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Commenting on the Critics with Simon Columb

Neal Gabler, for The LA Times, writes about how the Star Wars and Marvel deals from Disney says much more about the industry…

It used to be that the movie created the brand, which is exactly how George Lucas built his empire. Now the brand creates the movie. And it used to be that all the merchandise was ancillary to the movie. Now the movie is ancillary to the merchandise. The holy grail of Hollywood has always been trying to find a way to make movies that sell themselves without the movies necessarily having to be any good. With the acquisition of Marvel and now of Lucasfilm, Disney may have finally found the grail. You don’t need imagination or art. All you need is a brand.

Read the full article here.

Unfortunately, Gabler is right on many levels. Branding – or using EP (Established Property) to determine sales – has become the norm in Hollywood; a safety net to ensure success. Or at the very least, a safer bet than an unknown property. This week, another study in The Guardian, highlights how a theory may have been developed whereby the amount of edits and changes to a Wikipedia article can inform studios, months before a film’s release, whether it will be successful or not. A brilliant article by Alok Jha, it supports what Hollywood believes that, the more prior awareness of a film you have – and the more you have invested in the brand – the more likely you are to pay for a ticket to watch it.

Personally, I know there is a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles – or Ninja Turtles – film in development. Chances are, I won’t watch it at the cinema. Considering the film has gone through significant changes, it is one of the few films I know of, due for a release in 2014. It is an established property, it gains more coverage on the internet because of this, and therefore it has an audience waiting in the wings to watch it. If I start hearing good word-of-mouth… if I hear that the film is ‘different’ to the usual films … or it pays homage to the previous films in a nostalgic manner… then maybe the ticket will be bought. The only reason I would know of this information is through coverage on the internet or through friends. And I bet Michael Bay and co. will do anything to ensure that some type of positive word-of-mouth will spread and reach people with a passing interest like me. And, chances are, the more I hear about it, the more I will re-check Wikipedia to find out whether the positive press is real or not – scrolling down to ‘Critical Response’.

We are in a time where cinema is an art form that has been around for over 100 years. Many films have come and gone – even James Bond is 50 years old, and remains successful. There is an importance to branding and, as an audience, we only have ourselves to blame. But we don’t need to apologise for it. As much as I would like to discuss the latest Jacques Audiard film, or Michael Haneke’s Amour; whether I want to criticise Children of Men or whether I want to argue the pros of End of Watch, it doesn’t matter in this argument – because I’ll probably watch Star Wars Episode VII. I’ll also be interested to see what happens next to the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar and Isla Sorna. I’d love to see Indy fight again and I bought the Blu-ray boxset of all five X-Men films so I can rewatch them in preparation for X-Men: Days of Future Past. I’m just as bad as anyone else – and my ticket-purchase for art-house and indie-films is almost-exclusively dictated by critics and friends recommendations.

But there is something we can do to stop the re-release and dependence of using EP. First off we need to accept that bleeding-dry established properties which are aimed at children is a given. Children contribute a huge amount to cinema ticket sales. These are often impulsive as parents will take children to the cinema regularly – often with the rest of the family, earning multiple ticket sales. Seriously, compare a mediocre 12-rated film with a mediocre kids film – and the difference is astronomical. Fact remains, kids aren’t too picky and will watch anything with goggly eyes and a horn-sound thrown in. Shrek 7 and Toy Story 9, whether we like the films or not, will always gain a huge amount of money because kids will want to watch it.

Secondly, teenagers are a little more aware. Jurassic Park III was released in 2001 (so, I was 16 / 17) and, as a die-hard fan of the series, surprisingly, I didn’t watch the third film at the cinema. Jurassic Park remains my favourite film ever (and yes, I probably will see it in 3D) but alarm-bells were ringing when the film was released. No Spielberg. Only 1hr 30mins run time. The ridiculous metallic logo. The ‘worse-than-a-T-Rex’ creature. You could see it coming a mile-off.

We have to be more savvy about the nature of marketing and publicity. We know that sequels, prequels, sidequels and spin-offs are going to be made. But you can tell whether it will be weak – Battleship, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Sherlock Holmes 2 are testament to that. But you can also tell when it will be strong – The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall and The Avengers prove the other side of the argument.

Simply put – don’t pay for it. If you know it’s a cash-in then hold back – wait a few weeks. Studios dictate that opening weekend sales are what determines success and if we, time and time again, watch the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opening weekend and then complain about how “it’s nothing like the original”, then we only have ourselves to blame when they make a sequel. If you can see it is shamelessly assuming your ticket purchase on the characters, worlds and brand that have already been established, don’t pay for it. You ticket purchase means much more than £10 – your ticket purchase is a vote for brand-centric filmmaking.

Simon Columb

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