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Why Hollywood will adapt web videos and memes into big summer movies

Why Hollywood will adapt web videos and memes into big summer movies

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While nostalgically binging on old internet comedy from my childhood, I was struck by an epiphany: just as the comical repacking of 1980s nostalgia during the 2000s made cheap toys and crummy cartoons into flashy movies, so too will the web videos of the late 1990s and early 2000s become fodder for shallow, rushed movies and brand tie-ins over the next decade.

Maybe, somehow, in the shadow of the superhero movie glut, you've already forgotten the rush to adapt board games into movies. In the mid-2000s, I and members of my generation — folks who are too old to identify as millennials, and too young to care about Pearl Jam — collectively lost our minds when toy company Hasbro threatened to adapt the intellectual properties of our childhood into films. There was nothing subtle about the strategy, which attempted to convert nostalgia from the 1980s into box office receipts in the new millennium, nor was Hasbro particularly shrewd in its deployment. From Transformers to Candy Land, Stretch Armstrong to Hungry Hungry Hippos, nearly every major Hasbro property made its way through varying stages of film development.

Toys are not known for their rich plots

Transformers spawned four increasingly critically maligned films. The most recent, Age of Extinction, broke even domestically, but struck gold internationally. Two G.I. Joe films had middling domestic box office returns, then made back their investment overseas. But the vast majority of Hasbro's film slate never gelled into anything more than a stack of unfilmed scripts. The notion of toys as films lurches forward anyhow. Last year, Paramount and Hasbro agreed on a deal spanning five properties, and Stretch Armstrong got picked up by Netflix in a 26-episode television deal. In February, Paramount Pictures announced two more Transformer films, along with a standalone spinoff for the anthropomorphized yellow Camaro, Bumblebee. None of Hasbro's properties are known for their narratives, beyond the hackneyed back-of-the-box descriptors penned decades ago by copywriters and children's cartoon makers. Lathering their mythos across 2-hour films (let alone 26-episode series) seems today, as it did a decade ago, both creatively disingenuous and economically cynical. Studios believe audiences will pay to watch something for no other reason than it reminding them of their past. Full stop.

I predict that this logic, which has now inspired film adaptations of theme park rides and mobile video games, will become even more prominent as another beloved medium of the not-so-distant past reaches the point of nostalgia: web videos.

The return of web videos of the pre-YouTube era

When I say web videos, I mean the animated comedy shorts of the pre-YouTube, pre-streaming era. You downloaded them — often starting the download before you went to bed and watching the videos the next morning. This was the late 1990s and early 2000s, when 56k modems were fast — nearly a decade before social media gurus would shed their gills and learn to breathe on dry land, where they’ve pretended to be human ever since. The web video format was not yet sullied by the pursuit of fame or extreme wealth.

Like comic books, video games, and punk rock, the internet meme burst into existence with a rebellious display of creativity. Shorts like "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" and "The Dancing Baby" were brief, surrealist non-sequiturs void of commercial purpose. Chain email and grimy forums like Something Awful and Albino Black Sheep — the internet's equivalent of the urinals in a dive bar — disseminated the videos without the help of the social media platforms we have today, meaning truly viral videos had some inexplicable quality that made them almost universally lovable and sharable.

An argument could be made that "Trogdor" and "Porkchop Sandwiches" and "Fire Zee Missiles" and the catalogue of Joe Cartoon are too weird, too referential, and too thin to be turned into films and Happy Meal toys and novelty T-shirts. Yes, sure, true. From the perspective afforded by good taste and decency, I would agree! But if Hollywood leadership has demonstrated anything over the last twenty years, it's that nothing — nothing at all — is too thin to be commercialized. A board game, a Twitter account, a blog, a commercial for car insurance: any creative work can be juiced for its marketable essence.

A unique flavor of nostalgia

In the case of web videos, that essence — the most explicitly commercial feature — is a quirky flavor of nostalgia. Early web videos now feel as precious as they do personal, like little in-jokes we shared with our friends, despite them being enjoyed by millions of other people. In that way, they're similar to the relationships children have with action figures and toys: both produced en masse, but with a singular feel to each owner.

We've seen hints of the future in commercials from VW to Dr. Pepper. Something small and weird and original is warped into something that is none of those things. It's just a reminder that you used to like something, and here it is again, alongside a product that you can buy.

People said comics, games, and punk wouldn't go mainstream. Today Marvel Studios, Electronic Arts, and the Vans Warp Tour can attest that the effervescence of humanity shall be recurrently flattened, sterilized, and commoditized for consumption by the masses to be sucked through a straw of brand partnerships and product placement.

The best we can hope for, frankly and perhaps ironically, is a Transformers-like film adaptation of a web video. Transformers is, without question, the standout success of the toys to film oeuvre, and that's because the studio perfectly matched the filmmaker with the general tone of the toy. Transformers melts down to a bunch of robots smacking into each other. Michael Bay makes movies about big things smashing into each other. This makes more sense than, say, Peter Berg, who's best known for a television drama about the lives of high school football players, adapting the board game Battleship into an action movie starring Rihanna. So if we are to get a web video movie, the best we can hope for, and I say this as someone who would buy my ticket in advance, is a three-hour Salad Fingers dramedy by Spike Jonze or Mike Mills.

Whatever the case, looking even further, because why not, if web video becomes film fodder like I assume it will, then Salad Fingers is just the beginning. Hold onto your internet memes, tightly, as marketers and the most adept pop artists have already found ways to manipulate our compulsion for commercial gain. I see you, Drake. You can't hide, Zac Efron.

Now excuse me while I find my tinfoil hat and wait for my prophecy to come true as Numa Numa plays on repeat, a siren’s song pleading to be answered by Universal or 20th Century Fox.