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Product Placement: When Movies Sell Out

These days, with films costing hundreds of millions of dollars becoming more and more commonplace, studios need more and more revenue streams to beef up their budgets. Product placement makes up a not inconsiderable portion of this revenue, despite some filmmakers outright claiming the practice to be corrupt, and damaging to the movies as a whole. No one likes being advertised to, so studios have had to work out ways of plying potential customers slyly. They don't always succeed.

Other than a contested Arbuckle and Keaton short, the first example of true blue product placement was in the first ever Best Picture Winner Wings, from 1927. Hershey's chocolate bars were incorporated into the plot, with a number of shots lingering on the treat. Hershey's enjoyed a similar privilege after an appearance by Reese's Pieces in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial saw the company stock soar by 65%. It's only gotten more involved since then, culminating in The Lego Movie, one big commercial for Lego, all be it a great movie in the same breath. Heavy-handed product placement can, however, backfire, as in Demolition Man, where in the not too distant future all restaurants have been replaced by Taco Bell, Mac and Me, where we spend unreal amounts of time at the local McDonald's and Coca-Cola revives the heroes' dying alien family, and The Internship, where we learn all about how great it is to work at Google. In each of these films corporate interest dominated the audience's attention, as opposed to providing earnest entertainment.

Most product placements are less involved in the plot, and typically involve just featuring the product on screen somewhere, as an example; the ubiquity of Beats by Dre, or Sony computers, cameras, speakers and so on in all of their films. The shamefully materialistic Sex and the City movies stayed on brand with 67 placements. Sometimes it can be preferable for audiences to see recognisable brands on screen, as seeing an obviously fabricated product can take you out of a film just as easily as a blatant ad. When characters go on search engines like “Go-search!” or “Web-finder”, it halts suspension of disbelief far more than any supernatural plot elements could.

Some of the best product placement involves clothing brands making stylish introductions for upcoming items by placing them in blockbusters. Back to the Future 2 of course has the self-tying laces on future Nikes, but the whole series is crawling with products. Marty goes by a pseudonym mistakenly attributed to him when someone reads ‘Calvin Klein' written on his underwear. Probably the most tangible effect on the market was had by Tom Cruise when he sported Aviator glasses for Ray Ban in Top Gun.

On the more insidious side of things, kids' films can push desirable toys, especially around Christmas time. The Most effective example of this would be Toy Story, which not only hyped up classic toys like Slinky's and Mr. Potato-head in the minds of impressionable young viewers, but launched the sales of millions of toys in the likeness of the film's original characters like Woody and Buzz Lightyear, too. Every couple of years a sequel or spin-off or reboot is to be expected, to reinvigorate public interest in the brand and get a new horde of kids excited about having their own Buzz Lightyear.

A favorite among obvious, pandering product placement would be the classic Wayne's World scene, where Garth and Wayne sermonise: “I will not bow to any sponsor” whilst mugging at the camera with perfectly angled Pizza Hut boxes and Pepsi cans. Associating a product with endearing characters like this is A + marketing, for instance Harold and Kumar who's trip to their favourite restaurant White Castle managed to provide the title of one of their films, or the extended McDonald's centric conversation in Pulp Fiction (conveniently noting that Vincent didn't bother to go to Burger King while he was in Paris, just McDonald's). These films treat the existence of consumerism as an unavoidable fact of pop culture, and use meta-humour to shield from appearing to cow-tow to backers under the guise of connecting to their audience more realistically, sometimes foregoing payment for mentioning a product all together. This is one of the better routes to take.

But, when it comes to product placement, nobody does it better than James Bond. Outside of the fact that Bond is already accepted as a tool for wish-fulfilment, he's a great character to attach brands to because he has established brand-oriented tastes, and has had them for decades. You could look at a product and know instinctively whether Bond might have it tucked away among his gadgets. This segues nicely into cars, booze, watches, and smart phones. Certain associations become so iconic that the two end up benefitting each other in equal measure, like with the definitive Aston Martin. At least one Bond outing was funded entirely by product placement. Ever Ready and Pan Am, BMW and Microsoft, Smirnoff and Dom Pérignon, everyone wants to throw money at the producers of the Bond series.

But the character's sensibilities as an idiosyncratic tastemaker mean the marketing department find themselves on a tight leash, prone to fan backlash when they stray too far from what is expected of 007 (for instance when the secret agent traded in his drink of choice, the Vodka Martini, for a Heineken, causing much uproar following the release of Spectre). We can only hope that the recent commercial for Heineken's non-alcoholic beer isn't a sign of things to come for No Time To Die.

What We Know About the Avatar Sequels

Avatar 2 has been on a bumpy ride. It's suffered 8 delays so far, moving from 2014 to its current release date; December 16, 2022, and taken its cast and crew to Hawaii, California, and New Zealand. But there's more coming on December 20, 2024, December 18, 2026 and December 22, 2028. Avatar's four sequels are shooting concurrently (2 and 3 are in the can, and a third of 4 is complete), meaning that the studio is betting massive amounts that James Cameron is going to give them a string of hits. Much of the internet isn't so sure, claiming Avatar has faded from popular culture in the decade since its release (one running joke involves asking people to name any character from the film). But, Cameron has pulled off making the highest grossing film of all time twice now, beating the recent competition by massive margins. Leading up to both Titanic and Avatar, their monstrous productions were painted as disasters which would lead to certain bombs. If anyone can pull off reviving enough interest to warrant this production cycle, its James Cameron. In his own words, when you do get to see it, "you will shit yourself with your mouth wide open."

Avatar Sequels

Regardless of your opinion on Avatar, what is undeniable is the boundary pushing innovations it introduced to the film world (the ill-fated 3D fad notwithstanding, though Cameron seems to be exploring 3D sans the glasses, but don't get your hopes up). From what little of the production has been revealed publicly, we can see the sequels will be following in this tradition. Behind the scenes production stills indicate a lengthy section of the film will be set underwater, requiring actors to wear complicated motion capture suits and ride what looks to be submersible animatronic jet skis, which will no doubt be replaced in the edit by a new Pandoran creature of some kind.

Actors like Kate Winslet had to train for months to be able to hold their breath under water for up to 7 minutes. Considering how well the look of the first film has aged, its follow-ups are set to look downright amazing. Shooting all the films at once has also supposedly allowed Cameron and his screenwriters to focus on a cohesive overall arc to the series, avoiding the sort of stumbling course correction of the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy. The final product will be something of a saga, transposing the focus from the original Avatar mainstays to their kids, meaning Avatar 2 features several child actors. This shouldn't be a problem, Cameron has directed some of the finest child performances in blockbuster history (creating the iconic young characters of John Conner and Newt, from Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Aliens respectively). Much of the core cast from the first Avatar will be returning, including some whose characters have already died on screen. Sigourney Weaver, for instance, has confirmed that she will be playing a different character this time round. Also expect Vin Diesel to appear, most likely in a voiceover role, and an exhaustive list of actors including but not limited to; Michelle Yeoh, Jemaine Clement, Oona Chaplin, CJ Jones, Cliff Curtis, and so on.

The higher ups seem to be keeping up engagement by adding a huge Pandora section to Disneyworld, and several additions from the exhibit will be included in the forthcoming films. A re-release has put Avatar back on top of the worldwide box office, thanks largely to China, which will probably prove to be the biggest market for the sequels as well. They have good reason to be pushing the Avatar universe on as many people as possible way ahead of the release of the second film, production has set them back a cool one billion dollars. There's a possibility it won't be too difficult to convince audiences to go see huge blockbusters that are actually full of saturated colours and don't look like concrete, but it can be tough to market movies whose titles aren't even set in stone yet. These are the picks so far: “Avatar 2: The Way of the Water, Avatar: The Seed Barer, Avatar: The Tulkin Rider, and lastly Avatar: The Quest for Eywa.”

