When does a brand biopic become a marketing ploy?

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Steve Jobs, the third film to be made about the founder of Apple in as many years, has been chosen to close the 2015 BFI London Film Festival. This news confirms what was already obvious: from Howard Hughes to Mr Heineken, Hollywood has an increasing obsession with entrepreneurs. With films about the founders of Google and McDonalds in the pipeline, it’s a trend that shows no sign of abating.

In many ways, it’s unsurprising. The origin stories of many iconic brands contain the hallmarks of the classic rags-to-riches plot that has long proved irresistible to filmmakers.

Whether or not an official studio-brand production partnership exists, films about existing brands inevitably come with a side-order of subliminal advertising that can diminish the power of the storytelling.

At their best, these films present an inspiring tale of vision and fearlessness. At their worst, they become little more than souped-up marketing ploys masquerading as artistic entertainment.

I’ve had a look at four films that revolve around brands and their leaders to decide in each case whether integrity won out over The Man.

The Lego Movie (2014)

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Many scoffed at the idea of a movie created entirely to sell a relatively bland children’s toy  – one that relies heavily on a child’s imagination to inject life into tiny pieces of plastic. That was before they actually saw the film.

Creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller somehow managed to turn a concept specifically designed to shift products into a wacky, hilarious and brilliantly entertaining piece of cinema. Critics loved it and audiences flocked to see it (it grossed $69 million in its opening weekend). It was even nominated for an Academy Award (although not for Best Animated Feature, much to many viewers’ disgust).

As for the Lego Group? They reported a record-breaking year in 2014, with a net growth of 15%. Unsurprisingly, a sequel has been announced.

Hollywood – 1: Brand – 1

The Internship (2013)

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Even the reunion of Wedding Crashers duo Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson couldn’t rescue this thinly-veiled recruitment campaign for Google. Vaughn and Wilson star as old-school salesmen who intern at Google in an attempt to stay professionally relevant in the 21st century. The catch? They’re up against the brightest young minds of the digital age.

While the film itself is funny at points, the entertaining script is overshadowed by the brand itself. California’s Googleplex campus and representatives from the tech giant had input in everything from the dialogue to the closing credits. The camera lingers on the most appealing employee benefits (resting pods, colourful bicycles and free food abound) and real employees even appear as extras.

Perhaps all this brand interference is partly to blame for the film’s mediocre reception (it made just $17 million in its opening weekend). Google, on the other hand, continues to be one of the world’s fastest-growing companies.

Hollywood – 0: Brand – 1

The Social Network (2010)

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Despite both The Internship and The Social Network both focusing on modern tech giants, the approaches of the films couldn’t be more different.

Following 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg as he develops the world’s most successful online networking site from his Harvard dorm room, it’s understated, talky and often dark in tone, with brilliant performances and a fast-paced script (written by Aaron Sorkin, who has also penned the screenplay for the upcoming Steve Jobs).

Is it accurate? Zuckerberg didn’t seem to think so, claiming that the filmmakers “made up stuff that was hurtful”. Whatever the case, the film was a huge critical and box office success – and, whatever Zuckerberg’s complaints, Facebook isn’t doing too badly either.

Hollywood – 1: Brand – 1

Jobs (2014)

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Before there was Steve Jobs there was, well, Jobs.

In the first of the competing biopics, the title role was taken by Ashton Kutcher. While his performance was praised by critics, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak remained unmoved, stating on his blog that “I was attentive and entertained, but not greatly enough to recommend the movie.” Kutcher quickly retaliated by hinting that Wozniak’s paid role as consultant on the upcoming Steve Jobs might be influencing his public position on the rival movie: “It’s personal for him, but it’s also business.”

Jobs failed to perform at the box office, with neither Apple nor Hollywood gaining much in the way of profit or publicity. The hiring of Wozniak on Steve Jobs would indicate that both sides are looking for a more positive result when the new biopic is released in late October.

Hollywood – 0: Brand – 0

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