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Selling Out to Prove a Point: Morgan Spurlock on His New Film, 'POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold'

The 'Super Size Me' director discusses the making of his corporate-sponsored documentary about the nefarious presence of corporate sponsorship.
 
 
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Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who ate McDonald’s exclusively for a month to document its effects in the movie Super Size Me, has now taken on product placement and marketing in entertainment. For POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock approached companies asking them to sponsor a blockbuster documentary, or a “doc-buster,” with the promise that he would integrate their products. In the film, the audience sees the pitch meetings and behind the scenes negotiations with companies such as POM Wonderful (the main sponsor, clearly), JetBlue, Old Navy, and Mini Cooper, while consumer advocate Ralph Nader and linguist and activist Noam Chomsky comment on the effects of marketing on our daily lives. 

In San Francisco, wearing a jacket emblazoned with his sponsors’ logos, Spurlock sat down with AlterNet to talk about the origin and making of this film – and how he ended up using the system to subvert the system.

Emily Wilson: Was this the movie you expected to make?

Morgan Spurlock: The film lived up to and exceeded my expectations. The fact that we actually got brands to come on board and pay for this movie was amazing. The fact that we maintained creative control and were able to rip open this world on our own and get them to pay for it is also pretty phenomenal. I was blown away every time we got into a room and would shoot something and get interviews or comments from people you would ordinarily never get to see or be privy to. It was pretty awesome.

Every conversation in a boardroom, every conversation in negotiations, all the pitches – these are things I’ve never seen in a movie. I think this really shows you how the entertainment business works and product placement and branding. You get a real sense of what the driving forces behind marketing and advertising are.

EW: How did you get to maintain creative control?

MS: One of the best scenes in the film is when you see we pitch them ideas for a spot that’s going to run in the film, and they say, “You know, we’d like you to make this commercial spot.” So they literally pitch you a piece that is so self-serving and manipulating in its message that if you saw it by itself you wouldn’t know any better. But by seeing it in the context of film where you saw the conversations that led to this commercial, it’s eye-opening. Was it eye-opening for you, too?

People say, “Well, everyone knows product placement is out there,” but after you watch The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, you will never watch film and television the same way again. It will change the way you watch entertainment. It will change what you see in entertainment. All the marketing you’ll see on your computer when you turn it on, when you go into a bathroom and all the pictures on the walls in front of the stalls will suddenly have even more impact. You’ll go, “Wow, I’m being advertised to here and here.” You will become so hyper-aware after you see this movie it will really alter your perception.

EW: Was that your goal when you made it?

MS: I never go into a film saying, “We’re going to prove this,” because I think that’s a really terrible way to make films. I think you can’t go in trying to prove a point. You’re putting yourself on a path for failure by saying that’s what you’re going to accomplish. Ultimately what we do is we create an experiment, we create an environment where we say we’re going to explore a topic not knowing where it’s going to lead.

You know, we’re going to make a film that’s all about product placement and advertising and actually get a company to pay for it. The fact that that happened is remarkable. The fact that I was able to maintain the final cut of the film with all these brands it’s not just one or two, by the time the film comes out in theaters there will be 23 promotional partners out spreading the word in theaters. Just for that I think it’s a remarkable feat.

EW: Why was this a topic you wanted to explore?

MS: I love movies and I loved TV. I loved the show "Heroes" when it first came on. I thought it was an incredible idea. After the first season, the show started to fall apart a little bit. There started to be a rise in product placement in the show. In one episode, Hayden Panettiere, the cheerleader, comes home from school one day and her dad’s there and he’s like “Honey, your mom and I we’re really proud of you.” And he reaches in his pocket and as he does the camera dollies in front of the car and a Nissan logo goes through the frame and cuts back to him pulling the keys out of his pocket, rapt focus to her face as she goes, “The Rogue? The Nissan Rogue?! Oh my gosh, Dad, I can’t believe it’s the Rogue. The Rogue!”

