I’m certainly not the first to notice the latest micro-trend in movie releases. Much like those weird moments in history where there was an odd influx of movies about volcanoes, Earth-shattering asteroids etc, there’s been a recent wave of films about consumer products. More specifically, these movies are about the creation or marketing of those products.
Consider that in the last month movies like Air and Tetris have told the stories of how Nike developed the Air Jordan sneaker and how a video game executive secured the rights to what would become the most popular video game ever, respectively. And on the release schedule over the next few months are both Blackberry, about the development of the first mass consumer email/phone combo, and Flamin’ Hot, about the (possibly apocryphal) creation of the Cheetos flavor white Midwesterners consider “too ethnic.”
Note that these movies and their stories are distinct from films like The Lego Movie and the upcoming Barbie, that are indeed about consumer products but treat the subject matter as the foundation for an original story instead of being about the product itself.
At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson pegs these and other similar recent movies as part of a focus on entrepreneurs – specifically the entrepreneurs that emerged victorious – as opposed to the obsession with scammers and con artists that was prevalent a couple years ago, resulting in movies like I Care A Lot, series like “Inventing Anna”, “We Crashed” and others that glorified people whose morals were lacking but whose success apparently justified whatever damage they did along the way.
That may certainly be part of it, and it’s a shift that likely has at least something to do with the state of the U.S. economy at the moment. Movies about hustlers and scammers may be more popular and desirable during downturns because the audience is already convinced the system is rigged against them so “hurray” to those who got theirs regardless of the tactics. But when things are looking a bit better we want to focus on the legitimate business people because we’re feeling a bit more confident that hey, if we work hard and have a good idea that might be us.
Another factor that may be in play with this spate of stories about men in suits engaging in business is that we live in a brand-centric media world.
Movies, TV series and other media based on existing IP and brands are safe bets for big, debt-ridden companies to make because theoretically they come with a built-in audience and tend to perform well both domestically and outside the U.S. But those can’t be the *only* stories that are told.
So the hope is that, if a compelling story can be found somewhere, media based on well known consumer products may be the next best thing. They have a lot of the same advantages as adapting a video game for a limited series or building a movie franchise around a popular comic book character.
Primarily, existing awareness of the product itself can be activated in service of the movie or other media. That’s especially powerful if the product being featured is involved in the production or has at least given its blessing to the project.
Consider how much of the Tetris marketing was done not by Apple, which produced the movie, but by the company that owns Tetris itself. Or how much of Air’s marketing was an overt gesture in the direction of sneakerheads that have kept new Air Jordan models selling well despite its namesake having retired as a player decades ago. It’s similar to how biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt and others were produced in partnership with the current or surviving band members.
In essence these movies are not standalone objects, they are extended marketing efforts for the consumer products – including bands – whose origins are being told. Bohemian Rhapsody resulted in a massive increase in interest around Queen and its catalog, surely part of the calculus around its production. Mötley Crüe saw the same kind of spike following its biopic and used that renewed buzz to sell its catalog a couple years later. Expectations were that Air would have a similar impact on sneaker sales based on the interest in new shoes released around the release of “The Last Dance” documentary series in 2020.
Now obviously there are exceptions to this consumer-centric production approach. There aren’t any new Blackberrys hitting shelves. And given the contested nature of the story told in Flamin’ Hot it’s doubtful Frito-Lay will make much of an effort to draw attention to the movie.
That doesn’t mean those and other movies weren’t greenlit by respective studios at least in part because the subject matter is easily understood by the audience because they’re already familiar with the products themselves. Now the hope is they want to hear, in the words of Paul Harvey, the rest of the story.