Read our interview with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who directed, produced and stars in the upcoming documentary ‘Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.’ The movie, which is set to be released in select theaters on April 22, 2011, follows Spurlock as he explores product placement, marketing and advertising in such outlets as films and television shows. In the film, he details what goes on in pitch meetings and marketing presentations, and how even the smallest ads affects people’s everyday lives. Spurlock discusses with us, among other things, why he decided to make ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Made,’ and whether he was able to keep final control over the final movie.
Question (Q): Was your outfit (the jacket with the sponsor’s patches on it seen in the movie) the sponsors’ idea?
Morgan Spurlock (MS): Here’s the worst part, it was all my idea. If you watch the film, this whole pitch of the suit was my brainstorm. So now, these are my own chickens going home to roost. It comes with the territory now.
Q: Did you think when you were first starting out that you would even have a film?
MS: We had no clue when we started. We thought it was a great idea. We didn’t know if it was even possible. As every advertising agency said absolutely not, we won’t do this, with the exception of Kirshenbaum. As we call every every product placement company, and every product placement company said “We are not helping you, we want nothing to do with this movie.” Only two would go on camera and do interviews, which were Norm Marshall and Britt Johnson. Then we started calling brands ourselves, we said let’s grab our own destiny, let’s start calling the companies on our own. Me and Abbie Hurewitz, my co-producer for the film, literally started calling brands over and over and over again. “No, no, no, no, absolutely not, we want nothing to do with this, I already saw what you did to that other corporation, no way do we trust you with our brand.” Some of the things they said were some of the most terrible things. At some point, you go, why are we still doing this? Nobody’s saying yes. The thing that kept us going the whole time was for every person at the top that said “I don’t want anything to do with this movie, there’s no way we’re helping you,” all the people that worked underneath them who passed us up to that person would say to us on the phone, “I’ll do anything I can to help you that won’t get me fired.” So the fact that everyone at the bottom wanted this movie to be made but no one at the top did, we said we have to figure out a way to get this film made. What happened at the end is that we called about 600 companies. You say, how did you call 600 companies? We broke it down by category. We try to fulfill every category we can. We go by shoe. So think of every shoe company. First off we called the Nike, the Reebok, the K-Swiss, the Puma, Converse, all the way down the line, until we ended up with Merrell, the greatest shoe you’ll ever wear. We called all the beverage companies. If you’re going to have a beverage company, start at the top. We called Coke, Pepsi, RC Cola, then all the way down the line until we magically ended up calling Pom Wonderful Pomegranate Juice. After 600 companies, 580 of whom said no, we ended up with 20 companies that said yes, which is incredible. The tenacity isn’t even the right word to begin to explain the amount of work it took to get us started, to get these companies on board, it was pretty phenomenal. That was nine months until the first company said yes. It was January 2009 when we really started to brainstorm and decided to do this. The first company saying yes was August, September (2009). It was eight, nine months until Ban Deodorant said “Yeah, we’re in!” It was $50,000 dropped in the bucket. But what that one step did, Ban coming on board literally gave us the ability to say “Well, Ban Deodorant’s doing it.” No one ever wants to be first. No company ever wants to be first and no body ever wants to be last. Once we pitched Ban and Ban said yes, then we went and met with Pom. We called them on the phone, and Pom said, “Well, Ban’s doing it.” So it was Ban Deodorant, lynch-pin of ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.’
Q: We saw the process of choosing the theme song. What was it about OK GO that led you to believe they would be the right fit?
MS: We tried to get a lot of other people, like Jay Z and P. Diddy, who have real brand association. These people didn’t want to do interviews. There were real big artists, like Beyonce, the people who have real brands and real ties to products who wouldn’t do it. OK GO was a band, who, the minute we started talking to them, they’re already done sponsorships. They did an amazing thing with Range Roover. They’ve already worked with brands, and had a lot of brand experience and with commercials too. Like they said in the film, some of them were a little dirty, not like they should have done it. So when I met with them, I thought, these guys are great. So when I proposed to them to do the theme song, they jumped at the chance.
Q: Were there any bands who volunteered to do it?
MS: Well, people don’t volunteer if they don’t know the movie’s happening. People only volunteer if they know it’s going on. Ultimately, we had to contact the bands and let them know it was going on.
Q: So the word didn’t get out?
MS: The word never gets out about my movies! I don’t send out press releases. I don’t say “Look at what I’m doing!” It’s not how I operate, it’s so not my MO. There was zero talk about is movie. Nobody knew about this film. It’s so under the radar. No one knew about the film until it was announced at Sundance. Once the film was announced that it was premiering at Sundance, people were like, “Dude, I didn’t know you were doing this.” People knew about the Comic Con film (‘Comic con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope’), which everyone thought I was working on, which I was. It was happening simultaneously. But this is not a project you want people to know about.
Q: So how did you decide to feature subjects like Matt and Kim?
MS: We had a great music supervisor that I had lunch with in LA, a guy named Jonathan McHugh from Universal Music. I met him through one of our co-producers, Keith Calder. They’ve been friends for years, so I sat down with McHugh for lunch, and we start talking about the movie. He said “Keith told me we should meet about your film.” He said “If you’re going to have the greatest movie ever sold, you have to have the greatest soundtrack.” This was in October or November of last year. it was fast. Literally in six weeks, was when I met Big Boi and Matt and Kim and Moby and OK Go. Literally we put that together within three-four weeks. They were producing original tracks, like the Big Boi-Matt and Kim mash-up. Those things happened so fast. Most of the production was done from like December 15 through like January 7. I think the last shoot day we had was about seven-eight days before the movie premiered at Sundance. The OK Go theme song, the master track for The Greatest Song I Ever Heard, was dropped in a day-and-a-half before the movie premiered. Lewis Goldstein, our audio engineer, was the guy who wanted to rip my head off like 17 times. I was like, “This is how we work.” He said, “Yeah, I really hate that part.” But I’ll tell you a quick story about our editor, Tom Vogt, who came from ‘South Park,’ he edited about 75, 80 episodes before he moved to New York. After he did the show, he did ‘Bigger, Longer, Uncut,’ the ‘South Park’ movie, he did ‘Team America: World Police.’ He said “I want to do something different.” He moved to New York, got a job at a commercial editing house, he started editing commercials. When he and I first met, when he first moved here, through Julie Lombardi, who edited ‘Super Size Me’ and ‘Where in The World Is Osama Bin Laden?,’ he and I came friends. We hit it off from the beginning. He said “I really want to work with you because I’ve never made a documentary and I never have.” I said “Well, when something comes along, I’ll let you know.” The minute we got the idea for this film, he was so fed up editing commercials for four years. He said, “Can you please just get me out of here? I’ll work on anything.” I literally called him up withing months, and said “I have the greatest movie for you, it’s the best thing ever.” It was the best, because it married both worlds, all of his comedic sensibilities with all of his comedic sensibilities. I think the combining of both worlds with this film, it was a match made in heaven, it was serendipitous.
Q: One of the more interesting scenes was when you went to Sao Paulo (in Brazil), and there weren’t any billboards or advertisements. Do you think anything like that could happen in American cities?
MS: I think it would never happen in New York City. I believe it would never happen (in New York) or Los Angeles. But could it happen in certain cities, like San Francisco or Portland, Oregon; Seattle; Boston; Austin, Texas, yes. In Vermont, there’s no billboards already. There’s no billboards in Hawaii. So they already have one of those steps. But I think there are a couple of cities that could pull something like this off. I think it’s pretty progressive in a lot of ways. I think it has to be one that has a relationship with its environment. But I don’t think Chicago would ever do it.
Q: Is Sao Paulo still doing it?
MS: Oh, yeah. It’s been that way for about seven years now. I think it was either 2004 or 2005 when it was passed. In the beginning, all of the advertisers were like, this is going to destroy the city! No one’s going to know where to go! No one’s going to know what to do! Businesses are going to collapse, the city’s going to fall apart! And none of that happened, absolutely nothing happened. All the billboards were taken down, all the posters were taken off the walls, and people still shopped, they still bought shoes. They still went to movies. They still knew where the museum was, because the Internet didn’t go away. All the other ways we get information didn’t vanish.
Q: Your introduction of Sao Paulo shows the other ways we can get information.
