Home > Uncategorized > Extratextuals’ 2007 Awards Extraordinaire, Pt. 1

Extratextuals’ 2007 Awards Extraordinaire, Pt. 1

January 9th, 2008 | Derek Johnson

Franchising, Merchandising, and Licensing: Sleekest and Weakest of the Geekest

2007 is over, and organizations like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science must now look back in judgment at a year’s worth of media production.  Unlike those august institutions, however, we here at The Extratextuals want to look for craftsmanship, innovation, and experimentation (and lack thereof!) not just in films and television programs themselves, but also in the networks of additional, extra texts that increasingly surround one another in our media-saturated experiences. 

So without further ado, we present to you our 2007 Awards Extraordinaire, highlighting the products and productions of the last year that demand recognition in our dense, overlapping, and cross-pollinated media landscape.  We’ll call attention to those that we think worked extremely well, but we’ll also point to some stinkers too—those that just didn’t seem to get it.  Of course, if you think we’ve got it all wrong, the real fun might happen in the comments section, where our picks can be interrogated, amended, and enhanced.  

To start off this series, we’ll explore Franchising, Merchandising, and Licensing.  A far cry from the austere nominees of the Golden Globes and Oscars, these are the categories in which the media industries and their creative personnel have worked tirelessly and without pause to extend intellectual properties to their maximum potential, multiplying them across product lines and across platforms.  As my terrible subtitle implies, these categories tend to involve appeals to those audiences (like myself) that will intensely follow properties from one market to another.  So for comics, toys, games, and other things you might expect to find in The Android’s Dungeon, read more below the fold…

One trouble with these categories is that because licensed merchandise based on popular franchises is generally designed for retail purchase AND multiplied across several markets, were I to try to experience as wide a range of these as I do television shows (which can be free) or movies (which as Jonathan knows, can also be free), I would quickly run out of money (and anger my wife!).  So I can’t have sampled everything—there were no “screener” copies available—and I invite you to please add your own picks for 2007 in the comments below. 

Best Comic Event or Crossover

Superhero comics have mastered the art of moving characters and storylines between one another to create an event that brings readers of one title to pick up new titles—so they get their own category for best event. 

Winner: Death of Captain America, Marvel Comics

While the death of Captain America was a single issue, it emerged served as one of many epilogues to the just concluded Civil War crossover.  But the fallout from killing that iconic character was so great as to generate a media event of its own, reported in venues from CNN to The Colbert Report; if only replicating a fraction of the media frenzy surrounding the death of Superman in the sales heydays of 1993, this death more successfully managed to keep Captain America interesting after the death of the title character. 

 Runner-Up: X-Men: Messiah Complex, Marvel Comics

This crossover also recalls the glory days of the 1990s when the X-Men characters could be relied upon to anchor Marvel’s biggest events, and the sheer quantity of X-Men books (sometimes up to 30 titles in a month) allowed for epic crossovers like The Age of Apocalypse.  In the last couple years, the X-Men comics have gone to the backburner at Marvel—in large part because the most popular characters have been trapped on Joss Whedon’s perennially delayed Astonishing X-Men, preventing their development in other titles.  But this event has put some juice back into the franchise, promising to take it in new directions while telling a rather efficient story without too much filler. 

Worst: Batman: The Resurrection of R’as Al Ghul, DC Comics

Despite being plotted by Grant Morrison, one of my favorite writers, this R’as Al Ghul story spends eight issues trying to make resurrection of a character known for his immortality seem suspenseful.  And then the gruesome tale ends with hot cocoa and a holiday message.  Just bring him back and get on with it already! 

Best Media Event or Crossover, Non-Comics

These entries are those outside of comics that make use of a particular media property to create an event that will pull audiences into new markets.  And this year, my top picks go to franchises that used special television events to drive DVD sales.

Runner-Up: Shrek the Halls, Dreamworks

Dreamworks really understood what it was doing with this holiday special.  Though George Lucas would rather we forgot the Star Wars Holiday Special of 1978, this event worked to keep Shrek in audiences’ minds even after the summer blockbuster season had become a distant memory.  While Dreamworks risked overextending the franchise, the special worked to keep Shrek a persistent, institutionalized fixture in the media landspace beyond bi- or tri-annual movie releases.  Moreover, the awareness-reaffirming special worked to cross-promote sales of the Shrek 3 DVD in a market losing steam. 

