a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Death of Subtlety

From today's Los Angeles Times:

"Product placement apparently isn't cutting it in the movie business anymore. Not satisfied, say, with a mere passing shot of a mega-star munching a Whopper, Burger King is developing a film whose main character lives above one of its burger franchises, according to a story in this week's Advertising Age."

"No, it's not a horror film. And it's almost not going to be what would seem like the natural sequel to 2004's nutty teenage comedy "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." Instead, Burger King, along with ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, which is overseeing the script, envision a "character-driven" story along the lines of "Garden State" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape".

The sad thing is that stuff like this is already taking place. I recently read a teen novel for a company I work for, in which a lot of the action took place in a nationwide clothing store. Sure enough, if you check the copyright page of the book, it came from that store's book division.

Writing a movie script like this for an ad agency has to be one of the biggest forms of hackwork available -- I think I'd rather write Freddy Got Fingered 2. There are already plenty of dubious reasons why scripts are made; commissioning one whose sole raison d'etre is to have characters living above a Burger King has to be a new low.

I'm already imagining inevitable sequences. Visiting characters comment on the wonderful smells coming from below. The main characters eat there constantly, though naturally they will be trim and fit, and still be able to have sex without breathing heavily (though they may stop midpump to grab a handful of fries).

Emotional sequences will take place in Burger King booths, which will be mysteriously absent graffiti or passing homeless people eyeing the remains of the main character's burger. Unless of course the homeless person is charming and/or played by Mickey Rooney, with important wisdom to offer our hero ("try the shakes, they're 72% natural!").

The worst thing is that there just doesn't seem to be any attempt at subtlety any more. Don't these companies realize that the only way to actually pull off something as blatantly manipulative and misconceived as this is to be beyond secretive about it?

Don't they realize that, if there was a hint of a sense that White Castle had bankrolled Harold & Kumar (note: I don't think they did) that the movie completely would have lost its sense of cool, as well as 90% of the audience that did go see it?

Of course, maybe that's the answer. If every attempt to do this is outed, and there is enough public outrage, then movies will be made for the right reasons again -- violence and nudity.


At 9:26 AM, Blogger jefe said...

Interesting possibility, though -- the creative people at CP&B are extremely talented. Very smart, very hip shop. There's a decent chance that this movie might not suck. Then what?

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well, it's definitely a huge challenge. Not only do you have to come up with a compelling characters and story, out of what appears to be thin air, you have to do it in a way that doesn't insult the audience by making it seem like the movie has only been made to shill the product.

I don't know how they are approaching it. By far the best way would have been to find an already-written solid character-driven script that had the easy opportunity to slide in the living-over-a-Burger-King part without it really being a major part of the plot, hopefully with no one noticing.

But now that it has been outed, the movie is going to have to be drop-dead great to work, and even then it already has a lot of baggage connected to it.

If it does work, then it opens the door to any number of crappy product tie-in films. Though I call dibs on writing "Slinky: The Movie", as well as the inevitable one starring Britney Spears as a happy-go-lucky Pepsi truck driver.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger jefe said...

Ha! Good call on the pepsi idea. See, if THEY were doing it, I would be more afraid -- their advertising is cringe-worthy.

I am in advertising myself, and a poster child for the "copywriter with a screenplay in his drawer" stereotype. I would not be surprised if the person who thought this up at CP&B already had a script in his back pocket that he felt would be adaptable.

It does open a big ugly can of stink though.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Scribe LA said...

Remember, if you can, the ridiculousness of the recent "Firewall" with a badly aging Harrison Ford. I knew I shouldn't have rented it, but the cast had potential, and I tried to pump myself up with the notion of how great Ford was in the excellent "The Fugitive." Anyhoo, the movie trailers featured the Chrysler cars that bankrolled the movie, and thank goodness the movie tanked - money and critic wise. Let's just hope, for the sake of good movies everywhere, that this notion of advertising does not explode like the box office of "Pirates" last week.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

The thing with Firewall too is that if the Chysler had just been in the movie, no one would have cared so much; product placement like this goes on all the time.

But because Chrysler took out big ads trumpeting it (probably because of a deal they made with the syudio), it gave it more of a sour taste.

Again, subtlety is key.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Chesher Cat said...

Does this mean we can start pitching to Wal Mart and Target? I mean, come on, they're probably more accessible than Paramount or Universal.

Think of the possibilities...

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

In one of the Matrix sequels there is a car chase between two pristine Cadillacs. Took me right out of the movie. Product placement doesn't really bother me unless it is painfully obvious. Being merely standard obvious is OK. I would have product placement in my movie only if I could make sure all products were turned so you don't get an advertise-y profile on the products. Or they give me a lot of cash.

Scott. What if some exec stumbles apon your blog post and offers you writing credit on the untitled Burger King Extravaganza just because he likes to put poor people in morally compromizing positions? What say you? No. Wait. That's a decent idea. I call dibs.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I don't think I'm desperate enough yet to take on hackwork for something I don't believe in. You want me to write a movie shilling the benefits of something cool and healthy, maybe I'd do it.

But if I have to write a film promoting Walmart (or even a vehicle for Paul Walker), I'd have to be convinced that I'm getting paid a lot and have free rein to write something that's actually really freaking good, because otherwise I think it might hurt a writer's career rather than help it.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Yeah Wal Mart already has Hollywood's cajones in their hot hand with their buying power. They also do movie exclusives as well - especially for the holiday season. This wouldn't be a big leap for them.

Product placement opens up opportunities for the small guy too - internet shows with commercial endorsements to pay for it? It's going to take some rethinking outside the digital box though.

You can write the Britney movie with Pepsi. I'll write the Jessica Simpson / Pizza Hut buffalo wings movie.


