Perspective | In these movies, the brand is the star


South by Southwest Film Festival director Claudette Godfrey noticed something of a trend in submissions to the festival this year. Four of the strongest contenders — “Air,” “BlackBerry,” “Flamin’ Hot” and “Tetris” — were all movies based on consumer products.

Notwithstanding commonalities in their source material, they’re dramatically different films: “Air,” about Nike’s deal to make the Air Jordan basketball sneaker, is directed by Ben Affleck and stars Matt Damon as the executive who pushes to make the deal happen. “BlackBerry,” about the invention of the groundbreaking handheld device, is a scrappier indie with a mock-doc aesthetic (it’s due out in June). “Flamin’ Hot,” Eva Longoria’s directorial debut (also June), tells the story of how a Frito-Lay employee named Richard Montañez brought his Mexican heritage to bear on what would become Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “Tetris,” about the invention of the video game in the shadow of the crumbling Soviet empire, is a game of wits worthy of its own title subject.

Godfrey was initially hesitant to play so many corporate biopics, which she describes as its own subgenre. “We did have those conversations about how many of these sort of stories will fit into the program,” she recalls. “But ultimately all of these are just so compelling. … They already have [their core] audience to market to, but the artistry of the filmmakers and their vision elevated them.”

All four movies were big hits at SXSW, where viewers and critics alike were extravagant with their praise. And they’re just the most recent examples, alongside the Casablanca Records chronicle “Spinning Gold,” “Dungeons & “Dragons” and this summer’s “Barbie,” of movies in which the brand is the star.

In many ways, this is the inevitable result of a natural progression: Hollywood has evolved from being star- and auteur-driven to becoming almost totally dependent on recognizable intellectual property, or IP. Filmmakers have always turned to novels and plays for source material; in recent years that reach has extended to comic books, vintage TV shows and video games. Remember the pearl-clutching when Disney had the audacity to make a movie from one of its theme park rides? The result was “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” and it was, of all things, good. (As for the sequels: Let’s just say the rule of diminishing returns applied.)

At a time when casting shortlists are assembled based on an actor’s Twitter numbers, it stands to reason that a movie about a popular sneaker or snack food wouldn’t be laughed out of the studio C-suite — if anything, it would be seen as an entirely safe bet. In years past, writers and directors have been attracted to entrepreneurs — Michael Keaton’s Ray Kroc in “The Founder,” Michael Fassbender’s Apple mogul in “Steve Jobs” — as rich fodder for allegories about vision, ambition, hubris and human frailty. Despite the ubiquity of their subjects’ companies, however, the resulting films did not do well with audiences, with David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, being a notable exception. The filmmakers behind the current crop of corporate biopics are counting on their audience’s emotional attachment, not to executives but to the products themselves.

“Air” exploits multiple brand loyalties, including to Michael Jordan, Nike, the NBA and the sneaker itself, which became an instant cultural touchstone when it hit the market in 1984. That immediate relatability made the movie easy to pitch, according to “Air’s” first-time screenwriter Alex Convery.

“When you’re trying to break in, especially writing feature [spec scripts], you’ve got to catch someone’s attention with the log line,” he explained over lunch in Beverly Hills in March, “and [‘Air’ is] one where you can just say, ‘This is the Air Jordan story’ and that’s it.” (Amazon paid a reported $130 million for “Air,” presumably counting on the film’s appeal to Gen-Xers who grew up idolizing Jordan and coveting his eponymous shoe.)

“Air” has been a hit with critics and audiences alike, but not because of nostalgia. Affleck made a movie that transcends its own elevator pitch to become a warm, surprisingly affecting human story. When he was choosing a protagonist, Convery wisely decided on Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro, who fought to persuade his colleagues to sign Jordan for a then-unheard-of $250,000. Matt Damon delivers one of his characteristically sweet performances as a guy in Dockers with a crazy dream; then, late in the film, what’s been a thoroughly entertaining how-we-did-that story achieves liftoff with Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother Deloris, who is portrayed as changing sports and sponsorships forever when she insists that her son participate in Nike’s profits from his shoe.

At a news conference for the film last month, Damon recalled a meeting in which Affleck asked Jordan what was most important to him in making a film about that chapter in his life. “[H]e started to talk about his mom, and Ben called me afterward and said … ‘[Jordan] had this look on his face when he talked about his mom that I’ve never seen before.’ We felt like, now we know what the movie is.” (Jordan’s only condition for Affleck making “Air” was that Davis play his mom.)

As Convery noted, the most brand-recognized movie in the world lives or dies by its characters, as “Air” adroitly demonstrates. And it has to signify something greater than a consumer fad. “Nike was the first company to really embrace the notion that athletes who delivered the value … deserved to be compensated in a way that was commensurate with the value they were delivering,” Affleck noted in a promotional interview for the film. “That was a really meaningful change.”

Still, as these narratives enter the public consciousness as objective history, they can’t help but slip into mythology. As some observers have noted, Nike proposed the profit-sharing idea before Deloris Jordan insisted on it; an investigative story in the Los Angeles Times suggested that Montañez wasn’t as instrumental in the development of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos as “Flamin’ Hot” suggests.

But, taken with the appropriate grain of popcorn salt, and executed with smarts and finesse, what could have been a crude exercise in smash-and-grab product placement can rise above its opportunistic roots, not just to entertain us, but to tell us how we got here.

“Air” does that, mostly by reminding viewers of a certain age — and showing their children — what it was like before brands became all-encompassing. “BlackBerry,” which stars Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis, the inventor of the eponymous “pager, cellphone and email machine, all in one thing” that earned a devoted following when it was launched in the 2000s, starts out as a goofy office comedy about a couple of enterprising Canadian tech nerds but morphs into a wistful origin story of the very technology that would enable everyone to become their own brand.

We’re all mini-Jordans now, hawking our lifestyles, favorite products and personal narratives across multiple platforms, sometimes to followers that number in the millions.

At a time when worship of fetish objects and loyalty to consumer labels have seeped into nearly every niche of life — when we use the language of branding in everything from a quotidian Instagram story to politics-as-fan-service — the prelapsarian worlds depicted in “Air” and “BlackBerry” exert an irresistible appeal. Air Jordan and BlackBerry cultists might think they’re going to see the creation stories of their favorite things; but these movies succeed because they turn the lens outward, showing us who we are by reminding us of who we used to be.


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