Check Out the Merchandise
When we read about blockbuster movies costing $100–250 million, and how much studios spend on their promotion, many of us question if they’re worth the financial investment. Such movies are considered by some to be successes if they can break even. This might sound like a fruitless enterprise for studios who want to turn over a profit, but the box office is only part of how a movie can make money.
It’s not just about getting audiences into the theaters. It’s about making fans into consumers.
The market for film merchandise is where studios can make their largest profit. Years after a movie has left our cinema screens its imagery can infiltrate our consumer culture, catering to the widest possible demographic, from childhood to adulthood, in a near-endless variety of ways. It’s impossible not to see popular movies being sold to us after the cinema experience has passed, appealing to the passive fan and the rabid collector alike. The breadth of merchandising that exists for people to purchase and absorb is almost limitless.
I’m not saying that we, as consumers, are being duped into spending our money on movie merchandise — a market can’t exist without there being sufficient demand. The problem, however, is that the extent of movie merchandising we’re exposed to can compromise the quality of the products we’re purchasing. As long as the merchandise is good I can’t complain, but sometimes a movie’s licensing can go too far and lead consumers to tire of its omnipresence.
The breadth of merchandising possibilities is too great to explore in full detail here, but below are some of the most common and profitable methods studios have to rake in the dough.
The toy market is a multi-billion dollar industry. When kids have finished watching a movie toy manufacturers are there to help them take the fun home. When I was a kid I had a Jurassic Park T-Rex, raptors, and dinosaur compound (I even had an Ian Malcolm figure that had a backpack with unfolding wings, for some reason). Looking around today, how many children have stuffed Minions toys from Despicable Me, Elsa dolls from Frozen, or Disney/Marvel action figures?
Adults aren’t exempt from their reach — in the last 20 years a market has emerged with products aimed at their demographic, creating toys licensed from more mature properties and described as being artisan and collectible. (For example, I own a 1/6th scale Xenomorph from the Alien franchise, made by McFarlane Toys, displayed on my desk.) We also buy them because they’re fun — they satisfy our inner child. How many adults have bought dancing Groot toys for themselves because of Guardians of the Galaxy?
The downside is that studios will cynically insert characters and elements into their movies knowing that they will license and sell them as toys later. Producers have and will continue to compromise storytelling in order to plug child-friendly creations that are meant to empty parents’ pockets. Hasbro’s licensing of the Transformers franchise to Paramount and director Michael Bay is explicitly intended to sell toys and related merchandise — essentially the movies are glorified advertisements.
In the past films were treated to annuals and novelizations (a few of which I own) and that was the end of it. Today the book publishing licenses for movies spans fiction and non-fiction; children, young adult and adult readerships; and comic book and literary spin-offs.
Fiction book authors, under differing levels of control by the publishers and studios, can tell new and original stories, placing recognizable characters into new situations and adventures for fans to immerse themselves in over multiple installments. Owning the license to both the Alien and Predator franchises Dark Horse Comics has produced dozens of storylines that have continued and expanded their mythologies, both to fans’ delight and consternation.
For film enthusiasts book publishers and studios also produce titles about movies’ development to the screen. ‘The Making of’ and ‘The Art of’ titles are some of my favourite pieces of merchandising available because they can provide an insight into the talented individuals involved behind the scenes and the creative choices that go into crafting cinematic releases. (My bookshelf is littered with them, including films like The Lord of the Rings and the work of directors like Guillermo del Toro.)
While to studios they serve the same end purpose as selling toys, the majority of licensed books that are published retain a craftsmanship that feels more considered and authentic compared to other kinds of film merchandising.
When the computer gaming entered the home in the late 70s movie studios were slow to license their properties to developers. This changed in the 80s, but because of the limitations in memory and graphics any video games made to capitalize on popular movies bared little to no resemblance to their source material. The quality of the games themselves was sketchy at best.
As the consoles became more powerful and game design matured video game adaptations began to improve. Rare’s GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64 is not only viewed by gamers as the first great title that was based on a movie, but also as a landmark in the first person shooter genre that spawned numerous imitators thanks to its innovative design and multiplayer modes.
Sadly, for the most part licensed video games have not advanced the medium. Much like how licensed toys are marketed, video games based on movies will copy the formulas to already successful titles and insert their characters into generic platformers, shoot ’em ups, and Mario Kart clones. (Shrek had a racing game, for goodness’ sake.)
There are a handful of exceptions. The Telltale series and LEGO video games have licensed titles including Back to the Future and Indiana Jones to critical and gamers’ acclaim in the past several years, removing some of the tarnish that was associated with such adaptations of movie properties.
No discussion about movie licensing and merchandising would be complete without mentioning Star Wars.
Believing the movie was going to be a commercial failure 20th Century Fox gave writer-director George Lucas complete control of the merchandising rights before the movie’s release in 1977. With its colossal box office and popular reception the market was flooded with everything Star Wars, turning Lucas into the magnate of a business and entertainment empire worth billions when Disney bought the rights from him in 2012.
Star Wars toys have been with us for four decades, and created the market for mint condition collectibles — still in their original packaging. There are literally thousands of different figures (well known and obscure), vehicles, playsets, and accessories available for fans to buy and amass. I had an X-wing, action figures, and a few lightsabers growing up, though I never did get the Micro Machines which I thought were cool. (I did have a 1/6th scale Jar Jar figure for reasons unknown.)
Hundreds of authors have written hundreds of fiction and non-fiction books since the 70s. Timothy Zahn wrote the New York Times bestseller Heir to the Empire in the 90s, continuing the story of the original trilogy after Return of the Jedi and establishing the expanded universe of stories which fleshed out the Star Wars mythology into the 2000s. (When Disney bought the franchise they labelled all of the EU stories as Legacy titles, making them no longer canon, to the chagrin of many fans.) Today new series of comics and novels, under Disney’s watch, are being written to compliment their new film installments, including The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi.
Star Wars video games, before and after the changeover, have run the gamut from the great (Knights of the Old Republic, Rogue Leader) to the poor (Super Bombad Racing, Masters of Teräs Käsi). With each new generation of consoles the property has evolved and the developers’ budgets have grown to film blockbuster proportions. The more recent slew of games have also embraced online play in MMORPGs (The Old Republic) and first person shooters (Battlefront and its upcoming sequel) with great commercial success.
The franchise is also emblematic of how merchandising can get carried away. In the wake of The Phantom Menace’s release in 1999 practically everything Star Wars was manufactured and sold, or emblazoned with the Star Wars brand. The marketing and merchandising departments went into overkill, and to an extent we’re now seeing Disney replicating those excesses. Toys, comics, video games, board games, mugs, calendars, cookie jars, candies, badges, bottle openers, pencil cases, t-shirts, bathing suits, pajamas, bedding, lamps, light switches, clocks, socks, model kits, costumes, visual dictionaries, coloring books…
Their intentions are transparent. How much longer are studios going to pander to their consumers?
The real future of movie merchandising, I feel, rests in the hands of fans. Whether they’re licensed or unofficial, smaller businesses who pride themselves on the quality of their products are gaining in recognition and popularity. Hot Toys, Mondo Posters, McFarlane Toys: these companies and others like them are creating merchandise for a wide range of franchises, old and new, with artistry, passion, and respect for their fans. They feel less like calculated, corporate attempts to make money compared to traditional merchandising — as corny as it may sound, they’re being made with love.
A lot of the toys kids, big and small, can buy today are superb. When it comes to fan-made movie posters and geeky t-shirts we’re spoiled for choice. What makes me love them even more is knowing that the people who make them care about their work. That the people who make them love them, too.
Coming soon: You’re Reading Too Much Into It