by Greg Carlson
Many employees of media companies, movie theaters, and retail outlets carrying film and home entertainment-based products can get through the workday knowing they will always have one fringe benefit: several free promotional items sent over to hype an upcoming theatrical or DVD release. Free passes to movie screenings are great and all, but it’s the physical objects placed on the “free stuff” table that piques major interest, with employees hoping that they will be in possession of some unique and exclusive collectibles resembling the inventory of Corky St. Clair’s memorabilia shop at the end of Waiting For Guffman. There’s always that chance, however, that the promotional materials will be tied to a box-office bomb or a forgotten/barely released film, and you’re left with a hoodie, mouse pad, shot glass, etc., that will elicit blank stares and confusion from your friends. Meanwhile, figurines of characters from unsuccessful “potential franchise” films get shipped back to the toy companies, with only the optimistic collectors hanging onto the unopened packages in the hopes to flip them online.
If the flop in question is a remake of a classic film (a common scenario, unfortunately), it’s possible to salvage the promotional item by passing it off as being related to the original. I applied this collectible fail-safe to the baseball cap I received in conjunction with the 2005 remake of The Bad News Bears. The film’s producers and marketing department had the good sense to keep the same yellow color scheme and logotype used in the original 1976 film, resulting in instant recognition from movie and sports fans alike. Having re-watched the remake, the only good things I can say are that director Richard Linklater evokes the gritty aura of ‘70s comedy/drama films with the cinematography, and several set-pieces are infused with his signature Texas vibe, even though the film is set in Southern California. Plus, gratuitous skate-punk band aside, the music is pure Linklater, with his beloved ‘70s classic rock tunes inserted into the few and far between (and sanitized) politically incorrect scenes.
2011’s The Green Hornet wasn’t a high-profile disaster, nor was it an underrated classic; it was just forgettable and had the potential to be an entertaining second-tier superhero film. The screenwriting team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have since proven themselves to be capable and popular scribes of post-Judd Apatow stoner comedy, but for their third screenwriting assignment, they struggle to find balance on that tightrope act known as the action-comedy genre. Although director Michel Gondry’s visual trademarks show up throughout the film, Where’s Waldo style, he’s pretty much in work-for-hire mode. The local comic book store had a generous Green Hornet swag pile, and I acquired a keychain light that flashes the Hornet-Signal. It’s a fun accessory to show off, and a unique alternative to using a mobile phone for light. I also acquired a Kato mask, which can be repurposed for several Halloween costume ideas: Bruce Lee as Kato from the TV series, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, Westley from The Princess Bride, or one of the Crazy 88s. Speaking of Quentin Tarantino…
Back in early 2007, Grindhouse sounded like, at the very least, a modest cult hit that would live on via late-night screenings. If Tarantino could successfully bring a ‘70s martial arts pastiche to the multiplex with the Kill Bill films, surely he and Robert Rodriguez could do the same with a three-hour homage to cheap exploitation films. Apparently, hindsight is only 20/20. Had I known that Grindhouse’s reign at the theaters would be short-lived, I would have stocked up on the promotional shirts at Hot Topic in advance. Fortunately, I was able to acquire something better than babydoll clothing at one of those cookie-cutter Times Square souvenir shops: a Stuntman Mike bobblehead.
The lead villain from Tarantino’s Death Proof segment of Grindhouse sticks out on my bobblehead display shelf like the bad teen posing for a high school photo. Defiant posture, hair sculpted perfectly, and, surprisingly for this type of figurine, cigarette stuck in his mouth. Despite the impressive attention to detail, several of my film buff friends initially thought it was a Snake Plissken or Jack Burton bobblehead. It was disconcerting at first, but then I came to accept that my Stuntman Mike bobblehead isn’t just a promotional item for an unsuccessful film; it represents Kurt Russell’s legacy of playing iconic anti-heroes and badasses that continues to grow, with his best-known collaborator John Carpenter reaching auteur director status and an upcoming role in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, playing (spoiler) Star-Lord’s father who’s in the form of a sentient planet. Talk about playing the “heavy.”
While it’s easy to pull out the mobile device and judge free movie swag by its pre-release buzz, there’s always that chance of said swag’s pop-culture status evolving over time. Even if a film doesn’t find an audience or is critically lambasted, there will always be a group of fans and apologists who would love to be in possession of a related trinket or two. One cinephile’s Men in Black memory wipe ballpoint pen is another cinephile’s Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights T-shirt.
Greg Carlson is a film fan and memorabilia hunter who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. His top three films are (in random order): Time Bandits, Repo Man, and Taxi Driver. For more pop-culture musings, follow him on Instagram at gregario72.