While the economy can often powerfully affect every aspect of a person’s life, from how much they’re able to spend on essential items to how often they can indulge their desires, they don’t often think how their decisions can play a critical role in the state of local and global financial stability. So to help Americans become more aware of the basic fundamentals that drive the economic system, producer Morgan Spurlock has released an engaging documentary, ‘We the Economy: 20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss,’ on such platforms as online, VOD, broadcast and mobile, through his distribution company, Cinelan. Not only did the producer direct the project’s introductory short film, ‘Cave-o-nomics,’ which offers insight into how the worldwide economy may have begun, but he also helped prove that everyone needs to stay informed about the world’s financial system, and how they should engage in the economic issues that are pertinent to their lives.
Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions and Spurlock’s Cinelan have partnered to produce ‘We the Economy: 20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss.’ Each short film is helmed by an acclaimed filmmaker, each with their own creative vision. The series aims to drive awareness and establish a better understanding of the U.S. economy. Told through animation, comedy, musical, non-fiction and scripted films, ‘We the Economy’ seeks to demystify a complicated topic while empowering the public to take control of their own economic futures.
A panel of top economic experts including academics, analysts, journalists and historians helped identify 20 key topics about the U.S. economy that every American should understand. Those and other economic advisors then worked with the filmmakers to shape the topics into 5-8 minute films that answer the questions, including: What is the Economy? What is Money? What is the Role of our Government in the Economy? In the current economic climate, the need for citizens to be engaged and informed is greater than ever. Distributed digitally, across multiple platforms, ‘We the Economy’ will do both.
Spurlock generously took the time to talk about producing ‘We the Economy,’ and directing ‘Cave-o-nomics,’ at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he partnered with Allen and Vulcan Productions after the company contacted him about collaborating on a film about money that demystifies the economy; how he crafted the directorial team after he put together a list of the directors he wanted to work with and respects, including both documentary and feature filmmakers, and then started calling them to elicit their involvement; and how he worked with economic advisors to have them narrow the economy into the top 20 most important subjects that should be brought to the public’s attention, which the directors were then able to choose from and make a short about for the documentary.
ShockYa (SY): Your short-film content marketing company, Cinelan, partnered with award-winning directors (including Adrian Grenier, Catherine Hardwicke and Adam McKay) to produce 20 short films to give film audiences a better understanding of the U.S. economy. What was your motivation in creating the project, and help people understand the fundamentals of the economy?
Morgan Spurlock (MS): The whole project began when I received a call from Vulcan Productions, Paul Allen’s production company. They heard I was developing a project around, and tell the story of, money. I said, “Yes, we’re developing a film around money.” They said, “Well, Paul really wants to develop a film around money that demystifies the economy.” I responded, “Well, we should get together.”
Less than two days later, they were in my office here in New York. We were having a meeting about this project, and out of that meeting came the idea for ‘We the Economy.’ We then got 20 A-list directors to make short films about the economy. It’s amazing that a year after that meeting, we (were able to) release all the shorts as one project.
SY: Speaking of the directors, what was the process of getting them all to sign on to direct a short film for ‘We the Economy?’ Did you approach them with the prospect, and allow them to create their own ideas?
MS: Basically, I put together a list of the people I wanted to work with, and then started cold calling people like crazy. The list included documentary filmmakers who are friends of mine, like Joe Berlinger, Steve James and Heidi Ewing, as well as A-list filmmakers who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, like Adam McKay and Jon Chu. So I was working the phones for months, calling directors to ask them to be a part of the project. What we ended up with was a dream team of filmmakers. It’s unheard of for a film series to have the level of talent that this project has.
SY: Besides directing your own short for the project, you also worked as one of its projects. So how collaborative were you with the other filmmakers on their shorts once they signed on to direct them?
MS: I basically recused myself from their filmmaking processes. Once they were on board, and said they wanted to make a short, we paired them up with up to three of our economic advisors. They came in and worked with the filmmakers, to see if their stories had the things they needed to be factually accurate, and also portrayed the best story from an honest standpoint. Then the filmmakers had the freedom to go off and do what they wanted.
SY: What other research did you do into the markets before you began directing your short, ‘Cave-o-nomics?’ What was the overall process of creating the short?
MS: It was a lot of fun, and it was great overall. I called (financial author) John Steele Gordon and asked, “If you’re going to tell a story about the creation of the markets and economic system, what would it be?” He told me this story, saying “I’ve always envisioned the markets starting with the cavemen. There were these two cavemen who were walking home from their hunt one day. One of the is a really great hunter, and he has two boars, one under each arm. The other guy’s a terrible hunter, and he doesn’t have any animals, but he makes great spears. The one guy who’s a great hunter said, ‘I would be an even better hunter if I had one of your spears.’ They then said, ‘Why don’t we trade?’ We’ll trade a spear for one of the animals.’ That’s the beginning of the market system.”
I said to John, “That’s the movie we should make.” The whole idea for ‘Cave-o-nomics’ came from that conversation. We were going to tell why markets matter, how they function and what the idea for market system is through these cave people, which is fun. I was also to put all of my economic advisors-Annalyn Kurtz, John and Adam Davidson-in cave outfits. (laughs) So how do you lose there?
SY: While the economic advisors came up with the ideas that should be covered in the 20 shorts, did you also offer any suggestions on which subjects should be discussed?
