Cruel Intentions (US, 1999)

One's good; one's bad

One's good; one's bad

Director: Roger Kumble
Screenplay: Roger Kumble suggested by the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses
Editors: Jeff Freeman
Music: Edward Shearmur
Producers: Neal H Moritz
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair.

At first glance Cruel Intentions is typical of High Concept films as it has a simple narrative idea, is an adaptation and uses well-known stars. However, as the number of taglines suggest, there are a number of ways of summarising the narrative:

In addition, the poster does not offer a narrative image. It appears that we have a menage a trois, but this is not really the case. Of the stars, Reece Witherspoon, Ryan Phillipe and Sarah Michelle Gellar only Gellar was very well known, primarily for her role as Buffy (the vampire slayer). However, the film does possess other High Concept elements such as the glossy visual style, an obvious music track (including 17 songs) and postmodern irony.

In Hollywood terms, the budget ($11m – source was minuscule allowing the film to be targeted at a niche market. The niche, 16-25 year olds, is the core cinema-going audience. However, most mainstream films, in order to be profitable, aim at a much wider audience and look to spin-offs, such as merchandise, to reach profitability. As a rough rule-of-thumb, movies need to take two and a half times their cost to break even so Cruel Intentions less than spectacular North American box office gross of $38.3m was almost certainly sufficient to put producer Neal H Moritz in profit. International grosses, video rentals and sales plus television rights will obviously add to the profitability.

High Concept films usually have merchandise built into the script (such as the new doll, Jessie, in Toy Story 2, 1999), which can help such films become immensely profitable. The lack of stars in many teen-pics is crucial in keeping the budget relatively low and so reducing the break-even barrier. Moritz, dubbed ‘Mr Teen’ by Screen International, specialises in low budget genre movies aimed at pleasing young cinemagoers. He had his biggest hit, The Fast and the Furious, this summer.

Columbia Tristar, part of the Sony group, distributed Cruel Intentions. Sony’s core business is consumer electronics and it paid $3.4 billion in 1989 for the Hollywood studio. The Japanese company manufactured the hardware (televisions, VCRs and so on) but needed to also produce software (in this case films) to be shown on their equipment. This may seem like control freakery but Sony had lost out in the ‘video format’ battle of the late 1970s when their (superior) system, Betamax, foundered as consumers chose VHS. VHS won the battle because there were more films available in that format. Sony thus bought Columbia to guarantee a stream of product for whatever format they would manufacture next.

Since the 1980s, Hollywood studios have been bought by companies whose core business is the media. This contrasts with the studio-owning conglomerates of the 1970s where there was often only tenuous links at best between their divisions. For example, Columbia Pictures Industries owned D. Gottleib and co., a pinball machine company. Paramount Pictures was part of Gulf + Western that included over 300 companies such as Peavey Paper Mills, Schrafft’s Candles and Collyer Insulated Wire.

Viacom, a company that focuses upon the audio-visual entertainment industry as a whole, now owns Paramount. This Hollywood studio can take advantage of its sister companies when promoting a new film. Clueless (1995), as a teen pic, could be promoted on Viacom’s MTV stations, effectively, free of charge. This ability to promote product across the media is an example of synergy. The belief in synergy has been the driving force in the consolidation of the media industry in the last 20 years.

The benefits of synergy are more than cross-promotion: the album soundtrack can be released on a company’s record label (for example, Time Warner’s Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me, 1999) and adaptations of television programmes can be produced by the conglomerate’s film studio. For example, the Rugrats franchise (the term emphasises the business approach to making programmes and films) originated on Viacom’s Nickelodeon channel. The company is currently taking this process a step further with Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, this is the first ‘simultaneous cross-platform entertainment concept – a movie, a TV series, a soundtrack, a comic book and a merchandising play’. (Seguin, 2001, p. 8 )

Cruel Intentions was not made with the intention of selling merchandise, other than the video release. It’s only spin-off was a made for TV sequel. However, consumer goods are emphasised by the product placement of branded goods aimed at the youth market. In considering the film it is worth asking effect the emphasis on consumer goods might have on the audience.

Denis Seguin (2001) ‘all systems go’ Screen International No. 1328, October 12


One Response

  1. Don’t we all just love synergy?
    It’s soundtrack sold better than most albums, and skyrocketed Placebo’s profile.
    Good film. Gotta admire Sarah Michelle Gellar for snorting all of that talcum powder.

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