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.

Hello Dolly!

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This week Sony Pictures announced it has closed a deal with Mattel for what it believes will be the movie studio’s next big global franchise: a live-action comedy film built around —- BARBIE!!

This is not a joke.

Here’s a quote from the film’s producers, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, whose credits include: Men in Black, Gladiator, Catch Me If You Can, and Sweeney Todd.

Barbie…is a cultural symbol whose career choices have been as unlimited as her wardrobe.  She is about empowerment, but never at the expense of fun. Our hope is to capture all of these aspects of Barbie in a modern take of the character that can appeal to moviegoers of all ages.

Yes, because nothing says female empowerment better than a…Barbie doll?

I think I might have heard Gloria Steinem say that once but I’m not sure.  Though I’m positive that Barbie, smart gal that she is and certainly much more intelligent than myself, could remember.

Hey Babs, where's your medal?

Hey Babs, where’s your medal?

You can talk yourself into anything, especially in the movie business.  That’s one of the classic mantras learned by those who survive at the top of the Hollywood executive heap for decades on end.  Though it’s more than just talk.  On some level, you do really have to believe what you’re selling.  That’s the moment when the logic gets twisted to the point of an intricate uber-pretzel where, when you make your final announcement, it really does all sound exactly right.  Though not always for the reasons you’ve advanced.

Meaning Barbie: The Movie is much more about financial empowerment than anything having to do with women – young or otherwise.  Not that the two are mutually exclusive.

Someone's gotta pay the mortgage on the dreamhouse...

Someone’s gotta pay the mortgage on the dreamhouse…

I do believe that Mr. Parkes and Ms. MacDonald really believe what they’re selling.  As does the very talented Sony Pictures chairperson Amy Pascal, a veteran executive who was mentored on her way up by writer-director Nora Ephron, one of the first women in the business to write and direct big successful studios films.  Would Nora have taken on Barbie for the big screen?  Well, we’ll never know that.  But…did Nora happily play with her Barbie dolls as a little girl, so galvanized by her message of female empowerment that she would enable young Nora to climb to the top of the Hollywood heap as one of its most successful creative talents?

Uh, somehow I doubt it.  More likely she galvanized Nora, who was neither blonde, 11.5 inches tall or as traditionally beautiful as Barbie, to figure something else out.  Not to put arguments into her mouth against her will, but adult Nora did once famously write in regards to her decided lack of shapely, Barbie-like breasts: If I had them, I would have been a completely different person.

Oh Nora, we love you just the way you are.

Oh Nora, we love you just the way you are.

Not only did Nora know that but I know that.  And Amy knows that.  And Walter and Laurie might or might not have known that but, for the reasons I’ve stated above, probably no longer know that.

Yes, it is true that young Nora did grow up in a different time and Barbie has evolved to a lot more than the size of her breasts.  But there is still a general theme here that holds true.

The Barbie doll has been courted for years by film studios that were eager to turn her into a cash cow for the big screen.  And why not?  She’s known as a multi-billion dollar brand and has been around since the late 1950s – which seems a perfect time for the birth of an almost one foot tall female with perfect features and luxurious blonde wavy hair who has a centerfold’s figure, doesn’t put on weight and never, ever ages.

Some of the best reporting on the Barbie Movie was done by Deadline Hollywood.

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The website reveals that a major factor in Sony taking on Barbie over many other studio suitors was the story pitch the producers brought in with screenwriter Jenny Bicks. Ms. Bicks is well known for her work on female-centered comedies with a twist, including the television series Sex and the City and The Big C, as well as the big-screen What A Girl Wants, starring Amanda Bynes.

Apparently Ms. Bicks’ winning pitch was a contemporary tale that “allows the character Barbie to use her personal and professional skills to step into the lives of others and improve them, almost like a modern-day Mary Poppins.”  She will also be alternately surrounded by her many friends, including her boyfriend Ken (as if he wasn’t already a living doll!) and various Mattel-franchised cohorts.   Deadline goes on to say this will enable the casting of a new young actress to play the title character as well as other unknown or established stars as friends and family.

We live in a time of irony.  You can make anything ironic.  Even something iconic.  But does anyone really think of Barbie as a Mary Poppins who goes in and fixes other people’s lives in even a non-ironic or even ironic way?

Don't drag me into this!

Don’t drag me into this!

Isn’t Barbie a kind of a…well…blonde bubblehead stereotype with a fabulous body and the perfect man?  Even when she was a brunette?

