Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ramble/Rant on Holiday Movies

[Image: Oh, you wish I was writing a review of "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians."]

When it isn’t annoying me to the verge or death or eroding the intelligence, patience and morality of our nation, it can be fun to watch marketing at work. I can sit back with the comfy distance of a cynically removed outsider and laugh at the gimmicks, cheap tricks, total lies and unscrupulous barrel-scraping that makes the Hollywood marketing juggernaut continue jugging. Today I’m going to rant about a couple of movie marketing techniques that all coalesce around Christmas and I’ll finish with a surprise(!) review.

Sometimes I see movie trailers so bad that they accomplish the opposite of the presumed goal: they stick out so dramatically in my mind because of their badness that I won’t ever end up seeing the movie even by accident. If a friend asks me if I might want to go see “This Christmas” with them, I won’t even lazily agree out of ignorance. I’ll be able to say no without hesitation and not only do I save two hours, eight dollars and a great deal of happiness, but I’ll have one less friend for whom to buy a Christmas present. That’s because a friend who invites you to see movies cashing in on holidays isn’t really a friend at all.

My reaction to holiday movies tends to be similar to how I treat highway billboards for rural tourist traps. I’m a little amused, I avoid them out of habit and then I promptly forget about the entire thing. Occasionally I ponder the type of person who would drive even two miles out of their way to see The World’s Grayest Clay or The Museum of Mutated Jackrabbits. I’m just hoping that the type of person who pays to see “Jingle All the Way” or “Jack Frost” does so out of a sick curiosity for how bad it can get.

[Image: The World’s Largest Chainsaw… Sign]

Why else would consumers (or producers) invest time and money in a movie they would never otherwise even consider, just because it’s themed to the current season? It won’t be better than the usual muck. In fact, experience should have taught us all that it will be worse. And yet… somehow it works, terrible films make a profit, and three year later the same films which by all rights shouldn’t even be allowed in Blockbuster’s “Used: Buy four and get them all for free” bin, are resurrected for seasonal television play.

Somehow a seasonal theme manages to ensure some minimal return on investment, like casting Will Farrell, adapting a 50’s TV show or featuring a preponderance of bikinis in the previews, posters and box-art. These parasitic holiday-spawn eke out an undeserved profit by feeding upon the innate happiness associated with holidays and taking advantage of the fact that we have the day off anyway, so we might as well watch something (and there aren’t any car-crashes nearby).

I don’t like holiday movies. That may be obvious by this point. This goes a long way towards explaining why I put off seeing “It’s a Wonderful Life” until just a few weeks ago. It was the last film on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies that I had not seen and I’m sure that in some marketing consultant’s computer somewhere a little “cultural penetration” widget clicked over from 99.9999% to 100%.

As for a review, I’m not even going to bother. It’s not that I thought the film was particularly bad, but I wasn’t that impressed either. Why do my usual spiel when I don’t have any potential audience of people to guide or inform (they’ve all seen it), something new to say about it or any cute personal anecdote about how the film drew me back from depression or made me change my job to the subprime real-estate lending market (which, let’s face it, is exactly what George Bailey does and look at where that got us 60 years after the goodwill and holiday cheer settled).

One nice thing about “It’s a Wondeful Life” is that it managed to totally, albeit accidentally, subvert the Hollywood marketing machine. It was a minor failure on its initial release and the copyrights lapsed back in the 1970’s. When it became a certified Christmas Classic in the 1980’s, the opportunities for traditional profit had already come and gone. TV screenings still brought in ad money and third-tier distributors can make a dime by packaging it as a two-for-one best-of-Jimmy-Stewart DVD with “The Gorgeous Hussy” (1936), but basically the big money slipped through their fingers. The only one who collects any royalties is the guy who wrote the original story. A writer getting revenue! That’s almost as ridiculous as paying musicians for their music!

Incidentally, the original script was written as a Christmas card, a medium that was probably better suited to the material. Then again, I always tend to prefer the card to the movie.

But I said I wasn’t going to get into reviewing the movie and I mean it! I’m going to review something related, which fits more with the Film Walrus’s obscurity angle. No, it’s not “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wondeful Life” (1993), a brilliant short film that upturns Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” by combining it with “The Metamorphosis,” but yes, you should check that out, too.
Instead, I’m going to dig into another marketing technique that frequently draws critical ire: the game adaptation. Certainly, no action movie can storm the theaters without the inevitable PS3 version that outsells the film despite shipping without collision detection, the second and fifth levels, and the original voice-actors (they blew through the budget just licensing the blocky celebrity likenesses and ended up out-sourced the dialog to Bengal). These days I’m not surprised to walk into Best Buy and see “My Dinner with Andre” conversation-sims, Wes Anderson® franchise dysfunctional-family-themed RPGs and titles like “Bloodrayne: The Movie: The Game.”

You mean there’s actually an “It’s a Wonderful Life” videogame? Well, no, not exactly. Someone, somewhere thought they could generate actual currency (not just Monopoly currency) with an “It’s a Wonderful Life” board game. You can check out its profile on, the board game equivalent of IMDB (actually, it’s far superior), where it has received, to date, 5 votes. Because we share the same sense of humor, my girlfriend bought this for me at a Goodwill.

What follows is my review of “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Game Based on America’s Best Loved Movie.”

The game is played by moving your game piece around a circular board and answering “It’s a Wonderful Life” themed trivia questions to collect cards. The cards are mostly “friends” with the name and picture of some minor character from the movie (with the understandable exception of Mr. Potter). Two of the cards are $8,000 cards. You must collect five friends and an $8,000 card to win. Excited?

