Buy Me: Morgan Spurlock Sells His 'Greatest Movie'
Morgan Spurlock's latest documentary, PomWonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, opens April 22 through Sony Pictures Classics. Like his Oscar-nominated Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie stars Spurlock as a gleeful, on-camera sociologist, but this time he's courting, rather than critiquing, Corporate America as he travels fromManhattan to Hollywood trying to land corporate sponsors...for a film about landing corporate sponsors.
No one minds seeing Tony Stark blatantly eating a Whopper or driving an Audi, but no self-respecting documentary director would sink to having a famous social activist like Ralph Nader fondle a pair of Merrell shoes to finance their film...right? No one but mischievous Morgan Spurlock.
"One thing I'm glad of is that I'm not driving some piece-of-shit Volkswagen right now," says Spurlock to the camera in The Greatest Movie, unapologetically smack-talking about the car company who turned him down as he fuels up a Mini Cooper at a Sheetz gas station, Cooper and Sheetz being two of the 20 sponsors who said yes to his quirky exercise in product placement. Spurlock funded The Greatest Movie entirely with money from companies who not only agreed to pay for product placement, but agreed to be filmed agreeing to place their products.
"After people watch this film," says a hopeful Spurlock, "I think they will start to look at everything a little differently, especially the way they are marketed and advertised to every single day of their lives." The filmmaker is a bit ambitious here, as The Greatest Movie is less a mind-cracking exposé of the insidious influence of advertising in movies than a playful, behind-the-scenes romp of a year of Spurlock pitching to, cajoling and charming corporate marketing hacks. Yet despite checking in with the aloof likes of Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, Spurlock actually makes a great media literacy point by making utterly transparent every single dollarthat funded his film.
Spurlock critics will cluck--as always--about how much screen time he gives himself, but he infuses this fast-paced film with plenty of laughs as he plays the spunky tour guide who takes you along as he squirms his way into places where there's something serious to learn about the unseenforces manipulating our culture.
And that wasn't easy, even for Spurlock. Despite his credibility as a bankable hipster, he had a hard time getting companies to play along on the record, thanks in part to Super Size Me. Says Spurlock: "As we're calling people they would say, ‘Well, I already saw what you did to that other company. Why am I gonna trust you?'" He made hundreds of cold calls along the way, even calling BP with the pitch, "You need a makeover" and, yes, he did phone McDonald's, who never returned his calls. "They so don't want to talk to me," Spurlock exclaims.
It took him nine months to land his first sponsor. The Greatest Movie captures the wholeordeal, as well as all the whispered machinations in rooms Spurlock claims "nobody ever got to film inside of," including meetings with some of Hollywood's most influential lawyers, agents and ad executives, and Spurlock's pitch to Lynda Resnick of Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice. The company ultimately bought the premium, million-dollar slot that included incorporation in the film's title and Resnick's requirements in kind that Spurlock deliver proof of 500,000 DVD/Download sales, $10 million in box office revenue and 600 million media hits.
But the key deal point Spurlock explicitly refused Resnick was control over his product. Spurlock refused Pom and all his sponsors any say in how their products--or even their corporate staff--came off in the film. He promised the chance to see the film before it was screened for the public, but nothing more. "You can't let another cook come in your kitchen, especially a cook with corporate interests," maintains Spurlock, who defines this as the difference between "selling out" and "buying in." "We would have had a ton of other brands come on board if we had let them have control of the final picture," he adds. He describes the 20 sponsors he ultimately landed as "brave enough to turn over their brand identity" to his sales pitch and personal charisma.
Spurlock advises doc directors who want to dance with corporate dollars to seek out those creative decision-makers like Resnick who align with the "ideology of your project" and have the guts to "let you retain full creative control of the film." In addition, having made hundreds of cold calls to ad agencies who refused to work with him, he advises filmmakers to bypass the ad agencies. "We called every ad agency that you could think of and none of them would help us," says Spurlock, who had his best success with adventurous decision-makers likeResnick. "Once some of these other brands started coming on board, they talked to their agencies and their agencies were like, ‘You shouldn't do this film.' They're like, ‘No, no, no, we'regonna make this movie. We're gonna do it with him'...Ultimately I think the more artists work directly with companies, the more creative you're gonna be able to be."
Yet Spurlock is not sure if he will try to land a corporate sponsor for his next film. "Will that translate into other docs? I don't know if I could," but adds, "There's always the sequel!"
Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance writer and frequent transcriber of hundreds of hours of field footage for documentaries and reality TV shows.