Brand Hollywood: Selling Entertainment in a Global Media Age

Paul Grainge,
Brand Hollywood: Selling Entertainment in a Global Media Age.
London & New York: Routledge, 2008.
ISBN: 978-0-415-35405-9
US$34.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Routledge)

The brand is the new black. It is related to that last-millenium term synergy, but not simply reducible to synergy. The brand can refer to both the company and the way that companies are distilled into an image with broad social currency. A media text can be a brand; a company’s catalogue can be a brand, a director, star or a fictional character can be a brand. We hear the call not just from Motion Picture Association of America representatives, but also from politicians, and even in our own staff meetings: We must protect our brand! Paul Grainge’s Brand Hollywood is an important addition to the literature of contemporary industrial history given that branding has emerged as a potent buzzword and business strategy which no media scholar can ignore. It gains its force from a multitude of ideas. Foremost among these is the notion that when the social world contains such a plethora of commodities, a constellation of signs function to provide an on-going source of meaning around this flux of texts and the movement of those texts through a series of platforms and international markets. For media producers, potentially adrift in a brave new world of fragmented audiences and multiple media platforms, the brand is the rock on which related business activities and media products find their semiotic coherence and strategic unity.

The immediate import of this for film studies is to stage another attack upon textual analysis of individual films as the basis of the discipline. Grainge invokes Charles Acland as a major influence, particularly the idea that media marketing activities are on-going rather than being tied to specific media texts, which now migrate across media platforms as readily as they move across borders into new cultural formations in what Grainge refers to as “a new gestalt of total entertainment” (p. 14). Theatrical feature film is at best a launching pad after which intellectual property moves through a series of ancillary releases (dvd, pay tv) and into other media forms (video games, websites) and non-media forms (theme parks, merchandising).

One of the problems with which Grainge must grapple is that his central term is one of those broad capacious concepts to which film studies has periodically been drawn. (In writing of the Soviet montage period, the answer to every question was montage, but the term was used by different writers to refer to a host of different things. Closer to our own time, the term post-modernism has fulfilled a similar function.) The term brand hovers over this book, providing it with a broad, though rather abstract unity. It can refer to corporate trademarks, the companies they symbolise, the blockbuster franchises which reside close to the financial hearts of those companies, the stars who appear in those franchises. It is at the heart of distribution, exhibition and distribution. There is a will-to-brand, just as there are brand worlds, brand capital, brand signatures, and anchor brands.

Grainge, from the University of Nottingham, is at pains to remedy the abstract spaciousness of his central concept by signalling a strong structure in his analysis. His Introduction is exemplary in its organisation. It makes claims for the importance of its topic, delimits and focuses its concerns through reviewing the literature in the field, lays outs specific research questions and then foregrounds its structuring interest in the “practices, poetics and politics of branding” (p. 8) a nifty alliterative device which sets up each of the book’s subsequent three parts. He takes a good deal of time positioning and re-positioning his topic in relation to the academic literature, given that the reference to existing authority is perhaps the primary form of argumentation in this project, particularly in the first section on practices. There’s not a lot of primary research here as Grainge’s strong suit is the overview summation of the large scale direction of media conglomerates, buttressed by reference to expert opinion.

As I’ve already indicated, his interest is not in textual analysis of films either. Despite the invocation of Baz Luhrmann’s Chanel No. 5 ad, Grainge conscientiously remains outside the texts, concerned with what they represent for the brand, rather than for what they might mean in a more conventional sense. The second part of the book, on the ‘poetics’ of branding presents the most serious methodological challenge on this front. Given that he is committed to the idea that brands exist above and between individual texts rather than inside them, the closest Grainge can come to textual analysis is to skirt around the front edge of movies, looking at changes in the styles of the logos through which Warner Bros. and Dolby have identified themselves and their products and services.

Part 3 on the ‘politics’ of branding, or more simply on the ways in which it impacts on the production, distribution and exhibition of films in contemporary cinema is the strongest part of the book. The three chapters here are organised around the loose unity of Time-Warner’s re-emergence as both a vertically integrated Hollywood company and a global conglomerate with interests across a range of media forms. Space Jam (USA 1966) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (Germany/USA 2003) provide evidence of branding activities at the site of production. Grainge reads the films as attempts to reactivate the brand potential of Warner’s animation library in crucially different ways dependent on the internal priorities of the parent conglomerate. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises are analysed for the variety of ways they were cultivated as competing brands within their corporate base. The exhibition activities badged with the name of Warner Cinemas in Portsmouth and Nottingham provide an instance of the negotiation between the local and the overarching global phenomenon of the shopping mall megaplex.

If one were describe the territory in which Grainge’s writing is situated, I’d venture that he is trying to translate the concerns of industrial historians into the language of cultural studies. Film history generally involves a mixture of the specific and the generalised conclusion. This book is much more oriented toward the latter, trying to make sense out of the large social moment of contemporary capitalist practice. The move to make cultural sense of the business activities of Hollywood companies is certainly a welcome advance over the assumption that capitalism sustained itself largely (or even completely) through ideology. Grainge is at pains to stress that his primary aim is to be descriptive of strategies and practices in the contemporary mediascape, rather than to be judgementally evaluative. He has provided a valuable overview of a film industry evolving away from a concentration on film. As film studies grapples with a similar challenge, many of us will have uses for the kinds of analysis he marks out here.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, Australia.

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →