in spokeswoman for the Pepsi product. When Steele died a few years later, Crawford muscled her way onto the Pepsi board of directors. I don't know how much she actually liked drinking Pepsi, but Crawford was incredibly careful to always be seen drinking it in photos, on film sets, and, most tellingly, in her actual movies. Watch some of Crawford's films from 1955 onward, and you'll spot all kinds of little hidden Pepsi bottles all over the sets.
I'm guessing the studios didn't get any of the Pepsi money, and Crawford may have been doing that to prove that she deserved a spot on the Pepsi Board of Directors, but it set a precedent: it was now okay to show brand-name consumer products in movies.
As advertising has proliferated, though, and the world itself has become increasingly blanketed in ads and well-known product logos, the notion of product placement in movies is becoming increasingly amorphous. You can't, for instance, film a scene in Times Square without taking in all of the ads that flash brightly from that location. Are you advertising Coca-Cola merely by filming its famous Times Square billboard? It's around here that we begin thinking of notions of commercials as art, and how the line between what is real life and what is advertising begins to blur. Many sociologists have been pondering what advertising does to our minds for many years, and much more intelligent people than I have weighed in on the topic. Read Naomi Klein sometime. Or even this 'blog, which is the final project of one Brain Sin, done for a journalism class.
Of course, we're all usually very aware of in-film advertising. Indeed, some filmmakers have gone so far as to address is directly in their movies. There is a famous scene in 1992's Wayne's World wherein the film's two lead characters (and one of them was Michael Myers again, hm…) talk about how much they hate corporate sponsorship and selling out, all while openly enjoying brand-name products and reciting catchphrases. 2001 saw a spirited pseudo-spoof film based on a 1970s cartoon show called Josie and the Pussycats, which was largely about co-opting pop bands for advertising purposes. That film was plastered with corporate logos, and made all the obvious product placement part of the joke. To be perfectly fair: Josie and the Pussycats actually received no revenue from the products they advertised. Mike Judge's 2006 film Idiocracy argued that advertising was part of what led to the downfall of civilization, and contributed to the constant dumbing-down of humanity, so when it talked about Carl's Jr. or Fuddruckers, it was almost an anti-advertisement.
The sharpest satire of product placement mentality came in 2009 with an Oscar-winning animated short film called Logorama, directed by François Alaux, Hervéde Crécy, and Ludovic Houplian. In this short, cities, people, and indeed the entire universe was now constructed of nothing but corporate logos. This was a short film that seemed to posit the fact that we have become the products we're constantly exposed to and that we constantly consume. Movies are now nothing but ads for other things. The short is hilarious, crass, and so stuffed with brightly-colored corporate garbage, it takes on an aesthetic all its own. The advertising circle was closed off with Logorama.
Why does product placement still proliferate? We're all savvy to it now. We refer to movie series as “franchises,” and actually care about weekend grosses, even if we don't work in the film industry. We know how movie business works, and we're all sharply award of when a product is being advertised in a movie, even if it's just a cup of Starbucks coffee with the label facing the camera. The fellows over at Red Letter Media did a fantastic review of Adam Sandler's 2011 film Jack and Jill, which even went so far as to accuse it of fraud, thanks to its inflated budget and very, very obvious product placement.
It's a sad, art-free downside to our favorite art form, and an element that will likely never fully go away. As critics, we have to try to ignore it. But if it distracts us from the movie, we have to mention it.
Homework for the Week:
What was the most blatant form of in-film advertising you can recall? Was it distracting? Do you feel that the use of brand-name products in movies always counts as advertising, or is it just a depiction of life in a commercialized world? Should there be less advertising in movies? Would you allow for advertising in your movie if it guaranteed you got to complete it? Would you accept ads in a movie if you knew you couldn't see it otherwise? How well to ads work on you? Are you aware of ads, or just sort of okay with seeing them?
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.