“Who is the audience for The Angry Birds Movie?”
That’s the question many have been asking themselves in the lead-up to the release of this summer’s hottest kid’s film based on a mobile game nobody has played in five years. Watching trailer after trailer of anthropomorphized avians engaging in easy slapstick, it’s easy to see its origins as a post-Minions effort to create more adorable characters for your kids to beg you to buy at the store. But the timing feels like too little, too late; any kid in the target audience for this film was in diapers (or not even born yet) when people were actually playing the game on their iPhone 4s. It stands out as a glaring reminder of Hollywood’s primary mission statement: to get as much of your money as possible.
Commercialism in Hollywood is nothing new, of course, and it would be stupid to turn up our noses at the very idea of films being created to make money. As a filmgoing public, we have long reconciled ourselves to the fact that big studio films need product placement, merchandising, and tie-in meals at Denny’s to help reimburse the nine-figure budgets expected of most summer tentpoles. Branded films, however, put the product before the art, acting as ephemeral marketing tools designed to capitalize on an existing non-movie consumable. And boy, does it show.
The widely accepted Godfather of branded films has to be the 1988 E.T. knockoff Mac and Me, in which a terrifying scrotum monster with big eyes tries to phone his way home with the help of a boy in a wheelchair. (If you don’t know, it’s the source of the one clip Paul Rudd shows every time he goes on Conan.) Back before we got used to product placement, Mac and Me featured some of the most egregious examples of the practice in celluloid history.
The whole film feels like the result of a gypsy’s curse after his daughter choked to death in a McDonald’s. The company’s cynical fingerprints are everywhere, from a five-minute dance sequence with MAC and Ronald McDonald in the middle of a Mickey Ds to Ronnie introducing the film’s trailer. That’s not all: Skittles and Coca-Cola got in on the action, as entire scenes are dedicated to MAC (short for “Mysterious Alien Creature,” natch) rejecting food for Skittles and water for a crisp, refreshing Coke. Taken to its logical conclusion, MAC is the desired demographic for Mac and Me: a wide-eyed child whose life force is sustained through the exclusive use of their products.
Some of the worst films of all time started out as marketing exercises: 2012’s kiddie disaster The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, as Nathan Rabin puts it, “feels like it was marketed into existence.” The love-child of Kenn Viselman, the self-described “Madonna of the toy business” who was responsible for such hits as Thomas the Tank Engine and Teletubbies, hoped to replicate his success on the big screen by starting his newest IP (a trio of cloying, sleepy-eyed creatures called Goobie, Zoozie, and Toofie) as a theatrical film.
Naturally, the results were less than stellar, with an opening weekend gross of less than $500,000. What did they expect? Who was going to see a cheap, terrible movie based on a group of kiddie characters no one had heard of? The success of shows like Thomas and Teletubbies came from their status as children’s TV programming: you know, that free thing you switch on to distract your children. Seeing a film takes time, money, and interest, none of which the Oogieloves invite you to expend.
But what happens when a branded film doesn’t have any brands? That’s the story of the doubly-baffling Foodfight!, which took a decade to produce (announced in 2003, released in 2012) but looks like it was whipped together by a freshman animation major overnight. Ostensibly a Toy Story for food-brand mascots, Foodfight! feels like it was supposed to have more branded characters in it. However, due to years of failed negotiations and abortive financing, the only characters who make it to the final cut are the Vlasic stork, Mrs. Butterworth, and Charlie Tuna, who have maybe two minutes of background screen time between them. Instead, we get store-brand imitations like Dex Dogtective, Vlad Chocool, and Cheasel T. Weasel. Even if the film weren’t a steaming garbage fire of choppy animation and oddly creepy sight gags, Foodfight! ’s ethos as a piece of marketing makes no sense. What are you selling if the movie isn’t even about any real products?
Films born from marketing purposes don’t have to be bad as a rule. The LEGO Movie is probably the greatest example of a film that overcomes its commercial origins to offer something more. Due in no small part to the endlessly subversive talents of writer/director duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, The LEGO Movie managed to turn the very idea of “film as commercial product” on its head. The key, as it turns out, was not just telling a story with LEGO, but telling a story about LEGO as a tool for imagination or a way to connect with your family. The marketing component of The LEGO Movie becomes a meta-joke on the film’s very existence, which ironically makes the whole thing work.
The lesson to be taken from these failed branding exercises, and the upcoming Angry Birds Movie, is this: Audiences aren’t stupid. Put all the product placement or comic book tie-ins you want, but understand that moviegoers can see it coming a mile away and will turn on you at a moment’s notice. Where LEGO succeeded (and the marketing Madonnas of the world failed) was in recognizing the intelligence of their audience, owning up to the marketing, and taking the opportunity to roll with it. At this point, the film industry is far too reliant on merchandise and product placement to turn back. The most we can ask is for executives and studios to give moviegoers a spoonful of genuine storytelling and artistic vision to help the brand-name medicine go down.