Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has returned once again to Sundance, where he broke out seven years ago with his Grand Jury Prize–winning debut, 'Super Size Me.' His latest is a self-proclaimed "docbuster" titled 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' and it's garnering a lot of rave reviews from critics and other festivalgoers out here in Park City.
A film about product placement and cross-promotional tie-ins, which itself is guilty of being filled with product placement and cross-promotional tie-ins, TGMES has been totally funded by companies advertising their brands on screen and, in the case of POM Wonderful juice, an above-the-title sponsorship.
I sat down with Spurlock, who wore a logo-embroidered blazer representing all the film's brand partners, to discuss the new documentary and how non-fiction film relates to the world of corporate branding.
Cinematical: Are marketing and cross-promotion ruining the movies?
Morgan Spurlock: I don't know that cross-promotion is ruining the movies. When I see in-your-face product placement; that completely takes me out of the movie. But if it's just something that happens, like if somebody's driving a car -- people drive cars. People do drive Mustangs. That's fine. I understand why big, giant movies have to do it, because they are big, giant movies that are trying to make back $200 million budgets, which is unbelievable the idea of spending that much money. But I see how it happens. I don't know how you make a movie like that without it. They want to have their cups and their toys and all those things that make people want them, especially kids. So maybe with this, soon we can have 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' action figures. So we can actually get those kids really engaged.
One thing that's interesting about documentaries is they can't always control the products appearing in the frame, because there is product placement in real life. It is real life right now.
And products in general are real life. There was a great conversation I had with someone last night at the premiere. They said, "What do you think about this trend, especially on television, where they're blurring stuff out in docs?" I think it's terrible. It's such a step away from capturing reality. MTV blurs everything that doesn't pay to be on their network. It's insane. If you're making real documentary programming, you have to be able to capture things in real life, in real time. I shouldn't have to worry about if, oh my god, that guy's wearing a Nike or that guy's got a Tommy Hilfiger shirt and I can't show that. You can't have crap like that drive your narrative.
I always found it ironic that you can get money for making a deal with a corporation to feature their product, but if you feature a product or logo without consent, they want money.
I'm curious who calls me looking for money now from this film. There's a lot of Macbooks in this movie. I don't know, they might be calling me.
A fiction blockbuster like 'Iron Man' may have a lot of product placement in it, but it also promises special effects and explosions. What does 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' have to offer outside of the advertisements?
I really wanted to blow up a Volkswagen in the movie. I really did. But then we decided that was going to cost too much money. I think it's the humor. I think the film is funny. I think it's really engaging. We don't have car chases and explosions, but I think there is a lot of humor. While there are summer blockbusters like 'Iron Man,' there are also ones that are humorous and funny, a la 'The Hangover.' We're trying to walk that line of "docbuster" without explosions. The sequel will have explosions. 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold 2': we're going to blow up so much sh*t it's going to be crazy.
I heard you say that this film is never-ending. And that's something I've written about before, the idea that documentary stories never end. But you've made the making of a movie about the making of a movie that will never be finished.
It's like the making of a movie into the making of a promotion, and then you can go into the release of a movie, the reception of a movie, into the impact of a movie. Literally it can go on and on. At some point you have to just stop, and I think we'll stop at the release of the movie. That's the interesting point. Some of the stuff we'll shoot for the DVD just to see the impact once it releases. As all the stuff goes out we can create this sort of ubiquity of marketing. What will happen then? There's something interesting there that I would love to have. That sounds like a great DVD extra.
But you can't really have a "making of" featurette.
No, but we do have a featurette of the making of the commercials. There's behind the scenes of all the commercial shoots. That'll be on the DVD. But the making of of the making of? Now that's meta. That's even more ridiculous.
Documentaries have historically been sponsored by companies. And today many documentaries are simply feature-length advertisements for anything from causes, organizations, books and even products. You're just being more upfront and honest about it, but I wondered if you could address that greater need for sponsored funding for non-fiction.
It's so hard to make documentaries. By hook or by crook, I think people want to make sure these stories get told. A lot of organizations and foundations will pay for movies that will just talk about their cause and what they do. And yeah, I don't think it's clear to the people who watch it that it is actually almost like a promo video for what these people do. But at the same time I think, is it important to get those kinds of movies out for people to see? Absolutely.
Like if 'Super Size Me' had actually been brought to you by some kind of health food.
Yeah, who would that have been? Or, some diet product. It was actually brought to you by the broccoli lobby.
I heard you asked a few fast food places, including McDonald's, to be a part of 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.' Would that have been a sacrifice of your integrity given the circumstances of 'Super Size Me'?
How ironic would that have been? Yeah, possibly. We asked them all. And none of them would even call me back. It was amazing. In-N-Out Burger wouldn't even call me back. And I'm like, In-N-Out is a place that I think would want to do something cool. But no, apparently not.
You are a brand-name filmmaker, which is rare in the documentary genre. And that was the thing with last year's 'Freakonomics,' that it had all these all-star, name-brand documentarians (including Spurlock). You've basically been a brand since 'Super Size Me,' partly because you're on camera as the star of the film. Can you talk about that?
Well, the biggest thing for me, whichever projects we're doing, especially if I'm front and center on camera telling the story I want to make sure it's something that's smart and make sure it has a sense of humor. I want to make something that's accessible to people. And that we've planted enough seeds that when you leave there's going to be a conversation. Coming out of POM Wonderful's 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,' there are things you take home. When you leave that movie, you're going to be thinking about those people that are in the film. But it's also, in a way, still going to make you laugh, and you're going to be talking about things. People on the street last night were talking about Mane and Tail [shampoo] without even seeing the film, and people are talking about POM. That's literally a thing people were talking about today, pomegranate juice.
I think it was interesting that you went to that place (in the film) where you found out what your personal brand is all about.
I'm anxious to see how many people now go to Olson Zaltman [Associates] to get that done.
I'm surprised actors and actresses and other celebrities don't go to find out.
Well that was literally one of the things when we met with them. They called me and said, "We'd love to do this with actors or actresses or people in Hollywood." And I told them I think that's a great idea. I said, "Let's wait until the movie comes out. Because when the movie comes out, trust me, people are going to call you."
Do you feel a need to protect your brand, like as in protecting your integrity? So you don't make a movie that goes against everything that made people get into you with 'Super Size Me'?
The movie doesn't do that. I think it sells out on our terms. That's what makes the film really work. [The sponsors] came to us and said, "we have control; we have input," and we fought back and took that away so that the final voice and vision of the film that was released is mine, my producer's, my editor's. We literally shaped that story the way we wanted to. It was amazing. I think we maintained a tremendous sense of our and my integrity.
2010 was a huge year for docs, and 'Freakonomics' was part of it by having that all-star documentarian thing. Was that all a fluke, or is documentary going to keep getting better and more popular?
I think it's going to keep getting better. I feel like there's this golden age of docs that is happening right now, where they're getting more popular and they're getting more mainstream releases. People are actually going to see them in movie theaters. They're getting released in traditional cinemas and not just art houses now.
And now there are "docbusters."
Yes, and maybe now there will be docbusters.
Do you have a release date yet?
April 15 or 22.
You're not going to release the "docbuster" in the summer?
Well, the thing with a docbuster is we should release it just before the blockbusters so we can get a little more ramp on time. Because in a perfect world, what you want to see happen is the docbuster gets to play out the whole summer as counter-programming to the blockbusters.