Every now and then there comes a year when it seems that there are an inordinate number of really good films out in theaters. Is it the result of some sort of cultural zeitgeist or is it just mere coincidence? Who can say? But what can be known for sure is that the summer of 1982 was one of those magical movies times. On the 30th anniversary of that summer we will take a look back at some of the many movies that made that summer so memorable.
Annie wasn’t my first exposure to movie marketing tie-ins. After all, I was the kid who had every Star Wars action figure, vehicle, and play set that my parents could afford to buy me (not the Millennium Falcon, though. My parents couldn’t swing that. Every time I’m in a toy store and I see one for sale I want to buy it, thinking it would complete my childhood. But I digress…). But it the first film where I realized that Hollywood really wanted me to see it, and make as much money off me as possible in the process. I don’t know why I had this revelation with this film in particular. Maybe it was because the marketing tie-ins didn’t work on me (or for anyone else for that matter).
The film was loosely based on the at the time long-running (since 1977), Tony Award-winning musical of the same name which was in turn loosely based on the long-running (since 1924) Little Orphan Annie comic strip. Directed by legendary director John Houston, the film told the story of a plucky orphan girl named Annie (Aileen Quinn) who lives at an orphanage run by the abusive and alcoholic Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett). Annie’s luck begins to change when she is in Miss Hannigan’s office when Grace Farrell (Ann Reinking) comes to call. Farrell works for Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney), a billionaire with an image problem. Warbucks has sent Farrell to the orphanage so she can bring an orphan home for a week to soften Warbuck’s hard-boiled image (I guess during the Great Depression, you could rent orphans on a weekly basis).
However, when Annie meets Warbucks. the orphan wheedles her way into the rich man’s heart. Warbucks soon decides he wants to keep Annie on a permanent basis, but before he can, he tries one last ditch effort to find Annie’s true parents. Enter a couple, Rooster (Tim Curry) and Lily (Bernadette Peters), who claim to be Annie’s birth parents. However, after they abscond with the child and the reward Warbucks was offering, the billionaire finds out that they are not what they seem and Warbucks must race against time to save Annie from the pair’s nefarious plans.
If you are thinking that was a great cast for the time, you’d be right. But it could have been better. Imagine Jack Nicholson as Warbucks, Steve Martin as Rooster, Bette Midler as Hannigan and Drew Barrymore as Annie. All either auditioned or were the first pick for the above roles.
Columbia Pictures paid $9.5 million for the rights, and the total budget for the film was $50 million (including $1 million for a lush musical number that was shot, never used, and shot a different way for the film). So, there was great interest in trying to have the film earn its money back. Hence, the powerful push towards marketing.
My first experience with the marketing for this movie came from world of comic books. I was just beginning the transition from casual comic book buyer to collector, and I was just learning about the art form and deciding what titles I wanted to collect.
Comic books based on the Annie film were all over newsstands at this time. First, appearing on spinner racks in May of 1982, was Marvel Super Special #23, which featured an adaptation of the film by Tom DeFalco and Win Mortimer. Next, Marvel broke up that adaptation into a two-issue miniseries that arrived in stores in July and August of 1982. The story was once again collected into one volume with an oversized treasury edition that arrived at newsstands on September of 1982.
The 11-year-old version of me thought this was overkill. I mean, who’d want one comic book about a cootie-filled girl movie, let alone three? After all, this was Marvel Comics we are talking about here. It was the home of the X-Men, the Hulk and Spider-Man. But deep down, I began to understand the logic of the comic book release schedule.
The adaptation released in May was to whet my appetite for the film. The comic issues released in July and August were there to attract people who, presumably, loved the film and couldn’t wait to see it adapted into another medium. And the treasury edition was there for anyone who missed any of the other volumes or, perhaps, to act as a supplemental gift for any Annie fan who might want something tangible to put in their Christmas stocking (as the VHS tape of the film wouldn’t be released until April of 1983).
In other words, the comics were there to promote the film, and also provide an additional source of income for it. What’s more, that source of income was meant to come from my pocket, even though I had not the slightest interest in the film, the comic books or any of the other tie-ins. This is a pretty heavy realization for a 11-year-old to be hit with.
Of course, the comics weren’t the only tie-in to go along with the movie. There was also the soundtrack album and novelization. There was the commemorative glass with the image of Annie on it you could have picked up at Swensen’s restaurant. There were stuffed dolls, plastic dolls and action figures. There were activity books and coloring books. Just about anything that they could have put Annie on, they put Annie on.
Of course, this was nothing new. Annie was far from the first film to go this heavy into marketing, and it surely wasn’t the last. But I never noticed the connection before this film. I guess in my childhood naivete, I though Kenner was just doing kids a favor by putting out little plastic replicas of our favorite Star Wars‘ characters.
There is one difference between the toy and fast food restaurant tie-ins for Annie and other films–the marketing for other films seemed to work better. Annie only made $57 million at the box office, which was deemed a disappointment at the time. While the musical itself is popular enough that regional theaters still put it up today, a revival is in the works on Broadway for later this year, and it was adapted again for television in the 1990s, the first film adaptation resides in the realm of a cult status. Sure, people plan parties around it to this day, and Will Smith is looking to remake it as a vehicle for his daughter Willow (God help us), it wasn’t a blockbuster the size of Star Wars, either in cultural influence or box office receipts. But it sure did leave a lasting impression in my mind.