Hanging in the Balance Sheet
A taxi drops two Canadians in front of the Bell Atlantic offices in Manhattan. “Your market is minutes,” the bald one, Jim Balsillie, tells the leadership of the telecommunications firm. “So your biggest competitor isn’t other cell phone companies, it’s home phones and office phones—those are free minutes, those are wasted minutes. So how do we get those minutes back?”
A black limo pulls up in front of the Frito-Lay factory in Rancho Cucamonga. “My people? They’re tired of the same old flavors,” a janitor named Richard Montañez tells the CEO. “See, I grew up with a lot of flavors, and I’ve been searching for that taste in everything I buy ever since.”
A white limo pulls up in front of Nike world headquarters in Oregon. A marketing executive, Sonny Vaccaro, beseeches Michael Jordan to sign an endorsement deal with his company, the only one that sees his true potential. “I’m gonna look you in the eyes, and I’m gonna tell you the future,” he says to the young basketball player, just months away from entering the NBA. “You’re gonna change the fucking world.”
But before you can change the fucking world with a shoe, you’ve got to bring that shoe to market. Hence the requisite pitch meeting, a critical juncture in the journey from idea to commodity, and the signature feature of an emergent genre: movies about consumer products. It’s the latest outgrowth of Hollywood’s abiding infatuation with existing intellectual property, spurred and sustained by the box office success of films about superheroes and toys. Horror flicks, romantic comedies, courtroom dramas: these are the sorts of mid-budget movies that once formed the foundation of every studio’s release calendar, bridging the months between Oscar season and summer blockbusters—that is, until they were decimated by sprawling franchises. Now, the likes of Air, BlackBerry, and Flamin’ Hot are reanimating the category, fusing the sensibility of the old, mid-budget model with the pervasive ethos of IP.
Though this year’s product films are more intellectually engaging than, say, Top Gun: Maverick or Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One, that makes them no less symptomatic of the anti-creative pestilence that has seized Hollywood. The hotshots of Beverly Hills seem convinced that, since hundreds of millions of people have spent their hard-earned money on sneakers, snacks, and smartphones, a large portion of them must also be interested in learning how their consumer preferences came into being, particularly those whose purchases are part and parcel of their identity.
Unfortunately, for all the bounty of potential source material that consumer capitalism has left us with, the strictures of corporate life mean that there’s little variety in the origin stories of salable items. Whether the product was introduced by a shoestrings startup or percolated through the mid-level management of a conglomerate, at some point the guy with the idea has to meet with the guy who has the power to bring it to market.
Enter: the pitch meeting, the nascent genre’s mandatory climax. However integral to each product’s genealogy, the outcome of the pitch is a foregone conclusion. There are no narrative stakes, and without those the emotional stakes wither—the films become as lifeless as the products they’re about, particularly once the conversation inevitably turns to market share. Why does Nike need Jordan? To catch up with Adidas and Converse. Why does Frito-Lay need a spicy Cheeto? To edge out Eagle Brands. The particular worries each idea man brought with them into their pitch meeting is beside the point. Eventually, everybody in the room ended up stinking rich.
In the opening minutes of Air, director Ben Affleck lays out the terms of the drama that is about to unfold with a series of title cards:
Basketball Sneaker Market Share
The camera lingers on the corporate headquarters of each company, the number of periods between brand name and percentage on the title card calibrated to the gap between that company and dominance over its rivals. “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes plays. After Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro enters the Nike office, the camera cuts to a poster touting the Mondale-Ferraro presidential ticket and then a Doonesbury comic strip. It is, lest you forget, the 1980s.
What unfolds over the course of the next one hundred-odd minutes is a succession of tedious meetings, mostly between Vaccaro and Nike CEO Phil Knight, as played by Affleck himself. In the 1980s, Nike mostly sold running shoes but was still being outpaced by the competition. When Vaccaro goes into Knight’s office to ask for a bigger budget with which to sign new NBA draftees to endorsement deals, Knight snaps, “Sonny, we had an annual loss. I had to lay off a quarter of the fucking company, okay?” His implication is that the basketball division might be next.
The corporate squabbling continues, variously soundtracked by “In a Big Country,” ZZ Top, and Chaka Kahn’s “Ain’t Nobody,” that last of which plays as Vaccaro storms out of Knight’s office after another meeting, in which he’s reprimanded for circumventing Michael Jordan’s agent. “I don’t know how much more emphatically I can say this,” Vaccaro snarls at Knight, “if we don’t make this deal, I don’t know what my place is at this company.” Cut to a Ghostbusters bumper sticker, then to someone playing with a handheld, proto-Gameboy called the Electronic Quarterback.
Pop culture suffuses Air, so much so that it seems as much a subject of the film as Vaccaro’s quest to sign Michael Jordan. It’s as if Affleck, recognizing the lack of any real drama in a film about a soon to be megalithic shoe company convincing the man who became the most famous athlete of his era to endorse the eventual best-selling sneaker of all time, resolved to simply drown all the clunky dialogue in Gen X nostalgia. The result is an airless period piece that plays like brown-nosing corporate propaganda—when Knight is first introduced, it’s not by his name but as “Shoe Dog,” the title of his memoir; before the end credits, a where-are-they-now title card announces, “Phil Knight has donated over $2 billion to charity.”
Eva Longoria’s biopic of the man who probably didn’t invent spicy Cheetos, Flamin’ Hot, is less invested in pop culture touchstones than it is in finding an empowering social justice angle on the snack business. At the start, a young Richard Montañez gets arrested for trying to buy candy with the money he earned selling his mom’s burritos in school, since the white cop refuses to believe a Mexican kid could possibly have that much cash without having stolen it. Jesse Garcia, who plays the adult Montañez, grouses in a voice-over: “When the world treats you like a criminal, you become one.” The next shot is of a teenage Montañez running from the cops with a turntable under his arm past a tagged-up wall in Los Angeles that helpfully points out that it is now 1974.
“Back then, la policia believed they had the right to beat your ass in the street if your name was Gonzalez or Martinez,” the voice-over continues over documentary footage from the Chicano Moratorium, an anti-Vietnam demonstration on August 29, 1970, that saw tens of thousands of Mexican Americans march through East Los Angeles. Hundreds of demonstrators were beaten by sheriff’s deputies during the march, and three people died, including the Los Angeles Times journalist Rubén Salazar, who was standing inside a bar when a deputy fired a tear gas canister through a window. It passed straight through his brain.
The moratorium protest was a watershed moment of the Chicano movement, an indelible event that demonstrated the refusal of white authorities to treat Mexican Americans as citizens with equal rights. In Longoria’s hands, activist calls for self-reliance and cultural pride are corrupted into a signifier of the aspiration of Mexicans to join the American mainstream. Our protagonist gets his chance when he leaves his old running crew behind and talks his way into a job at the local Frito-Lay factory. As he is guided through the facility, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos pouring through tumblers and being bagged off conveyer belts, Montañez narrates, “This moreno was finally part of something—something big.”
Once Montañez joins the potato chip giant, albeit as a janitor, the corporate drama can begin its rote choreography. “The snack wars were getting serious,” Montañez narrates. “Competition was thick, and market share was shrinking.” To her credit, Longoria opts to play all this dull maneuvering over market dominance for a few laughs rather than indulge in Affleck’s self-serious approach. There’s an imagined scene inside the boardroom at Frito-Lay’s parent company, PepsiCo, in which CEO Roger Enrico goes full-bore cholo. “You pendejos are out here telling me these little punks like Nabisco and Eagle Snacks are getting more feria than us?” While Garcia speaks, Tony Shalhoub’s Enrico lip-syncs and mean-mugs, capering in front of inauspicious sales graphs. “Biting off our territory, and yous estúpidos okay with that?”
The breakthrough comes when Enrico releases a video to the whole company, asking every employee to “think like a CEO.” Watching it in the factory’s cafeteria, Montañez is inspired to grab his bootstraps. He works with his wife to come up with a recipe for a spicy seasoning mix to put on Cheetos and places a direct call to Enrico in his corner office. After the executive tries Montañez’s new formulation, he agrees to visit Rancho Cucamonga and entertain his pitch for a new product line.
After stumbling through his attempt to talk like an MBA, Montañez changes tack. “You know what? I don’t know what market share is because I don’t sit up in no corporate office wearing a suit. Like I’m down here, with mi gente. And here’s what I know about ‘em. They’re looking for themselves on those shelves. They want to know that the food they eat at home is valued by you, that we matter.” Enrico smiles, leaning forward. He is a powerful white guy pleased to hear a Chicano tell him that minorities don’t want liberation from an oppressive society; they just want to feel seen.
“I want to know that I matter when I pick up one of our products. To you. To this company. To the world!” Montañez cries. It turns out that he has been involved in El Movimiento all along, campaigning relentlessly for the right to snack.
Air and Flamin’ Hot were both borne of the Hollywood mainstream, made to be streamable on Amazon and Hulu, respectively. By contrast, Matt Johnson put together BlackBerry for $5 million and distributed it through IFC Films. Perhaps for that reason, BlackBerry has a harder edge than the other films of its ilk: instead of showcasing a familiar product’s rise to glory, it charts the full evolution of Research in Motion (later BlackBerry Limited) from startup to powerhouse to also-ran in the competition for market share.
The film begins in 1996, when Research in Motion operated out of a storefront in Waterloo, Ontario. Employees played Warcraft over a LAN network and watched Raiders of the Lost Ark on a dinky projector, early devotees of both the video game series that would hit the big screen in 2016 and the Harrison Ford-helmed franchise, the fifth installment of which has raked in over $350 million this summer. Despite the good vibes, one of the founders, Mike Lazaridis (played by Jay Baruchel), is struggling to get paid by U.S. Robotics for some servers he had to take out a $1.6 million loan in order to build. Glenn Howerton’s Jim comes on board and uses his Harvard Business School machismo to get the company on track—in Mike’s mind, the company needs a “shark” if it will ever compete with the “pirates” of the market.
BlackBerry is shot in the corporate thriller style of Margin Call or Rogue Trader: shaky camera, close-ups that shift focus depending on who is speaking, everything tinted a faint blue. But like its contemporary peers, the film possesses a whiff of documentary. As the story jumps from Research in Motion’s original pitch for the BlackBerry to 2003, when it had become synonymous with the nascent smartphone category, a montage rolls that includes Oprah gushing to a violently enthusiastic audience that the BlackBerry “sends and receives email messages; it is also a cell phone!” Since this is information every viewer surely already knows, the old footage only serves to confirm for the viewer that what they’re witnessing is familiar IP, only drawn from reality instead of a comic book.
Once BlackBerry becomes a publicly traded concern, the film’s plot falls in line with Flamin’ Hot and Air. Research in Motion’s battle to maintain its market share opens with the CEO of U.S. Robotics flying to Waterloo. Over lunch with Jim and Mike, he pulls out a Palm Pilot and begins diddling on the sickly green screen with his stylus. “Okay, let’s see what you closed at. $4.50—oh God, is that Canadian?” He brags that his company’s market cap is $45 billion. “So what would happen if I just, I don’t know, bought up all your shares? What’s the word for that again, sport? Hostile takeover?” Jim and Mike throw themselves into a frenzied campaign to jack up their stock price and avert the takeover; as in the other films, these tiresome corporate machinations supersede the human drama of Mike’s deteriorating friendship with his cofounder, Doug Fregin.
While it’s certainly feasible to craft a compelling film around financial maneuvering (see Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover, wherein a rivalry between online Hentai distributors morphs into a chilling evocation of the savagery that lurks behind the intertwining impulses of lust and greed), this becomes all but impossible when the outcome of those moves is already known. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon screaming at each other about P&L statements is a meaningless exercise on the way to Nike’s supremacy, just as BlackBerry’s campaign to stop a forced merger into Palm is hard to wring much emotion out of, given the starker peril the viewer knows is looming on the horizon: the iPhone. When Steve Jobs unveils it in 2007, Mike looks down at his BlackBerry and murmurs, “Why would anybody want a phone without a keyboard?”
In dramatic terms, the BlackBerry’s failure has the same valance as the Air Jordan’s triumph or the incorporation of spice into the American palate. Whatever IP each movie attempts to dramatize, the real story is about the irrepressible power of the market, and transforming its animal spirits into a feature-length narrative requires more than a little embellishment. Richard Montañez, for example, was not the inventor of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto: that honor goes to a white junior executive named Lynne Greenfeld, who Frito-Lay credits with coming up with the name and the concept as a way to beat back a challenge from regional brands in the Midwest. While Montañez did rise from mopping floors in Rancho Cucamonga to the corporate suite, his first marketing gig came years after the introduction of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, when he began hocking Sabrositas across Southern California.
Perhaps Eva Longoria should’ve made up a product for the hero of her assimilationist snacking epic to invent. But who would watch a movie about a dude coming up with a random corn puff? Same for a made-up shoe tailored to a made-up athlete, or a fictional smart phone. Without the brand name, none of these movies would get the green light. This is the tyranny of IP, filtering down from the loftier reaches of the box office to strangle movies of ambition greater than their modest means, even to the extent that it has bewitched talented independent filmmakers like Johnson and Greta Gerwig, who, having successfully rebranded Barbie as a feminist icon, is now at work on a reboot of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Tetris, The Beanie Bubble, Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story—the era of the product movie may only be dawning. The desire of the studios to replace old, human-scale mid-budget movies with these sorts of stories adheres to twenty-first-century corporate logic, in which social media users are understood not as people, but marketing profiles. What’s more troubling is the willingness of filmmakers to accept that, whatever they’re actually interested in making a movie about, they ought to find a way to tell their story through a product. Worst of all is the apparent acceptance of viewers that there is any greater meaning in the decision to use a BlackBerry instead of a Palm Pilot.
No less an influencer than the president of the United States has now endorsed the view that products are a mirror to the soul. This summer, Eva Longoria was invited to the White House to hold a private screening of Flamin’ Hot for the first family. “Richard helped change the way companies think about Latino customers, helped establish that this community and the economic power it holds deserve to be taken seriously,” Jill Biden gushed at the beginning of the event. “We are millions of individuals who add up to something so much bigger than any one of us.” That’s right: a market.