No?  Oh wait – I get it.  In this movie Barbie will be insecure deep down – fixing other people’s lives but never really paying close enough attention to her own. But then one day, through fixing other people’s lives she realizes: Hey, wait a minute, maybe my own isn’t so great?  Ken is a bit of a jerk airhead and really the slightly less attractive guy is the one for me.  And all those clothes I’m known for – maybe I’m going a bit overboard and should really stop dressing like a, well – Barbie Doll – and start behaving like an empowered woman.

CUT!!  Wait a minute.  I said, CUT!  Um, I don’t think so.  There is NOTHING ironic about that.  Certainly not from Mattel’s standpoint.  And it’s very retro 1970s speak. This is Barbie.  You can’t fuck with the franchise.  Barbie is cool.  Everyone wants to BEEEE  Barbie.  So – how do you do a movie like that and cause Barbie to change but maybe have it be more like Clueless or Legally Blonde.

Didn't Anna Faris already make this movie?

Didn’t Anna Faris already make this movie?

Oh  wait, no.  I see —  Barbie doesn’t change.  Not really.  Barbie is not IRONIC – she’s ICONIC.  So it’s all about the world making assumptions about her and changing the WORLD, right???  Barbie has to change the world to her way of thinking.  She’s gonna glam it up – and fix people’s lives – like a millennial Mary Poppins.  And earn RESPECT.  That’s right, respect.  People look down on blondes and even some brunettes (Note:  Barbie now has various hair colors) with perfect figures – especially when they’re 11.5 inches tall and have the perfect ass, boobs, man,  uh  — hands!

Barbie will show ‘em, though.  Like Elle in Legally Blonde she’s not dumb, she’s just been judged.  And like Mary Poppins, she’s practically perfect in every way.  But she’s going one step beyond both of them. Only the naysayers don’t realize it.  So she’s gonna show them and change the world – or at least the lives of the people who need her and, oh hell – let’s go for it – the whole town they live in.  Heck – let’s make it bigger (it’s a tent pole), the entire city who needs her.  Wait – how about the State?  Country?  C’mon – go biggest or go home – SHE CHANGES THE UNIVERSE!!!!!!

Are. They.  Kidding???

Watch out Mars!

Watch out Mars!

Okay, I suppose you can make anything entertainingly and acceptably ironic.  It’s all in the point of view and execution. But is this really the best we can offer young women nowadays? On the other hand, maybe this is THE best argument for having Hillary Clinton as president in 2016.  Which will probably be the year Barbie comes out.

(Note:  Oh no, dear – Barbie isn’t gay.  She’s not THAT ironic).

I mean coming out as in – gets released at movie theatres.  Hmm, maybe it will become a campaign issue for Hillary (Side Note:  Why do we always call her Hillary but Pres. Obama is never Barack and Boehner is never John?).  And what will the future La Presidenta think of the Barbie brand of feminism? By that time Hillary Clinton will be a grandmother for almost a year so clearly we’ll need another issue to discuss with her on the campaign trail rather than whether she can balance her babysitting duties with getting back into the political workplace or even if she really wants to or even should at this point in her life.  What could be better than the Barbie-ization of today’s world?

I could think of a few better things...

I could think of a few better things…

Yes, Barbie now not only has blonde, brown, red and probably several other colors of hair (not to mention races) but there is now Architect Barbie, Zoo Doctor Barbie, News Anchor Barbie, Rock Star Barbie, Race Car Barbie and even…Presidential Candidate Barbie (look out Hillary!). It’s been that way for some time and she has more careers (130 at last guestimate) than you can shake a stick at.

OF COURSE, I KNOW THAT.  But in all of those variations, she still basically looks the same – a plasticized, perfectly proportioned version of femininity that can only be achieved using carefully engineered parts produced on an assembly line.   (Note: Contrary to what we’ve been seeing in Beverly Hills lately, medical science has not quite achieved that in real life – yet).

It hasn't?????

It hasn’t?????

Some of it is about what we teach young people about perfection.  The social upheavals of the 60s and 70s questioned and changed what we were teaching the new generation, particularly young women, about expression – until they didn’t.  Strange as it might seem to the advocates of Movie Barbie, there was a time when I was growing up in those social upheaval years where Barbie had begun be thought of as ridiculous – as ridiculous as Playboy bunnies or GI Joes.  Men killing people and women with perfect bodies rocking a pert ponytail were not seen as something to aspire to.  And then, somewhere along the way, it became more tolerable.  And then, well – a choice.  You could have a great body but you didn’t have to be an idiot – although even if you chose to be one it would be okay.  You didn’t necessarily want to kill people but you once again could – under the right circumstances.  For example, if your country was really threatened.  Because after 9/11 all “give peace a chance” bets were off, right?  We all now kinda like a GI Joe machine cause we know there are reasons we will have to fight on these shores and better to be prepared at the very least.

