Sundance 2011: Spurlock sells 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' to audience
Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock needs 600 million media "impressions" -– articles, blog posts, tweets, TV spots, etc. -- about "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" to get full payoff from the corporate sponsors of his new documentary exposing the insidious nature of product placement in movies. So let me be among the first to oblige: If you're reading this story, you too are helping the cause, or being used by corporate America, or maybe both -- as Spurlock wittily and artfully illustrates in the movie.
Set for release in April by Sony Pictures Classics, the documentary premiered Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival to an enthusiastic crowd at the Library Theater. Among the audience were nervous representatives of companies such as POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice, JetBlue Airways, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Sheetz Convenience Stores and Amy’s Kitchen –- all of whom cooperated with Spurlock but had not been allowed to see the movie until now.
Given Spurlock’s previous works -– most notably the 2004 Oscar-nominated “Super Size Me,” in which he explored the consequences of eating an all-McDonald’s diet for a month –- they had reason to be worried.
“We had no idea if we were going to get thrown under the bus or what. Even once the movie started, we were nervous,” said Amy Berliner, owner and namesake of Amy’s Kitchen, a maker of natural frozen pizzas, burritos and other food products.
As it turns out, Spurlock makes these risk-takers look smart and rather unstuffy in their willingness to go along with an unconventional, artistic concept that aims to expose the crass commercialism of many companies.
Inspired by a particularly egregious instance of product placement for the Nissan Rogue on an episode of the TV show “Heroes,” Spurlock said he set out to make a movie about product placement in film and co-promotion -– the phenomenon of companies latching on to movies and promoting films with tie-ins to everything from fast-food meals to clothing, cars, and even cruises. But instead of just cataloging the myriad examples of the practice, Spurlock decided to recreate it in the most blatant way –- by directly pitching companies on the idea of funding his movie in return for prominent mention in the film.
The movie tracks Spurlock through awkward and funny pitch meetings with advertising gurus, brand managers, and perhaps most disturbingly, a man who calls himself a “neuromarketer” who uses MRI technology to scan people’s brains to see how they respond to movie trailers and other advertising –- effective ones, he says, activate the part of brain associated with desire, craving and sex.
In one particularly amusing scene, he pitches Lynda Resnick, billionaire cofounder of POM (and myriad other companies such as Teleflora and Fiji Water), on the idea of running a 30-second commercial within his movie in which he’ll illustrate how the juice can give a man an erection. Resnick gamely suggests a spot more focused on how POM has more pomegranate juice than a competing brand’s pomegranate drink –- an idea Spurlock eventually does ironically incorporate into the film.
“Morgan did a really good job of making it natural,” said POM President Matthew Tupper, who was also in the erection-ad pitch meeting. POM eventually signed on to be the headline sponsor for a cool $1 million. (The movie is officially called “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” But to get the full million, Spurlock needs not only 600 million media impressions, but also must get the film to do $10 million in box office and sell 500,000 DVDs, according to the contract.)
Intercut with footage tracing Spurlock’s attempt to land sponsors are interviews with filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino, Peter Berg, Brett Ratner and J.J. Abrams about product placement, artistic integrity and marketing. Musicians such as Big Boi from OutKast and the guys from OK Go also discuss the creative compromises involved in lending their music to commercials.
Spurlock also interviews Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky about how to maintain creative control in the face of corporate pressure. A Hollywood operative named Norm Marshall, who’s sort of a guru of product placement, tells Spurlock how he has effected changes in scripts to make sure a given product such as Alka-Seltzer isn’t portrayed in a questionable light.
“People are tired of being lied to,” Spurlock said at an afterparty gathering with reporters and some of his corporate sponsors. Wearing a black suit emblazoned with the logos of his sponsors, and sipping a cocktail made with POM and vodka, he made a pitch for corporations to support artistic endeavors like his film –- but by giving artists creative control, not crassly dictating plot lines and dialogue.
Amy Curtis, who served as director of marketing for Hyatt while Spurlock was making the film, acknowledged that she ran into a wall of doubt when she brought the idea to her colleagues.
"We got a lot of ... and questions internally. But you have to be able to laugh and have fun with marketing today," she said, adding that "Hyatt is an experiential brand, and what this movie does is invite you to experience something."
She said she prevailed on her colleagues by pointing out the difference between this film and Spurlock's prior projects. "With 'Super Size Me,' he was investigating McDonalds. Here, he was inviting us to participate."
Near the end of the movie, there’s an amusing scene with Spurlock bathing in a tub with his son and a miniature pony -– a shout-out for a shampoo called Mane 'N Tail that’s suitable for use on horses as well as humans.
Devon Katzev, owner and president of Straight Arrow, which is based in Bethlehem, Penn., and makes Mane 'N Tail, said his company didn’t actually pay to be in the movie, but he’s glad to have played along with Spurlock’s effort.
“You can’t buy publicity like this,” he said.
-- Julie Makinen and Steven Zeitchik
Photos: In "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," Morgan Spurlock interviews Ralph Nader (top) and Peter Berg (bottom). Credit: Daniel Marracino / Sony Pictures Classics