He’s eaten nothing but McDonald’s food for a month (in Super Size Me), travelled to dangerous hot-spots in the Middle East to track down the most wanted man in the world (in Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?) and spent time in a tough Virginia prison (in the TV series 30 Days).
But in POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock tackles what could be his greatest challenge yet: Product placement in Hollywood.
In his new documentary, Spurlock sets out to learn how placing subtle and not-so-subtle ads in movies works, and then sets out to make his own film in which he shills products for promised cash. Audiences follow the loquacious West Virginia-born filmmaker as he calls on scores of companies in hopes of securing corporate tie-ins for their goods in his project, and journeys behind closed doors to boardrooms where big-time marketing decisions are made. In the meantime, a very lucrative and once clandestine part of the movie business is revealed.
The movie is all about selling out, and manages to be both a total sell-out and an examination of the practice at the same time. By film’s end, you sense that Spurlock never met a product he didn’t want to have in his film.
And since the movie is all about peddling products and services by way of Spurlock’s affable huckster demeanor, expect to see images of the man with the Fu Manchu mustache all over the place in real-life, too. If not already, his mug will be plastered at supermarkets, airplanes pet stores and gas stations near you.
In town for a promotional stop the day after an enthusiastic sold-out screening at Philadelphia Cinefest, the 40-year-old Spurlock is revved up, wearing a black sports jacket emblazoned with logos of such companies as JetBlue, Hyatt Hotels, Sheetz Gasoline, Old Navy, Mini-Cooper and Amy’s Pizza, while swigging on a bottle of pomegranate juice made available from POM Wonderful, the drink company that pitched in more lucre than the others to get their name above the title of his project.
MovieFanFare: What was the spark for this POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold?
Morgan Spurlock: We had just finished working on (the documentary) Freakonomics and we were trying to figure out what we would do next. We saw a replay of the episode of Heroes where Hayden Panettiere comes out of school, she’s all sad and depressed, and her father says, “Honey, we’re really proud of you. And I got a surprise for you.” He reaches into his pocket, the camera cuts to the front of the car and dollies past the logo on the car and then it goes back to the father holding keys in from of her face. And it’s the Nissan Rogue, and she goes “It’s the Rogue? I can’t believe it’s the Nissan Rogue! It’s the Rogue, it’s the Rogue.”
MFF: How did you react to this?
MS: And so I was dumbfounded—I was watching a commercial in the middle of a TV show! Season one of Heroes is one of the best TV series ever created. It was amazing; it was bananas, it was so good. Then season two jumped the shark so bad. One of the reasons was that they put all of this product placement in the show. Later on in the episode, she’s leaving the party and she’s all upset, and she says “Guys, let’s get out of here. To the Rogue!” Come on. So I get to work the next day, I couldn’t believe it—I was so upset with what had happened in that show. My producing partner had seen it too, and we began talking about that episode and we started to delve into all the product placement we’d seen in TV and film over the years—you name it, there was so much terrible stuff. And we said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we made a film that tore apart the world of product placement and advertising and you get paid for it by the brands!” A light went off and we literally steamrolled from there. So thank you, NBC and Heroes.
MFF: Do you find it difficult to balance the humor of your films with the serious side of your subjects?
MS: I think through humor, you can deal with the bleakest and most awful subjects. If you can make people laugh, you can make people listen. Humor becomes an equalizer. When you make people laugh, their guard comes down, they’re not nearly as protected or safe with what they want to hear. If you start telling me what to do or tell people what to do—“You have to do this,” “This is what’s wrong” and “The world’s going to hell in a handbasket!”—I just shut down. People who make me laugh and engage me on a different level have my attention. So I think that’s the biggest thing I want to do.
MFF: Do you entertain thoughts of doing a narrative film and would you consider using product placement in it?
MS: If I did a big giant crazy Hollywood movie, I don’t know how you can avoid it. It’s part of what the Hollywood system does now. I am attached to a couple movies now that aren’t big, giant things that are big independent films—one of them is with Apian Way, which is Leonardo DiCaprio’s company, and there’s another with a different production house. One is a comedy, one is an Erin Brockovich-type drama. I can’t imagine there being product placement in either one.
