Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock talks about Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold—his new documentary on the impact of ever-present branding messages in the daily lives of consumers.

In almost 20 years in the industry, Oscar- and Emmy-nominated writer-director Morgan Spurlock has conceived and created everything from commercials to music videos. He was a successful playwright before producing the critically acclaimed Super Size Me, which won a best documentary Oscar nod, and has since worked on multiple film and TV projects. An NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad and known for pushing boundaries, Spurlock's latest is a documentary about the world of product placement, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.


Tavis: Morgan Spurlock is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker whose previous projects include, of course, “Super Size Me.” His latest is called “Pom Wonderful Presents: the Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which is now playing in select cities with more on the way this Friday. So here now a scene from “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”


Tavis: So this is the infamous pitch meeting?

Morgan Spurlock: That’s right – one of many, yeah.

Tavis: That’s what these are?

Spurlock: I had hundreds of those meetings over the course of making this film.

Tavis: So for those who are not in Hollywood, tell me what that was and how this works and what you were doing.

Spurlock: Well, with the whole film, it’s a film that looks at the world of advertising and marketing, and we tried to get the whole film paid for by product placement and advertising. So the few people you see me meeting with there are people from the ad world, from the agency world, because they had the keys to the kingdom.

If anybody can get me companies, it’s these guys, and of course none of those guys wanted anything to do with the movie at all, so then from there we started calling product placement companies. They didn’t want anything to do with the film. Then I started calling just companies, cold-calling the Cokes, the Pepsis of the world, trying to get them to come on the movie.

Tavis: What’s the difference between what you were trying to get done in the film versus what we actually see happening in film anyway? Because every movie I go to these days I see product placement everywhere. So what’s the difference between what you were trying to tell us and what does, in fact, really happen?

Spurlock: Well, I think ultimately what you see in the film is you see this whole process kind of take shape. You see the whole thing happen. You see the negotiations that happen, you see what they want.

What the film really shows you in a way that I think never has happened before is how once you start getting involved with a company or a brand or a sponsor or anything, it’s not a 30 percent chance or a 50 percent chance that they’re going to influence the content, it’s a 100 percent chance. So you see that play out over the course of this movie in a real honest and open way.

Tavis: Is there something wrong with that?

Spurlock: I think that if you want it to have an influence, then sure, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think if you want to maintain a real sense of vision and creative direction, it becomes a harder question and a harder dilemma for you as a director, because then they will start asking you to say, “Boy, I don’t know, but that Tavis Smiley beverage sure is delicious.” (Laughter) I don’t really want to see that in the middle of my show. No offense.

Tavis: None taken. (Laughter) Are there examples that you came across, to your point now, of where product placement, in significant ways or ways that we ought to be concerned about really has changed the focus, the direction, the look or message of a film?

Spurlock: Well, they start to write storylines around certain products. Like when “Heroes” came out, one of the things that pushed me into wanting to make this film was when my favorite TV show, this show “Heroes,” started incorporating the Nissan Rogue into storylines in the show, and when the product starts driving the narrative then it becomes a problem.

I think we need to let the smart, creative writers be smart, creative people, and let the people who sell widgets sell widgets.

Tavis: I don’t want to give the movie away for those who haven’t seen it yet. How were you treated, or maltreated, as it were –

Spurlock: I would say much more mistreated. (Laughter) There was a lot more mistreating as you see me cold-calling these companies and you see in the film a woman from Guess says, “We will never put you on a billboard, ever.”

Then someone from Abercrombie & Fitch says to me, “Do you want us to tell you why you’re not Abercrombie & Fitch material?” and I’m like, “Yes?” and so she goes on to tell me, “Well, you’re pale, you’re balding, you have a mustache, you have pretty bad skin, you have a large nose, you’re not very attractive, you’re not in very good shape.” So she goes down the list of here’s why you’re inadequate, basically.

Tavis: Sounds like fun.

Spurlock: Yeah, sounds like – yeah, it’s a great thing.

Tavis: Speaking of fun, how much fun is this for you to, like, put these people on the spot like this?

Spurlock: For this film it was such a pleasure to make, because the whole thing was fun from beginning to end. To call these companies, to make a film that literally does put the screws to this business in a way that I think has never been done, that kind of puts people on the spot. But it’s a funny movie, that’s the thing. It’s like I’m giving you your medicine, but it tastes like cotton candy.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Sometimes you do a documentary and you do it with the express purpose of wanting to have an impact on the conversation that is already taking place, or the one that you’re creating with the documentary. What was the purpose for this particular film, other than to educate us about it, because Madison Avenue is so powerful?

Spurlock: So powerful.

Tavis: What are you going to do about it?

Spurlock: Well, hopefully you can at least throw a couple of little rocks and put a dent in that armor on some level, but you hope it does start a real conversation. For me, the question is where we draw the line. How much is too much?

In the film you see us go to schools now where school districts are selling advertising. There’s my NASCAR prom suit, look at that.

Tavis: Leave that, Jonathan, for a second. When you walked out today, I expected you to have that on. Why didn’t you wear your suit today?

Spurlock: I didn’t bring it, it’s in New York. Had I known, I would have brought the suit out with me. Yeah, it was my mistake – next time.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You were saying about whether or not we really can have an impact when you raise these kinds of issues.

Spurlock: But in this film, we go to schools that are now selling advertising in school districts to try and make up for budget gaps. It’s not just happening in Florida, the one we shot in. It’s happening in Pennsylvania, in New York, in California, Colorado, New Mexico.

I think school should be that place where advertising doesn’t encroach upon education, and so literally, how much is too much? Do we really need to live in a world where everything is brought to us by some sponsor? Because that’s what’s happening.

Tavis: All jokes aside now, how much work is it, for all those budding filmmakers out there, to cut against the grain, to carve out a niche for yourself doing stuff like this? How do you pull all this off? How do you get people to support the vision when they’re like, “Morgan, this ain’t going to work, man.” I’m sure you’ve heard that before.

Spurlock: Well, it happens a lot, that’s the thing. That’s why you have to – just like you see me in the film having to have thick skin for every person who tells me no, same thing when you’re pitching movies. You have to realize that 90 percent of the people you pitch an idea to are going to tell you no, they don’t want to do it, they don’t believe in it, they don’t think it’ll work.

So the advice I give to every filmmaker is you have to be tenacious. You can’t give up. Ultimately, if you want to make movies, you’ve got to want to make movies every day, when people are paying you to make movies and when they’re not, because you’re going to get a lot more no’s on this business, no matter what it is, than you are going to get yeses.

Tavis: Is it possible for a film to be made in 2011 that has its budget covered entirely, or even significantly, by product placement?

Spurlock: Oh, yeah. We paid for this whole movie; it’s a low-budget film, through advertising and marketing. You have the new Bond film which is coming out which a significant amount of that budget is going to be paid for by product placement and marketing. I think that you’re starting to see this becoming a reality, especially with big movies.

If you have the big “Transformers” of this world and the James Bonds or the “Thors” that are coming out now, you need that marketing support, because these movies are costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

So if you have somebody who’s going to put that on a can or in a Happy Meal or on a t-shirt, like, they need that, and it’s a lot. But how much of the integrity of the project’s being sacrificed, and that’s the question we have to ask.

Tavis: When you raise a question now about the integrity of the project, this is Hollywood, after all, Morgan.

Spurlock: Are you saying there’s no integrity? (Laughs)

Tavis: Exactly. That’s where I’m going with this.

Spurlock: That’s right.

Tavis: Who cares about the integrity in Hollywood? What they care about –

Spurlock: Is money.

Tavis: – is money.

Spurlock: That’s right.

Tavis: Whether or not it works, whether or not the audience is going to go see it repeatedly, whether young guys, young boys are going to go eight times to see it, all they care about is making money. Nobody cares about integrity in film. If you were doing a movie, a documentary, about integrity at PBS or at CBS or ABC or NBC in the news division, I get that. But why does anybody care about integrity in film? It’s entertainment, after all.

Spurlock: Well, I think it’s entertainment, but I think there’s a lot of filmmakers who would disagree with you. I think there’s a lot of filmmakers that say, “I really want to make art. I want to create something that’s going to have a lasting impact.” I’m sure if you talk to a lot of filmmakers, they will say, “I’m making entertainment, but I’m making art. This is my art. Hopefully, it’s profitable, hopefully it makes money, but at the end of the day I want it to be remembered for its artistic value as well as its entertainment value.”

I think that “Avatar” is a beautiful piece of filmmaking that was incredible what he accomplished, but so “There Will Be Blood” was not one piece of product placement in that film and it didn’t have promotional tie-ins, and I didn’t go get a Happy Meal with a “There Will Be Blood” play set inside of it. (Laughter)

Or your milkshake, “I drink your milkshake.” “Get your ‘I drink your milkshake’ at Burger King.” These things didn’t happen. I think there is a way to find a balance.

Tavis: What’s the price that the consumer pays, ultimately, if we don’t strike this balance?

Spurlock: Well, ultimately you start seeing entertainment that becomes a commercial, especially in the bigger Hollywood films. You’re going to projects where in the middle of a film somebody drives up in a car and they get out of it, and you zoom in on the Mercedes logo and he gets out and he’s like, “That new Mercedes SL handles like a dream. We made it here so fast.”

It’s like I don’t want to go see a commercial. I do want to be entertained. JJ Abrams had a great line in the movie where he said, “I believe in storytelling, not story-selling.” I want people to believe these characters are real. So I’m a realist. We do live in a world where brands exist. People wear Nikes and Levis and they drive Camaros. But I don’t need to be pointed out, “Oh, by the way, look – it’s a new Camaro.”

Tavis: It’s one thing to see on film the kind of treatment you got from people who were pitching who didn’t want to have anything to do with it, as you said earlier. What’s your assessment now of the way the film is being received, now that it’s done, and the conversation it’s kicked up?

Spurlock: Well, it’s getting a great response from critics, a great response from audiences. It’s continuing to expand out across the country. It is asking that question, it’s bringing it up, of how much is too much.

I was just at the Kentucky Derby this past weekend, which was the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum Brands. (Laughter) As they’re announcing it over the – they’re like “Yum Brands, the largest supplier of fast food around the world, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell.” I was, like, “Really?”

Tavis: And around the corner he goes.

Spurlock: And around the corner, yeah. (Laughter) That’s exactly what happened.

Tavis: We’re on the back stretch, we’re on the straightaway.

Spurlock: It was unbelievable to see, but that’s where we’re going. What the film does a great job of saying, and there was a woman who – it’s her job to sell promotions in the school districts in Florida, and she said, “School is meant to be sacred. It should be the one place where you’re free from advertising.” What the film shows you is we live in a time and we live in a place where nothing is sacred. That from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed, if you are a captive audience anywhere, somebody’s going to find a way to sell you something.

Tavis: Yeah. Morgan Spurlock is back with a new one called “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” I love his work; it always makes me think, and for that, I thank you, sir.

Spurlock: Thank you, Tavis, great to see you.

Tavis: Good to have you back.

Spurlock: Thank you.

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Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm