Slash and Burn

I have written before about how product marketing for video games and everything else appears to be driven by enormous, autonomous, self-propelling machines. Huge apparatuses, employing hundreds of people, designed to pounce on any work that catches the fancy of the public, capitalize upon it, and keep it at the forefront of public consciousness until it has been stripped of all value. Marketing behemoths, like the industrial washing machines in The Mangler, sucking in creative work and spitting out all manner of spin-offs, advertising, and cheap plastic toys. They perpetuate a property (not just a work–it’s now a brand) long after it should have been put to rest, forcing it to stand up and perform tricks until its skin sallows and its teeth fall out and it becomes disgusting.

Sometimes this iron lung works for a while. Perhaps the original creators use the opportunity to continue to create interesting work. Perhaps they leverage their new-found fame and resources to make something more interesting than before. Perhaps they’ve had plans for a series of works all along. Perhaps they were smart enough to negotiate for creative control of their art. But very often the work was never intended for serialization (we need look no farther than the sequels to The Matrix to see this phenomenon). The concept cannot survive significant extension without change, and change is exactly what the marketing machine does not want. In the mind of that metallic beast, the magic formula’s already been found; now they just need more of it so the promotion engine can be perpetuated. Even if the original authors quit the project, the marketing machine must continue. At some point, the marketing, promotion, t-shirts and keychains have become more important than the work that originally spawned them. As far as the marketing Neubaufahrzeug is concerned, any extension of the content is acceptable. In fact, if the original authors have left, they might as well make the new content themselves. And that’s when things start to get weird.

After my daughter was born I became aware of a rather sickening trend in the world of children’s books. Many authors of famous children’s characters (think Curious George) are no longer alive, but their books remain in high demand. In order to fill that demand, the marketing apparatuses attached to each character have spun their wheels, exhausted some steam, and produced new books by cutting and pasting pictures from other books and then making up some story to go with it. In some cases they’ve even hired artists to draw in the original author’s style. H.A. Ray wrote about seven Curious George books. He died in 1977. But Amazon has 109 Curious George books for sale, most of which have a publication date of 2008 or later.

Coming Soon: Curious George Calculates
His Tax Withholding

The titles cleverly proclaim that this is “H.A. Ray’s Curious George,” with no other author name in sight, but are careful to avoid actually attributing the work to Ray, since he is long dead. Predictably enough, these modern Curious George books are terrible; they are nonsensical and condescending to their audience. I mean, if you had any talent at writing children’s books, would you take a job ghost writing Curious George Saves His Pennies?

The faux children’s books are pretty bad, but occasionally the marketing machine gets so excited about something that their behavior becomes almost incomprehensible. Readers older than 30 will probably remember the absolute mania that gripped the country when the first Batman movie was released in 1989. There was a Bat-symbol in every storefront, a guy in the full movie getup peddling Bat-keychains on every corner. Stores unaffiliated with Warner Bros. made up their own unauthorized marketing materials just to get in on the action; I remember seeing a used clothing store that featured hand-painted Joker coat hangers in its window. America drowned in Batman merchandizing that summer long before the film was even released. In the end, the merchandizing pulled in almost twice as much as the movie’s box office sales. The guys who drove that particular marketing behemoth were probably high-fiving each other for years afterwards.

Something similar was afoot in Japan this spring. There’s a new movie in the Ring series, and to say that its marketing is aggressive is quite the understatement. Sadako 3D, as the film is titled, is a continuation of the Ring series. This time the curse infects people through an internet live stream, conveniently hosted (and prominently referenced throughout the trailer) by Nico-Nico Douga, a real social video site. Though ostensibly based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, it’s clear that this film exists because some slumbering marketing device woke up suddenly and saw an opportunity to wring more money from the series. Like Batman, Sadako is a character that is a part of the public consciousness. The target audience, as far as I can tell, is high school and college students; people who were probably too young to see the Ring when it was first released in 1998 but are nonetheless aware of the character. Who is Sadako? She’s a monster with long hair and she comes out of your TV. This is common knowledge.