And I was so dumbfounded. I was flabbergasted. My jaw was hanging agape down to my knees. Later on in the show she’s coming out of a party with her friends and she’s kind of sad and bummed, and it wasn’t such a good night and she says, “Come on, guys, let’s get out of here. To the Rogue!” So the next day I went to work and my producing partner and writing partner, Jeremy, was there, and he was as offended as I was by the show, and we talked about all the product placement we’d seen in movies and TV shows and that’s when we said what if we made a film about this topic and got the companies to foot the bill. How great would that be?

EW: Who did you start with to ask to fund the movie?

MS: The first place we went was the advertising agencies. You know, so first we called all the ad agencies to see who would help us. Not one would help us except Kirshenbaum and Bond, and that’s only because I’d known Richard Kirshenbaum for about 10 years. So then we said, OK, advertising agencies don’t want to help us. What about placement companies? Let’s call all of them, so we called all of them. Not a one of them wants to help us ‘cause no one wants to ruin the gravy train that is their job right now. So none of them will help us put products in the movie, and only two of them will go on camera and talk to us in the film.

So then we started calling the brands ourselves, and we probably called about 600 brands. We started with a A-list brands. I’d say Coke was probably the first company we called. If you’re going to make a doc-buster – a documentary blockbuster – if you’re going to make a film that big, you start at the top. So we started with Coke, we started with Pepsi, all the way down through the beverages until we ended up in front of POM Wonderful.

Shoe companies, same thing. You start with Nike, Reebok, all the way down the list the list. Cars, same thing. Airlines, you start with United, all the big international airlines until we actually made our way down to JetBlue. Hyatt was actually one of the three or four hotels we called. We called the Marriotts and the Hiltons and Hyatt came on board. So we started casting a really wide net with the biggest companies possible and ended up with the ones that made the movies the best.

EW: How did you get Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky to be in the movie?

MS: They were on our list from the beginning. I really wanted to talk to Ralph Nader. You know, Ralph Nader, public advocate, a man who’s been fighting for the little guy for decades. He’s been fighting against corporate influence. Noam Chomsky has written about the changing face of America for decades, who has commented more than once on the shifting and rising tide of corporate identity, and the impact it has on the individual.

EW: Why do you think they said yes?

MS: I think Noam Chomsky said yes because he probably had a fantastic assistant who said you should do this interview. I don’t think Noam Chomsky knew me from Adam. I don’t think he had any idea. You know, Supersize What?

Nader I had met once before and I literally called him out of the blue and said we’d love for you to do an interview and he said sure. And I said great. Here’s the funniest part about the Ralph Nader interview. When I showed up to interview him in D.C., he came walking into this library where we’re going to do the interview and said, “Well, if you’re going to interview me about product placement, I want to make sure I’ve placed some of my own products in there.” So on the table during the Ralph Nader interview are books written by Ralph Nader. It’s genius. What happens is you see such a sense of humor from both Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky. You see a side of Ralph Nader you’ve never gotten to see before.

EW: Did you feel like you were using the system to subvert the system?

MS: Definitely. We are literally using its own tools against it. When I was making Super Size Me, it was trying to use all the advertising tools, some of the pop and the flash of what makes fast food marketing so attractive. With this it was even on a deeper level where we’re literally letting the companies pay for it to be a part of that conversation and they’re paying to have their product in here while they’re also paying to have us pull the veil away.

EW: Do you think there’s any sort of changes people will want to make after seeing this, or do you just think they’ll be more aware?

MS: I think at some point there will be a backlash to the amount of marketing and advertising in our world. I think most people don’t know about Sao Paolo and what they’ve done, which is banning outdoor advertising within city limits. The whole idea behind the Clean City Act was the mayor said, “We have a city that’s filled with pollution and filled with problems. Before we can see those problems, we need to eliminate the distractions.”

So now once they took away what he calls the visual pollution, now people will be able to see what else needs to be fixed. The way you go there and interact with that city now is incredible. You react with people differently. You react with the environment differently because it’s not all about trying to sell you a widget. I think a city in America, like Seattle or Portland or even San Francisco, might try that.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Story Ever Soldopens this Friday, April 22.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer.