There are countless unforgettable products and places that have captivated our imaginations through movies, TV shows, and books. From the magical floor piano in FAO Schwartz, where Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia danced their hearts out in the movie Big, to the whimsical candy creations of Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and even the cozy café in the charming town of Whistle Stop, AL, as portrayed in Fried Green Tomatoes – these are just a few examples that have etched themselves into our memories.
It’s absolutely fascinating how some of these fictional gems have transcended the screen or page and made their way into the real world. Consider the Swingline red stapler, which became an actual product after gaining popularity in the movie Office Space. Or the series of gripping mystery novels supposedly authored by the main character of the ABC series Castle, which went on to become best-sellers.
But have you ever pondered how certain real-life businesses or products drew inspiration from fictional sources? How did a chain of hotels come to be named after the fictional inn in a classic 1940s musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire? And did Nike truly bring to life the concept of self-lacing shoes, inspired by the iconic footwear worn by Marty McFly in Back to the Future? It’s endlessly intriguing to delve into the success stories that emerged from these imaginative ideas in the real world.
1. The Floor Piano From ‘Big’
In the 1988 film Big, a young boy named Josh undergoes a magical transformation, turning into a 30-year-old man. As part of his new adult life, he lands a job at a toy company. One day, he unexpectedly crosses paths with his boss at the renowned FAO Schwartz store in New York City. Their encounter takes a delightful turn when they decide to have some fun on a unique musical attraction called the “Big Piano” or “Walking Piano” located on the store’s floor.
Interestingly, this “Big Piano” was specifically created for the movie. It was invented by Remo Saraceni back in 1982. The piano caught the attention of Steven Spielberg’s sister, who spotted it at FAO Schwartz and shared her discovery with her brother. Consequently, Penny Marshall, the director of Big, requested Saraceni to design a special three-octave version of the piano for the film. In a 2013 interview with the New York Post, Marshall explained her motivation behind this request:
“At FAO Schwartz, there was a piano, but it didn’t produce the correct notes; it merely made noise. That was of no use to me. So, I approached the piano’s creator and said, ‘I need a workable version with this many playable notes.’ And the guy made me a functional piano.”
Following the film’s release, the “Big Piano” became a major attraction at FAO Schwartz’s flagship store, bringing joy to visitors for many years. Saraceni himself shared with the New York Post his observation about people’s love for the piano:
“People adore attempting to play ‘Chopsticks’ because of the movie. Even if you don’t have piano-playing skills, you can still have a go at it using your feet. The piano acts like a welcoming mat. As soon as you step on it and create music, you can’t help but see smiles all around.”
The original version of Saraceni’s piano found a home at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia until around 2013. Another variation of the piano was later produced by Kids Station Toys, who marketed it as the “Kid Station Toys: Step-On Piano.” This new version was made available for purchase through retailers like Target and Toys ‘R’ Us.
2. The Willy Wonka Candy Company From ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’
In 1964, Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was published. The story centers around five children, including Charlie Bucket, who discover Golden Tickets hidden in candy wrappers, granting them the opportunity to tour Willy Wonka’s renowned chocolate factory. This factory had been off-limits to the general public for quite some time.
Following the publication of his book, Dahl licensed the Wonka name to Mel Stuart, a film director. Stuart then directed the 1971 film adaptation of Dahl’s work, titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. To finance the film, David L. Wolper, the co-producer, managed to secure $3 million from the Quaker Oats Company. As part of the deal, Quaker Oats obtained the right to use the Wonka name in the sale of their candy bars.
On May 17, 1971, the “Wonka Bar” made its debut, just a month before the film’s release. Unfortunately, issues during the candy bar’s production led to its swift removal from store shelves. Nonetheless, Quaker Oats successfully marketed other candies associated with the film, such as Everlasting Gobstoppers and Scrumdiddlyumptious candy bars.
A revised version of the Wonka Bar later emerged, resembling a graham cracker covered in chocolate. In 1988, the Wonka Candy Company brand was acquired by Nestle. When the 2005 film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory hit theaters, Nestle launched an extensive marketing campaign for various types of Wonka candy. They even ran a promotion where five lucky Wonka Bars contained golden tickets worth $10,000.
However, in 2015, Nestle decided to discontinue the production of Wonka Bars. Nevertheless, some other Wonka Candy Company brand products can still be found on store shelves.
3. The Red Swingline Stapler From ‘Office Space’
In the 1999 black comedy Office Space, Milton Waddams is constantly overlooked by his co-workers at the software development company where he works. His bosses subject him to constant humiliation, giving him mundane tasks and frequently moving his workspace, until he ends up in the basement. To add insult to injury, they even take away his beloved red Swingline stapler, which is crucial for his job. Fed up with the mistreatment, he decides to follow through on his threat to burn down the building, and the charred remains of his cherished stapler are discovered amidst the ashes.