In in attempt to exploit this knowledge the marketing machine behind Sadako 3D has apparently decided that they should remind the citizens of Japan of Sadako’s character with a coordinated media blitz. Only, we’re not just talking guys in Bat-suits selling keitai straps on the corner. We’re talking an army of people dressed as Sadako (complete with a TV on their chests for her to come out of) terrorizing Shibuya on the last day of a national holiday week. A giant Sadako is driving around on the back of a flatbed truck. Sadako apparently joined a boy band and attended the first screening of her new movie. Sadako has a tie-in with Hello Kitty. Sadako has even been recruited to throw the opening pitch at several baseball games. Though the movie appears to be serious, the film is being promoted as a parody of itself; Sadako has come an ironic symbol of a (slightly) older generation.

I bought a Sadako 3D mug. I had to have it. A parody of a parody, if you will. It’s a mug with a dark blue box on it and the words “404 File Not Found” printed near the top. When you put hot liquid in it, the blue vanishes to reveal an advertisement for Sadako 3D underneath. I drink my coffee from it every day to remind myself that the logical extreme for marketing isn’t logical at all–it’s absolute lunacy. We are watching a marketing behemoth systematically drive an already lifeless work (thanks to the original series of terrible sequels that came out years ago) further and further into the ground. It’s so far gone already that the only way they can continue to extract money from it is to turn the husk of the original story into a joke. Who knows if the movie or the novel it’s based on are any good; the effect of the marketing machine’s blitzkrieg is the total devaluation of The Ring as a series.

Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film set itself apart by rejecting the tropes that marketing machines drove to the forefront of horror in the 1980s and 1990s. It had no blood, no nudity, and no violence. There were no teenagers, no shower scenes, no stalkers, and no metal music. It was surprising and effective because it was simple and focused. It was the antithesis of the contemporary horror film mold at the time, a disruptive force that raised the quality bar for horror films around the world for several years. Now, thanks to relentless efforts to squeeze as much blood from this particular stone as possible, The Ring property has become everything it originally was not.

If we look to Batman as an indictor, increasingly terrible Sadako films will probably continue to be made as long as they can pull in a profit. Only when the franchise has been completely exhausted will it be allowed to rest in piece at the bottom of a well. That is, of course, until the inevitable reboot.

12 thoughts on “Slash and Burn

  1. I’d like to think that even if a great franchise is run into the group, it can still be salvaged. For example, the Batman films wore out their welcome long before the fourth movie, but all it took was a director to reboot the series with a modicum of intelligence and respect and voila… We got two, possibly three good Batman movies out of the deal.

    But in all honesty, I’m torn on the subject. On the one hand, I’ll readily declare that sequels don’t suck simply on account of being sequels. If they’re made by competent, passionate people, it’s entirely possible to produce some really good work. But problems arise when “creative” works are dictated by the suits in accounting, brandishing spreadsheets and focus groups reports. They could have made some decent sequels to The Ring by making the curse the star of the franchise, and not Sadako. Bring in some new ghosts, with new stories that expand upon the mythology of a universe where murderous spirits can stalk you via electronics. They could have done whatever they wanted while respecting the original character and not overusing her to the point where she became a gimmick.

    But of course, we all know they didn’t go that route. I went to school for advertising, but I never got a job in the field. The more I learned about the business, the more… disgusted I became. Stuff like this is part of what turned me away. Companies will trample over anything in their pursuit of money. Quality is an unnecessary hindrance when it’s easier (and more profitable) to flood our daily lives with poorly-conceived garbage. There’s very little restraint, and we’re all a little worse off for it.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s entirely possible to expand upon a good idea, but very, very few people do it correctly. More often than not, the “art” and “business” sides of any given project are in direct opposition. Each side needs the other in order to create a viable and successful product, but when the “business” side wins the tug-o-war, the end result is everything mentioned in Chris’s article here.

  2. Sadako has already been a pop culture icon
    for years now, and they are just making yet another movie with the new gimmick of our time: 3D. It probably sucks, but unfortunately you are true when you talk about the marketing machine and how it will squeeze ideas/characters/whatever it can grab to extract every bit of juice in it, to the point when it becomes a joke.
    As BT said, good can also come from reboots and sequels, when it’s done right. The Nolan Batman image and universe is (IMO) far superior to what was done before.
    The problem is that Nolan is the exception.