This is the most extensive plot description yet released: "13 years after the events of the original film, Jake Sully and Neytiri have formed a family and are doing anything to stay together. They are, however, forced to leave their home and explore the different regions of Pandora when their old threat returns to finish what they started." If you need a refresher: Jake Sully was the main character of the first film, a human who led the alien Na'vi to victory against his own people who wanted to exploit Pandora's natural resources. He does this by integrating into the Na'vi using an Avatar, an alien body he transfers his consciousness into, falling in love with the warrior Neytiri in the process.

It's clear that the films are mostly being made to further explore the universe Cameron has created, we'll even be travelling to other moons Pandora shares an orbit with. As far as whether or not you'll find something to like about any of the four upcoming blockbusters, Cameron had this to say: "Basically, if you loved the first movie, you're gonna love these movies, and if you hated it, you're probably gonna hate these. If you loved it at the time, and you said later you hated it, you're probably gonna love these."

The Desolation of Spoof Movies

Spoof Movies, loosely connected slapstick or sketch comedy scenes strung together by parodying one genre or more. We’re talking Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Airplane! This genre was popular for decades due to its fast pace and simplicity, making for comedies with the fat trimmed off. That is, till a glut of subpar entries squatted over the entire market and stained the reputation of spoof films and comedies in general to this day.

There were the progenitors; Abbott and Costello, spoofing Universal Monster Movies, though these didn’t incorporate the quick-fire visual gags or non-sequiturs we expect from parodies, same goes for spy spoofs of the 60’s like Our Man Flint and Casino Royale. Monty Python flirted with the idea in Holy Grail and Life of Brian, but Mel Brooks truly shaped the modern spoof into existence, before long perfecting it, and continuing well into the '90s. Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, all great, but not the proto-typical spoof. No, for that we must turn to the cream of the crop: the ZAZ team.

The Desolation of Spoof Movies

Jim Abrahams and brothers David Zucker and Jerry Zucker were childhood friends, remaining united by a fastidious commitment to ludicrous gags, and the joy of going to great lengths to achieve them. They were parody perfectionists, kicking off by writing Kentucky Fried Movie, supplying no less than 26 sketches. It’s unrefined, but still funny, and marked by that same stupid sense of humour. Roger Ebert pointed out the guilty pleasure aspect of ZAZ movies perfectly; “You laugh twice, once at the joke and then a second time at yourself for laughing”. Their most beloved film, for this reason, is probably Airplane! which was a huge hit, and is stuffed with classic lines (“Surely you can’t be serious?”, “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”). Many of those lines get their charm from their severely grave delivery, provided by Leslie Neelson, who would star in the subsequent Naked Gun trilogy, making for an actor-directors pairing for the ages. He embodies a fundamental truth about the characters of great Spoof movies: They’re not in on the joke. No matter how absurd the world they inhabit, play it straight.

But, their best work remains Top Secret!, mashing up World War II spy films and Elvis musicals, starring a young Val Kilmer. It features their most impressive routines, some of which verge on the surreal (including their absolute best; a fist-fight that plummets from train tracks into a river, and continues in a sparsely decorated underwater saloon). They completely surrender logic, and allow the movie to get as bonkers as possible, without getting tedious. The ZAZ trio ended up having diminishing returns as the years went on (David contributed to the Scary Movie series, Jerry made Ghost, yes, Ghost with Patrick Swayze), but in 20 years they gifted us some of the funniest movies comedy has to offer.

Now we flash forward to today, where a lack of comedies in general means an outright drought in spoof movies. What could have led to this? Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

These two “filmmakers” are responsible for some of the worst monstrosities mislabeled as movies ever made, all spoofs. They hit the mark they were aiming for, but there may be no more despicably lazy, insulting, stupid, chauvinistic, Neanderthal-esque mark. Their oeuvre (including Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck, The Starving Games, Meet the Spartans, et al), disrespects their audiences, the material they’ve piggybacked off, and the stander-bearers for the genre they’ve beaten into extinction by flooding the market with movie experiences so unpleasant that audiences have avoided parodies entirely since, because “they’re all like that, right?”.

As a result of all this, Friedberg and Seltzer have undergone relentless dogpiling by critics, to the point that you could almost feel bad them, if not for everything they do. The pair may be a little more than embarrassed by their work, avoiding interviews like the plague, outright refusing to do them in person (leading to some conspiracies theories that the duo are a cover name for directors looking to make a quick buck on garbage that takes less than a month to film, funneling profits to their dream projects). They got their start by writing the Naked Gun rip-off Spy Hard as a vehicle for Leslie Neelson, who wasn’t quite done with the genre. In unrelated news, Friedberg is the son of a director who worked with Neelson on a golfing video, and directed Spy Hard himself.

Still, their touch is noticeable, they’re practically auteurs. The Friedberg and Seltzer method: Pick out trailers or production stills for films you think will be hits, then incorporate literally any iconography from them into your script, something to the effect of “oh no, Britney Spears got punched by Kung Fu Panda”. Then film the movie as cheaply and quickly as possible, and put it out ASAP so that the films being referenced are preferably less than a month old when audiences catch the trailer. Ideal response: “Hey, I just watched Kung Fu Panda, now he’s in this comedy, this I’ve got to see.” Pro tip, it does not matter if the referenced character or celebrity or whatever else is only in the film for a few seconds, just cut the trailer with whatever will get butts in seats. It also doesn’t matter if they walk out, once the ticket is bought, you’re golden.

There is a joke in Top Secret! that has aged terribly. The villains accidently back into a Ford Pinto, barely tapping it, causing it to spontaneously combust. This was a direct reference to a scandal at the time regarding the placement of the gas tank in the rear of this model of Ford, meaning that if it were rear-ended, it would ignite. That’s a lot of explaining to get this very 1984 reference. Friedberg and Seltzer ask the audience to suffer the same amount of awareness of contemporary pop culture for the full runtime of their projects, and most of their allusions have aged shockingly in the past 10 years.

Adding insult to injury, their budgets are bloated. Disclaimer: the following is hyperbole, conjecture, and a joke (I understand Friedberg and Seltzer have trouble recognizing those). Basically, they commit fraud. Their films have multi-million dollar budgets, which I doubt make it very far past the higher ups before being scalped for vacation funds, none of which are justifiable in the slightest.

Maybe you think all this is a little harsh. After all, they’re artists who are trying to make people laugh, so what if some armchair psychologists think they have contempt for their audience? Well, burdened with knowledge, I direct you to the video above, a highlight reel of moments from their commentary track for Date Movie. They share their open contempt for their material, their disdain for their actors (insinuating one star’s drug habit lead him to stoop to roles in their films), their ignorance of their trade (frustrated with themselves that they still don’t know what a gaffer is), and their depressing acceptance that their movies are indefensible, but “f**k you” for disliking them. The conversation devolves into a self-reflexive dirge on the futility of listening for insights from these two. Then they discuss what they each did the night before. My favourite quote of theirs; “That test audience must have been really dumb, because they fell for everything, they clapped.” It would be too laborious a task for them to make a joke this long, so it can be concluded that it’s sincere. They’ve had a Star Wars parody in the pipeline for some time, though it’s unlikely anyone could stomach even a good Star Wars parody right now. Hearing that news for the first time stirred up a lot of contempt, but, knowing what Friedberg and Seltzer think of themselves, it’s impossible to be mad anymore. It’s just depressing.

Explaining The Ending From Zack Snyder's Justice League

In a significant break from what feels like comic book movie tradition at this point, Zack Snyder's Justice League doesn't have a post-credit teaser scene. Instead, the final 20 minutes of the film serve as an extended preview of Snyder's ambitious plans for the franchise.

Justice League is one of the most popular franchises in the world. Aside from being converted into a major Hollywood motion picture series, the world-famous crime-fighting group also influences literature, such as the upcoming The New 52, which is DC Comics' attempt to reboot its entire comic book portfolio.

