Intellectual property — the books, films, characters and properties that get butts into seats — has long been a cornerstone of Hollywood moviemaking. But many of this year’s films have drawn from less likely, though perhaps inevitable, sources of inspiration: products and brands. Movies ranging from “Barbie” and “Air” to “BlackBerry” and Michael Mann’s upcoming “Ferrari” all to one extent or another leverage the namesake of the object, or the business associated with it in the name of attracting audiences to theaters.
This parade of product-driven titles seems to mark an inflection point in a crowded entertainment landscape where consumer recognizability has become one of the most important (or seemingly only) factor when deciding which movies to make.
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At their best, these movies hit it out of the park with critics and moviegoers, as in the case with “Barbie,” the biggest movie of the year, or gain critical heat, as with “Air,” a pricey movie about the development of Nike’s popular sneaker line that generated $90 million at the box office before streaming on Amazon Prime Video. They vary greatly, however, in how they treat the brands central to the plot.
Screenwriters of these projects argue that it’s not devices or entities but the people around them that make their stories worth telling.
“We never saw our movie as a product movie,” “The Beanie Bubble” writer and co-director Kristin Gore says of her film about the women who helped fuel the stuffed animal collecting craze during the 1990s. “We were really drawn to the women’s stories behind this absurd bubble.”
Though his film charts the conception of a smartphone, “BlackBerry” director and cowriter Matt Johnson similarly says that he cared less about charting the construction of the eponymous device than the way it exemplified the mentality of those that developed it, including company co-founder Mike Lazaridis. “I can’t explain how a BlackBerry works,” Johnson admits. “But there was a fascination with the person whose psychology is actually manifested in this thing I’m holding in my hand.”
Gore and Johnson both recognize the financial sense of telling a story with some built-in consumer familiarity; the cultural currency of a name, much less something a great many moviegoers owned or even regularly had on their person, generates immediate commercial interest in a project. Linda Yvette Chávez, who co-wrote “Flamin’ Hot,” about Frito-Lay’s spicy snack food whose development exposed a vast, largely untapped market of Latino consumers in the 1990s, observes that this current moment has been long in the making. “This marketing push for brand affinity started to become a thing in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s,” she says. “So now you’re seeing all these folks who grew up in those time periods and whose lives are defined in many ways by these brands.”
While still a development intern at a talent agency, “Air” screenwriter Alex Convery, who wrote the saga of Sonny Vaccaro, Phil Knight and the creation of Nike’s Air Jordan basketball shoe on spec, learned early the value of untold stories about famous people and things. “Those types of stories always felt like, well, they may not know who I am as a writer, but if you read this logline, you’ll at least have an idea of what this script is.”
Convery says that as a Hollywood neophyte he knew that getting the rights for a story that focused on megastar Michael Jordan would be a nonstarter. But the Chicago native’s obsession with the Bulls’ 1990s basketball dynasty, and his own determination to gain a foothold in the entertainment industry, led him to investigate the origins of the phenomenon that Jordan’s signature sneaker inspired, and the people who drove it. “‘Air’ doesn’t work unless the movie is about Sonny,” he insists. “He was a very relatable character at that time as [I was] a struggling writer who felt like the odds were stacked against me and was desperate to try and make something happen.”
Noah Pink similarly identified with his “Tetris” protagonist, video game designer and businessman Henk Rogers, during the eight years he spent writing the script (also on spec). “It was honestly pretty easy for me to write Henk Rogers’ journey — a struggling entrepreneur putting everything on the line to help bring something to the world he believes is worth sharing — because it directly mirrors the life of a screenwriter,” Pink says.
Despite a long-term, very personal relationship with the centerpiece product in “Flamin’ Hot,” Chávez questioned whether crafting a paean to her favorite childhood snack was the right career choice. “I remember thinking, as much as I love Hot Cheetos, am I really going to be the person who tells this story?” she admits. But conversations with first-time feature director Eva Longoria and producer DeVon Franklin, and eventually Frito-Lay’s marketing exec Richard Montañez, quickly alleviated her concerns when she realized that the story they wanted to tell would dovetail perfectly with the pedigree she’d cultivated depicting the lives of Latinos on the small screen as a co-creator of the Netflix series “Gentefied.”
“When you find out that the man behind this thing that you love so much is just like you and your family, it goes beyond the product,” Chávez says. “It becomes a story about, ‘Oh, maybe I can do something like this too.’ ”
Gore and her co-director (and husband) Damian Kulash Jr. missed the craze altogether around the plush collectible at the center of “The Beanie Bubble.” Though the duo pays tribute to three largely unsung women who were instrumental in Beanie Babies’ conception, their film offers much more of an indict- ment of the product — and the climate around its explosion in popularity — than a celebration. “That the little beanbag animals were treated like gold for three years is crazy,” Gore says.
“You think our movie’s going to be about Beanie Babies and it definitely is not,” adds Kulash. “It’s quite critical of them and of the idea of idolizing a product.”
Likewise, Johnson interrogated not just the impact of the BlackBerry device but his own role as a teller of these stories. “When ‘BlackBerry’ was being released, there were endless online quips about how bereft Hollywood imaginations have become,” he remembers. “I’m sensitive to that because that does speak to a kind of benighted cultural wasteland where all we can do is chew up our own consumerism and turn it into aesthetic movies of the week.” He adds, “but that’s divorcing the process of filmmaking from artists.”
After one of the most recognizable fashion dolls in the world inspired the year’s biggest box office hit, “Barbie,” Johnson — and virtually all screenwriters interviewed for this story — pointed to Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster as the apotheosis of films that follow this trend, precisely because it celebrates and critiques its source material at the same time. “The best versions of these are always Trojan horses,” says Convery.
“Dumb Money” screenwriters Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum, who adapted Ben Mezrich’s “The Antisocial Network” to tell the story of the 2021 GameStop short squeeze and the subsequent Main Street uprising to save the company, suggest the rise in brandcentric storytelling might be a byproduct of consumers examining their connections to capitalism at a particularly volatile time in the history of the U.S. economy. “The system feels broken, and I think we’re interrogating our relationship with products and brands,” Angelo tells Variety.
Even so, Blum and Angelo are wary about Hollywood taking away the wrong lessons from that film’s success, much less their own.
“You see a movie work for one product, everyone else tries to copy that,” Blum says. “We’ve written other films and TV shows about populist movements, but they haven’t had a product at its center. They just had people,” Angelo acknowledges. “Maybe it’s not such a coincidence that this is the first one that got made.”
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