Jul 06,2007 00:00
There are certain combinations of words that pose an especially high risk of inducing hives, tremors or shortness of breath. "IRS audit" is one. "Starring Madonna" is another.
But it's entirely possible that the most frightening phrase in the English language is this: "Based on."
That's the actual title of a show coming soon to New York, inspired not by TV's "American Idol" nor even by a winner of "American Idol," but by the gooey affection for a long-ago "Idol" loser.
Nothing against the saintly Aiken, but lately the entertainment biz has seemed engaged in a competition to see who can contrive the most unlikely, esoteric or plain insane pretext for a movie or play or TV show.
Enter "Transformers," the blockbuster action film. It's based on a toy - a line of plastic robots dating from the mid-'80s. With Shia LaBeouf, the new film is only the latest incarnation of the incredibly popular toy robots. It has been a hit cartoon series and even a 1986 movie.
Despite its inauspicious inspiration, the $150 million "Transformers" has a good shot at becoming a huge hit. And that should put it in good company with other works of dubious origins.
"Pirates of the Caribbean," based on a ride, sailed into blockbuster territory with Johnny Depp at the helm. The movie trilogy, has made more than $1 billion in the U.S. alone.
The musical "Mamma Mia!," cobbled around a bunch of random ABBA songs, has earned twice that amount worldwide. And "You've Got Mail" became the 62nd-highest-grossing film of 1999, even though it consisted of nothing but an AOL e-mail announcement repeated continuously for 119 minutes. (At least so far as we can recall).
Of course, enterprising creative types just keep testing the limits of inspiration: Now in the works is a TV show based on the cave man characters from GEICO's insurance commercials. ABC is banking that viewers who loved the commercials will like a sitcom based on the characters.
"Could a television show on the AFLAC Duck be far behind?" asks Kirk Olson, a New York-based consumer strategist for the Iconoculture agency and a guy who ought to copyright the AFLAC idea while there's time.
There are a couple of good reasons for such strange inspirations. One goes something like this: "Hollywood - Out of Ideas!" But another is the fact that piggybacking on an existing character or toy or kitchen implement is just good for business.
"The cost of making and marketing TV shows and movies is so high," says Kim Gregson, who teaches media at Ithaca College in New York. "And there's so much clutter out there, you have to have some kind of built-in hook."
The barbs on that hook, says Olson, are those things a consumer brings to the subject at hand - fondness or nostalgia or even some vague knowledge that helps transform a gimmick into (ideally) some kind of narrative.
"These are all brands and characters that are created at a corporate level, but they're also brands that each consumer interacts with in an individual way," he says. "The consumer is able to come to the story that's being told onscreen, and tell their own stories."
Those factors, of course, don't quite explain such curiosities as the 1996 film "Feeling Minnesota," which takes its title from a single lyric in the Soundgarden song "Outshined."
In comparison, "Transformers" is a juggernaut of a brand. Not only was it a huge-selling toy, but it was a hit cartoon series and was even made into a movie once before, in 1986. At this point, as inspiration for a motion picture, it seems a little pedestrian. It needs a new twist, something that will make building a film around a toy seem as conventional as basing one on Shakespeare, or even a comic book.Something like: "An Idol's Idol: A New Musical Based on Clay Aiken's Worship for the Transformers." There's a show we'd get in line for, unless it's been done already.