Interestingly, when the movie was released, Swingline did not actually produce a red stapler. The production team had to make do with a different stapler model, which they then painted red. However, fans of the film were so persistent in their desire to own a stapler like Milton’s that, in 2002, Swingline finally heeded their request and introduced a red version. Now known as the Swingline Rio Red 747 Business Stapler, this iconic item can be found in many places where staplers are sold and typically costs around $12.
4. Holiday Inn From ‘Holiday Inn’
In 1952, a developer named Kemmons Wilson decided to open a hotel in Memphis, TN. He was motivated by his disappointment with the quality of roadside accommodations during a road trip to Washington, D.C. He was particularly upset about motels charging him an additional $2.00 for each of his five children. This experience led him to make a promise to his wife that he would establish a hotel chain that did not charge extra for children. This trip was later described as “the vacation that changed the face of the American road” by author David Halberstam in his book The Fifties.
Wilson chose to name the hotel Holiday Inn, a suggestion made by his architect Eddie Bluestein as a joke. Bluestein had written the name on the blueprints, inspired by the 1942 Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire musical Holiday Inn. The film features a singer leaving his former act with Astaire and his ex-girlfriend to transform his farm into a hotel/entertainment venue that only operates on holidays. The movie is most famous for introducing the timeless song “White Christmas.”
The initial hotel proved to be a success, prompting Wilson to rapidly open more locations. By 1957, he had franchised the Holiday Inn chain. Similar to McDonald’s impact on the fast-food industry, the success of the family-friendly Holiday Inn chain brought about a significant revolution in the hotel industry.
5. The Mighty Ducks Hockey Team From ‘The Mighty Ducks’
The Mighty Ducks, a film released in 1992, revolves around an arrogant defense attorney who is sentenced to coach a youth ice hockey team as part of his community service for drunk driving. Despite his disdain for the sport due to his negative experiences in his youth, he transforms the underdog team into a united group that eventually wins the championship.
Following the film’s release, in October 1992, the National Hockey League (NHL) granted the Walt Disney Company the rights to an expansion franchise in Anaheim, CA. Unsurprisingly, the team was named after the film: The Mighty Ducks. To secure the rights, the company paid a $50 million franchise fee, with half going to the existing NHL franchise, the Los Angeles Kings, as compensation for sharing the Greater LA media market.
Sportswriter CJ Woodling highlighted that the expansion franchise initially struggled to gain credibility. This was partly due to the perception that the Walt Disney Company primarily saw the team as a means to promote its brand:
“When the Mighty Ducks name was announced, along with the branding and Disney’s ownership of the team, many traditional markets and journalists didn’t take the team seriously; they were dismissed as a joke. For several years, it was evident that the Walt Disney Company placed more importance on cost-saving and maximizing marketing returns than on building a championship-winning team.”
In the early years, Mighty Ducks merchandise consistently outsold that of all other NHL teams combined, reportedly accounting for 80 percent of the league’s $1 billion in merchandising revenue. In 1998, Steven Brill, the writer/creator of the Mighty Ducks film franchise, sued the Walt Disney Co., claiming he was entitled to a share of merchandise gross revenues, as well as a percentage of the NHL team’s gross revenues.
In 2005, the Walt Disney Company sold the franchise to Henry Samueli and his wife for a reported $75 million. Subsequently, before the 2006-07 season, the team underwent a name change to become the Anaheim Ducks.
6. The Whistle Stop Café From ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’
In both Fanny Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and its 1991 film adaptation, Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison Bennett start the Whistle Stop Café, which becomes a haven for hobos seeking a meal during the Great Depression in a small Alabama town. Unfortunately, Ruth eventually succumbs to cancer, and with the closure of the local railroad yard, the town falls into decline, leading to the café’s closure.
Flagg drew inspiration for the fictional Whistle Stop Café from the real-life Irondale Café, which had been owned by her great aunt in the past. The novel and film brought fame and increased business to the café, even though Flagg’s great aunt had already sold it years before the publication of the novel.
However, it’s important to note that the Irondale Café did not serve as a substitute for the fictional Whistle Stop Café in the film adaptation. Instead, the movie was shot in Juliette, GA, and a former 1927 general store was transformed into the fictional café. The building was covered in kudzu, so the director decided to film the final scenes first before removing the kudzu and converting the building into a café.
Upon the completion of filming, the building’s owners decided to keep it as a café and named it after the famous fictional one from the movie. It continues to operate to this day.
