Back to IndieWire

Morgan Spurlock’s “Greatest Movie”: “Maybe there can be more ‘docbusters’ now.”

Morgan Spurlock's "Greatest Movie": "Maybe there can be more 'docbusters' now."

It’s a challenge to criticize product placement in a film when the whole movie centers on the art of selling out. Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me,” “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?”) goes full tilt with this in his latest, “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

Fully financed through product placement from brands ranging from wellness drink POM, Hatt and Jet Blue, to shampoo maker Mane ‘n Tail, Old Navy and Movietickets.com, Spurlock again holds a mirror to society and questions a modern-day mainstay that has become a fixture of daily life.

“Greatest Movie” dissects the marketing process, taking viewers behind closed doors into pitch meetings. Branding has long been a fixture in Hollywood, though nonfiction filmmaking is relatively virgin territory. With the gusto he is now famous for — from devouring super-sized fries or on the hunt in Pakistan for the world’s most elusive terrorist — Spurlock takes on another area of popular culture and brands it on screen.

So I hear “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” came about after an informal chat in your office with your co-workers?

[Laughs] We had watched an episode of “Heroes.” Hayden Panettiere, the cheerleader, was given a car by her father in the beginning of the episode, and he said, “Your mother and I are very proud of you…” and as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the keys, the camera [pans] the Nissan logo in front of the car and cuts back to him holding them in front of her face. The camera focuses on her face and as it does, she’s like, “The Rogue! The Nissan Rogue, dad? I can’t believe it’s the Rogue!”

The next day, I get to work and I was like, “So, I just saw a commercial in the show.” [Writer/producer] Jeremy Chilnick saw the same thing, and he said, “Yeah, I saw the same thing, can you believe that? It was terrible, I can’t believe I just saw that. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” We started talking about terrible product placement in TV shows. Then we said, “You know what would be a fun movie, what if we made a film about product placement and advertising and we get it paid for by product placement and advertising?” Then at that moment, the light went on and from that moment, we started brainstorming.

So when you went to these businesses, you were transparent about what you were planning to do. Were you taken aback by their reaction to it?

I was more taken aback that people said, “Great, here’s a check…”

Well, I was going to say… [laughs] Were they afraid not to?

The fact that we found 22 companies that said ‘yes’ is remarkable. I think that’s the most surprising thing. It took us calling every ad agency, of which only one would help us, and it took calling every product placement company, of which none would help us and only two would go on camera to do interviews. And then it took me and [producer] Abbie Hurewitz cold-calling 600 companies to be in the film, of which 578 said, “no.”

And you said, “this is Morgan Spurlock, you may know of me…”

[Laughs] You may know me for such films as… yeah!

Do you think some of them agreed to do this because they were afraid of getting their ass kicked, so to speak?

Maybe, but I know that’s why a lot of them didn’t. A lot of them were like, “I’ve seen what you have done to this other company, we don’t want anything to do with this movie — we don’t trust you.”

So POM, for instance… you were surprised when they came on board with this idea, right?

Absolutely! We were only talking to them about being ‘the greatest beverage’ and were pitching them to be the ‘above the title sponsor,’ and literally in that meeting they said, “Yeah, we’re going to do it,” so it was pretty remarkable.

So then this project was already a bit of a cash cow going into the production?

We decided to go forward with this in January 2009 and the first company didn’t even say yes until nine months later. So literally for nine months there was shooting and cold calling all the agencies and product placement companies and brands for all that time. So, the first company that said yes in August was POM in October and Hyatt was around November. So we were piecemealing along and we had nine or 10 of the brands on board by February of the next year.

Did this process change your opinion about product placement generally?

I think for this film it works so great because it works completely. It is what the idea is. I’m a realist. I agree with what J.J. Abrams says: “I like storytelling and not story-selling.” But I’m also taken aback when I see people on the screen drink something that’s called “Beer” or a kid drinking “Sugared Flakes.” It’s like, put real products out there. Kids eat Frosted Flakes. For me, I’m taken aback when I see fake things, but I’m even more taken aback when something starts out with an extreme close up on Corn Flakes, and then someone says, “Are you going to have a second bowl of corn flakes?” It’s like, is that really where the conversation is?

There is one strict stipulation that one company had put on your film and you eventually got out of it, how did you manage that?

Oh, about them wanting to have creative control… And there were multiple brands that wanted creative control of the movie — almost every contract we received had like 50 pages thick with demands. So we kept pushing back, kept pushing back and we whittled it down to 20 pages. And one of the first things we pushed back on was final cut of the movie. We said, ‘Of course you can’t have that, are you out of your mind?’ And they said, ‘Well, we get to approve how we are integrated into the film in every frame,’ and we said, ‘Absolutely not!’ Again, they were asking for the moon.

We had 15 companies on this movie at that time, so we were able to break it down to a creative consultation and said that we’ll talk about how you will be integrated into the film and we’ll let you see the film and see it before its release theatrically. Then it got into Sundance and they said, “We should see the movie before it goes to Sundance — you should come to our boardroom and show it to us,” and I said, “Absolutely not!” That would be the worst idea, showing it to a boardroom in a narrow tunnel while lawyers are sitting around going, “Oh my god, look how terrible we look…”

So I said, “no, what you guys should do is come to Sundance,” and they said, “No, that’s a film festival, that’s a release,” and I said, “Nah, it’s just a film festival, it’s fine, it’s just a little film festival, it’s fine…” So 11 of the brands came to Sundance to see it play with an audience and it made all the difference in the world. They saw a real audience, they saw a real response and it wasn’t just them dissecting their own brand’s involvement and they saw the big picture. Here were 11 brands coming down in front getting a standing ovation.

My favorite line still to this day was this woman in the front row at Sundance during the Q&A saying, “I applaud all you guys for being brave enough to make this movie. And I want you to know, I’m going to support you guys more, I’m going to buy more of your products…” Then there’s applause, and then she said: “But I’m conflicted by that — because I know that’s what the whole movie is all about…” It was pretty fantastic.

So after the movie, they were on board?

Literally as we went out to a reception afterward, they were excited and said, “Maybe we can do this to co-promote the film, or do this…” They were excited.

Maybe you’re revolutionizing the marketing approach to docs?

Maybe there can be more docbusters now. [laughs]

Well, what do you think about that? What do you think of emerging filmmakers trying to integrate product placement now after this? Emerging filmmakers have a hard time making a movie. Even you have a hard time making a movie now, never mind when you were first starting out, as I’m sure you can remember.

To get anyone to give you money — to give you a meeting and pay attention to you is so impossible. For documentary, I don’t know how you integrate product without it being weird. [Jokes] “The Honda Prelude has to drive by five times in the shot, we must see it and figure it out…” I don’t know how you can do that for docs without it compromising what it is. But for independent narratives, if a guy is going to drive a pickup truck, then sure we’ll give you a Dodge pickup truck and 20 grand, why not? The movie is going to live forever and he has to drive a pickup anyway, why not a Ford, why not a Chevy? If it doesn’t hurt your creative and you’re a small filmmaker, why not?

How much do you think society in general notices these products?

After you watch this movie, it will change the way you watch film and television forever. You will completely dissect everything, you will see it all now. And not only will you see it in the movie, but after making this film, I’ve become so sensitive to it in the outside world, I see it everywhere. I see marketing and advertising everywhere I go now. And I think that level of awareness is a great thing.

One of the questions that comes out of the film is, where do we draw the line? There’s a great line that comes from the woman who sells advertising to school districts. I asked her, “Why are people so upset about ads coming into schools?” And she said, “Well, schools are meant to be sacred.” And what I think the film does is show is that there is no sacred space unless you shut the door to your room, maybe. But don’t turn on the TV, don’t use your phone, don’t use your computer…

But you went to a city in South America where this level of advertising is gone, right?

I went to Sao, Paulo, Brazil 2004 with “Super Size Me” and this is a city that is like LA — spread out and lots of high rises. In 2004 there were ads everywhere, and to go back now and see it all gone was [amazing]. The mayor there said that he wanted to get rid of all the visual pollution, and now, nobody hates it.

This will never happen in New York or Los Angeles, but I could imagine it in a place like San Francisco, or Seattle or Portland, OR. Some place that has a real relationship with their environment. In New York, we don’t have a relationship with trees and grass, but in places like San Francisco, they have a real relationship with their environment and that sort of thing could conceivably happen.
It’s a challenge to criticize product placement in a film when the whole movie centers on the art of selling out. Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me,” “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?”) goes full tilt with this in his latest, “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

Fully financed through product placement from brands ranging from wellness drink POM, Hatt and Jet Blue, to shampoo maker Mane ‘n Tail, Old Navy and Movietickets.com, Spurlock again holds a mirror to society and questions a modern-day mainstay that has become a fixture of daily life.

“Greatest Movie” dissects the marketing process, taking viewers behind closed doors into pitch meetings. Branding has long been a fixture in Hollywood, though nonfiction filmmaking is relatively virgin territory. With the gusto he is now famous for — from devouring super-sized fries or on the hunt in Pakistan for the world’s most elusive terrorist — Spurlock takes on another area of popular culture and brands it on screen.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged ,