Before the Ice Bucket Challenge, there was “Super Size Me.” When little-known filmmaker Morgan Spurlock challenged himself to eat at McDonald’s for every meal, three times a day, for thirty days straight, he anticipated the era of viral marketing with purpose. The documentary grossed $11.5 million theatrically in 2004 and ignited an international conversation about the fast food industry.
By appearing in his film as subject and narrator, Spurlock popularized a kind of personality-driven commentary that is now regularly found in another format — video blogging, or “vlogging.” And that’s why he’s a good fit to produce “Vlogumentary,” the first feature film to explore one of the more ubiquitous ways that personalities develop on the site.
The film not only offers fans an intimate look at their favorite vloggers, but also demystifies the strange career path for would-be skeptics. It charts four YouTubers’ varying paths to success: Shay Carl of Maker Studios and Shaytards, Charles Trippy of CTFxC, Mikey Murphy, and Gaby Dunn. By showing the hard work that goes on behind the camera, and pushing its subjects to be transparent about the financial details of YouTube fame, “Vlogumentary” provides an (albeit uncritical) inside look at the sensation that speaks to outsiders as well.
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Most people familiar with Spurlock’s work might be surprised to learn that he helmed the first digital show to cross over to television back in 2000, with a show called “I Bet You Will,” produced by his first company, The Interactive Consortium. “The idea was to to create content online, and springboard it off to film and television,” Spurlock told IndieWire in a recent interview. “I Bet You Will” sold to CBS and then MTV, where it ran for 53 episodes. When the show got cancelled, Spurlock and his team used the money they had made to fund “Supersize Me.”
“I was a real believer in the power of digital content, and recognized that this was a place where unique voices were going to come, simply because you weren’t beholden to broadcast rights or regulations or policing,” he said. He recognized early on what still sets web content apart from traditional media: “It was very much the wild west — and still is — in terms of creating content. There’s an incredible freedom that comes from that.”
“Vlogumentary” is one of four projects out this year under what he calls “The Morgan Spurlock Presents label,” which he initially started with Joe Amodei of Virgil Films. He directed the horror documentary “Rats,” based on a book by Robert Sullivan, that was the only non-fiction entry in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section — and for good reason. “As a lifelong horror fan, I got to make a horror movie on my terms,” said the filmmaker. “I love the idea of creating things that push the genre of documentary to different places.”
Spurlock also served as executive producer on “The Eagle Huntress,” a beautifully-filmed story of a Mongolian girl learning an ancient art traditionally pursued by boys. The film was a hit at all the major festivals, and is currently in wide release from Sony Pictures Classics. He played a similar role for the production of “The Pistol Shrimps,” a comedic documentary about a women’s basketball team that boasts Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) as a player, which was picked up by the comedy streaming service Seeso.
“I have an obligation to help push the medium forward, to help push unique voices out, to help people find filmmakers that they normally wouldn’t had we not given them a leg up,” Spurlock said.
It’s unlikely that a movie with an impact as large as “Super Size Me” could be made today, as even the filmmaker will freely admit. “‘Super Size Me’ came out at the very end of the real indie film movement,” he said. “It came out in a world where YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook didn’t exist yet, or any of the outreach channels that we have today.”
With the advent of affordable digital cameras came the democratization of filmmaking, Spurlock added, which resulted in an explosion of filmmakers fighting for the exact same number of screens. Streaming services filled in the gaps. “More people are watching documentaries I’ve made on Netflix than have ever seen them in theaters,” he noted. “I think you can still make a movie that has that kind of impact, I just don’t know if it will have as long of a tail.”
Spurlock sees a bright future for filmmakers and creators, one on which he plans to capitalize with his robust slate of projects. “We live in an awesome time of content, where you can sell or find a home for whatever length of story you have to so many places,” he said. “It is a boom time right now to tell stories.” The YouTubers he profiles in “Vlogumentary” know that all too well, and many are riding it all the way to the bank. Shay Carl, also an executive producer on the film, made headlines when his company, Maker, sold to Disney for $500 million.
As for the artistic merits of vlogging, Spurlock was diplomatic. “Will people look at vlogging in the same way they looked at ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Raging Bull?’ Probably not,” he said. “This is living in its own special place, and I think it is a very unique thing.”