7. Duff Beer From ‘The Simpsons’
The animated series, The Simpsons, first aired in 1989 and has featured various fictional products over its 30+ year run. Among these, the most popular is Duff Beer, which is Homer Simpson’s favorite beer and is known for its slogan, “can’t get enough of that wonderful Duff.”
In 1995, an Australian brewery called Lion Nathan attempted to take advantage of the show’s popularity by producing a real version of Duff Beer, even going as far as copying the logo of the fictional brew. The brewery believed that the Duff name had strong commercial appeal due to the show’s popularity and the fictional beer. They thought that a simple commercial with the tag line “Mmmmm… beer!” would be enough to market their version of Duff Beer.
However, Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, and the television studio sued Lion Nathan and eventually won the case. Nonetheless, several thousand cases of the beer had already been distributed. In 2007, Groening revealed that he had considered giving permission for a real-life Duff Beer earlier but decided against it to avoid promoting underage drinking.
Despite this, there are currently three official versions of Duff Beer available for purchase near The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios. In 2015, 20th Century Fox began selling an authorized version of Duff Beer in Chile, describing it as a “premium lager” with a “caramel aromatic.” According to Jeffrey Godsick, an executive at 20th Century Fox, the studio made this move to counter the distribution of unofficial versions of Duff Beer that had gained popularity in Chile.
Godsick mentioned in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that when faced with widespread piracy, a company has two choices: to fight against it or to embrace it and enter the market.
8. The Automatic Lacing Shoes From ‘Back to the Future Part II’
The 1989 film Back to the Future Part II showcased Marty McFly wearing Nike “Air MAGs” tennis shoes with automatic shoelaces and light-up panels. These kicks became iconic, although they were purely fictional. Tinker Hatfield, the lead designer at Nike, had come up with the idea and even filed a design patent for the shoe. However, it was not an actual product outside of the movie.
Nike received numerous requests and petitions over the years, urging them to create a real version of Marty McFly’s shoes. Tinker Hatfield assigned the task to Tiffany Beers, a young plastics engineer. By 2007, she had developed a working prototype with lights, but it required constant connection to an electrical outlet. Unfortunately, the technology needed to produce a prototype resembling the shoes in the film did not exist at that time, so the project was put on hold for a couple of years.
Finally, in 2011, Nike released real “Air MAGs” that partially resembled the fictional ones worn by McFly. These shoes had working lights but lacked the automatic shoelaces. The release was limited to just 1,500 pairs, which were sold for charity. Nike explicitly warned that these shoes were not intended for heavy-duty use.
Undeterred, Nike continued their efforts to develop a fully functional self-lacing shoe. In 2016, they released an updated version of the “Nike MAGs,” with a general release of only 89 pairs. These were raffled off, and the proceeds were donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
9. The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company From ‘Forrest Gump’
Forrest Gump, the Oscar-winning film, features the main character sharing his life story with people he meets at a bus stop. One of the stories revolves around Forrest’s agreement to enter the shrimping business with his army friend, Bubba. Despite Bubba’s unfortunate fate in Vietnam, Forrest keeps his promise and establishes the Bubba Shrimp Company.
In 1995, an entrepreneur named Anthony Zolezzi acquired the licensing rights to the Bubba Shrimp Company name from Paramount Pictures. Zolezzi mentioned to the New York Times that they didn’t anticipate entering the movie shrimp business. However, they were actively seeking products that would appeal to retail consumers. Upon watching the movie, they realized that the Bubba Gump brand had received exceptional exposure and promotion that they couldn’t replicate.
Initially, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. sold prepackaged shrimp items in supermarkets across the United States and internationally. However, in 1996, Zolezzi received a proposal from a friend who wanted to license the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company name for a seafood restaurant. To make this happen, Zolezzi consulted with Paramount and the Rusty Pelican restaurant chain. As a result, the first Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant opened in Monterrey, CA in 1996.
Fast forward to 2010, when Landry’s Inc. acquired the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. chain of 32 restaurants. The exact price of this acquisition remains undisclosed.
10. Stay-Puft Quality Marshmallows From ‘Ghostbusters’
In the 1984 film Ghostbusters, there’s this character called Gozer the Gozerian. He’s like this god of destruction who wants to bring about the end of the world. Towards the end of the movie, he transforms into the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. You know, that cute little marshmallow dude that represents a certain brand.
Now, here’s the interesting part. In 2010, a company called Omni Consumer Products decided to make Stay-Puft Marshmallows a real thing. Like, you could actually buy them! Each bag cost $19.90, which is kinda steep for marshmallows if you ask me. These marshmallows are now part of the Campfire Marshmallows product lineup.
So, basically, what was once a fictional mascot and brand of marshmallows in a movie became a real-life treat that you could actually munch on. Weird, right?