The golden rule of journalism is you need just three instances for a trend. The film industry’s current obsession with biopics of brands – brandopics if you will – is fast galloping past that marker. We have, this year, already had Tetris (that game) and Air (the Air Jordan gutty). Just last week, BlackBerry (the Ur-iPhone) opened to strong reviews in the US and its native Canada. Later this year, Netflix will give us Jerry Seinfeld’s Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story (do you need to ask?). Last week a trailer arrived for Eva Longoria’s Flamin’ Hot. Ms Longoria’s directorial debut concerns the Latino janitor who inspired Frito Lay to manufacture Flamin’ Hot-flavoured Cheetos. Imagine some lad in the cleaning staff at Tayto coming up with smoky bacon. That sort of thing.
What the hell is going on? You didn’t catch David Lean making films about Embassy Regal or the Tunnock’s tea cake. Can we next expect Paul Thomas Anderson to tackle the Whopper? Somebody is going to. A sense is emerging that the things we eat, wear, play or communicate with are now as useful a source for dramatic entertainment as novels or plays. The movie star is dead. Intellectual property is king, and the second word in that construction is the one that matters. Never mind the intellect. Ponder stuff you can own.
It was this attitude that allowed Steve Jobs, a man who sold hardware, to become a guru for the post-religious. Perhaps he was a better sort of guru than the traditional spiritual hucksters. If you gave him your cash you at least got a computer at the end of it
“The cynical answer is that the [intellectual property] chain of title on all these products is a lot easier to pitch to money people,” Matt Johnson, director of BlackBerry, told the Los Angeles Times. “And so I think this is just the beginning of what is probably going to be a flood, provided there’s a market interest.”
Tetris is a British film. BlackBerry is from Canada. But the trend, nonetheless, connects with a very American belief in the brand as culture, as religion, as art. You can see this in the world of cinema itself. Note how US commentators long to establish a house style for the independent studio A24. Despite releasing such varied titles as Lady Bird (breezy coming-of-age), Hereditary (existential horror) and The Whale (mawkish melodrama), cinematic social media yearns to believe that A24 is a genre as well as a business. The Criterion Collection does fine work – as does A24 on its own turf – in restoring, licensing, repackaging and distributing high-end cinema from many decades. But the reverence with which a privately held company is treated by the American film world is disconcerting. A video series called the Criterion Closet, in which celebrities choose their favourites from the company’s films, generates breathless excitement from US cinephiles. The thing is an essential stop-off point on any Oscar campaign. But isn’t this little more than a high-end infomercial? When Cate Blanchett waves a copy of A Man Escaped, there is no pink telephone number at the bottom of the screen, but we are still being recommended Criterion’s edition of that Robert Bresson film.
It was this attitude that allowed Steve Jobs, a man who sold hardware, to become a guru for the post-religious. He did spout the odd bit of grammatically infelicitous motivational gibberish – “think different [sic]” – but he didn’t need to do that to become the Maharishi of Silicon Valley. Wearing a black polo neck while holding a next-generation personal stereo above his head was enough. Perhaps he was a better sort of guru than the traditional spiritual hucksters. If you gave him your cash you at least got a computer at the end of it.
You can win Emmys for a show that reveals one particular product – here a blood-testing service – is a colossal fraud, but nobody is going to make a series that tells us the entire business of marketing is an exercise in deflection
The most successful of the brandopics yet released is Ben Affleck’s undeniably nifty Air. Matt Damon plays the genius who persuaded Nike to throw a wad of cash at Michael Jordan in exchange for the use of his name on their latest plimsoll. The film has some fun with the absurdities of the business. Affleck is winningly eccentric as the Nike chief executive. But does anyone sit back and suggest that this is just a bleeding shoe? They do not. An air of reverence still surrounds the creation. Have a look at Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in the TV series The Dropout. You can win Emmys for a show that reveals one particular product – here a blood-testing service – is a colossal fraud, but nobody is going to make a series that tells us the entire business of marketing is an exercise in deflection. Okay, they made Mad Men. But even that was itself a gorgeous advertisement for an industry that could never have guessed where its deceptions would ultimately lead. In Don Draper’s world, “footwear” (never shoes) helped finance what they then didn’t call content. Now the footwear is the content. So is the potato crisp. So is the phone. So is the video game.
Even Karl Marx didn’t see that coming (to quote an actual book).