A NEW DOCUMENTARY:
Sundance '11 Day 3: Selling out
Morgan Spurlock, the director "Super Size Me" and "Where in the World
Is Osama Bin Laden?," returned to Sundance to premiere his third
documentary. It's called "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," and in it,
rather shamelessly, Spurlock races around the country in pursuit of
corporate sponsorship. He does so under the guise of exposing both the
evils of product placement in movies, television, public
transportation, and everywhere else and the omnipresence and insidious
omniscience of advertising. And while Spurlock rounds up the likes of
Mark Crispin Miller, Noam Chomsky, and Ralph Nader to speak doomily on
the subject, for most of the film Spurlock meets higher-ups at willing
companies interested in placing their products in his movie. That's
pretty much it: meetings and montages.
It may be the case that Spurlock is uninterested in -- or incapable of
-- rising to the intellectual challenge he presents for himself.
Instead, he uses the film to turn himself into a human billboard. He
doesn't appear to find corporate sponsorship for nonfiction filmmaking
a problem. In a sense, it isn't. Without big business' backing, many
of the movies we see and festivals we attend wouldn't happen or would
Spurlock tries to complicate things by getting Hollywood directors
like Peter Berg and Brett Ratner to come clean about product
placements in their movies. They say nothing surprising. Corporations,
for instance, don't care about art. And: Sellouts? We're all sellouts!
Sony Pictures Classics bought "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" a few day
before, a move one imagines is a bargain given the money the
sponsoring companies are likely to spend on marketing. (The movie
includes scenes in which its posters are printed and pressed and
another in which Spurlock appears on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show.
Presumably, it was staged, which, of course, makes you wonder what
else Spurlock has rigged.) The movie doesn't ask whether good product
placement is good for documentaries. Spurlock doesn't need to. The
answer is obvious: It's good for him. Spurlock says he set out to make
a "docbuster," which, of course, would make him the Brett Ratner of
Even so, as empty of insight and crass in its shamelessness as it is,
the movie is occasionally funny. The audience went for it. The Q&A was
packed; and as proof of the film's queasy efficacy, one questioner
told Spurlock, who was joined by the charmed executives he pursues in
the film, that he plans to start using the products whose makers
backed Spurlock, because they're supporting documentary filmmaking.
Above is a bit from the Q&A, for which Spurlock changed into a blazer
emblazoned with the logos of his sponsors. He looked like a waiter at
a NASCAR restaurant.
Following the world premiere of Morgan Spurlock's hilarious and sly
new documentary at Sundance, he announced a title change. It's now
"POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold."
This is, of course, part of an actual deal he made with POM to become
his title sponsor in exchange for helping to finance his film and part
of the film's sneaky investigation into the nefarious world of
sponsorship, product placement, marketing and advertising in movies
The film is going to clean up at the box office so the many sponsors
he kids will end up with high-fives all around.
Spurlock once again stars on camera as the fatally afflicted addict
from Super Size Me, although this time instead of Big Macs he wants to
make a "doc-buster" movie so badly he'll pursue financing from any
brand willing to give him a buck. Thus, he journeys into the heart of
darkness that is branding, cross-promotion, advertising and, above
all, product placement. READ: Q&A with Morgan Spurlock
His cameras follow him into pitch meetings, brainstorming sessions and
confabs with attorneys and fellow filmmakers who break down the
various contractual agreements into English. He thereby ushers the
viewer into a movie world where if Casablanca were made today the
plane behind Ingrid Bergman would be JetBlue (one of his sponsors),
Bogie would be outfitted with CARRERA Sunglasses (another one) and he
would walk away with Claude Rains in Merrell Shoes (you betcha it's a
None of this will shock anyone who watches movies or TV these days. In
fact, the film's greatest shock comes in a brief excursion to Sao
Paulo, Brazil, a city that has banned all outdoor advertising.
Spurlock wanders through a city landscape that feels strangely
denuded. This stuns you into realizing just how much advertising is a
part of daily life. In Sao Paulo, you can actually see the city.
Marshall McLuhan famously said "the medium is the message" but here
the message is the movie. Spurlock actually raises the film's $1.5
million budget as he makes his movie. First he rounds up sponsors.
When Ban Deodorant comes aboard at $50,000, you can feel Spurlock's
excitement after all the rejections. He gets a lengthy hearing from
POM's co-owner Lynda Resnick and her executive team, and even
discusses commercials he might make for the company. He eventually
He makes others as well even as he learns how to develop his own
"brand personality" and garners tips from Hollywood filmmakers from
Brett Ratner to John Wells.
The executives, PR consultants, lawyers and media professors all seem
to be in on the joke about the movie — they could hardly ignore the
camera in their offices — but they spill the beans anyway. There is a
sense, although few in the industry say it, that product placement has
gotten seriously out of hand. Ralph Nader suggests the only way to
avoid advertising is to go to sleep. Then Spurlock entices him into an
involved discussion about Merrell Shoes. Yes, he does.
No one can quite find the line between a movie's hero legitimately
driving a luxury car and film and the embedding of products into story
development and character behavior. Spurlock certainly grabs all the
laughs this goldmine of comedy proffers even as he swills POM juice,
conducts interviews at Sheetz Convenience Stores and shops for the
musicians to promote themselves by writing the Greatest Movie theme
He then imagines his film is ready to open with sponsorships splashed
all over the movie's trailers, co-promotions and poster art. "He's not
sellout, he's buying in!" declare the posters. He appears on Jimmy
Kimmel Live in a suit plastered with corporate logos, the same suit he
wore following the film's Sundance premiere.
So don't tell Spurlock he can't have his cake and eat it too. In
Greatest Movie, he gleefully accepts his sponsorships on camera just
to show you how wrong this all is. And the sponsors dig it too:
They're getting exactly what they want.
Oh, and one more thing. After the film was shot, the Federal Trade
Commission filed a lawsuit against POM Wonderful for making false and
unsubstantiated claims for its product in advertising. You can bet
Morgan Spurlock appreciates the irony in that.