ASSOCIATES (vol. 8 no. 2, November 2001) -

Behind the Screens:
Hollywood Goes Hypercommercial

directors, Matt Soar, Susan Ericsson;
producer, Matt Soar;
executive producer, Sut Jhally.
Northampton, MA : Media Education Foundation, c2000.
Toronto : Kinetic Video [Canadian distributor].
37 min. (VHS)
ISBN 1-893521-29-X
(Study guide available online.)

Video Review


Sylvia Skene
Library Technician
Advanced Education Media Acquisitions Centre
Langara College
Vancouver, B.C. Canada

In 1991 University of Massachusetts professor Sut Jhally went toe-to-toe with MTV over fair use versus copyright of the footage in his compiled tape, Dreamworlds: Desire / Sex / Power in Rock Video, which he had copied and distributed to communications and women's studies professors around the U.S. According to the Media Education Foundation's web site, MTV chose not to pursue the case after receiving widespread negative national media coverage from such heavyweights as the New York Times, and being also in conflict with its own anti-censorship campaign. Jhally went on to found the Foundation, or MEF.

Included in MEF's mission is "devot[ion] to media research and production of resources to aid educators and others in fostering analytical media literacy ... essential to a vibrant democracy in a diverse and complex society." Under this mandate, MEF has produced well-crafted media literacy programs such as Pack of Lies: the Advertising of Tobacco ; Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity; and, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.

One of its latest productions is Behind the Screens: Hollywood Goes Hypercommercial. Divided into four sections, Product placement: advertising goes to the movies; Making movies for marketers: cross-promotions, merchandising and tie-ins; Hijacking the movies: Hollywood in an age of conglomerates; and, Limiting stories: making movies in a hypercommercial age, this video illustrates the many ways in which movies have been changed and reduced to promoting product.

In the introduction, Mark Crispin Miller (New York University) reminds us, "Advertising is a form of propaganda. We must never forget this. And propaganda makes one point. Repeatedly." Susan Douglas (University of Michigan) follows this up: "When advertising and marketing are the defining logic of an age, it affects everything, including the movies." Janet Wasko (University of Oregon) asserts that, "... Hollywood is indeed becoming rapidly another advertising medium." And Robert W. McChesney (University of Illinois) goes even further: "When you look at the way movies are made today, they almost should be in aisles of a supermarket, they are so closely connected to selling products."

Although Hollywood has always had its commercial side, according to McChesney, it is only in the past few decades that advertisers, marketers and corporations have looked to movies as vehicles for promoting and indeed creating product, and producers have become dependent on the income from these sources, rather than just investors, to create movies. "But if you are a fan of movies, the question we have to ask is: What does this do to the process of movie making?" Later on in the program, he asserts, "It's become almost impossible to think of making a big Hollywood movie divorced from the broader strategies of marketing consumer goods."

Whether it be placing a product name or logo conspicuously on-screen, writing dialogue incorporating a "plug," or, as Miller calls it, "The Plug Deluxe" -- actually having a star use and enjoy a product -- having a brand featured in a narrative sequence can arrest, upstage, or even spoil the enjoyment of a film. According to Douglas, this new area for "colonization of space" by advertisers is accompanied by a "colonization of time," whereby a product is depicted as being in the past, thus asserting it was always there, or in the future, thus predicting that it always will be with us.

Eileen Meehan (University of Arizona) points out that a media conglomerate can take one central product (a movie) and break it up into a variety of products: books, soundtracks, comic books, licensing ventures, on and on. Wasko believes that characters are often created *because* they lend themselves to toys, such as animal protagonists or action heroes. A prime example is_Star Wars: the Phantom Menace. Legions of fans were disappointed at the poorly written and conceived $115 million production; merchandising deals made the conglomerate a $3.5 billion profit anyway.

Wasko also notes that with the number of media corporations having shrunk from over twenty, two decades ago, to less than ten mega corporations today, many movies have a vast media machine that makes it easy to create interest and profit, even if the movie itself is mediocre. As well, Miller asserts, "You tend, more and more, to get "news items" or "big news stories" that are really nothing more than journalistic echoes of the latest hype or product from the entertainment side of the business." And since many film critics work for companies that are owned by the same mega corporations that produce movies, they are being used to promote rather than critique a movie, to the detriment of the profession as a whole.

According to McChesney, many of the best movies coming out of Hollywood are made because of talented and creative (and famous) people pushing for them with the studios, such as Warren Beatty championing Bullworth. A studio executive told the screenwriter, Jeremy Pikser, "We don't want to buy things that have to be well-made in order to be successful."

By contrast, Siskel and Ebert asserted that of the ten best films made in the 1970s (the "Golden Age of Hollywood Films"), including Five Easy Pieces, and Network, none could have been made in the studio system today. Miller suggests, "Commercialism has in many ways distorted the whole enterprise of making movies." Peter Bart, editor of Variety and a former studio executive, is quoted as saying that it is virtually impossible to make great movies, once marketing and the focus groups get through with them.

As with other MEF videos, much of the strength of this video is in the many clips that reinforce the speakers' assertions. Coca Cola, Pepsi, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Star Wars and many other recognizable products and merchandise are included as examples of hypercommercialism in the movies; there are no sacred cows. All the critics are well spoken, and their comments are interspersed with each other to give more variety of viewpoints. This is not however a balanced treatment, but a critical expose of the commercial nature of the Hollywood film industry today, which in itself will be of use to instructors wishing to provoke discussion, or anyone interested in production, film studies or media literacy.

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