There was a time when biopics were reserved for the most iconic individuals in history. Those who made a global impact through politics, art, war and culture.
However there is an emerging trend of Hollywood biopics focused on either the creators of a consumable product, or in some cases, the product itself. A capitalist-IP trend of sorts.
Amadeus Mozart, Frida, Gandhi, Malcom X and Jackie Onassis have been replaced by Air Jordan, Blackberry, Apple, Tetris and Facebook. Products and their creators who have in their own ways, not only changed and shaped culture, but made their impact on history for all time.
At times exposing the cost of genius or ambition such as Fincher’s masterpiece The Social Network (2010) or Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015) starring Michael Fassbender, at times shining a light on an unknown individual who played a key role such as Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro in Air (2023) or the unknown, wild espionage story behind the release of Tetris (2023).
All of these films have, at different levels, been somewhat liberal with the truth, but the appetite of audiences to know the story behind the products they use and consume on a daily basis is clearly present. But what ingredients fuel that appetite?
We’ve already seen the power of nostalgia through the likes of Top Gun Maverick and Stranger Things the last few years, but audience’s continual yearning for the comfort and familiarity of more simple times is easily associated with products and ads from their youth.
Pepsi, Where’s My Jet (2022) the incredible true David vs Goliath story of one man vs Pepsico is a documentary rather than a biopic, but the emotions evoked are the same as those stimulated by Air or Tetris, igniting (for slightly older audiences) fond memories and shared experiences, and for new audiences creating new connections with iconic products.
At the heart of these stories lives a human story, giving context, emotional weight and human stakes to what are otherwise inanimate products.
How do you make someone care about a social network platform? Or the first Mac? How do you make a brand as enormous as Nike feel like an underdog? You focus on the individuals involved, and join them on the journey, understanding how timing, luck and hard work can play their parts in different moments. After all, we all know how things turn out, we all wear the sneakers and have an iPhone in our pockets, but these films focus on the journey above the destination.
Or perhaps more specifically, the business of entertainment. All of the films referenced here feature some of the biggest directors and stars working today. Industry awards love actors playing real people, since 2010 for example, eight of the last thirteen best actor Oscar winners have been roles based on real people.
For the brands at play, these are opportunities to reconnect with existing audiences and connect with new ones. Studios get to leverage the established brand recognition and built-in marketing opportunities.
And the audiences get to experience informative, entertaining storytelling, with world class talent that explores the worlds of a product they are already connected to, or are keen to create a connection with.
In the (paraphrased) words of actor and marketeer Ryan Reynolds, no one gives a shit if you are selling to them if you don’t pretend you’re not. Entertain them. Make the product a protagonist in the story you are telling, but ensure it has value and a reason for being.
With that in mind and taking it one step further and out of the realms of the story behind the product, we’ve also seen the power of product and IP centric films with the likes of The Lego Movie (2014) and Super Mario (2023), with the product literally playing the starring role in the narrative, soon to be explored again with The Barbie Movie (2023).
Product placement and entertainment
Truth is stranger than fiction, and with nostalgia showing no signs of letting up as a cinematic draw, we should continue to see Hollywood (and its stars) produce stories that explore the products and the people behind them for years to come.
And with live action films for products such as Hot Wheels, Polly Pocket, Monopoly and, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, we have a fair few years left of watching corporate narratives be reimagined as contemporary storytelling.
This piece was originally published by Brandingmag and was written by Alex Wilson.