At 12:28 PM, Blogger Formerly, The Dude Spoke said...

I don't think White Castle would have bankrolled a movie about two potheads out on a raunchy quest for the perfect munchie food. If they did, it would be a) more honest about their clientele; and b) pretty damn ballsy.

If Burger King agreed to be honest, and have the characters overweight and/or high for most of the flick, then it might actually be believable.

However, I think you're onto something with Paul Walker AND Walmart. Too of the most damning forces on our current cultrual climate fused into what giant thing.

Wasn't there a movie all about Natalie Portman giving birth to "The Walmart Baby?"

And wasn't Career opportunites all about Target?

At 12:54 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

The ironic thing about "Where The Heart Is" is that the first act sequence in which Natalie lives in WalMart is easily the best part of the movie.

But I've pretty sure they lifted it from the book the movie was based on, because WalMart is the perfect white-trash location for it to take place in.

Though I'm sure WalMart happily cooperated with the film.

As for Career Opportunities, all I remember is Jennifer Connelly in that sleeveless white t-shirt.

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

How 'bout an Oreos movie about a rich black couple who adopt a surly, white street tough? I've already got my hanky out.

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Shrader said...

When will they learn? In the mid-80s, McDonalds hired a writer to rip off ET. The result was MAC AND ME about an alien and a little boy in a wheelchair who eat at McDonalds. Even though it ended with a "We Will Be Back" card, it was such an abysmal failure the threat never came true. Until now, I guess...

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see it's the perfect time to pitch my script "And I Put It All on My American Express Card" to the powers that be.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Abe Burnett said...

I'm pretty pragmatic about this kind of thing; I see the potential for more buyers of our work--or at least more people to pay we screenwriters for rewrites, lots and lots of them. I guess I figure that if they work super hard, don't over do it, and put out a really good film that does well and even--GASP--makes money, great! Kudos to them. I think we all know that when art plays bee-itch to money to the extreme (as in advertising) then the art looses its soul, and hence, the reason people value it.

I too have felt that the tie-ins have been becoming more and more blatant. Almost every movie which includes a car chase also has that chase occur between Caddies, or BMW's, or whatever. I don't remember what car was featured (hahah! take that ad execs!) in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but it was pretty tasteless. Though I LOVED the comments about the Chrysler (?) mini-van and its durability: "these doors ARE handy." *laughter*

I think the only reason I was willing to buy into that inclusion of such blatant placement was that I could considered that since the guys driving the BMWs (or Mercedes, or whatever) were all working for the same corporation (the one out to kill John and Jane), they were probably company cars. Otherwise I would've been very irate at the sheer implausibility of all those assassins driving the same cars.

One way or another the consumer will have the final say...unless, of course, companies decide that they aren't making these movies for money, and will keep making them even if they totally tank every time out. That would suck.

At 5:01 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Didn't McDonald's do this with a film in the 80's about an alien called Mac? The movie was Mac and Me and the main character worked at McDonalds.

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Sorry to be off-topic, but Mac & Me, along with Meatballs 4, are among the WORST movies EVER MADE. EVER! The only thing that would have made Mac & Me watchable is if the fucker Mac was tied to the back of a car and dragged 100 miles across a sea of rusty nails, then showered with broken glass.

At 11:27 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Wait, does that mean the "Mac" in the title is a really unsubtle subtle reference to McDonalds? Yeesh.

At 6:30 AM, Blogger Belzecue said...

Thomas C -- re the Cadillacs, there is a small conceit you can choose to accept regarding the Matrix not equalling the real world, so pristine Cadillacs are not out of place.

Back to topic:

Question: If tomorrow you discovered that Snakes on a Plane was bankrolled by one of the major airlines, would you still go see it?

HELL NO! Wait a sec... snakes on a plane? And that is supposed to be surreptitiously advertising safe, reliable air travel? An airline company bankrolling a nod-and-wink Sam Jackson movie and poking fun at air travel? Now that IS cool!

So, if done right -- i.e. be open about it AND don't take yourself too seriously -- maybe product-bankrolled movies could work. I suppose it depends on how much the bankroller restricts the talent and final cut... but don't we have that happening already with the studio suits?

At 7:12 AM, Blogger Tim Clague said...

You can never be that subtle. So its best to be obvious and honest. Honesty is the only way to go. If its cool to meet your friends in Starbucks then they can meet there. But we best know what's going on and that its an advert snuck in. In fact I'd expect to get the film free from Starbucks. I'd begrudge being asked to pay a film that has got cash in from elsewhere.

My solution - for my feature Circumference I am going to fund the film through adverts. Adverts slotted into the film - all obvious and upfront. The film will then be free for anyone to watch - no dollars - free! Clearly piracy and all that bollocks is of zero concern to me.

Keep up with it all on my blog as it rolls out.

At 7:25 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Every one of you bitches would be drooling to write the next BMW films project - a feature version of their THE HIRE series...

(and don't say you wouldn't)

At 8:01 PM, Blogger James Patrick Joyce said...

Disney bankrolled a movie (well, three) designed around a corporate entity. Obviously those movies were intended (whatever else was involved) to inspire renewed interest in their theme-park… they even revamped the Pirates ride.

Now, I’m aware that Disney isn’t an ad-agency, but wouldn’t POTC qualify as hackwork, for the same reasons that a Burger King movie would?

My point being that Ted and Terry created a great movie, from the existing concept.

Seems that the complaint is not the ad-agency, nor the blatant commercialism, but the fact that Burger King’s product is less savoury (morally and gastronomically), then Disney’s.


At 8:05 PM, Blogger James Patrick Joyce said...

I could swear that I read somewhere that they originally wanted to call the movie Harold & Kumar Go To Krispy Kreme, but KK turned them down.

Could be mistaken, though.


Post a Comment

<< Home