Here’s the studio thinking in all of this.  Well, it’s not exactly this but it does go something like this:

Of course, you can do a Barbie movie outright – all blonde and sort of, uh, bouncy – but that will probably/mostly have an appeal to red state America. 

How about presenting it with irony – that will also appeal to the snidies in blue state America.  The red states won’t necessarily see the irony but the blue states will so it can be optically correct, intellectual AND fun for both demographics. 

And the young people?   Well  – they’ll just see it.  It’s not up to us to tell them what to think.  We’re just trying to entertain the masses – not educate them.  As Samuel Goldwyn once famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union!”  Yuk yuk, yuk.

It doesn’t much matter how much anyone bitches and complains (NOTE: Except for me) we will have Barbie: The Movie.  But let’s be real about Barbie and not try to hide it in a bunch of horse dung about the feminist twist blah, blah, blah.  Sony’s publicists either got to Jezebel very early on or they’re not as savvy as we all thought because even they are saying ‘oh, girl power, Jenny Bicks, Sex and the City, truly funny concept, blah, blah, blah, Amy Pascal, female empowerment, blah, blah, blah, bah, blah.

Seriously?

Seriously?

Sorry Jezebel, ain’t buying it.  Don’t promise me chicken fingers and deliver tempeh.  To my way of thinking, that’s like spending tens of millions of dollars on an ad campaign to convince the world that the top 1% of this country are all job creators and not mostly just ultra-rich people.

Words have meanings.  Say what you mean.  Don’t bait and switch. Or buy the bait and switch.

Yes Sony, you are making a movie about Barbie – who is a doll version of a girl with flawlessly proportioned girlie features that almost no real life woman possesses – or if she does now she will eventually not possess them.  What does it say about young women who are less than that when they always have to be shown the light by the perfect-looking ideal they will never be?  Mary Poppins – Miss Practically Perfect In Every Way – was one of my favorite films in 1964 – when I was under 10 years old.  And it was made when Barbie still WAS the ideal.

.. and maybe that carried on through 1968. Right Jane?

.. and maybe that carried on through 1968. Right Jane?

It is truly ironic that Barbie is being remade into some kind of new aspirant and that we can’t think of any way forward other than to go backwards.  It’s also interesting the first letter in ironic is “I” because dolls are about the id and traditionally Barbie –with her appetite for new wardrobe and hairstyles – has always taught girls to be, on some level, all about the “I” – themselves.  Not to change the world.  At least the real world.  That would be the pervue of a Susan B. Anthony doll.  Or the Marie Curie doll.  Or perhaps even the Hillary Clinton doll.  But then again, they’re not 11.5 inches tall with perfectly pert bodies and a ponytail of practically perfect hair.  No, you can’t have it all forever.  Not if you are human and don’t have a plastic surgeon and toymaker stylist with you 24/7.

In 1993, there was a famous group called the Barbie Liberation Organization.  It was a rogue guerrilla organization whose mission it was to reduce gender stereotyping and the way they went about this was to perform “surgery” on 300-500 Barbie dolls and switch the silly girlie sayings she spoke via the tape implanted in her backside with the more macho expressions used by G.I. Joe.  The group then put the dolls back on toy shelves where unknowingly customers bought them for their kids, who quickly recognized the supposedly genderless remarks they were unintentionally  (or perhaps intentionally) being fed were anything but since the opposite doll as saying them.  The group caused a bit of a stir, but Mattel never responded publicly, the times changed and finally, they disbanded.  Here’s a video of what they did and how they did it.

These days there is a famous young Ukrainian model and “breatharian” named Valeria Lukyanova who subsists on “cosmic micro-food” in order to maintain her Barbie-like figure (and face – check it out!) She hopes to one day be able to nix food altogether and survive on nothing but “light and air.”  Not to mention Justin Jedlica, a young man who has had more than $150,000 worth of 100 cosmetic procedures to look like a human-life Ken doll.  Don’t believe me on that either – lookie here.

AHHHHHH!

AHHHHHH!

Certainly movie studios are free to do as many mass market, franchise films as they like.  It is also understandable that they like to do this a lot given the fact that the way they stay in profit is not so much from their property’s theatrical release but through all of the ancillary revenue outside of that release that enables them to exist as a profitable corporate entity.  Hence, dolls are the PERFECT subject for a feature.

What is not acceptable, however, is the lie or the massaged untruth.  If the parents of young girls want to empower their daughters there are innumerable sources of entertainment, art and other cultural and intellectual endeavors that will enable such behavior.  Watching Barbie: The Movie will not be at the top or even middle – or probably even at the bottom of the list.  In all likelihood, given the infinite possibilities, it would not even be on that list at all.