museum of junk

Take a Tour of Bad Movie Merchandising Through the Ages

This fall, movie studios are set to unload an avalanche of predictable film-branded products, from glowing Tron sneakers and Gryffindor hoodies to armies of Disney dolls with very long, Tangled hair. But there are also bound to be some bizarre tie-ins that achieve true, head-shaking, “what were they thinking?” awfulness, like the new $795 Jerome C. Rousseau Tron shoe, which looks like a robot’s gills. And we didn’t get here by accident: Movie merchandising is a long, horrible highway of branded gunk, dotted with the flaming wrecks of misguided and misbegotten junk. So come with us, as Vulture takes a journey through the stupidest, most useless corners of our shared, officially licensed cinematic heritage.

In 1951, studios had not yet figured out how to release the Kraken of movie merchandising. Witness Quo Vadis, the Christians versus Romans epic that inspired Variety to coin the term “blockbuster.” The press book encouraged licensors to make Quo Vadis wallpaper, hats, candy, and haircuts. No one did.
In 1962, Dr. No launched the James Bond franchise, dooming future consumers to items like this $36 scented candle that smells like ” … the interior of an Aston Martin and a dry Martini.” Because nothing says “I am a heterosexual man” more than a scented candle.
Star Trek is a cradle-to-grave licensing empire: A Trekker can be plopped into an official Trek onesie at birth, and have their ashes plopped into this official urn after death.
The first Hollywood flick to get a simultaneous nationwide release and a national marketing campaign, Jaws was the future of movie distribution. And what could be more futuristic than this nightshirt?
Today Star Wars is a $9 billion licensing juggernaut, but George Lucas probably wasn’t envisioning this disturbingly sexual Jar Jar Binks lollipop way back in 1977. Oh, wait: He traded his big salary for the merchandising rights. So this is exactly what he was envisioning.
Dorks with adventure in their blood could buy an Indiana Jones cap at the Halloween store, but it takes a special kind of yutz to spend $975 on Adventurebilt’s custom fedoras. Adventurebilt encourages suckers to visit the studio for an hour “during which we can have a good conversation about your hat over a cup of coffee or a glass of whisky and a good cigar.”
You never can tell which movie is going to launch a toy-friendly franchise, but David Lynch’s convoluted sci-fi freak show Dune shouldn’t have been a contender. In 1984, however, licensees thought every little boy would want Dune bedsheets so they could pretend to be the Kwisatz Haderach and have sweet, sweet spice-induced dreams.
Some decried E.T. as a neck-stretching merchandising whore, but he looked like Mother Teresa next to 1988’s Mac & Me, in which an alien shaped like a rubber hemorrhoid gobbled Skittles, used Coke to resurrect the dead, and danced in a McDonald’s.
Any movie can sell a hat or a shirt, but it takes a monster hit like Forrest Gump to spawn an entire chain of restaurants. The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company is wrong in so many ways, but it would be hard to top their Lieutenant Dan’s Drunken Shrimp, a 970-calorie grilled-shrimp entrée named after the Gary Sinise’s legless, bitter, alcoholic (!), and suicidal Vietnam vet.
Making replicas of movie costumes is a lucrative business, but why did anyone think there was a market for $80 gun holsters based on 1996’s Billy Zane box-office bomb The Phantom?
J. Peterman got into the licensed clothing business early and often. His “Movie Legends” line featured items from The Avengers, Out of Africa, and L.A. Confidential. Then they launched their Titanic collection and went bankrupt, driving up the value of these replicas. Nowadays, only devoted collector couples can wear copies of the dress Rose tried to kill herself and the tuxedo Jack was wearing when he drowned.
What better way to say that you don’t conform to the demands of our capitalist society than by purchasing this $500 Fight Club jacket?
Meditate on the life of Christ with this rosary, sold by the makers of The Boondock Saints — a movie in which Irish vigilantes shoot people through the eyes.
Want to see your children scream, and scream, and scream? Give them these Battlefield Earth action figures. John Travolta’s barks phrases like, “Exterminate all man-animals at will!” The one based on Forest Whitaker comes with two dead rats.
If you see something in the Lord of the Rings movies, chances are good that someone, somewhere, will sell you a replica of it. But nothing beats these handcrafted, fully functional pipes. They come in nineteeen scene-specific designs so that stoners everywhere can get their Gandalf on.
In The Matrix Reloaded, futuristic slick silver cell phones helped Neo and his latex-clad band of hackers jump between the real and virtual worlds. In our reality, the Samsung SPH-N270 was a famously underpowered, instantly obsolete clunker, even for 2003: Shackled to Sprint PCS, it offered no Bluetooth, no MP3 playback, no text messaging, no web-browser functions, no camera.
The makers of The Passion of the Christ merchandise write on their website, “Our mission is to reach the world with the message of hope … ” Apparently, this message of hope is best expressed by wearing sterling-silver necklaces shaped like the nails used to kill Jesus.
Just when you thought that The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou could not get any more twee or precious, Touchstone released overpriced, limited-edition Adidas sneakers, as well as T-shirts, undies, and hats. Because nothing says indie cool like hip Disney-branded movie merch.
There is a tradition of making commemorative gifts for the crew after a film wraps (See: Pirates of the Caribbean rum, Jaws neckties). This is one of just one-hundred limited-edition Brokeback Mountain (quick release?) belt buckles.
What nicer way to make your child feel better after watching all the rape, domestic abuse, and genital mutilation in The Color Purple than by letting them blot their tiny tears on this licensed Color Purple teddy bear?
In 2005, Banana Republic gave us their Memoirs of a Geisha clothing and accessory line. Tassel necklaces, silk kimonos, padded handbags, and chinois jackets, so you too could be a 9-year-old sold into sexual slavery against your will!
Remember Tristan and Isolde? The 2006 flick starring James Franco that was directed by the guy who made Waterworld? Yeah, neither do we. But Medieval Collectibles wants to sell you their complete line of Tristan and Isolde clothing, swords, and boots.
Sometimes, bad ideas just get worse. Heath Ledger died shortly after shooting The Dark Knight, but the crummy merchandising lives on. You’re sure to feel lucky with the face of one of America’s most talented dead young actors staring up at you from this officially licensed heavy-duty poker chip as you gamble away the last of your savings in a smoke-clogged megacasino.
In terms of merchandising, Twilight is like Star Trek for young women: That logo is going to go on everything, whether you like it or not. Get felt up over your Twilight bra (stamped with the Cullen Family crest), then get engaged with a $1,979 Bella’s Genuine Engagement Ring, after which you can make love using the Twilight condom. But don’t worry if it breaks. There are also Twilight bibs for your happy mistake.
If Donatella Versace was a shoe, she would be these $1,195 Versace clodhoppers inspired by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: bizarre, visually disturbing patchwork messes that look like six different shoes all glued together.
Did you feel like something was chafing your butt crack while you were watching the noxious Sex and the City 2? It was probably your officially licensed Sex and the City thong.
Would you like to dress like a demented spinster living alone on the Upper East Side circa 1981, slowly smoking yourself to death in some surely flammable exotic loungewear? Then the Sue Wong Eat Pray Love collection is for you!
Sometimes a product is so odd that you can only marvel that there is a market for it at all. Star Wars action figures, sure. But who, exactly, would buy a T-shirt for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s epically disturbing 1975 film Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom? Someone who genuinely enjoys fascism, sexual torture, coprophagia, and rape? Or someone who ironically enjoys fascism, sexual torture, coprophagia, and rape?
Take a Tour of Bad Movie Merchandising Through the Ages