The game board only contains twelve spaces, so expect to do a lot of circling and landing in the same places. The various locations on the board involve events like answering a question, stealing a card or drawing any card you want from the deck. That last option might sound pretty cool, but consider that every card in the game (except for the two $8,000 cards) behaves in exactly the same manner. For some inexplicable reason, every space on the board also has a picture of a character and a name (unrelated to the action or event for that space), recycled verbatim from the friend cards. In fact, there is quite a bit of recycling since each friend card has about ten copies. Thus you can win the game by collecting $8,000 and five Clarences.

[Image: A winning hand, Zuzus over Mr. Gowers.]

The theme of careless mass production is further developed by the game pieces. Every player’s avatar (up to six!) uses an identical image of George Bailey laughing manically. Katie and I found out the hard way how incredibly confusing this makes it to tell which piece to move.

[Image: Every player is George Bailey. Is it a play on his everyman status? A metaphor for the infectious universality of his plight? A dark hint at the fragmented personalities brought on by his despair and depression? Or perhaps it’s a deeper investigation of the film’s premise that a parallel reality is accessible where George Bailey “had never been born,” thus leading any speculative mind to assume that an infinite number of realities must exist where he was born. Hmm… probably just cheap design.]

The gameplay is tedious and derivative. Even hardcore fans of the film are likely to be unmoved by the mostly finish-the-quote questions. I actually watched the making of “It’s a Wonderful Life” after Katie had gone to sleep, in the hope that it would give me a competitive edge. Nope. The game’s concept of trivia doesn’t include things like facts and, uh, trivia. You mostly finish-the-quote or regurgitate character names and minor props.

[Image: For those of you who are too lazy or too smart to zoom in this picture for details, the yellow spikey-stamp says, “Includes Over 280 Trivia Questions!” As an exercise for the reader, can you guess, within five, the exact number of trivia questions included?]

I was hoping for some questions that were absolutely outrageously bad, but mostly they are just pointless and lame. I have some trivia questions of my own, which somehow didn’t make it into the game. Now you can test your “It’s a Wonderful Life” know-how without paying $1.21 at Goodwill! Just try this quiz:

[Warning: Spoilers, but then, there are probably several more important reasons not to play a trivia game based on a movie if you haven’t seen the movie.]

1) What is America’s Best Loved Movie?
a. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
b. Hudson Hawk (1991)
c. Flubber (1997)
d. La Dama Rossa Uccide Sette Volte (1972)

2) What is your favorite part of “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
a. The ending, when Bailey realizes how many friends he has.
b. The ending, when Bailey gets the $8,000 he needs to save his business.
c. The ending, when Clarence the angel gets his wings.
d. All of the above.

3) In what movie does James Stewart play George Bailey, a man who realizes that his life has not been wasted when his friends and family clamber to his aid on Christmas day?
a. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
b. The Naked Spur (1953)
c. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
d. The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

How did you do? Tally up your correct answers (they were in bold if you didn’t figure that out) and check out your dating diagnosis below:

0-1: You’re a natural stupidhead who prefers watching merely spectacular movies like “Flubber” and “Hudson Hawk” to the greatest film of all time. Men sometimes mistake your pitiful unawareness of “It’s a Wonderful Life” minutiae for ditziness, so you tend to attract only jerks who take advantage of you. Fear not, you can take command of your situation by watching the film twice weekly.

2: Though you’ve seen the film a couple of times, you're not sure of all the details and you are prone to confusing the names of the minor characters. You find it difficult to form lasting relationships with men, because you’re insecure about the real extent of your “It’s a Wonderful Life” knowledgebase. Stop trying to put up a façade of trivia smarts and study up by watching the film twice weekly.

3 or more: When it comes to “It’s a Wonderful Life” you’re all that and a bag of chips. Your friends often come to you with questions about the movie and you pride yourself on your ability to answer their queries. Men find your encyclopedic “It’s a Wonderful Life” knowledge intimidating, but ease them into your habit by cuddling next to a warm fireplace and watching it twice weekly.

Oh, and did I mention that you have to assemble the dice yourself. Seriously!

Walrus Rating: 0


Patti said...

How does one assemble dice? Also, who marketed the board game?

This was a great rant/review.

FilmWalrus said...

The box came with a featureless cube and a set of number stickers. In the instructions it tells you to "Put the numbers on the dice in any order." However, some important dice numbers are missing, such as five.

Derek said...

Great rant! I still haven't seen It's A Wonderful Life, so that culture counter is going to have to wait a little (or a lot) longer to get to 100%.

But yeah, I'm curious too--who marketed it? I'm assuming Knockoff Schlock, Inc. or similar, although I think it would be hilarious if the answer was Rio Grande Games (and I'd never look at Carcassonne the same way again).

Anonymous said...

That game was so awesome. I love that I pwned even though I saw the movie on TV in my childhood, and then fell asleep after half an hour when we tried to watch it recently.

Jimmy Crow. [sigh]

FilmWalrus said...

The game is made by Pressman, the extrodinarily poorly-regarded movie-to-game hucksters that brought you:

1) Land Before Time Escape From Red Claw
2) Scooby-Doo! DVD Board Game
3) Napoleon Dynamite: "It's Pretty Much My Favorite Animal" Game

*All punctuation is how it appears on the box.

In case you are looking for something meaner than coal to get for someone this year, here are the links where you can buy copies:

Anonymous said...

I've yet to see It's a Wonderful Life either.

Great rant/review! Especially the "friends who want to see bad movies aren't your friends part."



- magus