When moviegoers settled into their theater seats in 1979 to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first thing they beheld was the simple, iconic mountain logo of Paramount Pictures; once that image had faded, the film began. Audiences who saw Star Trek Beyond last week, on the other hand, sat through five signifiers of the film’s various production and distribution entities – first Paramount, then Skydance, Alibaba Pictures, Huahua Pictures, and Bad Robot, each with its own animated logo and accompanying musical score. The original 1984 Ghostbusters similarly had a single pre-film logo, for Columbia Pictures, while the recent reboot has four (Sony, Columbia, Village Roadshow, and cinematic-universe custodian “Ghost Corps”). You get the idea: in 1993, Jurassic Park only had Universal; 2015’s Jurassic World had Universal, plus Amblin Entertainment, plus Legendary Pictures. And indie films are no better – 2015 Best Picture winner Spotlight opens with a total of five logo mini-movies, as does Triple 9. Hell or High Water and Green Room each have three. Sing Street has six. This isn’t the only time we learn about which companies were behind a film, because most of the time, those same company names and production entities reappear almost immediately, as part of the opening credit roll.
It’s become a strange part of the ritual of contemporary filmgoing, like the endless trailers and pre-show commercials – to the extent that you’ll sometimes hear giggles in the audience as mini-movie number five or six shows up. Anecdotally, stories abound of directors at festivals actually apologizing for the parade of fake-outs before their films. It’s so pervasive that Family Guy has mocked the trend:
On its face, the increasing ubiquity of the company logo is a minor irritation – one more thing we have to sit through at the movies. But understanding where this parade of logos came from, and how they got so out of control, makes for a fascinating shadow history of the movie industry itself.
And like so much of what’s miserable about the industry today, we can begin by blaming out-of-control super-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.
When the Tom Cruise vehicle Days of Thunder hit multiplexes in June of 1990, the familiar Paramount logo movie – stars aligning over the peak of Majestic Mountain – was followed by a brand new piece of computer animation. As clouds rolled across a blue sky, two thunderbolts intersected, turning that sky a fiery orange. The clouds continue to fly, but the bolts remain intertwined; the image is framed, and underneath it five words appear: “Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer Films.” It lasts a mere fifteen seconds, but those fifteen seconds marked the beginning of the blockbuster pre-movie “vanity plate.”
Such trademark/logo movies had been around for years, but mostly in television; scores of viewers fondly recall the MTM Productions kitten, or Stephen J. Cannell ripping a page from his typewriter. On TV, they went names like “vanity cards,” “taglines,” “sign-offs,” “endboards.” But they were unequivocally placed at a show’s end – as were, in time, their earliest cinematic counterparts. Even the logo for a company like Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment (with its visual echo of his most beloved film, E.T.,) ran at the conclusion of movies like Gremlins and The Goonies, films that proudly trumpeted his involvement in print ads and posters.
But his vanity plate didn’t run ahead of those movies, because that wasn’t how it was done. For the most part, aside from full-on co-productions where studios pooled production and distribution resources, major motion pictures only carried the logo of the primary entity that was putting it into theaters.
That changed thanks to Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who were among the few producers of the era powerful enough to make the pre-movie vanity card not only happen, but become the norm. Their debut effort as co-producers, 1983’s Flashdance, had been a surprise smash, and they continued to rack up monster hits throughout the decade: Beverly Hills Cop in 1984, Top Gun in 1986, Beverly Hills Cop II in 1987. Most of their films were not terribly good (they were less narratives than two-hour high-concept music videos), but those four in particular made a lot of money for Paramount Pictures, so Simpson and Bruckheimer were in a very good bargaining position when they signed a five-picture deal with the company in 1990. It bore a reported $500 million pricetag, and their track record, combined with the infinite bankability of star (and new Oscar nominee) Tom Cruise, meant the studio gave them just about anything they wanted for Days of Thunder. The pre-movie vanity plate was only the beginning.
The stories from the Daytona, Florida set of Days of Thunder painted them less as producers than spoiled brats, objects of the kind of gossip you usually hear about ill-tempered stars or perfectionist directors. The picture went months over schedule and more than doubled its original budget. Expensive days were wasted as the producers, Cruise, director Tony Scott, and screenwriter Robert Towne haggled over details and rewrites; they constructed an outdoor gym and threw expensive parties to attract local women and Spring Break-ing coeds; and Simpson reportedly took over a local disco for his private fêtes, which featured (in addition to liquid and narcotic attractions) performances by the likes of Tone-Loc. Oh, and Simpson also insisted Towne write him a part in the film, so he appears in the cameo role of Cruise’s rival racecar driver “Aldo Bennedetti.”
Thanks to the bloated production and inflated budget, Days of Thunder would’ve had to do giant business to turn a profit, which it did not. Disappointing box office (it was outperformed by not only fellow blockbusters Dick Tracy, Die Hard 2, and Total Recall, but surprise hits like Ghost), coupled with gossip from the Thunder set, led Paramount to terminate its deal with the duo that November, more than four years before the end of its five-year term. They wouldn’t produce another film until 1995’s Bad Boys. The Los Angeles Times called the Paramount split “a move that could foreshadow a slowdown of Hollywood’s free-spending ways.”
That didn’t really turn out to be the case, but as Slate’s Stephen Metcalf noted in 2012, Days of Thunder “helped bring about the death of the anti-auteur era in 1990, no less than Heaven’s Gate had hastened the death of the auteur era in 1980.” Yet one thing remained from that disastrous shoot: that pre-movie vanity plate, which returned for Bad Boys and The Rock and was replaced after Simpson’s death in 1996 by Bruckheimer’s solo animation of a single bolt of lightning hitting a tree.
Soon enough, other producers and production entities began to get into the act. Amblin’s E.T. moon ride started showing up ahead of movies, instead of behind them; Rob Reiner’s Castle Rock Entertainment likewise shifted to the pre-titles. In the ensuing years, the pre-movie vanity plate has become a rite of passage for an upstart producer or production company – yet another form of #branding, putting their personal stamp on the product, planting their flag as a maker of movies. As the American independent cinema scene flourished in the 1990s, the complicated financing packages these films required led to a longer line of logos and animations – distributors like Miramax, producers like Good Machine, vanity shingles like Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder and A Band Apart. And the list of entities got even longer for foreign imports.
In the second half of the 2000s, as the middle dropped out of mainstream filmmaking, studios began to make fewer films in total, instead making big bets on high-budget franchise plays. But nobody wants to take a huge gamble by themselves. So they too put more cooks in the kitchen, a shift reflected not only by the festival of tiny animated movies before their feature pictures, but the dozens of producers in the credits that follow.
While the explanation for the explosion of “parents in the delivery room” of moviemaking comes down to essentially the same principle in independent and studio filmmaking ($$$$$), the intention and outcome are different. Indie film is usually low reward, but it’s also low risk – so while a vast array of investors and financiers might make a small investment, the guiding principle is the creation of a quality work and the preservation of a filmmaker’s vision, with the hope that commercial and critical success will follow. But in the high-stakes game of multi-million dollar moviemaking, the principle aim is return on investment – which means playing it as safe as possible (in both what’s made and how it’s executed), appealing to the widest possible audience, and thus protecting everyone’s investment.
So the next time you go to the blockbuster of the moment, while you’re waiting out that traffic jam of logo mini-movies before your film begins, think about how each of them represents a party invested in making crazy money – and contemplate how much that tug of war might have to do with quality of the film that follows.