Strip Mining Cartoons

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Disney’s announced acquisition of Marvel Comics delivers 5,000 cartoon characters that can provide fodder for movies, books, games, plush toys, and amusement park rides. I’m not sure what this says about the future of the entertainment industry, or that what it says is particularly encouraging.

Even though there’s an infinite amount of creative content getting splattered all over the Internet, it seems there’s a shortage of material. Well, that’s not exactly true: the "material" that entertainment colossi like Disney requires needs to evidence two qualities: first, it has to be good, however that term is subjectively applied, though objectively possessing the capability to uniquely accomplish an entertainment purpose for which people will pay real money. So the term isn’t synonymous with the generic "content" that everyone is celebrating online these days.

Second, it has to already be popular

No media conglomerate seems to have the patience or budget to develop actors, titles, or markets. Material needs to possess a built-in audience, so that previously popular actors can be plugged into it, and the products rolled out to masses who’ve already bought them in other forms. It’s the antithesis of the studio model that built Hollywood, in a kind of Back to the Future sort of way. The most popular stuff is going to be the stuff that was already the most popular.

So the strategy is to literally "buy" the components of this ready-made equation from others, hopefully minimizing the value any variable accrued in that development, while maximizing the benefits that come from combining two or more of them.

Buying cartoon characters makes perfect sense, as we’ve seen the fruits of varied entertainment media produced with Superman, Batman, The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, X-Men, et al. To call these various endeavors variations on a theme would be giving them more artistic credit than they deserve. We’ve seen videogames turned into flicks, too (Resident Evil, Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, Super Mario Brothers, Final Destination). Did you know that studios are now busy developing movies based on boardgames? There’s a Candyland movie in our future. 

It feels like strip mining to me.

I wonder what comes next. I’m surprised that the biggies haven’t started producing "updated" (i.e. twisted and exploited) versions of the classics; Moby Dick and hundreds of other greats and near-greats at public domain, so the cost of content would be free, and any kid who paid some attention should recognize the characters. Wouldn’t realizing, say, Nicholas Nickleby only with supernatural powers (or a robot white whale) be somewhat of a competitive barrier to another version coming to market?

How about borrowing events from history? Everyone knows the players and the broad plot elements, and next to nobody remembers the details. Battle of Hastings, Potsdam Conference, or even last week’s headlines could be ripe for reinterpretation on screen, and as plush toys. Why not based entertainment on popular products, so give us iPod, the Movie? Ditto for foods. There are a lot of hungry teenagers who’re just salivating at the thought of taking The Doritos Adventure ride.

The Bulb Asks:

  • Is generic "awareness" what really matters, whether entertainment or corporate brand?
  • How much of your marketing expects to invent interest from scratch vs. exploiting existing awareness?
  • Is a smarter strategy to invent a brand extension, or simply repurpose an existing product?

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