When you think about it, shouldn’t theaters be paying you to see movies?
There are advertisements in the lobby, advertisements before screenings and product placement within the movies themselves. Between the gratuitous plugs for Subway sandwiches and Hero cologne in “Lethal Weapon II,” one has to wonder if the 1989 action movie was completely paid for before a single audience member attended the movie.
But every once in a while, a film comes along that boldly pushes merchandising boundaries to such unprecedented new levels, that you have to actually stand up and applaud its ambition.
“Transformers,” opening in theaters on July 4, may be just such a movie. For the first time in big-budget summer blockbuster history, an action film has been based on a Saturday morning cartoon that was based on a line of toys.
“Transformers” is definitely the No. 1 marketing movie of the summer. The question is, will historians look back at “Transformers,” see the landfill worth of merchandise that was sold, and declare it an all-time product placement classic?
The bar has been set high. Below are seven great moments that changed movie merchandising.
7. Tom Hanks is born
On July 9, 1956, Thomas Jeffrey Hanks was born in Concord, Calif. And we’re pretty sure that he emerged from the womb holding a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Hanks has been in more landmark product placement movies than any other actor, starting with the extended-commercial-for-FAO-Schwarz piano scene in “Big.” That success was followed by the America Online propaganda film “You Got Mail,” and later “Cast Away,” which was one big Fed Ex ad with a smaller subplot about a man’s friendship with a Wilson volleyball.
For Hanks’ next film, expect him to sit in front of the camera for 110 minutes eating bowl after bowl of Rice Chex.
6. Davy Crockett’s ugly headwear
The real Davy Crockett was a beloved frontiersman, ambitious politician and a soldier who died in the battle of the Alamo. Who knew that he would be remembered for wearing a dead raccoon on his head?
Fess Parker’s portrayal of Crockett in “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter” in 1954 was the catalyst for the craze. After that, it was a good time to be a toy dealer — and a bad time to be a small furry mammal with a striped tail.
5. Snack time for E.T.
When the 1982 movie “E.T.” was in development, product placement king Steven Spielberg reportedly approached Mars Corp., asking if M&Ms could be used as the alien’s candy of choice. The company declined. After all, who’s going to spend money on a movie about a boy’s friendship with an alien?
The boneheaded movie by Mars was Hershey’s gain. That company offered up struggling product Reese’s Pieces, “E.T.” was a massive hit and the sales of the candy jumped anywhere from 60 to 300 percent, depending on which urban legend you choose to believe. Whatever the numbers, nobody doubted Spielberg’s ability to produce a marketing-rich blockbuster again.
Incidentally, there was false advertising all around. Off the set, E.T. reportedly preferred Skittles.
4. McDonald’s super-sizes movie marketing
McDonald’s has made some audacious marketing moves. But nothing matches “Mac and Me,” a 1988 motion picture that is maybe 15 percent movie and 85 percent commercial for McDonald’s and Coke.
The movie could have just as easily been called “Mac, the Coke-drinking Alien, and Me,” because that beverage is promoted just as much as the fast-food chain. In a brilliant script development, the extraterrestrials in the film actually need to drink Coke or they will die.
Ronald McDonald later received a worst actor Razzie award for his performance in the movie — the first TV commercial clown to receive the award.
3. Product Placement Never Dies
The James Bond movies have always been a Petri dish for product placement, with cars and travel destinations topping the list.
But the 1997 Pierce Brosnan entry “Tomorrow Never Dies” was more commercial than movie, advertising products including Avis cars, Smirnoff Vodka (shaken, not stirred), Visa credit cards, BMW automobiles, Omega watches and Heineken beer.
As for rumors that Bond villain Jonathan Pryce had a deal to tattoo “Goldenpalace.com” on his large forehead, they’re totally false. The proposed deal conflicted with the real-life product placement for L’Oreal makeup.
2. “Yo-ho-ho, an advertiser’s life for me …”
In 2001, Disney announced that it was developing three movies based on the company’s theme park rides — “The Country Bears,” “The Haunted Mansion” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
The press ridiculed the news, and sure enough “The Country Bears” bombed both critically and financially, while “The Haunted Mansion” was at most a small financial success.
But “Pirates of the Caribbean” — perhaps the most mocked of the three ideas — turned out to be Disney’s best idea since the coonskin cap. As of this writing, the three “Pirates” movies have made more than $2.5 billion in worldwide box office.
Expect the first chapter in a saga based on the Disneyland Mad Hatter’s Party tea cup ride some time in 2008.
1. George Lucas fleeces 20th Century Fox
In a move that makes M&Ms passing on “E.T.” look like a nickel tossed in a fountain, 20th Century Fox in the 1970s agreed to cut George Lucas’ fee for writing and directing “Star Wars” — giving the director control over merchandising rights in exchange.
Seven billion Luke Skywalker trading cards and Yoda backpacks later, Lucas is funding his own studio with the proceeds, and 20th Century Fox got a relatively small amount of money to distribute the last three “Star Wars” movies.
For the documentary on his 2004 “Star Wars” trilogy DVD set, Lucas convinced two former Fox executives to come on camera for a play-by-play of how they horse-traded their way out of billions of dollars in potential profits.