  3. I always found The Planet of the Apes movies to be a really neat series to bring up when discussing sequels. Because it really seemed like they never thought they would get a sequel so they would really try and give a definite ending. It took them to about the third or forth sequel before they left themselves some wiggle room. Eventually they gave up ghost to the marketing monster, but for a while it felt like the writers were in a room just looking at each other saying “didn’t we just blow up the whole planet? How the hell do we make a sequel to that?!” It really sparked some creative writing.

    I agree with BT that The Ring should have been about the curse not Sadako (is that picture of her on the pitcher’s mound for real?!). I liked The Grudge: Old Lady in White better than the original TV movies, because here they didn’t really focus on the same monster/ghosts (I think the cat boy made a cameo, if I recall) and Shimizu has really had the time to nail the formula. Keeping the series in the hands of the same director paid off in this case.

    It seems once something reaches icon status they can’t escape the machine.

  4. Now my question is what series (game or movie) has been considered very successful and profitable and NOT run through the wringer as much as these have? Is it even possible to make a franchise that gets a loyal and hefty fanbase and maintain itself with some small sense of dignity for a while without dropping every conceivable marketing scheme and product placement before it drops dead?

    And then.. if it did.. how? lol.. The closest I can think of without straining my brain too much is maybe Silent hill, which yes got a movie and has a few things made out there (and I am not considering the length and breadth of the franchise as a marker for wrigning it dry) but in looking around I don’t think a ton of merch was ever put out for the franchise. I found a pretty nifty site of a guy who has tried to collect a lot of silent hill stuff and has images of what he’s gotten.. a lot of items he has that are akin to what Chris is mentioning in this article is stuff made for press swag(i.e. limited run stuff not sold in stores) . here is the url:

    Also has a number of affiliate sites of related fans and content..sadly.. no link to here. 🙁 but oh well.

    but then again Silent hill is well known and fairly successful yet.. not completely mainstream… So it’s not the best example.

  5. In response to Evilkinggumby, I’d list series like Ico/Shadow of the Colossus and Demon Souls/Dark Souls. They don’t have as many installments as the Silent Hill series, but they’ve proven to be very popular among gamers, without being fed to the marketing machine.

    I’d even bring up the Shin Megami Tensei games. Even though there’s a ton of SMT merchandise out there, the games themselves continue to be consistently excellent.

    I think the common thread between all these series, and the one you listed, is that almost every installment is a self-contained experience that can be enjoyed independent of the other games. For example, Silent Hill isn’t about the continuing adventures of Harry Mason. It’s about the town itself, and on those rare occasions when folks try to shoehorn in recurring characters (like Pyramid Head), it feels forced and uninspired.

  6. @BT-

    Actually you are right. I was tempted to mention the SMT games except that the Persona games (or more specifically the iterations of P3 and P4) have shown that Atlus will do whatever they can for advertising and profit with their franchises. You can find all kinds of merch out there tied to those games, very much akin to what Chris is citing with The ring, though with their flood of stuff they don’t rightly spoil the franchise or parody it as they do just.. oversaturate.

    Though the original SMT games and spin off stuff are less exploited, but only because they’re not as recognised in the mainstream so it’d be a waste of money.

    But the games you cited are decent enough examples. I’m ion the fense to say demon souls/dark souls is widely recognised and well known enough to fall in, but at the same time those 2 games have.. almost NO merch out there really… but they do have a very loyal fanbase.

    Anyone know if there is a lot of pimping going on with the MEtal Gear Solid games series? THAT is considered pretty hefty and beloved but I am unsure if it has merch blitz’d like mentioned here or if it has managed to survive just by quality and craft…

  7. Not to derail the discussion, but just in case it wasn’t clear, I’m mostly not talking about sequels in this post. Sequels are another product of the marketing machine, but they are much more expensive than other kinds of spin-offs, like promotional advertising or collectable figures or whatever. What bugs me about the new Ring movie is not that there’s a new Ring movie (although we really don’t need any more), but rather the way that marketing is going insane to try to promote it.

  8. Well, I’m not able to speak concretely on the company that is producing The Ring movies, but judging by all the promotions, the snip-it of plot you mentioned, and making it in 3D it all smacks of them putting all their eggs in one basket. The Ring movies are over ten years old, Sadako is probably the most recognizable Japanese monster outside of Godzilla. Ten years is a perfect time to give her a big media parade with her new movie, try and get old fans interested again and attract new ones (reintroduce her with a big 3D gimmick). But there’s more to it than selling tickets, they’re trying to expand the brand. I wouldn’t be surprised if they followed this with a TV series if it’s successful (if this was the 80/90s they absolutely would have).

    Then you also have to consider previous marketing/sequels and how they worked. The Police Academy series had seven films (another one next year), a live action TV show, an animated TV show, and a line of toys. Most of the movies reused the same jokes and story lines because they could get away with it. Audiences came for the brand. This kind of marketing/sequels really worked during the time period because home VHS players was just coming into the market (plus the war on format) and vintage/grind house theaters (that mainly played movies after their main run has finished) were starting to die out, it allowed a niche way of sequeling the same movie over and over again (look at Friday The 13th, and all the other slasher franchises in the 80s). Also, towards in the 80s there was a rise in children’s television as a marketing tool. Companies like DiC were able to find popular brands and spin whole TV series and toy lines out of them. Then Adult Swim was able to turn one of the most unprofitable time slots into a huge hit with the 20-30s crowd in the early 00s, using spoofs on a lot of the same stuff from the children’s television.

    Sorry for going at length here, but they recognize that there is a ten year cycle to pop culture and that The Ring is due. Also there is a precedent for horror films to be formulaic and still draw in crowds. They must be aware that the modern audience doesn’t want the same movie over and over again (since we can download/netflix/buy it anytime) so they’re drumming up the brand, making Sadako the main attraction (and in 3D, you wont be able to find that on DVD, so you have to come to the theater). It’s not just hoping lightning strikes twice, it’s hoping to blaze a new leg for the franchise.

    Like I said at the start, it sounds like they’re putting all their eggs in one basket on this one. The Ring was wildly popular, so they need to keep the brand fresh and alive in pop culture. Pulling out all the stops like they are just seems desperate. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few people’s jobs are riding on this film.

  9. Oh, I don’t disagree with that. My complaint, I think, is that the impetus to make this film seems to be driven entirely by the “halo” effect that big film releases have on spin-off goods; like Batman, they can make more on the tchotchkes than the actual movie. So the quality of the film is irrelevant; the film itself is only a detail in the overall marketing plan. It is the spark that will let them light their marketing dynamite.

    It will make a lot of money but it will not help The Ring as a series, and I’m skeptical that it will actually produce anything of quality.

  10. “So the quality of the film is irrelevant; the film itself is only a detail in the overall marketing plan. It is the spark that will let them light their marketing dynamite. ”

    After hearing this from you all I could think of was an old commercial that popped back in the day.. I think during the campaigns for the U.S. Godzilla movie. It’s a Sprite Commercial I loved and it hits what you’re talking about pretty good.

    I do fear when every franchise starts to get like this. where the initial concept is turned into nothing more than one more marketing scheme and effort for quality creativity and craft go right out the door. If the market for video games gets oversaturated with this kind of attitude.. I don’t know what I’ll do.. likely I’ll do what a lot of my gen is doing.. and more and more younger folk are doing..

    go retro.. step back to days when things were not as high tech.. but.. still really interesting.

  11. >Evilkinggumby

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that once the marketing machine takes hold quality craft and creativity goes out the door. It’s certainly seems to be the norm though. Off the top of my head, Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare and Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer come to mind of films that are part of big long running franchises that are really good on their own merits. Sometimes long running series allow the creators more freedom and risks. The marketing machine just wants another film so they can sell their lunch boxes, they might have a check list of things needed in the movie (a big explosion, a love interest, etc.) but they could care less about the content. A hot-shot, young director who cares for the project might be able to really elevate it beyond just another cog.

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