Toying with the Idea: The Intellectual Property Race in TV & Media

New and original content, fresh narratives and unseen ideas. Ask most people, and that’s what they’ll tell you they look for when browsing for something to watch. But is that what really creates pull? Are we really always searching for the ‘new’?

Amongst bold forrays into the unknown in cinema and TV, we see regular returns to the familiar. There seems to be a continuous stream of new interpretations of old stories, ideas and characters that play on nostalgia to draw in existing audiences, all using the same premise: pre-awareness. 

Intellectual property is king

Put simply, pre-awareness removes the viewer’s need to start from square one, cognitively speaking. Their familiarity and existing perceptions of an idea, story, world or character create a base layer of understanding upon which content creators can build, leaning into established intellectual property to create a strong draw.

Viewer pre-awareness went mainstream last summer in the wake of Barbieheimer. Both movies exemplified it, albeit in different ways.

Barbie did so overtly, commercially, and dazzlingly: the familiarity of the central characters, settings and overall colour palette (big on Pantone 219C) allowed Greta Gerwig to tell a story that was more provocative than its source material. Oppenheimer did so more subtly. It was a name people knew, a story they could guess at if not fully recall, and a theme which already felt topical. 

Studios are betting big on viewer nostalgia. “In the world we’re living in, IP (intellectual property) is king”, Barbie producer Robbie Brenner told the New Yorker last summer. “Pre-awareness is so important.” Her new team at Mattel Films had been directed to  ‘rummage through Mattel’s toy chest and identify IP that could be fodder for Hollywood studios.’ 

On one hand, IP commodifies what we might otherwise think of as beloved stories or characters. On the other hand, studios are in the business of commodifying beloved stories and characters. It’s what we buy into. After all, we could just play with the doll or read the book.

The Rest is Entertainment’s Marina Hyde reckons 47 of the top 50 movies of the decade were based on existing IP – and I would agree with her that Elvis was also in terms of pre-awareness. But this isn’t a new thing. A list of the biggest-grossing films of all time serves up Tom Sawyer in 1930, Pinocchio in 1940, Cinderella in 1950 and Spartacus in 1960 – exploiting beloved IP and pre-awareness in buckets. 

 Banking on familiarity makes just as much sense today, not just in movies but in the TV market, where viewers make up their minds very quickly. We’ve seen in our research that respondents who bring existing knowledge to a new show set in an established historical or mythical world enjoy the early episodes more – and are more likely to stick. 

Is consumer product the new intellectual property?

Is there a ceiling on this feeling? Martyn Pedler, writing for Overland in the summer of Barbieheimer, predicted that a risk-averse Hollywood would keep mining intellectual property ‘until the box office tells it otherwise’. But he warned that a lack of investment in new stories could effectively degrade the creative ecosystem.

Tom Faber, citing movies like Air (as in Nike), Flamin’ Hot (as in Cheetos) and Tetris (as in Tetris), all focused on consumer products, agrees: ‘Hollywood has finally reached the bottom of the intellectual property barrel.’ 

So is consumer product (CP) the new IP? Upcoming ‘toyetic’ movie projects built on Monopoly (Margot Robbie), Hot Wheels (JJ Abrams) and Polly Pocket (Lena Dunham) suggest it might be.

There’s certainly a danger of diminishing returns if studios rely on the IP to do all the heavy lifting – think Barbie without a twist. Marina Hyde notes Margot Robbie’s eye for ‘discourse dominators’: the idea that everyone knows who Barbie is.

But the runaway success of Baby Reindeer shows that something new and challenging can also capture the public imagination. However, where that imagination takes the public can be unpredictable. A lot of people now know who Martha is – literally. At least googling Barbie doesn’t turn up a real person.  

What do audiences really want to see?

Making use of pre-awareness is a well-established practice. But with content production accelerating at an unprecedented rate across a record number of streaming platforms, content creators need to understand where demand lies, quicker than ever.

What appetite is there for the ‘toyetic’? At what point do ideas become tired, and what factors play into your audience’s threshold for freshness? What themes are likely to emerge over the next year, and how can creators get ahead of the curve? 

To gain a true understanding of how your audience is thinking and behaving, get in touch with Trinity McQueen. Email – I’d love to chat.