Published Aug 25, 2011Having made a name for himself by threatening his health and barfing in parking lots after eating McDonald's for every meal for a month in Super Size Me, documentarian Morgan Spurlock is known as an ersatz populist anti-establishment champion. After convincing McDonald's to drop their "Super Size" campaign, he had the weight of sophomore jinx on his shoulders, leaving Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden to flop both critically and financially. Now, with his third feature-length documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock is back to tackling corporate America with the clever gimmick of funding a doc about product placement with product placement. And now that the film is making its way to DVD and Blu-ray, the New York-based documentarian has taken some time to talk to Exclaim! about the process of making the film and how he feels about mass advertising.
So, have you fulfilled all of the contractual obligations set out in the many corporate agreements made for The Greatest Movie Ever Sold?
Yeah, we're doing pretty well. We've hit the media impressions and worldwide screens. It's just coming out DVD now, so there's still some work to do there. We didn't quite get a million in the U.S. at the box office and it's just going international now, so the $10 million goal hasn't happened. The likelihood of achieving it is slim, but a kid can dream.
Of these obligations, what was the most difficult or degrading one to fulfill?
I don't know. The thing is that if this whole silly exercise wasn't my idea, it all would have been more difficult and everything would have been degrading. But these things (the advertisements, placements and gimmicks) all came out of my own pitches. I had nobody to blame but myself. Also, luckily the NASCAR-inspired suit I wore on the Jimmy Kimmel show was well-fitting. But seriously, I was working hard to get out the message of the film and it got such an incredible response from the media. The hardest part about making a film is promoting it. And, I mean, just in the States alone, it has generated, like, five million media impressions.
Did you find dealing with corporations any different than dealing with film studio execs?
I think it's different mainly because in the world of making films people think it's artistic, but in corporate advertising people don't really see it as something artistic. It is very much a cut and dry business where making money and making sound business decisions is the bottom line. Essentially, there is a finite amount of money and a high level of expectations and return on investment for that money.
What was your most amusing or surreal experience or rejection?
Oh, countless. We did about 500 to 600 cold calls right off the bat and when I was on the phone with A&F [Abercrombie & Fitch], a lady asked me if I wanted an honest answer as to why they wouldn't use me to promote their product. So, I said okay and she then proceeded to tell me that I was old, pale, out of shape, balding and so on.
That's kind of like what happened with Guess in the film.
Yeah, Guess said they would never be in the Morgan Spurlock business. It doesn't bother me. I'm from New York, so I prefer being stabbed in the front.
I'm from Canada, where everyone is just passive-aggressive. So, did you approach McDonald's?
Had to. The goal was to create a documentary/blockbuster and you can't without a fast-food product. With every sponsor, you start at the top of the period and work your way down the period until you get a sponsor. That's how we got POM Wonderful and JetBlue. It was the same thing with McDonald's. I called them over and over again ― and they never called me back ― and then we went down the line until we got Sheetz. We did the same thing with convenience stores: 7-11 said no, Circle K no...
How do you think the documentary would have been different if you weren't limited by contractual product obligations?
What people need to understand is that when you get into business with a brand, it's not a 30 or 40 percent chance of corrupting the content. It's a 100 percent chance. But here it works since the movie is about the manipulation of content. You know, I had to only drink POM; I had to interview at JetBlue. I think it helps change how you look at film and television and I think anytime that you can have someone suddenly become aware of their manipulation, it's a great awakening.
Did these obligations influence the decision to make the documentary in part about your own branding and ideological struggle with the notion of selling out?
Anytime we start a film we think of how it might play out in a perfect world. We imagine the most perfect film and inevitably, nothing on that list never happens. The way I make documentaries is by spinning a top and seeing where it takes us. It's a very organic process, wherein we just keep opening doors to see where they we go. Ultimately, the film exceeded my expectations. I mean, there are a lot of layers in there that resonate with people.
Did your perception of yourself and your image change while making this documentary?
Not really. When I had my brand analyzed (in the film), I think that what they thought of me was pretty bang-on. What was funny about is that once we took that data about my brand to different companies and brands they took it more seriously simply because it was written in a professional format.
There were some brief discussions about the social implications of constant mass marketing and advertising, such as how that inspires constant personal measurement and wish fulfillment ideation in people from a very young age. Would you have explored this idea more without the need to appease corporate sponsors?
Nobody dictated what we couldn't put in the film. We showed the benefits of Sao Paolo and how they've banned advertising for years. I'm sure the companies would have loved for us not to talk about that or what is happening in our school systems with advertising. These brands are co-opting kids from a young age and the very fact that there are advertisements in school is manipulating that message. This is where kids are learning how to deal with the world, so what does it mean when they're being marketed there?
Like, wear Lancome to the prom in order to get noticed.
Exactly, I think it was enough to get across that advertising was in our schools. Just being having it shown in that medium makes it be perceived in a different way.
Can you think of any way that product placement is actually of benefit for culture?
Well, it paid for this whole movie. I think there's a way for there to be a balance. People forget that when radio and television started, they existed just to get you to buy things. All the shows were written by advertisers and copywriters, which we've grown from substantially. Television writers have far more freedom now to leverage the artistic side of their shows, which shows that there's a way to not go full circle; to not to have people dancing around in cigarette costumes hoping to sell you something. I also think that putting POM Wonderful at the helm of this movie is really no different than putting a Paramount logo before one of their films. It's just putting a name at the top of a product. As Peter Berg said in the film, GE could give a flying fuck about art.
Do you still use Mane and Tail? Did you find it hard to keep a straight face while sitting in a bathtub with a Shetland pony?
Once you're in bed with a horse, or a bathtub it's hard to keep a straight face. After a few takes you get used to it, but yeah, at first it's hard not to laugh. I actually still have a giant bottle of Mane & Tail in my shower. That bottle will last you months because it's seriously huge. Actually, I'm willing to be that I could get free Mane & Tail for the rest of my life.
And they were one of the sponsors that didn't pay to be in the film.
Yeah, After I watched the film, I thought we should point out what brands actually paid to be in the film, but there's a difference between hard cash and soft cash. For example, Amy's Frozen Pizza didn't pay to be in the film, but they did offer a cross-promotion by putting stickers on all of their pizzas and in stores.
Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming documentary on Comic-Con?
Yeah, it's a film all about the pop culture mecca of Comic-Con in San Diego. It speaks to everything I love: comic books, videogames, horror films. I mean, when I was a kid, I wanted to be someone like Rick Baker or Tom Savini. I idolized them. When I first went to Comic-Con, I looked around and thought that the place alone was a film. Also, I managed to get a geek dream team on boards with Joss Whedon, Harry Knowles, and so on.
Will you be coming to Toronto for its premiere at TIFF?
We'll be up there opening weekend, so we're stoked. This is the first film I've directed that's got into TIFF, so I'm really excited about that.