Sunday, May 01, 2011

Black Sheep interviews Morgan Spurlock

An interview with Morgan Spurlock

In the creative world, there is one sin that is reviled above all others – selling out. But just what is a struggling auteur filmmaker to do in these crazy times of blockbusters and bottom lines to make sure his film is still seen? Heck, how is he even going to get his quirky little movie made for that matter considering the mounting cost of the supposedly independent film? Well, he could give up a tiny bit of creative control and allow a little product placement into his latest oeuvre, but how would he even know how to get to hell if he decided to shake hands with the devil?

Enter Morgan Spurlock; the infamous documentary filmmaker recently made his latest film on location in hell and he can tell you just how you can buy in before selling out. “If you’re going to make a big movie,” Spurlock tells me over the phone, immediately following the Canadian premiere of his third documentary feature, POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD at the prestigious HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, “you need all these promotional partners to drive awareness, to create a mentality around the movie, to make it bigger than life. We bought into this whole idea.” With this in mind, Spurlock set out to make what he calls the IRON MAN of documentaries, coining the term, “docbuster”.

Just like our virgin auteur though, Spurlock did not know where to begin on his quest. To make matters worse, said quest was extremely arduous. “We sat down with people from product placement companies,” he explains of the process. “None of these people wanted to help us.” This was not for lack of any effort on Spurlock’s part; there were other forces at play. “I immersed myself in ad speak to explain to people in a way that would get them excited to work with somebody who was potentially tainted or who comes with the kind of baggage that I do from a corporate standpoint.”

For those of you unfamiliar with any reason corporations might be hesitant to work with Spurlock, you have clearly not seen SUPER SIZE ME. The 2004 Academy Award nominated documentary put Spurlock front in center as the face of the film and found him embarking on a McDonald’s only diet for 30 days. His intent was not to lambaste the fast food giant but rather to look at the health issues associated with an all fast food diet. Regardless, the damage to one specific brand was fairly clear and Spurlock was subsequently branded himself, as an anti-establishment troublemaker.

On a related topic, Spurlock did contact McDonald’s about participating in THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD. It went a little something like this. “’Hey. It’s me, Morgan. It’s going to be really different this time, I promise. Please call me back.’ They never did.”

Once upon a time, it was only known as THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD. The brand above the title would depend on which company was willing to shell out the top buy in price of $1 million. Spurlock contacted hundreds of companies to obtain sponsorship partnering for the film but would only have successful conversations with about 3% of those. “Ultimately we had to reevaluate every day as to why we were doing this,” he confides without any hesitation. “People would say there is no way we are going to let you super size our business like you did that other company.” Abercrombie & Fitch actually asked if they had to spell out to him why he wasn't the appropriate half-naked body, I mean, face to represent them. Ouch.

Spurlock did manage to snag a grand total of 22 sponsors, including major sponsor, POM Wonderful – hence the name above the title of the film. Other sponsors include Old Navy, JetBlue and Sheetz, an American convenience store chain that would get Spurlock’s face on collectible soft drink cups, a first for any documentary. Obtaining those contracts make up the first part of the film and, while accomplishing this goal was difficult enough, what would follow would seem even more insurmountable.

Getting in bed with commercial sponsors, which is where every penny of financing for this film came from, means meeting the demands they make in exchange for their large financing contributions. Sure, Spurlock could fly around the country courtesy of JetBlue and could stay at Hyatt’s wherever he went but that meant he had to include actual commercial spots he made himself for these companies in the finished product. And how is this not selling out exactly?

“We pushed back any time anyone wanted approval or final cut of the movie, which ultimately made the film stronger.” This is Spurlock’s rationale for buying in. As long as you are still calling the shots, so to speak, and the movie you make is still your own, then you are buying in, not selling out. “This way it doesn’t feel like a 90-minute commercial.”

Transparency is a key issue for Spurlock and the film’s success. Applied to advertising, transparency allows you to be clearly informed when you are being advertised to. In the context of the film, that application is expanded to shine a light on the entire process in a more extreme fashion. “We pull the curtain back and when the film is over, it changes the way you look at marketing and advertising in the real world.”

And while this is a great feat, accomplished by a great film and filmmaker, there is one other thing Spurlock has noticed on the minds of filmgoers when they’ve finished with THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD. “When you walk out of the theatre, you also mysteriously have to have a POM right away.”

Money well spent, POM Wonderful, money well spent.

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