One of the things I really wanted to have happen in this film is have companies with which you have real ethical dilemmas about their inclusion. McDonald’s would be much more (of a dilemma) for me than for you. But I called BP and I said, “You guys need some real positive integrity right now.” BP didn’t want to do it. I called gun manufacturers. I was like, “C’mon, you could have the greatest rifle anyone has ever owned.” They said no. Then there was a part in my contract with Hyatt that said what I can and can’t do, that said I couldn’t have illegal firearms in the hotel. I said we have a gun manufacturer and I have a legal firearm in the hotel. So I could be in my room cleaning my legal firearm in a scene. We tried but we couldn’t (secure the gun company). One of the things we wanted to try to do was just push our boundaries to as close as what our contract said we could, to kind of walk that line of being on their side and being on our side. And I think the film does a good job of that.
MFF: Tell us about your city.
MS: On, April 27, we will have a ceremony in Altoona, PA where I will present the mayor a check for $25,000, and he will change the name for 60 days to POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pennsylvania.
MFF: Anybody have any regrets in terms of turning you down for representation in the film?
MS: All the clothing companies turned us down. Old Navy had turned us down. And we did an incredible shoot for Tommy Hilfiger. It looked like a spread out of GQ, they were so great. They said “We really like it, but no.” So they all said no up until Old Navy was at Sundance. They were at the premiere of Sundance and their CEO, Amy Curtis-McIntyre, saw it—she was the CEO at Hyatt at the time. She got Hyatt on board, then she left and Old Navy still didn’t want to do it. She wanted to see the film because she got Hyatt through. After the film, she said she wanted in. She said, “We have to be a part of this film.”
MFF: Was there anything of note that was edited out of the film that some of the companies objected to, or that you wish could have been in there?
MS: We shot 375 hours, and some of the outtakes will be on the DVD. Most of the funny stuff made it into the film. We did a Hyatt commercial as a musical number dancing through the hotel, but once we looked at it, we realized we couldn’t pull it off for $100,000.
MFF: Were there any filmmakers that were critical of you or the whole product placement universe as it exists?
MS: We had a great interview with Adam McKay, who directed Talladega Nights. His interview was spectacular. It will be on the DVD. It didn’t fit into the mesh of the other ones because the only thing his could only (reference) was when they did Talladega Nights, which, almost like this film, was a spoof upon itself. You know, it was such a brilliant satire. There were directors I really wanted to talk to. I wanted to talk to Michael Bay. He had just started the third Transformers and it was impossible to talk to him. His films are like potted plants in the promotional canvas. I wanted to talk to Jon Favreau, after having just done the first and second Iron Man movies, especially since Iron Man 2 last year was listed as the film with the most product placements, with 64 different placements.
I really wanted to talk to an A-list actor, and I really wanted an actor who, in the middle of a scene, went (holds up an imaginary can of soda and takes a swig, ala a commerical) “Well, yes…” That’s so completely, blatant, obvious. But we couldn’t get an A-list actor to talk to us. Couldn’t even get an A-list actor to comment. They (all) said “We’re really busy now. I got so much going on.” I would have loved to have heard people talking how they put the crap in their craft.
MFF: Do you think POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold could have any effect on the product placement/entertainment world in any way? After all, McDonald’s changed their menu after Super Size Me came out.
MS: I think everyone can do better. I hate seeing someone giving me an advertisement in the middle of a show. I also hate seeing somebody drinking a white can that says “beer” on it because it draws attention to fake things, especially when something is supposed to be happening in reality. So I love that Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith create these worlds surrounded by fake products. You know someone lives in this alternative universe, and I think that’s awesome. But when you’re trying to create something that lives in the real world, you have to have real products. I am a realist. At the same time, you don’t have to create products or have everyone calling a 555 phone number. I want things to be constructed in reality. And people drive Camaros and they wear Reeboks, or they drink Coca-Cola. So seeing that stuff in there doesn’t bother me.
It bothers me much more when it is turned into spots. You have these brands that are in the writer’s rooms literally writing pitches into dialogue or conversations into dialogue, like “Boy, I’m having a great time, doesn’t that new Mustang handle like a dream.” Nobody says that, so don’t put that in a movie or a television show. I think they need to eject every brand from the writer’s room. I think anybody that’s with a corporation should have no business being in a creative conversation. I think every one of these people should be removed from the equation. And I think they have to sensitize writers to—if that’s going to be something that happens, they have to figure out how to benefit a studio, not to benefit what they are doing.