Winner: Battlestar Galactica: Razor

It has been revealed...By the time BSG’s fourth season premieres in April, it will have been 13 months since the last new episode.  For NBC-Universal home video, this meant that they had to choose between releasing that third season on DVD for Christmastime sales, or waiting to release it until the spring to help build awareness for the next season.  Instead, Universal developed a third option—make a new TV movie that can be rushed to DVD for Christmas, and then release the third season just before the fourth premieres.  Not only was this shrewd, but the TV movie was just what the doctor ordered to tide fans over between seasons.   Seeing Michele Forbes again as Admiral Cain in this flashback story was certainly a highlight, and I’m able to read her previous performances in a very interesting new light thanks to what we see here. 

Best DVD Presentation

With early adopters and their disposable incoming switching to HD formats—at prices still too high for me to validate with a nod here—and many consumers dialing back their DVD purchases, 2007 seemed to me to be a year of slim pickings in terms of the studios’ investment in special features and premium packaging for the crown jewels in their libraries.  More common were re-releases of titles in new, cheaper packaging. 

Winner: Blade Runner Five Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition

This is the clear pick for 2007, in the fine tradition of 2006’s Homicide Megaset filing cabinet and Planet of the Apes Ultimate Collection ape head.  Sure it won’t fit nicely on your shelf with the rest of your DVDs, but all five discs come handsomely packaged in a replica of Rick Deckhard’s own briefcase.  And it’s not just fancy repackaging: you get not only the director’s cut previously available, but the until now unavailable 1982 theatrical version (with the happy ending) and a new director’s cut, as well as all the usual behind the scenes features. 

Worst: James Bond Ultimate Collector’s Set

A most egregious example of repackaging to make a quick buck.  This set adds the newer Casino Royale to the four-volume 2005 Ultimate Edition sets that did not include it, but it just slaps all those old boxes inside a bigger outer box.  No real integration, and nothing new here—just harder to get to your discs. 

Best Soundtrack Album for a Series or Film

For decades the media industries have exploited the synergies between motion pictures and music through the soundtrack album.  Maybe I’m old fashioned to be talking about albums in this age of mp3s, but here are my picks for best tie-in album. 

Runner Up: Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, La La Land

While in the 1990s television programs like Star Trek and The X-Files experimented with tie-in albums featuring selections from their most well known musical cues, Battlestar Galactica has managed to develop an annual profit center out of its soundtrack albums, released season-by-season like a DVD.  Moreover, the music, in my opinion, kicks ass.  Composer Bear McCreary’s mix of musical styles from around the globe is truly unique on television.  I don’t know if the world really needs another “All Along the Watchtower” cover, but where else can you hear a didgeridoo, an electric guitar, and a Japanese taiko together?  

Winner: Juno, Rhino

This might seem like a strange pick given the dominance of big budget, sci-fi and action fare in the merchandising realm, and Juno is anything but a franchise picture, but I feel you have to be impressed by the way that film seems designed to move albums.  It’s not really my kind of music, but I have to admit being taken by it during the movie, and recognizing songs as “Juno songs” when I heard them in other venues afterwards.  If that’s not product identification and differentiation, I don’t know what is.   

Best Peripheral

It’s not just content being multiplied in our current media landscape, but also the technological devices that we use to interact with it—technologies often sold as parts of branded systems. 

Winner: Wii Zapper with Link’s Crossbow Training

next gen duck huntRemarkably affordable, this simple device serves as a way to arrange the standard Wii-mote and nunchucks players use for typical games.  It’s a new way to use devices you already own, which I really appreciate in an era of multiplying peripherals.  It’s really just Duck Hunt with better graphics, but this new Wii device was pretty fun too.  I felt like an old timer explaining to the high school relative I played with over Christmas that “in my day we didn’t get cross hairs on the screen, we just shot at the ducks!”, but by the end I was blasting away at 3D skeletons like a pro.   

Worst: iPod anything

I’ll get flamed for this, I’m sure.  But that’s ok—I need to vent.  As I shopped for an iPod, I became increasingly convinced that the device was nothing more than a way to move smaller, additional peripherals.  The wall charger isn’t included, and the screen seems to be coated with an extra-scratchable material that demands you buy an additional carrying case for it.  And don’t get me started about speaker docks—it took me forever to find the right device to let me use the thing with the speakers I already owned.  But I guess I’m just a luddite. 

Best Use of a Media License, Comics

Typically, licensed works are viewed with derision, as if companies only wish to move an inferior product by associating it with a property that has been successful elsewhere.  Comics are no exception—so which ones actually stood out?  I’ve recently talked about licensed comics, so I’ll be brief:

Runner-Up: Battlestar Galactica, Dynamite Entertainment

BSG gets another nod, if only for the sheer scope of Dynamite’s exploitation of the license.  No fewer than six different BSG titles were published last year, with four of those ongoing. 

 Winner: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Dark Horse

can you find joss whedon?Joss Whedon himself has taken the reins of the Buffy comic line, continuing the franchise beyond the seventh season finale we saw on television.  At times the pace of the narrative seems to drag compared to what the television show trained viewers to expect, but the art is great, and by year’s end the story appeared to be moving in a direction that would link it up with Whedon’s previous slayer-of-the-future Fray mini-series, bringing pieces of the franchise together in interesting ways. 

Worst: Star Trek, IDW Publishing

I read the first issue of the new title based on the original series, and was immediately put off.  It captured the episodic style of the 60s show well, but the kind of nostalgic storytelling it offered only works for me in reruns, not new stories.   I wanted to see Kirk and Spock in an epic, ongoing adventure more like I’m accustomed to in contemporary comics, not encountering a new creature or phenomenon of the week. 

Best Use of a Media License, Games

The game industry is a franchise-driven market, with sequels and media tie-in games topping the sales charts.  But despite selling well, licensed games are no more critically loved than licensed comics.  What games actually captured the flavor of the licenses they borrowed, while actually presenting interesting game play? 

Winner: Battlestar Galactica: Beyond the Red Line

I’d like to pick The Simpsons Game as a runner-up, as the promos and images I’ve seen (along with Jonathan’s previous blog entry) suggest that the developers didn’t just get the tone of the series correctly, but also used that tone to parody other game franchises.  Unfortunately, I haven’t played it yet.  And while Beyond the Red Line was made by fans, not an official license holder, I don’t think it’s quite cheating to pick it, since it’s technically a use of the license (just not an authorized one).  The fan developers have modified the flight simulator Free Space so that the player can now sit in the cockpit of a Colonial Viper, blasting Cylons out of the stars.  The 3D models and interfaces all appear like they do in the television series, and the controls are maddeningly realistic, with every aspect of the ship’s navigation at your control.  As a “nugget” training on the Battlestar Pegasus, you learn that these ships really do take talent to fly in three dimensional space.  Actually hitting a target is even harder, making success more satisfying.  Best part about the game: it’s free to download. 

Worst: Battlestar Galactica, Sierra Entertainment

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if Behind the Red Line wasn’t around to compare it to, but for all the access and authorization the developers of the Xbox online game had to the property, it fails to use the license as effectively.  Combat is in 2D, and death means nothing, as your ship just respawns where you left off.  Sure, there’s Cylons a plenty to shoot at, but it’s a disappointing in terms of feeling like a part of the BSG universe. 

Best Use of a Media License, Toys

The aisles of toy retailers have long been dominated by product with a short shelf life due to their dependence on seasonal blockbuster, but the best uses of licenses in 2007 were those that managed to sustain persistent product lines. 

Runner-Up: Titanium Series, Hasbro

Originally launched as a line of 3” die-cast replicas of ships from Star Wars, then expanded to include a smattering of ships from Battlestar Galactica, the Titanium line in 2007 expanded once again to include replicas of characters from Transformers and Spider-Man 3.  Instead of being tied to the success of any one property, Hasbro has developed a line of rather nice mass market toys that built on multiple licenses can survive the failure of any single franchise.

Winner: Mini-Mates, Diamond Select Toys

Great scott!Similarly, in the specialty market of direct sales, Diamond Select has created a toy franchise for itself that serves as an umbrella for several licenses.  Kind of like Lego-men, but with more detail and articulation, Mini-mates are fun, play-friendly versions of characters from Batman, X-men, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and new to 2007, Back to the Future, Rocky, and 24.  The line keeps expanding, with Silence of the Lambs (!) on track for 2008. 

Worst: Star Trek, Dynamite Entertainment

While one of my favorite items of 2007 was the 20th Anniversary Wrath of Khan USS Enterprise (it screams “Khaaaan!”), Dynamite has fundamentally mishandled this specialty market license.  Delays are a natural part of the direct market, and can be forgiven, but their attempt to exploit the Star Trek license consistently is hampered by a lack of consistency in their products.  When Captain Picard and Captain Kirk action figures are not in scale with one another, the lack of license unity makes it easier for collectors to resist the desire to buy everything.  I guess that could be a good thing.

