Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The A-List of Pop Culture

In a recent article entitled "Iron Man Builds, Speed Racer Burns" published on Box Office Mojo, Brandon Gray expressed his theories as to why the movie Speed Racer failed at the box office. He thought that part of the reason that Speed Racer bombed was that it "..wasn't as culturally prominent as Scooby-Doo or The Flintstones.." He observed that "..the less popular brands of similar vintage have typically translated into box office failure..," using Thunderbirds and Josie and the Pussycats as examples. In discussing the article with me, my best friend summed it up quite simply as Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones belong to the A-list of pop culture, while Josie and the Pussycats belong to the B-List of pop culture, at best.

The term "A-List" has long been used of the most popular, most successful movie stars, those whose credit on a theatre marquee nearly always means instant box office, but I think my best friend's analogy is perfectly on the mark. Quite simply, I think we can speak of an A-List of pop culture. The A-List of pop culture would consist of those TV series, comic books, comic strips, characters, and so on whose presence in a movie title generally means success at the box office. These TV series, comic books, comic strips, characters, and so on that belong on the A-List would be those of which nearly everyone knows. Quite simply, they would be part of the collective consciousness of the English speaking world.

Examples of pop culture artefacts that would belong on the A-list are not hard to find. Comic book characters such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man would obviously be on the list, as would such literary characters as Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan. TV series that would belong on the list would be I Love Lucy, Gilligan's Island, and the original Star Trek. The A-List would include such cartoons as the aforementioned Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones, as well as such cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and so on. Unlike the A-List of movie stars, the A-List of pop culture would be a long one, as it would include every pop culture artefact that is known to nearly everyone.

Of course, the A-list of pop culture would not be static and it would tend to change over time. Some pop culture artefacts would drop off the list as their popularity declined, while others might be added. The comic strip Red Ryder might well have made the A-List of pop culture in the Forties, but now I suspect the name is familiar only to fans of the movie A Christmas Story and fans of vintage comic strips. In 1969 Scooby-Doo was probably only known to a few children at best. Nearly forty years later everyone has heard of the cartoon franchise. The A-List of pop culture will naturally change over time, as things increase or decrease in popularity.

Here I must point out that simply because a property is on the A-list of pop culture does not automatically mean that any movie based on it will become a roaring success. Superman definitely belongs on the A-list of pop culture, yet Superman III and Superman IV both bombed at the box office. For that matter, Superman Returns did not do as well as one might expect for a Superman movie. Another example of an A-List character whose film translated into failure is the Lone Ranger. Released in 1981, The Legend of the Lone Ranger died at the box office. There are a number of factors that determine a movie's success or failure at the box office, and simply being on the A-List won't automatically guarantee success the box office, especially when it comes to bad movies.

At the same time, simply because a property belongs to the B-List or even C-List of pop culture does not mean that any film based upon it will bomb. An example of this is the recent hit Iron Man. Prior to the movie Iron Man was a character that probably only comic book readers had ever heard of. He was probably unknown to the general public. That having been said, the movie had some very effective trailers and received largely glowing reviews upon its release. Although based on a B-list character, the movie Iron Man was a hit at the box office because it was a very good movie. Another example of a B-List property which was translated into a hit movie was Transformers. Prior to the film I rather suspect the only people who had heard of Transformers were men between the ages of 30 and 25 who had played with the toys and watched the cartoons as children. It seems to me that if the movie Transformers had only depended upon the cultural prominence of the toys or cartoons for its success, it would then have failed miserably at the box office. Fortunately for the film, director Michael Bay created the perfect popcorn movie for the late summer--a huge special effects film in which giant robots engage in a running battle between the Hoover Dam and Los Angles. The film clicked with audiences and as a result it was a success.

Ultimately, I think that considering whether properties belong on the A-List could actually be useful in considering the potential success of a film. In many respects, this is something we already do. From Josie and the Pussycats to Tranformers, pundits have considered whether a property has enough name recognition to make it a success as a film. To me this is simply another way of considering whether they are on the A-List.


poppedculture said...

You'll shoot your eye out.

Jim Marquis said...

Very interesting piece. Trying to capitalize on the public's sentimentality is a very tricky business.

RC said...

very good points in deed. i like the termenology.

and it means that when Iron Man (B-list for sure) is a huge success that something tremendously wonderful was done right.