Rules of the Game

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About three and a half years ago I came up with a silly exercise for my students, who each semester must attend a series of panels on different aspects of the entertainment industry.   Rather than me explain it to you, I scoured my old gmail account to find this task, which will undoubtedly affirm the belief of some that majoring in communications at a private college is a total waste of time. The fact that those people are absolutely wrong and that this exercise is absolute proof that I am indeed preparing them for the world they are about to enter into, will be discussed in a moment. For right now here is the task at hand that you are free to make fun of in your minds five ways to Sunday:

ANGRY BIRDS: THE MOVIE

March 28, 2011

As you all know, Pendleton Productions has purchased the rights to “Angry Birds” and has set up “Angry Birds: The Movie” as our first animated/live action tent pole film with Pixar Studios. It will, of course, be directed by Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”). 

We have cast Angelina Jolie, Paul Rudd, Andrew Garfield, Willow Smith and Kim Kardashian as our birds. Our pigs will be played by Zack Galifinakis, Hugh Jackman and Jack Black. 

In the time remaining, we’d like you to develop a detailed marketing plan to launch our film. Actually, it’s more than a film. It’s an event. Or will be if we decide to hire you because that will be your responsibility.

The marketing plan should reach across all media and be as creative and out-of-the-box as possible while still staying within the realm of reality. Whose reality? That’s up to you. But it should include publicity and promotion plans for the launch, advertising ideas, tie-ins, merchandising, product placement and any other means of creating public attention (but not backlash). It should also take into account platforms in film, television, music, new media and all social media. Because we want to reach, well – EVERYONE!!

You’ve got about 20 minutes to meet and then no more than 5-10 minutes to impress us with a presentation. So, no pressure.

Oh — our blue ribbon panel will vote and award prizes for the winning team.

Good luck and… don’t get shot down.

Okay, perhaps not my finest work. But it was prescient. A year after this assignment it was announced that there would indeed be a movie version of that best selling app/videogame/four quadrant mega-tent pole thingie.   And given that at last count the thingie was at 2 billion downloads across all platforms (and still counting) it was unsurprising that just several days ago Sony Pictures announced it was indeed moving forward with a planned Summer 2016 release of AB on the big screen with a cast that includes SNL veterans Jason Sudekis, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph and Kate McKinnon, not to mention Frozen’s Josh Gad, Key and Peele and Peter Dinklage.

Sounds a little bit different than this "birds" movie

Sounds a little bit different than this “birds” movie

Logic and everyday belly-aching about the lack of imagination among film industry bigwigs tells us that no matter how bad any of us might think this film will turn out, it is also likely to turn out somewhere between a tidy and massive profit. Certainly, it is unlikely to lose money given the longevity this kind of asset assures its makers. Or is it and does it?

The fact is Rovio Entertainment – the Finnish animation company that first created the AB global franchise back in 2003 with a mere app – became rich beyond its wildest dreams from the app and is partners with Sony on the big screen version. But Rovio also had an additional announcement to make almost simultaneously with all this film casting hoopla last week. And that was that there would be a 16% cutback of its workforce, which in laymen’s terms means up to 130 Rovio employees – many of whom were there since the company’s inception – are getting the ax.

huh?

huh?

But how can this be after 2 billion plus downloads, 10 million Hasbro toys sold, an on-demand television show, and theme park attractions across the world, including even one at….NASA? (Look it up, naysayer)

Well, apparently Rovio’s 2013 net profits dropped 50% and this summer it was thus forced to replace its co-founder and chief executive of 10 years. In this way, it is actually telling us it will likely fit very well into the model of any other company in the entertainment industry. For the streets of Hollywood – both live and virtual – are littered with top of the heap successes that either no longer exist or are sputtering along in severely downsized versions.

I am old enough to remember that once upon a time there was a decade called the eighties and an independent film company named Vestron that won the lottery many times over with a worldwide film sensation asset that kept on giving: Dirty Dancing. But after a few years of spending with the big boys (literally) and never again achieving that kind of success, Vestron eventually folded. Remember New Line Cinema – the only studio in town that would roll the dice with the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, not to mention the makers of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise? Well, eventually even those assets would still not allow them to compete with the changing landscape of media platforms and they were absorbed by Time Warner and downsized into a sleeker form until eventually winding up as a pint-sized entity of the corporate conglomerate where it is now barely an afterthought.

Flying too close to the sun?

Flying too close to the sun?

Which brings us back to my students.

Many of them are aspiring writers, directors and producers. There are others who hope to work in more specifically technical fields such as editing, cinematography and sound. In addition, I have a healthy number who are majoring in various forms of journalism, marketing, advertising and public relations. All of them are social media savvy and many are game savvy, or at least game literate. They may not be Angry Birds players – clearly not enough of us are for Rovio – but they have played or will (eventually) be playing some newer, hipper version of it on their phone, tablet or screen of choice not yet invented.

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This being the case, there is another game I would like them to be skilled enough to play well in: the game of reality.   It didn’t take any genius on my part to predict the Angry Birds reality but it did take a bit of chutzpah to force them to think long and hard, regardless of their career aspirations, of how the commercial world of entertainment functions and what they are up against. No longer can a writer just be a storyteller or a cinematographer spend his/her time ignoring everything else but how precisely light flows into the frame of a scene.   In order to navigate the waters and be in a position to exercise your craft within the “system” most seem determined to enter, one needs to understand a world where we are all so ridiculously connected to both the ridiculousness of minutiae and the seriousness of global destruction, human rights violations and refighting the social revolution of the 1960s. Meaning that it should be a mystery to no one how a game application where nasty little furry birds slingshot themselves into innocent farm animals in the hopes that they will obliterate them into nothingness could net its creator many multi-millions/perhaps billions of dollars. Nothing about it should.

Since this is the world we have allowed them to inherit – this Angry Birds world – my thought three and a half years ago was to prepare them in a game of my own rather than to sit around and watch as the slingshot passed them by. Don’t get me wrong – I have higher aspirations for them than the virtual destruction of pigs via feathers. But wouldn’t it be great if they could accept the ridiculous Angry Bird reality of where we seemed headed, use their creativity to smartly work within that world and then leverage it into other employment with something newer, better and certainly more creative of their own once they amassed the access to do so?

After all, the next generation is being born this way

After all, the next generation is being born this way

Well, I thought so. But as it turned out, they were not the clueless, intellectual snobs I assumed many of them would be and that I certainly was at their age. They jumped into the assignment at the time, coming up with some of the best, most creative and certainly wisest marketing strategies I had ever heard. This includes any and all ideas I witnessed during the tortured eight or so years I spent working at three different studios in film marketing before become a more tortured – though in a good way – screenwriter, teacher and blogger.

... and before I became the great Chair-dini

… and before I became the great Chair-dini

This is a generation that, if nothing else, appreciates irony. I loved the AB live celebrity dunk in Times Square. The simultaneous worldwide Angry Bird game, the virtual billboards in cities across the world that would keep score via international teams, the personal appearances of movie stars in bird costumes that would litter the airwaves and magazine pages, and even the animal rights charities that – through some twisted reasoning I can’t remember but recalled liking at the time – would become involved in some huge charity event benefit culminating at the film premiere.

Taking a cue from China's Angry Bird's theme park

Taking a cue from China’s Angry Bird’s theme park

Sure, some of them balked at having to spend half an hour of their day thinking about film marketing – especially since on the whole this is a generation who doesn’t care much to sell something they don’t believe in.   But they all immediately understood the value of doing so. The truth is they’re a lot smarter and two steps ahead of the game that most of the rest of us are because they know games, have fun with games and will, no doubt, be changing the game while the rest of us are still complaining about the very existence of the game that we somehow, through ignorance, omission or sheer laziness, helped make a reality.

Here’s hoping that once they get the power they don’t turn their backs so some other younger, more vibrant member of some future animal species can knock them off their perch.   Though surely by that time there will be an app for that which works better than any new, lame exercise I could have come up with.

Until it doesn’t.

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2 thoughts on “Rules of the Game

  1. Brilliant, again.

  2. Thank you, John Spence. You’re brilliant yourself – especially when you agree with me! 🙂

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