Several years ago, education advocates became apoplectic when Campbell’s soup distributed a science kit to middle schools proving that Prego spaghetti sauce was thicker than the competition’s.
This spring, nobody seemed to blink when Marvel Enterprises sent out a lesson plan for 2 million gradeschool kids promoting the heroes in “Fantastic Four,” the summer comicbook movie starring Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis.
Despite sporadic criticism from educational advocates, Hollywood is getting a free pass to fill elementary, middle and high schools with curriculum tied to an upcoming movie or DVD release dressed up as educational exercises that purportedly encourage reading and writing.
The in-school, TV news net Channel One has long drawn ire for integrating commercials into educational newscasts. Burger Kings and Pizza Huts in school cafeterias are equally controversial.
Now it’s the movie biz’s turn.
Taking advantage of the financial crisis that’s made public education ever more reliant on corporate support, studios are promoting such teaching materials as the “Fantastic Four” campaign, with a six-week lesson plan that supposedly teaches teamwork, morality and rudimentary science experiments. Kids were given a special “Fantastic” comicbook that they were asked to read not once, but twice.
That’s nothing compared to the blitz Walden Media and the Walt Disney Co. are planning this fall for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” They intend to send lesson plans to virtually every elementary and middle school in the country — with Mouse House execs hoping it will culminate in a trip to the theater.
The captive classroom is a marketing dream, considering there are some 54 million kids enrolled in grades K-12 in this country. And a relatively inexpensive one. Marvel’s “Fantastic” campaign, which extolled the virtues of being a team player and the superhero attributes of each character, only cost in the high six figures.
There’s no doubt that lesson plans tied to a movie tied to a book such as C.S. Lewis’ classic “Narnia” series can be far more palatable, giving Walden Media easy credibility.
Comicbooks, on the other hand, aren’t usually considered literature, but Marvel insists the majority of the 80,000 teachers who received the “Do Your Thing” lesson indeed view comics as a “powerful medium,” according to Marvel Enterprises VP of operations Robert Steffens.
Steffens says there is pedagogical value to the “Fantastic” lesson plan, but he doesn’t dispute that Marvel “is running a business and we are selling a product. Some people may not view it favorably.”
“It’s really about the characters and not the movie,” says Steffens, adding that Marvel worked closely with Education World’s Forrest Stone to develop the program.
Education World helps companies develop such curriculum. Cover Concepts, the country’s largest resource for free school materials and bought up by Marvel less than two years ago, sent out the “Fantastic” study guide.
The “Fantastic Four” heroes, like Marvel’s “Spider-Man,” are all about morality, doing the right thing and learning that with great powers comes great responsibility. For example, students are asked to write about what makes them special, inspired by the special powers of the Fantastic Four.
Therein lies the educational value, according to Steffens. Classroom advocates would likely disagree, judging from the criticism they’ve heaped on the many other industries that have invaded the classroom.
Consumers Union, which tracks commercialism in school, said in a recent report it strongly doubted whether most sponsored education materials would “meet the grade.”
Many of the lesson plans studied were “blatantly commercial and biased,” such as Proctor & Gamble’s “Decision: Earth,” which taught that clear-cut logging is good for the environment — “it mimics nature’s way of getting rid of trees.”
Alex Molnar, director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State U., knocked New Line last year in his annual “Trends in Schoolhouse Commercialism” report.
“Some programs would appear to be little more than advertising, such as the ‘Elf’ study guides in the shape of toys being distributed to 10,000 schools by New Line Cinema in advance of the release of its film ‘Elf’ in late 2003,” Molnar says.
The “Elf” study guide, sent to 10,000 elementary school kids by New Line Cinema and Ohio Art, extolled the virtues of accepting the differences in others. But Molnar concluded that the educational value was scant at best.
Enter Walden Media, which was formed in 2001 by two New England brothers and former Miramax exec Cary Granat with the sole purpose of developing educational properties. In just a few years, Michael Flaherty, Chip Flaherty and Granat have become a driving force in building a trusted pipeline into the classroom and working with teachers throughout a movie’s development stage.
The “Narnia” lesson plan being developed by Walden and Disney is designed to get students to read Lewis’ book and then talk about imagination, and the process filmmakers go through in translating a book onto the big screen.
“We make it very clear to teachers and librarians that we want to be their voice in Hollywood, and that we want to make movies that they would take their students to,” says Walden exec Chip Flaherty. Walden has done lesson plans for movies including this year’s “Because of Winn Dixie” and “Holes” in 2003. Upcoming projects include “Charlotte’s Web,” which Walden is producing with Paramount. Unlike the comicbook-based lesson plans, all three books are already widely read in elementary schools.
Still, the fact remains that even Walden’s materials are tied to entertainment properties.
It’s hard to say why these questions about the DVD from the “Holes” lesson plan are academically valid:
1) What are two observations actors or other people involved with the movie made about Andy Davis as a director? 2) Which newspaper called ‘Holes’ the movie “the best film released by an American studio so far this year?”
Walden and Marvel say they always consult with educators. And while some schools have tried to limit school commercialism, there are no hard and fast rules prohibiting it.
Recent lesson plans for studio pics have included ones for U’s “Ray” and Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Polar Express.” Surprisingly, there have been no “Harry Potter” lesson plans, due to complicated rights issues.
For years, studios have used relied on three weekly Scholastic pop culture mags, Action, Scope and Storyworks to maintain visibility in the classroom.
The mags feature plays that are adapted from scripts and tied to a movie’s bow or DVD release. Students then enact the plays.
Scholastic Classroom Magazines editor in chief Rebecca Bondor says they are by far the most popular feature of any of the 23 mags she oversees. Studios provide the plays at no charge.
“We are bringing in elements of the world that they are very connected to and excited about, so it motivates them to read. It helps with very specific reading skills — fluency, vocabulary, development,” Bondor says. “It extends the movie experience for kids.”