Tuesday 24 May 2011

Orange film ads: A history

Bradley Cooper and an Orange tissue box

Utter the words Orange film ads to any cinema-goer in the U.K. and you are likely to witness a wide range of emotions: hilarity, rage, laughters, palpitations, quiet resignation, a punch in the face... Love them or hate them, they have become an unavoidable fixture of the cinema going experience, just like noisy ASBO kids on a saturday night screening and overpriced stale popcorn. But how did it all begin? And what does the future holds for them? (To paraphrase them I would assume that the future is bright, the future is Orange)

Danny Glover and Mr Dresden

A few years ago, just as Orange was launching their brilliant Orange Wednesday initiative (send a text to Orange and get two tickets for the price of one), they also unleashed what was to become an ongoing serie of adverts, to emphasise their support of films, which were screened just before the film. Every single film. At every screening. In every single cinema in the U.K.

The plot was always the same, with subtle variations: A Hollywood has-been (sorry a "popular actor who has become more picky with their parts") would pitch their new project to the Orange film funding board, led by corporate executive stereotype Mr Dresden (played by American actor Brennan Brown who none of us ever managed to take seriously in films ever again.)

Rob Lowe in an Orange advert

The joke would be that the star was trying to show a less commercial and wider acting range in their project. Yet their dreams would be crushed by the more commercial driven Orange film funding board, which, fancying itself as a bit of a Hollywood player and taking a post-modern swipe at Orange's own image as a money driven corporate giant, (it was the 00's after all, at a time where post-modern jokes were popular, remember?), manipulated the project to turn it into a giant Orange product placement advert, with a crass disregard for realism or even logic.

They were many hits. The Rob Lowe one, whose dream of a serious part as a journalist an All the president's men remake was turned into an Orange-logo thong wearing lifeguard. The Sigourney Weaver one where she played the high priestess of the Snake (from the old school phone game snake) was surreal.

They were a few misses: The Dennis Hopper Speed one, where the late Easy Rider actor looked off his face and wondering in which set he had wandered off to. Or the Darryl Hannah one where Mr Dresden attempted mermaid speak while having his teeth whitened, or something. And there was a couple of masterpieces: Steven Seagal's one, involving a golf cart chase, explosions and ninja kicks. Or Angelica Huston, channeling Morticia Adams with a disturbed and neurotic turn involving a pair of scissors.

Steven Seagal in an Orange advert

Last year, they took a radical change. Having presumably run out of washed out 80's stars, they amped up the stakes. And unleashed a new breed of Orange film ads, badder, meaner, more expensive looking, punching well over their own weight. Now they were not making fun of blockbusters, they WERE blockbusters.

This new batch had the actual cast of an upcoming blockbuster, starting off with The A-team, being made to unwittingly advertise Orange in scenes lifted from the trailer. This was a risky strategy, as the first two blockbusters in the making selected, The A-team and Gulliver's travels, turned out to be very modest hits in the U.K. (and who wants to be associated with a loser?). The following choice, Rio, was a safer bet, and had the tropical bird suffering the ignominy of being filmed through a crummy 3G phone and turned orange.

So over the years, we have laughed, we have laughed again, we had rolled our eyes when seeing them for the hundredth time while some newbie was chuckling in the cinema. Yet, looking back, hidden underneath the laughs, did these ads have a more serious message and ambition? They were indeed describing the complicated relationship between art and money, and the artist's Faustian struggle to be noticed without losing its integrity.

A new ad is about to be unveiled, just as the Rio spin off has reached the point where most of us would stab their eyes with a rusty needle repeatedly rather than having to watch it once more. And I have insider information. Expect a bold move, a new, darker direction... Are you thinking a The skin that I live in spin off? A Terence Malick-directed The tree of life spin off? You might not be far off from the truth...


  1. fun post. different. did they pay you?

    i loved these ads, most of them repeatedly thanks to my unlimited pass. now i'm living in australia i find going to the cinema just isn't the same. that anticipation of "will there be a new film orange ad?" and "what are they going to do next?" isn't there.

    it's an interesting study of how the cinema going experience changes for each generation. i remember people talking about pearl & dean and how the cinema wasn't the same for them when they stopped playing that piece of music before the film started.

    welcome to the lamb btw.

  2. Haha I wish but no they did not pay me (and if you think about I am actually mostly poking fun at them!), but I know they read it and liked it.

    But you are absolutely right, as grating as they can get (mainly due to the repetitiveness), the cinema experience would not be quite the same without them, and kudos to them for carrying on making them after all these years.

    So I guess you would not have seen the new one, it is hilarious! They took out the trailer for French film Potiche Catherine Deneuve, and replaced the subtitles with their own, Orange ones, which have absolutely nothing to do with what is going on, it might be on YouTube.

  3. thanks. just saw it on youtube, it is funny but without the orange film commission it's just not the same. i miss the idiot asking "is that kevin spacey?" still! after all these years.

  4. Nice summation of the Orange Wednesday phenomenon, especially for uninitiated foreigners! Although if you're really gonna do a history of them, you should review each one in order, evaluating their individual worth as entertaining pre-movie distractions or annoying pieces of shit. (They run the whole gamut. I think the new Expendables one with the twee, nerdy social network dude might be the worst.)

    Querying your facts for a second: Did they always feature celebrities, or did they begin examining the in-house shenanigans of Dresden's office? My googling has not managed to confirm or deny this, but my recollection is that the first one was simply an exchange between Dresden and his bald sycophant. The joke was that, "It'll take place every Wednesday like CLOCKWORK… and we're ORANGE… so let's call it... ORANGE WEDNESDAYS!" And my recollection is that the second ad, featuring Patrick Swayze in "Silent Hunter"/"Chatty Hunter" was the first with a celebrity cameo. (http://youtu.be/VIAmnjBx4o4) If anyone can find that first ad online, I'd love to see it again (and potentially be shown the error of my memory.)

    The effectiveness of the campaign (whoo! free stuff!) cannot be underestimated. Queues on a Wednesday at the cinema are a fucking joke. According to the Guardian (http://bit.ly/9703Ps), Wednesday has gone from being the quietest day of cinema attendance to the busiest.

    In terms of your question as to whether the ads contained a serious message about the Faustian bargain between the artist and the moneymen, I have no doubt that this was always quite explicit: But what is it saying?

    It reminds me of a conversation I was having the other day. I offered the opinion that while past generations had rebellion against systems they didn't believe in, or allegiance to systems they did, we now have the rather peculiar and sad phenomenon of grudging allegiance to systems we don't believe in. Nobody really has faith in the corporate machine anymore, whether coming at it from an informed or uninformed perspective, but we all just sort of hate it and go with it all the same. The Orange ads represent a brand that's strong enough to mock itself and profit at the same time. Are they brainchildren of people who work for monolithic corporations while not believing in what they represent, yet still do all they can do help them succeed?