This week, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, releases one of his most ambitious projects yet, a film that exposes the advertising world while using advertising to fund the film itself. It’s a pretty circular experience but he manages to pull it off. And by reading this interview or watching the movie or really paying any attention at all, you’re part of the process. Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is probably the only movie ever released that is in the black before it’s even released. It opened to great reviews at Sundance, and it seems to be rolling along nicely towards its theatrical release this Friday.
Just in time, we sat down with Spurlock to pick his brain about his new project and he had quite a bit to say on the matter.
In this film, we’re just watching the whole process as it unfolds, but my first question when I sat down was did you have some sort of planning process that came before or did you just have an idea and call some people up and take cameras?
Pretty much. Well, it started off, we got the idea after watching an episode of Heroes and there was this blatant product placement of a car where the cheerleader, Hayden Panettiere, her father gives her a car and she’s like “The Rogue, the Nissan Rogue, I can’t believe it’s the Rogue!” And we were so dumbfounded that we felt like we just watched a commercial in the middle of this show that I love so much. And so my producing partner, Jeremy [Chilnick], and myself just started the next day talking about that episode, talking about product placement in movies and over the course of just talking about this show, came up with the idea for the film. We said, what if we made a film that pulls back the curtain on product placement, marketing, and advertising that’s paid for by companies, people that are actually paying to put their products in the film? And then from there we started brainstorming, talking about ideas and then yeah, the next thing you know we were just like chasing companies.
I was thinking about people who are brand loyalists, especially Apple folks who just tend to love Apple intensely, and you sort of had this experience with these brands, talking to people who started the brand, talking to people who own the brand, and then eventually using all of those products, so were you kind of a victim of your own ideas? (Morgan points to suit.) You’re wearing the suit!
Am I a victim of my own idea? This (points to the suit) was my idea. This whole thing was my bright idea, yeah. So little did I know as I was pitching this and here was the suit that I would actually have to have the suit and I would be wearing it as I go out to promote the movie. So, yeah. I’m very much a victim of it.
And you’re addicted to Pom now.
I have Pom every day now. It’s true.
Can’t live without it?
Nope. Can’t live without it.
On the flip side of that, I was watching the full Jimmy Kimmel interview from the movie, because it aired last night, and you said that someone from Ben Sherman said they would rather kill themselves.
I’d rather kill myself, yeah.
Did you have any brands that you were a huge fan of that disappointed you?
Well, most brands disappointed me. We called 600 companies to be in this film, of which 580 said no. And I’m like, I use an Apple computer why wouldn’t you want to be a sponsor of this film? No. You know? I wear Fluevogs, why wouldn’t Fluevogs want to be a sponsor of this film? No. I drink Guinness, I love Guinness. No. You know, it’s like we wanted to get a fast food partner, so I thought In and Out Burger, I love In and Out Burger. You don’t know how great you are. I said, how cool would it be that we had like an unhappy meal or a displeased meal at In and Out to tie in for the movie? It’s a great statement. No. It’s like we had so many great ideas for certain people and it’s like you’re crushed when they didn’t happen. But for everyone that didn’t, like the fact that we were able to get a Sheetz on board to do collector cups going into this into all 400 outlets. We have a documentary with collector cups.
Yeah, that’s a first, for sure. Going along with that, you have the bit too about Quentin Tarantino and him wanting to use Dennys in his movies, so it’s definitely an issue. Was that something that you were seeking to highlight or did you just happen upon that common problem with him?
No, I think we just sort of had that common problem. We were looking for folks who were sort of A-list directors with good stories to tell and I spoke to Quentin on the phone first and we started talking about product placement and he told some of his related some of his experiences and I was like this is great, I’d love to come talk to you. Because the thing that he ended up doing is that when none of these companies would sponsor his films, is he started creating these companies, you know as a necessity to his projects. So you know from the cigarette companies, where there’s like Apple Brand cigarettes to Big Kahuna where they have the Big Kahuna Burger, like you hear these brands in these places that he creates around his characters which is crazy because he does create this whole alternate universe. Which is cool. Kevin Smith does that too.
And Pixar does that a little bit as well.
(Laughs) But only Pixar can market the shit out of it. Only Pixar can put it on lunchboxes, tshirts, toys, hats, sneakers.
They are the kings of that for sure. And sort of the reverse of you becoming a brand evangelist by the end of it, you say at the end of the film that they were no prescreenings like many of your contracts required.
Not one. Well, the prescreening we agreed to was that all of them would get to see the film before its theatrical release. So that was the deal with all the sponsors. We didn’t watch it in conference rooms like this, where we’re staring at a TV with their lawyers, just dissecting the film. So what we said was, just come to Sundance. And they’re like we need to see it before then. And I said, just come see it there. It’s not the theatrical release, you know, it’s a festival audience. It will be the best place to see this film. So 11 of our fifteen brand partners at the time – we now have 22 brand partners in the movie – but 11 of 15 we had at Sundance came, they saw the film and loved it. And it’s not, you know, they saw it with an audience. They didn’t see it with tunnel vision and blinders on or just like Holy Shit look how terrible we look. You know it was very much they got to see it, one, with all of the other people who helped make the film happen which I think is a good thing. And they got to see it with other audience members who were reacting to the movie as a whole and not to just Pom or Ban or Hyatt.
So you didn’t get any frantic phone calls.
No, not a one.
That’s great. And in that vein, you had these actual commercials throughout the film, but they were actually entertaining, we were almost waiting for them. They were these fun little moments, so you were kind of really altering the idea of product placement. Do you think when people see the film, it might actually alter the way companies in general do their future business?
Yeah, well it would be great if advertising agencies and brands were willing to take a little more risk, were willing to take chances and roll the dice with creative people. And ultimately it would be great if brands worked directly with creative people because what I think the film shows is that ultimately you don’t really need the agency in the middle. You know, like we accomplished all of this, you know once Ban was on board, which we did get through an agency, all the other brands we got were through us calling them and chasing them. But the first brand, the very first brand we got we did get through Richard Kirshenbaum my old friend at KBR. But all the creative was created by us, all the film was created by us, the integration of them into the movie was done by us so, I think the more brands will work with creative people, the more exciting it would be. Both for them and for the artists they’re working with and the more fulfilling it could potentially be.
Are you worried at all that in showing the backend, I don’t want to say bullying, but maybe mild bullying that goes on behind the scenes, for those of us who were already noticing that Iron Man was eating Burger King cheeseburgers, are you worried that it’s going to become even more negative now that we know what went on on the manipulative backend?
I think it will change the way you look at film and television. Like I don’t think you’ll ever look at a Hollywood movie the same way ever again after watching Greatest Movie. It will become so transparent to you and you will question everything that went on to get something in that shot. You know that got something into the background that became part of a conversation as they were talking about a watch or a drink or a shoe and you’re like what? Did somebody actually pay for that? And I think to literally start to question the reality of those and how they came to be is a good thing. And to come in with a sense of skepticism is a good thing. A little skepticism is always a good thing.
So you don’t think we need the arrows pointing out when something’s an ad, like one person suggested in the film?
(Laughs) Absolutely not. I love – Robert Weizman is fantastic and his organization is great, but the last thing I want is in the middle of one of my movies, somebody going (points) “doink, doink, doink” yeah or a in TV show or anything.
Yeah, it’s like you know that’s a Subway ad, I got it, I’m dealing with it.
Yeah, I feel like, what they’ve done in the UK now is – because they just started allowing product placement in the UK, it just happened, literally within the last week – and when a movie or a TV show has product placement in it, at the beginning, you know how we have like TV MA? Like the ratings things that come up in the beginning or like at the upper righthand corners? Like next to that is a P, for product placement so that you know here’s what the show’s rated and, by the way, there’s product placement you have to watch. Now you don’t know what it is, but you know it’s in there, so I have a feeling that something like that could happen could happen in America, but I don’t think this (pointing gesture) will happen.
So would you call the film a solution? Or would you call it more of the beginning of something?
I think the film does a great job of really creating a conversation and generating a dialog about what’s happening. And now we have to start to ask ourselves about where do we draw the line? How much is too much? Where is it? What do we do? Do we stop all the advertising and marketing from coming into schools? Do we figure out a way to make that not happen so that the schools can have the money they need? You know, how do we change it in Hollywood? Do we kick the brands out of the writers’ room so that we let creative people do their job, rather than writing into dialogue as the guy pulls into the driveway, “Whoa we got here so fast and man that Mustang handles like a dream”? You know so you don’t have you know, terrible dialogue like that. Ultimately I agree, I think let the creative people do their jobs. And then you know, I think there’s a bigger question that we have to ask ourselves which is just, do we want to live in a world where everything is going to be brought to us by some sponsor? Because that’s literally where we’re headed. I went to see the Virgin Mobile Lady Gaga concert and you go see the Mets at CitiField and you catch the N or R train at Barclay’s Center Station which used to be Atlantic Pacific in Brooklyn. That’s literally where it’s going – like New York City Council was floating a piece of legislation that would essentially enable them to sell off the naming rights of parks and playgrounds.
So that’s the question. Is that the city I want to live in? Do I want to take my kid to Bank of America Prospect Park to the Pepsi playground where he can go down the Cheeto slide? I personally don’t really want to. That’s a little much. The more we start going, ultimately like the girl says in the film, when my kid is 15, 16, I’ll be dropping him off at Red Bull High. That’s where we’ll go.
So since I only get one more question, I want to sneak this last one in. After seeing this film, I was wondering where could you go next after a project like this, it’s such an undertaking, and of course you’re undertaking Comic-Con next and I laughed when I saw it because it’s like, well that would be the logical next step.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s such an epic place, I am such a geek. It’s everything I love. I love toys, I love genre movies, I love comic books, I love video games. It so speaks to everything that is my childhood, and my adulthood, so when we got the idea to make that film and we shot it last summer it was one of those things it’s like a dream come true to get to do it. And we’re working with Stan Lee and Joss Whedon, Thomas Tull from Legendary Pictures, Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News, I mean it’s pretty awesome.
You know, there’s a lot of advertising at Comic-Con though…
A lotta advertising. (Laughs) A lot.