Documentary funnyman (and Academy Award nominee) Morgan Spurlock has had a tough run of late in theaters. Ever since his debut “Super Size Me” become a high-grossing indie phenomenon (it made North of $11 million domestically), Spurlock has seen his theatrical stock drop with each subsequent release.
In 2008, his “Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden” grossed $148,698 from 102 screens, ending up with just $384,955 in total. Last year, his much-hyped “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” averaged $6,572 from 18 screens en route to a $638,476 gross. And this year, Spurlock released his two biggest theatrical flops to date: “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” and “Mansome. The latter nose dived theatrically in May after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, averaging just $920 per theater (it opened in 20) in its first week of limited release. “Comic-Con” fared a bit better by averaging $2,734 when it opened on three screens in April.
With those dire numbers, you’d think Spurlock would be in a dampened mood when I caught up with him to discuss the VOD release of “Mansome” via FilmBuff. Fact is, he was far from it, speaking to Indiewire on the phone from Italy, where he’s celebrating his mother’s 70th birthday. His buoyant tone probably had to do with his good fortune on the VOD marketplace. Just this year saw “Comic-Con” do healthy business on demand despite not hitting it out of the park theatrically, and “Mansome” debuted on iTunes in first place as the most downloaded independent film, ahead of higher profile narrative titles like “Take This Waltz” and “2 Days in New York” (it currently holds third position).
“Mansome” seems poised to do good business on VOD given its raucous subject matter (what it means to be a man in today’s manscaping age) and star wattage (producer Jason Bateman and Will Arnett appear in the picture). Theatrically however, the film didn’t fare so well. What do you make of this new way to view movies? Do you regret going theatrical with it in the first place?
I think ultimately what’s happening right now is there’s a shift in the marketplace in general with independent films. I think that distributors are being incredibly savvy and also tight with where they want to spend their marketing and promotional budgets. They look at what a film like this costs and ultimately how much they can make on VOD or iTunes. I think people are being very smart about where they spend their money knowing they can recoup their investment once they hit video on demand and iTunes. This film is one of those — I think you’re absolutely right. It should do very well. Right now, I think it’s the number one indie film on iTunes.
There’s not a lot of documentaries that are making millions and millions of dollars. From the distributors standpoint, if you want to be smart about where you spend that money, and if you could spend more money towards pushing people towards a VOD release, then great. I think the frustration that a lot of filmmakers feel is that films just kind of get tossed away to VOD. Without having anything to drive that conversation or drive people to VOD, no one knows it’s there. It’s a tree falling in a forest and it’s just complete silence. If you acquire a film for $25,0000 or $50,000 and you’re able to make that back in two weeks or three weeks on a VOD run, like a lot of networks or distributors do, great. But if you have a film that has a small theatrical release, you have a much larger investment once it comes to a VOD marketplace.
Utimately as a filmmaker, you want to try and put films in some sort of a theatrical run before VOD, just because you’re going to get so much more press. You’re going to get much more attention about any film that goes into a movie theater than you ever will about a film that just opens on VOD. VOD is still seen as a secondary marketplace, just as a VHS tape or a DVD used to be seen.
Sounds like you don’t see yourself going down the route of VOD, minus theatrical. For now anyways…
I mean, you gotta look at “Comic-Con.” “Comic-Con” is an example where we really compressed that window. We still rely on the theatrical to drive our press, and luckily we had a tremendous amount of press around that film. We did as close to a day and day as we could working within the Academy rules. We opened that film in theaters on Thursday and by Friday, as the film expanded into San Francisco and Portland, Seattle, and the east coast like Boston, New York, DC, it also went nationwide on iTunes and on demand. For that film I thought it made a lot of sense. It was our goal from the beginning to make sure that we weren’t in a position like we were with “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” We had a tremendous amount of press and interest, and the rest of the country couldn’t see it.
How frustrated are you by the fact that press don’t report on VOD numbers, the way they do on theatrical ones?
Well, I think ultimately a lot of distributors don’t want to put those numbers out because again, those numbers probably aren’t what people want to hear. If you’re a distributor and you want to keep getting access to good movies, you don’t want people to know the reality of what they can really make. I think when you start seeing movies that are making tens of billions of dollars on VOD, people are going to be talking about those numbers.Now on to “Mansome.” It struck me while watching it that the film’s timely given the upcoming presidential election. So much focus is placed on how the male candidates look. Obama’s been pictured shirtless countless times, while Romney’s hair has also gotten its fair share of attention.
That is the power of TV. I think we live in a time now when how we look completely matters. Do I think we’ll ever see like a beast type guy elected President? I think Chris Christie’s going to have to find a treadmill if he actually wants to think that’s a reality. I think that we live in a time where how you see yourself, how you take care of yourself matters. I think that’s just where we are.
In following it up, do you plan to document the female antithesis to this?
Well, let’s wait and see how these VOD numbers turn out [laughs].
So what is next for you? The web’s been hyping up this mystery narrative project you’ve supposedly already begun shooting or start shooting soon.
I was just on the phone with the writer for an hour and a half literally before I spoke to you!
So what can you tell me about it, if anything?
I can tell you I just talked to the writer for an hour and a half about the re-write we’re doing right now. I thought I could tell you that!
Why so secretive?
Just because I don’t really like putting things out there until they’re like 100% happening, you know? When this thing is like 100% full board, train’s leaving the station, then you’ll hear what the whole thing is. But right now, it’s a film I’ve been attached to. It’s coming up on four years now. Narratives take their own time and the last thing I want to do is completely change it.
You’re known for your funny, wisecracking ways. Can we expect it to be a comedy?
I think there’ll be funny moments in the film, but I don’t think you’ll look at the film as being a comedy. Like I remember when I first started getting sent scripts after “Super Size Me,” and I was getting sent things like a “Revenge of the Nerds” remake or a Deuce Bigalow movie. Those were not the types of movies I wanted to make. And then finally when “Thank You for Smoking” came out, I was like, this is the exact type of world I want to be living in.
We got attached to another one of Christopher Buckley’s [author of “Thank You For Smoking”] books, “Little Green Men.” I thought it was a great book, but then the script came along for this other film and it made so much more sense.
You’ve done so much during the four years you’ve been fine tuning your narrative debut. What have you learned working as a documentary filmmaker and producer, that you will apply to your first fictional feature?
The biggest thing is hire people that are so much smarter and so much better than you, and are the best at what they do. Whether it be the actors or the set decorators or whoever it may be, all those people are people are so much more skilled than I could ever hope to be in any of those fields. All I can do is focus on the task at hand.
What can we expect from you next, documentary wise?
Right now is the first time in three-and-a-half years we’ve not had a film in any type of like active production or post. There’s some stuff we’re developing right now but so for me, the next doc I have probably won’t come out for at least a year-and-half. My next doc should come out in 2014.