by D.W. Lundberg

Thursday, March 31, 2011

... FOR "HINDSIGHT IS 20/20"

20-20 hindsight: Perfect understanding of an event after it has happened; a term usually used with sarcasm in response to criticism of one's decision, implying that the critic is unfairly judging the wisdom of the decision in light of information that was not available when the decision was made.

I had to look that up, just to make sure I understood it correctly, since it's one of those terms we so often take for granted, like a dusty old heirloom that's been passed from generation to generation. And though you get the basic gist of it, the phrase only comes to mind because you've heard it somewhere before. You know how it is. You make a mistake. You realize you made the mistake. And when the sting and the embarrassment of it finally subsides, you chuckle quietly to yourself and say, "Well, hindsight is 20/20, after all," as if that's the perfect capper to whatever learning experience you're facing at the moment. Or maybe I'm alone in thinking this way, I don't know. You're squinting your eyes at me now, confused. I can see it.

So anyway. Now that we're on the same page, I would say "Hindsight is 20/20" is one of those phrases used by more folks in the movie business than any other. (Or maybe sports, but that's an item for a different blog.) From an acting perspective, it's hard to realize you've miscast, say, a young Sofia Coppola as a pivotal character in The Godfather Part III until you've already committed her to film (and even then she's hard to replace since her father is also the movie's director, Francis Ford Coppola). From a marketing perspective, sometimes it's hard to pinpoint your key demographic (last year's Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, to cite another example, was a mishmash of so many things, comic book and teen comedy and otherwise, that no one really knew what to do with it). The truth is, though, that you never really know how an audience is going to react to your movie, so it's only in retrospect that you look back on the decisions you've made and see how things might have played out differently.

If you're a Name, or an established product, and a movie studio approaches you about using your likeness or trademark as part of their newest blockbuster, how do you know that your good graces won't be dragged through the mud as an end result? If the movie tanks at the box office (or worse, incites riots in the streets), will audiences forever associate you with that failure? Will people consider you a sell-out? Will you see an abrupt drop in sales revenue because you've left a bad taste in the mouths of the movie-going public, and then have to spend years trying to claw your way back to the top? One must weigh all these repercussions before placing your fate "in the hands of mortals," so to speak, and who's to say where that will take you? If it benefits you, great, but if not, well, business is business, after all.

Below are three examples of just such a thing. When a studio approached a Brand Name™ or a Celebrity™ as described above, only to be turned away. All for the sake of preserving said company's or individual's good public image. And at least initially, I bet that seemed like a solid business decision on their part. But then an interesting thing happened: the movie in question took off like a rocket. Oops. Again, hindsight is 20/20:


Movie: E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The Players: Mars Inc., Amblin Entertainment

Why The Rejection: Amblin approached Mars Inc. about using milk chocolate M&M's as E.T.'s earthly temptation of choice, but for some reason Mars decided that such product placement was beneath them. The most likely candidate is that Mars thought a cuddly kids' movie from a director who had yet to prove himself (with only Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Raiders Of The Lost Ark as evidence of his talent) would wind up a massive failure at the box office. You'd think they'd make the perfect coupling – a visitor from another planet eating Mars candy – but then again, what do I know.

The Result: Amblin partnered with Hershey's similarly-shaped Reese's Pieces instead, and within two weeks of E.T.'s massive success in U.S. theaters, sales for the bite-sized peanut butter candies either tripled or shot up by 65%, depending on who you talk to.

The Aftermath: Either way, M&M's surely could have used the sales boost. I wonder if they're happier with these guys as mascots, rather than E.T. himself.

Movie: Toy Story (1995)

The Players: Mattel, Disney/Pixar

Why The Rejection: Barbie was included in early drafts of the Toy Story script as a love interest for Woody (Tom Hanks). But Mattel nixed the idea, claiming that Barbie shouldn't have a "defined personality."

The Result: Score that as a big Whoops! for Mattel: Toy Story started a classic franchise, spearheaded a lucrative partnership between Disney and Pixar, and instantly became a toy retailer's dream – while Barbie watched it all happen, longingly, from the sidelines.

The Aftermath: When 1999's Toy Story 2 headed into production, Mattel was suddenly more than happy to lend Barbie's likeness to the new movie. She even had a speaking part – as Tour Guide Barbie! By the time TS3 rolled around, she'd officially become a part of the Pixar family, with Toy Story Barbie dolls lining Wal-Mart shelves ad nauseum. All hail the power of the almighty sequel.

Movie: Men In Black (1997)

The Players: Michael Jackson, Amblin Entertainment

Why The Rejection: For an early gag in which Agent J (Will Smith) sneaks a peek at a view screen showing extra-terrestrials disguised as A-list celebrities (including, among others, Dionne Warwick, George Lucas, and MIB executive producer Steven Spielberg), the King Of Pop refused to allow filmmakers the rights to use his image. Apparently audiences felt he was too much of an oddball to begin with, and Michael didn't need rumors insisting he was an alien circling that particular drain.

The Result: Men In Black became a worldwide hit, grossing nearly $590 million in ticket sales. It's a sci-fi/comedy with its tongue firmly in its cheek, from the jokes to the performances to the sly confirmation that, indeed, We Are Not Alone. Obviously all those taxi drivers, elementary school teachers, and celebrities aren't literally from other planets. We just like to think of them that way.

The Aftermath: Recognizing the error of his ways, Jackson shows up in a cameo for 2002's Men In Black II, as an operative jockeying to become an official agent of the MIB. So, you know - what goes around comes around.

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