Business on the Big Screen

Cinema & Media Studies’ Kathleen DeMarco Van Cleve on the spate of recent movies about everything from sneakers to snack foods—and of course, the doll with the dream house.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

By Susan Alhborn

This year has seen the release of a cluster of movies focusing on the business of businesses: Air, about how Nike worked out its partnership with Michael Jordan; Blackberry, showing the rise and fall of the once-ubiquitous personal accessory; Flamin’ Hot, about the Frito Lay janitor who created Flamin’ Hot Cheetos; The Beanie Bubble, a look at the creation of one of history’s biggest toy crazes (starring Elizabeth Banks, C’96), and most recently, Dumb Money, the story of how a group of amateur investors made GameStop into the world’s hottest company.

(Image: ©Mattel, Inc.)

Then there are the business movies that aren’t about business but that are good for business, those based on brands or products like Dungeons and Dragons, Super Mario Brothers, Oregon Trail, and of course, Barbie, whose movie reigned over the box office like the giant Barbie looming over the little girls with baby dolls at the start of the film.

Kathleen DeMarco Van Cleve, C’88, W’88, senior lecturer in English and Cinema & Media Studies, is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and film producer. For many years, she was the creative partner of actor and writer John Leguizamo, during which time she produced films including Joe the King, winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival. She has taught the popular course Art and Business of Film with her husband, Emory Van Cleve, lecturer in Fine Arts and Cinema & Media Studies, for 12 years. In 2019, she received the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by Affiliated Faculty.

We asked Van Cleve about what appeals in these business stories, why we’re seeing so many of them, and to give us a peek into her class, which takes students through the entire movie-making experience.

Why are there so many movies about business right now?

The themes inherent in any business, when you get away from the quantitative stuff, can be jealousy, greed, ambition, power—the basic themes underpinning all drama.

We’ve had movies about business writ large, like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. But what we’re seeing now is a little different. On a purely business level, studios want intellectual property. Implicit in that term is recognizable intellectual property, because they’re risk averse. The bigger the company, the more risk averse they are.

But everyone needs product. There’s a fire hose of shows right now, and a lot of the studios are in financial despair because they all spent so much money starting their streaming stations to compete with Netflix. (I think the head of Netflix said once that his main competition was sleep.) And if you can get an emotional connection from the viewer to what you’re about to see, you’re starting on second base, if not third base with something like Barbie. You already know it has an audience. How many people in the audience had a Barbie?

They’re going to make a Rock’Em Sock’Em robot movie. They’re going to make Tetris. I played my fair share of Tetris in the ’80s. I had a Blackberry. I watched Air this morning, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I think I was 18 at the time of the events of that film, so it’s really fun to watch because you know the music, you know the references, you get it. These are all touchstones that the studios can be assured people know and have some emotional connection to.

Do you think we’ll continue to see so many movies connected to products?

I suspect that the model for this is the comic book movies. They were intellectual property that already had a built-in audience. They had this new and creative take for Black Panther and Batman, all of them. But then there’s been what they call Marvel fatigue recently. There are only so many ways, I guess, to save the universe, and now the multiverse.

The magic is when someone like Greta Gerwig and her co-writer, Noah Baumbach, write something like Barbie and then it becomes this phenomenon. They swung for the fences and they’re reaping the benefits for sure. Hasbro and Mattel have so many films and series in development. The thing with toys is, you can do anything you want—there’s no biography written for Mr. Potato Head—and speaking as a writer, how fun is that to come up with a story?

Kathleen DeMarco Van Cleve, C’88, W’88, senior lecturer in English and Cinema & Media Studies. (Image: Courtesy of Van Cleve)

The studios are going to look for brands until there’s a series of flops or substandard movies. So, let’s say it’s Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, but if they somehow nail it with Charlie Kaufman writing the script, then there’s Potato Grandbabies or whatever. If it would work, they would mine it and franchise it and keep it going until it’s gasping.

Streaming has so upended the business that it’s hard to know right now what will happen.

Tell us about your class Art and Business of Film.

I’ve taught it with my husband, Emory Van Cleve, since 2011. It was inspired by one of his courses while he was getting his M.F.A. at NYU—scholarly but also with a practical component where they learn about the existing industry. Along with lectures and the things you’d expect from any humanities class at Penn, the students work in groups and leave the class having completed a short film that they have created wholly. They have developed the idea in a group, pitched it to their class, figured out who was going to star in it, who was going to write it and direct it.

And then we shift into how would we budget this? Where would they find the money? What market would it be? Is it a big theatrical release? Is it a streaming release? And then we have them develop full marketing plans with trailers and posters. Finally, the students produce, shoot, and edit a short film based on their idea. At the end of the semester, they turn it in, and my husband and I send it to between 150 and 200 people who work in the industry, including alums of our class and the University. They vote and we give out the awards, our own Oscars.

We always have a wait list for that class, and anybody in the University can join. The class is helped when we have nursing students and engineers, and we often have Wharton M.B.A.s and M.F.A. students. Last year we had a ton of game designers. So, every single semester, it’s different.

With so much changing in the industry, how hard is it to keep up to date?

We read a ton. I still have a foot in the industry as a writer. My former students are an incredible source of information.

Now that the writers’ strike is over, my goal is to find two speakers to come in, one from the studio side, one from the writer/creative side, to talk about the upheaval. I’m interested in talking to somebody from Comcast: What are they seeing as the progression in the film business?

The specter of AI looms everywhere in every creative business—probably in all businesses—and I’m trying hard to not adopt a fearful approach with my students. There’s no putting that genie back into the bottle, and it’s important to start considering the ways AI can be helpful to creatives. That said, the Writers Guild received significant oversight in its negotiations, and I also suspect there will be some regulatory input in the years to come.

Overall, it’s an unstable environment, but one in which creative people need to stay creative, even while the business changes. I hope to get guests currently in the trenches to come in and add to this discussion in our classroom.

Any final thoughts?

I like to think in my heart that the human need for stories will never go away. A movie like Barbie—as a consumer, I don’t care what it’s based on. If it tells a visual, compelling story for two hours, that’s worth $16 to me for an evening out with my family.

That was at the core of the movie business at the beginning. There’s no other form of media that can impact so many people. I’m not saying people are now changing the world because of Barbie, but I think that movies do have immense power. So, I hope that despite everything that’s going on and the financial disarray, the creative spark will carry it through.