MS: Well, what we did was go to the economic advisors and asked, if you had to narrow the economy into the top 20 things we should be talking about, what would they be? From there, we went through their suggestions, and picked the 20 questions we thought you should be asking. We then brought the questions to the filmmakers and let them choose the movies they wanted to make. I didn’t have any influence over the initial subjects the economic advisors thought we should tell. All of the concepts of what the films should ask came from them.
SY: ‘We the Economy’ (was released) across multiple platforms, including online, VOD, broadcast, mobile and theatrical, and you didn’t charge audiences to view the anthology series.
MS: Yes, that process is so awesome and cool.
SY: Why was it important to you to release the project on so many platforms free of charge?
MS: The diverse release platforms we used was actually one of the first conversations I had with Carole Tomko (the General Manager and Creative Director of Vulcan Productions). I said, “We shouldn’t be doing this for the money, or to make a return on our investment. Our goal should be to make great content and stories, and create an educational platform around it, and get as many people as possible to help put the films out.”
Once we took out the idea of making a film to generate money, we suddenly had all of these different companies who were willing to cooperate with one another, who normally wouldn’t work together, as they would normally instead fight for exclusivity. We had companies like AOL, Yahoo and Amazon play the film at the same time. We also partnered with Netflix, which never puts short films on its site, and it offered ‘We the Economy’ front page placement for its initial release.
So its an awesome thing to be able to have partners who believe in something as much as you do. For us to have so many people invested in the project’s concept and content, and believe in its importance as much as we did, is pretty inspiring.
SY: Like you mentioned, you aimed to have ‘We the Economy’ infuse audiences with a knowledge of education, instead of creating a return on investment for you and the other filmmakers. Why do you think it’s more important with these shorts to concentrate on teaching young adults about the economy, instead of focusing on the project’s return on investment?
MS: Well, I think a lot of us are economically illiterate. So having a basic understanding of how things function, and why they work the way they do, is better for all of us and the economic system. So engaging young people much earlier on, whether it’s during the time they’re in college, or younger, in this conversation and debate is important. I think the more we can get young people to think about the choices they make from an economic standpoint, including how they make, spend and invest their money, and what that money actually means, will change their perception of the world they live in.
A lot of people talk about being fearful of the economy. But the minute you provide someone with a little bit of information and education, it’s amazing how quickly that fear goes away. That fear quickly turns into courage, once you arm someone with facts.
SY: Since you have largely focused on making independent and documentary films throughout your career, how has the recession influenced the way you approach making and releasing them?
MS: Well, you learn how to make films for less money-that’s the first lesson. (laughs) Suddenly, people want to give you less money to make your films, and you’re going to make less money. But I still want to make movies, so how do we spend less, while still making what we want to make?
So the recession effected everyone, including the film business. But luckily, the entertainment business wasn’t as impacted as other business. The United States’ number one export is still entertainment, as it’s a multi-billion dollar business across the board, from movies to music to TV.
So we really started to shift our focus, and we decided we’re not just going to make documentary films anymore. We did this from the beginning-we’re platform agnostic. I believe in creating content for wherever’s there an audience, whether that be in a movie theater, or on television, an iPad, computer or phone. I just want to reach an audience and tell great stories. The more that you can create content that appeals to an audience, the more you’ll be gainfully employed.
SY: If you found content for a feature film that interested you, would you be interested in branching out from only making documentaries?
MS: Well, not many kids grow up saying, “I can’t wait to become a documentary filmmaker!” I’m sure there are probably some, but when I was a kid, I grew up watching ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Scanners,’ which is the David Cronenberg film that made me want to make movies. So all my life, all I’ve wanted to do is make narrative films.
It wasn’t until my 20s that I started to have this real love affair with documentaries. I made short films, and then I made ‘Super Size Me’ in my early 30s. I then fell in love with the form, including the power and magic of it. I also fell in love with its ability to connect with an audience in a really true, honest and authentic way.
I still do want to make a scripted narrative feature, and hopefully it will happen this year. Every year I say that, but it always gets pushed off, because I end up making another documentary. I hope I don’t keep pushing that off for years, and I believe it will happen soon.
SY: Having collaborated with all of the filmmakers on this film, are there any other filmmakes you’re interested in collaborating with in the future on other projects?
MS: There are so many people who I admire and have so much respect for, including JJ Abrams, who’s one of my favorite filmmakers. He’s not only one of the greatest people on Earth, as he’s so generous and open, but he’s also so fantastically gifted and talented. I also love movies like ‘Interstellar,’ and Christopher Nolan’s an incredible filmmaker, as well.
Projects like ‘We the Economy’ give me an opportunity to work with people who are my heroes, and who I’ve looked up to for so long. So I feel like I can continue to have a career where that happens, during which I’ll be really happy.
SY: While ‘We the Economy’ explored 20 of the most important moderns economic issues, are there any topis you’re interested in exploring, and perhaps make a follow-up film?
MS: Well, I think the beauty of this is that we can continue adding movies to this documentary forever, whether it’s on the website or app. We can continue making films that continue to go onto this chain of important stories and issues we should be talking about, and should be at the forefront of our conversations. So it would be great to continue this, and talk about the economics of education and unemployment. I feel like there are so many subsets to the films we’ve already made, and we can make five more films on each topic.
Written by: Karen Benardello