The popularity of Justice League has been widely adopted in video gaming as well, with many titles such as Justice League Heroes and Injustice 2, which is considered one of the premier fighting games in the world today. It even influences the iGaming sector as there is a slot game called Justice League that can be found on the online casino listing in South Africa, such as Europa Casino.

So when the original Justice League came out in 2017, and it turned out to be vastly different from the vision of original director Zack Snyder (he had to leave the project late on in production because of a family bereavement), there was an enormous outcry from fans around the world who demanded the Snyder Cut be released.

In the end, they got their wish (and then some) when the four-hour epic that is Zack Snyder's Justice League was released on streaming platform HBO Max in March this year. It was everything fans had been asking for and much, much more. If you thought there couldn't be that much new in the film, especially considering Snyder was only permitted to reshoot one scene, you'd be sorely mistaken. It's an entirely new film.

As it turns out, there were reels and reels of unused material that Snyder had already shot but went by new stand-in director Joss Whedon, who had instructions from the studio to make the film more light-hearted after the success of Thor: Ragnarok. Snyder's vision was clearly much darker, but nowhere is the distinction more apparent than at the end of the film.

The final 20 minutes of Zack Snyder's Justice League play out like an epilogue at the back of a fantasy novel in the middle of a 10-book epic, setting up characters for future trials and tribulations and hinting at a dark and lonely future that everyone (goodies and baddies) needs to work together to avoid. There is a lot to unpack, so let's get started.

The epilogue begins in what would have been a very familiar way to people who had already seen Whedon's Justice League, finding out that Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg) has managed to escape Arkham Asylum and is instead chilling out on a fancy yacht in the middle of the ocean with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello), revealing to him that Batman (Ben Affleck) is Bruce Wayne. However, this was the one scene that Snyder decided to reshoot.

In Snyder's version, instead of Luthor and Deathstroke "starting a league of their own"; to combat the Justice League, Lex sets the assassin a very directed and personal collision course with the Bat. At this point in the film, Luthor knows about Darkseid's plan to destroy the world, which is alluded to when he states he has "more important things to do" than fight Batman".

The scene is a direct reference and set up for the scrapped Affleck solo Batman movie replaced by the Robert Pattinson film, which is a pretty strange decision considering the decision to axe the Affleck project made several years before the Snyder reshoot. The only real explanation is that Snyder was firmly sticking to his original vision, which, after all, is what the fans wanted all along anyway.

The second part of the epilogue takes us to a dark and terrible future after Darkseid has succeeded in conquering earth and laying waste to almost all of the planet's life. Even though Batman, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the Atlantean Mera, Deathstroke, the Flash, and the Joker have formed a resistance group, there is very little hope.

Despite their status as allies, the Joker can't help but taunt Batman about all the loved ones he has lost from his parents to his adopted son, which is likely Robin. The Bat growls at Joker to be careful, to which he replies: "You need me, to help you undo this world you created by letting her die. Poor Lois, how she suffered so." Superman then rocks up with glowing red eyes looking ready to kill. At this point, Bruce Wayne wakes up from what was an apparent nightmare, although it is pretty clear it is a vision of the future.

Everything about this scene is set up for future Justice League sequels, from the increasing tension between Batman and Joker leading to a confrontation at some point to the suggestion that Superman has become one of the Justice League's greatest enemies because Batman was unable to save Lois Lane.

The scene is already significant for linking the threads that lead to the "Knightmare"; sequence hinted at in Batman v Superman when Flash uses his speed to travel through time to warn Bruce Wayne about Superman's potential to the dark side. It appears to take place as the heroes are preparing for the Flash to time travel. Snyder revealed to Vanity Fair that the original plan was for heroes to discover a way to reverse the dark timeline but that Bruce Wayne would ultimately die and be replaced by Bruce Kent, the powerless son of Lois Lane and Clarke Kent.

Unfortunately, at this stage, Snyder has confirmed there are no plans for any of the sequels that he alluded to and set up in his conclusion to Zack Snyder's Justice League. But, if we have learned anything from this whole saga, if the fans want something badly enough, there is a decent chance the studio might make it happen.

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