Pancakes and Playthings: Tie-ins in the Film Industry

On October 24, 2012, the breakfast restaurant chain Denny’s announced that they will be serving a special menu themed around Peter Jackson’s upcoming film series based on The Hobbit. If this seems odd to you, you’re not the only one, but it’s hardly rare anymore. Estimates are that McDonald’s sells almost $3 Billion in Happy Meals each year, each one coming with a movie tie-in toy, and Disney earned roughly $3 Billion dollars as well in its Consumer Product Division –which controls the merchandise licensing for its key properties– last year, a 21% growth from 2010. Even with these astronomic numbers, the Toronto Sun claims that film merchandising continues to be a growth industry. Should we as cinephiles be concerned by this growing trend?

In 1987, McDonald’s introduced the first Disney-themed Happy Meal toy set, themed around Mickey Mouse and his friends. Sales were incredible, and ever since they haven’t looked back. For children’s movies in particular, these deals are incredibly lucrative and a win-win for both companies. They were both trying to reach the same audience, and mind share for one product would then in turn positively affect the other as well. 

However, this concept has some key problems when applied to films that are not targeted at a young audience. Firstly, while young children will consume McDonald’s food almost regardless of the quality, adults have much more discerning tastes for food and drink. Attaching a film’s name to a restaurant — especially a franchised restaurant like Denny’s, where quality and even selection might vary from restaurant to restaurant — seems a risky move. If a customer’s “Gandolf’s Gobble Melt” or “Shire Sausage Skillet” (both real items on the Denny’s menu) don’t look or taste good, or even if the customer doesn’t appreciate the wait staff at the restaurant, his or her image of both the restaurant and the film will be tainted. Conversely, if the customer doesn’t enjoy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when her or she goes to see it in theaters, the likelihood that he or she will be ordering a Hobbit-themed meal any time soon is significantly lower.

Tying a product to one which your company does not also create is generally a huge risk not only in the case of food, but in the case of other products where the combination might leave a bad taste in consumers’ mouths. This is exactly what happened to Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment’s adaptation of the beloved Dr. Seuss book “The Lorax” when they struck a deal with Mazda to jointly advertise the film and car. The result was an odd hodgepodge of a television commercial and a number of angry activists, who were concerned that the book’s message of environmental friendliness was being undermined by its commercial control.

Those activists had the right idea, because while corporations seem to understand the benefits of forming promotional alliances, they don’t seem to see a very important, yet somewhat intangible, factor that should govern their use of these promotions: taste. Selling pancakes under the name of a fantasy action-adventure film is not tasteful, nor is selling cars with a movie about the dangers of pollution and deforestation. As we discover new methods of marketing in this growing space, Studios and Publishers should be very careful to weigh the possibilities that these opportunities present against the potential consequences the provide, and strive to keep what little artistic integrity remains in the jungles of the main stream American film industry.


About Nathan Lawrence

Technology journalist, film critic, and student. My dream is to write and direct serious independent film.

Posted on November 19, 2012, in Editorial and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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