MS: I think that was starting to show where we’re opening the doors on advertising in America and how it’s a big thing and how we’re letting advertising and marketing into schools, which I find to be one of the most terrible things in the film. The fact that we’ve cut budgets and we so want to save money, and let’s take the money away from education. The school districts are like, now what do we do? So now they’re letting these advertisers come in and place ads in these schools to make up for these budgets. But it’s so little money they’re getting. It’s better (for the advertisers). As the girl said in the movie, which I really liked, was “What are we going to do? Go to Red Bull High?” That’s where we’re going. By the time my four-year son goes to high school, he’ll be going to Red Bull High. In New York City, they just floated a bill in New York, they’re talking about selling off the naming rights to parks and playgrounds. As my kid goes to Red Bull High, and afterwards we go to Pepsi Prospect Park, hanging out in the Hostess Twinke playground.
Q: Were you allowed to keep creative control?
MS: Yeah. The part of the film which I think works is it’s pushed and pulled in different ways creatively to fulfill sponsor obligations, like shooting in the plane or shooting in the terminal. Disparaging Germany. With all of these things, I think ultimately you start to see how much much influence they have. When you see me pitch at Pom, and I’m pitching the commercial ideas, they say, that’s all good, but we think you should shoot this commercial. So you do start to see a truth in advertising, and how that works, and how much influence they have over creative content. Now when you watch, and you see someone in a TV show or commercial, and they’re sitting in a car, sitting with a Taco Bell in the background, you say, was it in the contract that they had to sit in the car in front of Taco Bell? Or did Taco Bell originally say we want them sitting in the restaurant. Then they say, well, we want them in a car outside of the restaurant, we don’t have them inside. You start to think about the contract negotiations. It will change the way you look at Hollywood movies. You’ll never look at a big Hollywood movie again after seeing this film, and I think that’s a great thing.
Q: It was kind of funny when you talked to (director and producer) Brett Ratner, showing that those big time directors have to sort of deal with those issues.
MS: Well, that’s what I love about Brett Ratner. He makes big, giant movies, and when you make big, giant movies, $100 million plus movies in Hollywood, that’s part of the price you pay. These tie-ins will happen, unless you’re making like an ‘Avator.’ If they’re not happening in the film, they’re happening like crazy outside of the film. All the Coke promotions just to be associated with a film like that when it comes out is going to be a 360 relationship, whether it’s soda or Happy Meals, or you name it. But when you’re playing at that level, it’s great. I love the honesty of all those guys. It’s the movie business, that’s how it is. Peter Berg (has) one of my favorite lines of the whole movie, “They don’t give a flying f*ck about art.” This is a business. Right now, he’s directing the $200 million adaptation of Battleship the game into ‘Battleship’ the space movie. It’s like Battleship in space where aliens ares battling each other. When you’re dealing with a budget of $200 million, they’re going to want their money back. They’re going to want their money and then some. But for a $200 million movie, they don’t make a lot of money, because the split between the theaters and the studio, it’s a 60-40 split, of which 40 only goes back to the studio. For every dollar someone spends at a movie theater, the movie has to make $500 million to be thought of as a success. That’s not if you include marketing. That’s why if you include the cups and the T-shirts and the Happy Meals, anything that can lower their marketing budget, they’ll push to get this ubiquitous of ideas, so it becomes an event. Ultimately, it’s crazy money.
Q: Which is why we don’t turn to Hollywood for art.
MS: Exactly. That’s why I love when Peter Burg talks about Thomas Anderson, somebody who has said, that’s not the kind of game I want to play. That’s not what I want to do, those aren’t the stories I want to tell. ‘There Will Be Blood,’ which was one of the greatest movies to ever come out of the Hollywood studio system. Or ‘True Grit,’ the Cohen Brothers’ last film, there was great art in there, without one bit of product placement. That movie made a bank of money, like $80 million or more.
Q: Do you think that has to do with the fact that they were period films, and they didn’t have McDonald’s or cell phones back then?
MS: Maybe. I think you can reach a point as a talent and really make a stand. The more you get into present day, it’s hard not to. Again, everywhere you go, you walk outside, there’s sh*t everywhere. You walk outside, there’s an ad somewhere, on a phone booth. A taxi drives by. Even if you go where I grew up in West Virgina, it’s a small town, but there’s still advertising everywhere. You drive down the road, there’s a billboard, there’s a poster on the side, there’s always something. So I think it’s harder not to have those things now, that’s where we live. We literally live in a real, branded society.
Q: In regards to the product placement, or co-promotion, what did you learn about corporate America, not just from ‘Super Size Me,’ but from the whole experience? If there were any companies that wanted to become sponsors of this film with bad publicity, would you consider them?
MS: Well, we asked everybody. I tried to get BP to be a sponsor for the film. If there was a company that needed real integrity, it was that one. I was like, think of how great it would be for you guys. We didn’t say no to anyone. I went to firearm companies. I tried to get the greatest rifle you’ll ever use. I tried to get cigarette companies involved. I tried to get ones that would create real ethical conversations about their involvement, but we couldn’t get them to bite. In regards to what I took away from it, what the film does a great job of showing, and what I really like about the film, is a great conversation we had with Janet Dalphonout, who sells advertisements in Florida. I said, why are people upset about this, and she said school’s meant to be sacred. School is a place where kids are supposed to come in and develop their own ideas, their own ideologies, their own viewpoints of the world, outside of the influence of someone paying for it. I think what the film shows really well is that nothing is sacred. I think the film shows no place is sacred, that anywhere you go, if you are captive in that place for a moment, someone’s going to try to sell you something, whether it’s on a bus, whether it’s in a cab, whether it’s in an elevator. It’s a very different world.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for this movie? Was it something you were always thinking about?
MS: My inspiration for the film came from an episode of ‘Heroes.’ I loved the TV show ‘Heroes’ when it first came out. Season one was one of the greatest things you’ll ever see. I evangelized that show, I said this show is changing TV. It’s so great. I love comic books, and this is the best thing on television right now. Season two, the wheels started falling off the bus immediately. In one of the first episodes, Hayden Panettiere, the cheerleader, was coming out of school, all upset, they moved to a new town. Her birthday’s in a month, and she’s sad. She said, I really wanted something special for my birthday. I wanted something good. Her dad says, well, I was going to save this honey, but your mom and I are really proud of you. As he reaches into his pocket, the camera cuts to the front of the car, dollies past the Nissan logo. It goes back to him holding the keys in front of her face. She says the Rogue? You’re giving me the Nissan Rogue? Oh my God dad, you’re giving me the Rogue?!? I’m staring at the television in disbelief, going that really just happened! I saw a commercial in the middle of the show I l love! You’ve got to be kidding me! Then later on in the show, as I finally started to get over the anger that I had, she’s leaning in at a party, she says come on guys, let’s get out of here to the Rogue! I said, that’s it! The next day, I get to work, I’m so pissed off. I’m talking to my producing partner Jeremy, and he was just as pissed off as I was. I said, can you believe that show. We started talking about terrible product placement in films and TV shows. Like ‘Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,’ Mr. Fantastic builds a brand-new car. They take the top off, and there’s the Dodge logo on the car, and the Human Torch goes the Hemi? He goes, you betcha. Things like that made me so angry. We talked and talked, and I said, you know what we gotta do, we should make a movie about product placement, where the whole film is paid for by product placement. He said, oh my God, and we started rattling off ideas. We said, we should put commercials in the film! That’s terrible. We were thinking how far can we take it to tell this story. That’s where it all started from.
Q: A lot of your previous movies have your family in it. This is like the second one that has your son in it. How important is it for you to ground it in your own life?
MS: I think the reason I make these films, post-’Super Size Me,’ which I personally grew a lot as a person and as a filmmaker, ’30 Days’ even more. It was a reward show, just for me as a human being. So I think to be able to tell a story that affects me as an individual, especially in docs, that it is my life. It’s who I am, it’s where I work, it’s where I live, it’s what I believe. I think it’s important. If I want you to go on this journey with me, which is a vicarious journey, when I learn, you learn. When I feel, you feel. So hopefully there is a real kind of trade-off, emotion-by-proxy, that I have to be honest with you, or otherwise it’s not going to work. So I think that’s an important thing.
Q: Are there hours and hours of footage and meetings that we just didn’t see?
MS: Yes. Well, you gotta think, it was almost nine months of flying and pitch meetings with advertisers, product placement companies, well only two product placement companies, it was on camera, advertising agencies and brands. It was phone calls and meetings, nine months’ worth. I bet there’s about 100 hours.
Q: What’s going to be on the DVD extras?
MS: There’s going to be the greatest commercial you ever saw that we actually did shoot after we pitched to Pom. After we pitched we decided we have to shoot it, so that will be on the DVD.
Written by: Karen Benardello