Best Franchise of 2007

Here it is—my geek equivalent of the Oscar.  Which media property was most successfully exploited across modes of creativity, distribution, and consumption this past year? 

Runner-Up: Battlestar Galactica, NBC-Universal

You had to see this coming, given the nods above.  And yet, it’s a strange choice in a year in which so few episodes of the television show actually aired.  But I give the runner-up nod to Battlestar Galactica because, despite this absence from television, NBC Universal did a good job of maintaining its profile in the media landscape in general, coordinating not just a TV movie and DVD release to satiate fans during the wait, but also running a video-making contest for fans during the summer, releasing a series of new webisodes online, allowing Dynamite Entertainment to expand its comic book offerings, continuing to release soundtrack albums, and licensing the property to video game developers (despite my disappointment in the game that resulted).  Moreover, it is fan excitement for and interest in this franchise, even in the midst of a lull in the series’ production, which led to the unauthorized production of more enjoyable games like Beyond the Red Line.  For being mostly absent, BSG had a fracking good year. 

 Winner: Transformers, Paramount/Hasbro

More than meets the eyeBut while BSG used a wide range of media platforms to effectively sustain itself with its core audience in 2007, Transformers succeeded in using film, television, video games, toys, comics, and the Internet to bring tentpole popularity back to a long dormant franchise with only cult appeal.  I’ll admit that I’m pretty conflicted about a lot of what was done with the property this year; I wasn’t thrilled with some of the levity in the movie, and I thought that the character designs were a little overdone, but at the same time, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a chill the first time I saw the newfangled Optimus Prime speaking with the same voice I knew in childhood (the producers were absolutely right to secure old Peter Cullen in the role rather than cast a star like the Rock).  And I can’t tell you how much fun I had, when I stumbled onto the Target website from the official Transformers site, watching Flash demonstrations of the new Transformers toys changing from robot to car and back again, complete with sound effects.  For all the flaws, there’s some core mechanic to the franchise that has been recaptured.  With the Transformers also appearing in a special comic crossover with Marvel’s flagship superheroes The Avengers, it’s hard to deny that this was the year that the Transformers franchise staged a successful return to the center of popular fantasy. 

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  1. January 10th, 2008 at 08:02 | #1

    Like BSG much, Derek? ;-) Great offerings, and no flaming from my direction re: iPod peripherals scam. Just to supplement your list:

    Best DVD presentation: I also like the West Wing box set for looking like a portfolio … though it’s not as cool as a metal briefcase for sure.

    Best Use of a Media License, Toys: McFarlane’s Simpsons toys are quite brilliant too, from the Island of Dr. Hibbert set, to the Itchy and Scratchy on the moon, the Good Homer and Evil Homer, and the Homer in Hell. All excellent.

    Best Franchise: I get that Transformers was resurrected, and so for that, yes, kudos, but I think The Simpsons did some great stuff this year. Indeed, enough to resurrect my otherwise flagging interest in it

    great list, though, and thanks for getting the ball rolling here. Though no thanks for offering more ways to spend my remaining pennies ;-)

  2. January 10th, 2008 at 09:18 | #2

    This is a great post. You should get people digging it.

    In the TV+soundtrack/music category I would put in a word for Hannah Montana and High School Musical, both of which have taken old formats (especially in the case of Hannah, a straight-up 3-camera sitcom with goofy wordplay, physical comedy, overheard conversations, mistaken identity, etc.) and made them incredibly popular with merchandising, soundtracks, concerts, etc.

  3. Derek Johnson
    January 10th, 2008 at 10:51 | #3

    Thanks Mike–These are all excellenet additions. Especially High School Musical. That’s a horrible omission, and I feel ridiculous having left that off–not just in the music category, but in the best franchise overall category. Then again, given the steps I took to avoid seeing HSM in any of its forms (did you know they had a karaoke version) on the Disney Channel (which is actually pretty hard to do!), it’s not surprising I didn’t give it its due.

  4. January 10th, 2008 at 11:40 | #4

    Not just a karaoke version, but a dance along one too. And don’t play possum, Derek — I know you wake up each morning and sing to the mirror pretending you’re Zac Efron ;-)

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