There’s a trend happening these days.
Some industry watcher and analyzer will give it a proper name soon, but for the moment let’s just call it ‘Big Product Placement’ or BPP. I am talking about the rise of biopics and films about famous commercial products and corporations. ‘Barbie,’ ‘Tetris,’ ‘Air,’ ‘Flaming Hot,’ ‘The Beanie Bubble,’ ‘Monopoly,’ ‘Blackberry,’ etc… These kinds of movies seem to be suddenly everywhere right now! This is my attempt to understand why.
First of all, this isn’t new. In its own way, the BPP trend has always been around. Its just happened at a much smaller scale. We all remember He-Man, right? The toys came first, and the animated series in the early 80s supercharged toy sales. And we’ve always tried to talk about corporate drama and story. Remember the Facebook movie, ‘The Social Network’ (2010)? ‘Moneyball’ (2011)? ‘The Big Short’ (2015)? The story of companies and their products and behaviors have always been told, but there is something different, something desperate about the here and now of it. Now, the BPP trend is suddenly omnipresent and is very much specifically about the things we buy.
This increasing trend from nascent origins to dominate paradigm is sort of like the video essay format. Famously, Orsen Welles’s ‘F Is For Fake’ (1973) cemented the genre, but it was not until the rise of YouTube that the video essay format seriously proliferated. There were a few BPP films out there before now, but something about the here and now seems to be seriously boosting the trend. So why now? What’s different?
I feel that there is a confluence of ingredients and behaviors happening to allow for the propagation these types of films. One of the elements is the big studio need to mine the content of established audiences, itself a reflection of shrinking theater attendance and increasing reliance on big giant tent pole blockbuster films. If your IP doesn’t have an established audience that we can continually squeeze for more and more money, then is it really an IP? Not according to the big film studios.
There’s a shelf life to pumping out sequel after sequel, reboot after reboot. Eventually, audiences grow quite tired of that and start to crave something new. ‘Barbie’ the movie, for example, is going to make a billion dollars, if it hasn’t already. It feels quoite new to everyone. People clamored for ‘Oppenheimer’ and for ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ surprising just about everyone. But the franchise fatigue is real. Just look at the theater turnout for ‘Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny,’ a bomb at the box office that might have been a sure thing 8 or 10 years ago. So, the big studios, trying to maintain massive audience numbers and big returns, are seeking more and more to find established audiences. Now they’ve turned to the things we buy.
However, the bigger component that allows for the rise of these sorts of films, I think, is that the culture of the United States has gotten increasingly commercialized and commodified over the last 50 years. We de-regulated ourselves in a Reagan fever in the 1980s, lurching away from what the US had traditionally been in the 20th century. “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” said the character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film, ‘Wall Street.’ That film was a reaction to the big changes happening in USian society, changes we are all still living through. Increasing market volatility, market crises, sub-prime mortgage hell and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, housing bubbles, student loan bubbles, the insanely widening gulf between the rich and poor, and the appearance of the asshat CEOism that haunts us today…so many things have changed as a result of our new attitudes and approaches to capitalism.
A generation and a half have come of age during this changed United States. For some of us, it is the only America we’ve ever known. In this environment, corporations have tried and will try anything they can to gain billions of dollars. CEO payouts and golden parachutes have gotten so epically, comically disconnected from American life that, increasingly, the 1% of us have come to live more and more in a highly distorted cultural bubble. The effects corporations have on everyday American life has reached a kind of powerful zenith. And in this environment, the story of a product or a company can take on very dramatic dimensions. We live in a capitalism on steroids…a Neo-Gilded Age. All of this has been running in the background of our lives. It is churning out a river of human stories and drama.
Perhaps because of the changes in American capitalism, we are connecting to the products of commercialism in a way that we’ve never done before. We’ve gotten used to assigning our personal identity to commercial products. We treat fandoms with respect and awe and reverence, as if they are some sort of emergent religion. Toys, films, comic books, increasingly, are selected to represent our inner selves to the world. You are a Spiderman fan? Well that says something about who you are as a person. You like to dress up like a ‘Star Trek’ character? You better get the details right or the priesthood is going to bounce you out of the church of Trek. The reason ‘Barbie’ is resonating with people is because the Barbie doll has outsized meaning in people’s lives…we’ve poured our conversations about feminism and masculinity into that little mass-produced plastic toy. It is worth noting that other cultures do not do this.
Of course, in a time when big film studios are latching on to established IP and blockbusterism, of course they are going to want to cash in on the role these products have in our lives. And they have. The appearance of the ‘Barbie’ movie is, in hindsight, completely expected after a decade of Marvel films and a generation’s worth of reboots and sequels. It is the culture we are swimming in now.
But…its not all bad. Its not that this is all naked commercialization and capitalism and exploitation. There is real drama to be mined in some of these tales. The story of ‘Tetris,’ for example, a video game that had to be smuggled out of the collapsing Soviet Union, is a story unlike any other, really. And ‘Barbie’ the film dives deep into the relationship between men and women in the United States in a satisfying and original way. We spend much of our lives toiling for our capitalist overlords. It stands to reason that human drama will happen during work hours and that the meaning we pour into our things will, you know, mean something. That filmmakers will want to illustrate that drama is of no surprise.
America used to see itself as a colonizing, frontier empire. We made lots of Western films as a result. That was the artistic result of that period and perspective. Then, we saw ourselves as the premiere spacefaring nation (and still are, by my count!), and for a while, science fiction became our default language as we clamored to understand the future of ourselves. And now, after half a century or so of living in a capitalist’s wet dream, the commercial output of the art is reacting. Movies about the things we buy and why we buy them is the order of the day. We became consumers and now our big art is about consumerism.
How many more ‘Barbie’ or ‘He-Man’ or Marvel films will we see? Is there a biography of the fidget spinner, or of the Dyson vacuum or of the 11 herbs and spices of the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe coming? Yes, yes, yes, and triple yes. It is all coming, at least for a while. This new film paradigm will be with us until the story of the United States, until how we see ourselves, changes again. Until then, maybe I will see you at the Honey Nut Cheerios musical.