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Morgan Spurlock discusses trials, benefits of latest ‘doc-buster’ ‘POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’

By Michelle Tennis
Photos by Amber Kelley

It was the greatest interview…well that seems to be overplayed these days, but CinemaClips.com recently had the opportunity to chat with Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock during his stop in Phoenix, Ariz.

Spurlock was in town for promotions/press tour of his latest “doc-buster” film: “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” The film insightfully explores the world of product placement, marketing and advertising, both in movies and in general. Morgan Spurlock and Michelle Tennis

And as I walked into the hotel room to begin my interview with him, I couldn’t help but be cognizant of the fact I had with me a brand-sponsored reporter’s notebook. Ah, the sweetness of irony. But it really drives home Spurlock’s point: product placement is everywhere. Below are some highlights from our sit-down with the filmmaker.

(Q): How did you come up with the idea for the movie?

(A): The idea came from a lot of conversations my producing partner Jeremy [Chilnick] and I had about the pervasiveness of advertising. You literally can’t go anywhere without someone trying to sell you something the minute you leave the house. So it was those conversations combined with this rise of product placement in films and television.

(Q): What were your biggest challenges?

(A): Getting money. Getting people to say yes. When we first started pitching this we said ‘lets go to the advertising agencies. They have the keys to the kingdom and they’re going to get us into all these brands. They’re going to be chomping at the bit to help us with this movie because it’s so out-of-the box and different. Nobody will not want to do this film.’ We started calling advertising agencies and none of them would help us. Not one agency wanted anything to do with this film. It was remarkable. Only one. Richard Kirshenbaum in New York City said ‘I like this idea. It’s smart. It’s different. Okay we’ll help you.’ So Richard Kirshenbaum said yes. While Richard called his clients we started calling all the placement companies: New York, LA, Chicago, San Francisco. None of them wanted anything to do with this film. None of them would touch it. Norm Marshall, the guy we interviewed in this film, actually said, ‘I’m going to shut this movie down. This movie is not happening. I’m going to show you who has power’ or something crazy like that. So we started cold-calling brands/companies one-by-one and called over 600 companies to come on as a sponsor of this film of which 580 plus of them said no. But 20 of them said yes. So we ended up getting the 20 sponsors that you see in the film and on my jacket that actually are now co-promoting the film.

(Q): How did you overcome the challenges of making this ‘doc-buster’?

(A): The best part was for every time anybody said no, there was someone ‘underneath the bubble’ that helped. It was usually the chief marketing officer of a company or the CEO or the head of brand management for an advertising agency that turned us down. The more of those people that said no, everybody who worked for them, all the underlings who pushed us up to those people, when we would get them back on the phone, they would say, ‘O.k. listen, I’ll do anything I can to help you, that won’t get me fired.’ All these underlings started helping us and feeding us information saying ‘you should call this person, you should call this brand or you should talk to these folks.’

(Q): Are there any companies that didn’t come on board that you wished did?

(A): In-N-Out Burger. I wanted In-N-Out Burger so bad to be the fast-food partner. The goal was to create a documentary blockbuster, a ‘doc-buster.’ We’re going to have all these co-promotional partners around this little independent film just like a big studio movie has. They’re going to help talk about it, help push it…  And I wanted a fast-food partner. If you’re going to make a doc-buster, you’ve got to have a McDonald’s [jokes about McDonald’s not calling him back]. Burger King said ‘no’, Taco Bell ‘no’ Wendy’s ‘no,’ Whataburger, ‘no.’ All the way down the line. Then I stalked In N’ Out Burger. I called them every week. Finally they called back and I told them about the movie. They said that sounds interesting.

[Spurlock talked about pitching his ideas such as an ‘unhappy’ meal and including nutritional facts. But ultimately, the franchise did not want to get involved. However, after several more calls to other companies and a pitch meeting, Sheetz said yes].

Morgan Spurlock Phoenix interview(Q): In the movie, you touched briefly on product placement for schools. While this has become necessary due to cut district funds, etc., are there any instances where you would draw the line?

(A): I think you should not have advertising in schools. I don’t think there should be any brands allowed to advertise in an educational environment or on school buses. I think that we’re sending the wrong message by doing that. You’re basically saying ‘these are the only people that can help us because we can’t help ourselves.’ I think it’s a problem. You’re setting a precedent with kids where their expectation is corporation will always bail me out. I think there has to be a better way. If these companies want to help the education system, rather than slapping ads all over a bus or inside a school, why not just give them money?

(Q): What are the pros/cons of product placement?

(A): The pro was we probably got, I’m guessing, $8-9 million worth of free soft-money promotion. So basically they’re paying for all the promotion. To have that type of marketing campaign around a film is amazing and it doesn’t cost you anything. If you’re making a studio movie, like an “Iron Man” or something like that you need it. You need to create this kind of ubiquitousness for your film. So I think that’s probably the upside. The downside is the minute you start getting in bed with a company for something like this they will somehow affect the creative. It’s not even 50/50; it’s 100 percent. It will happen. On what level I don’t know. It depends on how much pushback you can have. There will be influence. But with this film, it works. Seeing the influence and seeing them change the film totally works for what this film is about. Because this film is about that intersection of art and commerce and the impact they can have. On other projects, I think it becomes much more problematic.

(Q): What are some key things you learned during the process?

(A): The biggest thing I learned is that about 97.5 percent of companies don’t want to be in business with me because about 2.5 percent said ‘yes.’ You learn something new with each film. With this one, I learned a tremendous amount about marketing and marketing films inventively than I ever had before. So it would be interesting to see how we take that idea now and apply it to the next movie.Morgan Spurlock

(Q): If you had to do it all over again, what would you change?

(A): I probably wouldn’t have given up so easily on some of the brands. We didn’t get a bank, I really wanted a ‘greatest’ credit card, and I really wanted a fast-food company. I think maybe I shouldn’t have given up on some of the smaller companies because ultimately the smaller ones would have the most to gain. If we continued to push we may have found somebody. But at some point, you have to stop chasing money and start making a movie.

(Q): What do you think is the future of product placement?

(A): It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Ultimately you combine this whole idea of neuro-marketing with how they can predict what a majority of people will buy or want before they even advertise it to you simply based on how other people’s brains scans reacted to commercials. I think it’s going to get a lot insidious, a lot more targeted. I think there are going to be things that will be there just for you during certain TV shows or films. They’re going to be able to create advertisements and programming that literally become so directed based upon meta tagging. Think about Amazon. When you do a search for something, they’ve created a whole algorithm based on products you’ve bought in the past to come up with similar products [you might be interested in]. I think they’ll combine that technology with television. I think it will become a very targeted advertising experience that is just for an individual. Which is crazy to think about.

The film is now playing in select cities and coming soon to others. For more details, visit www.sonyclassics.com

Stay tuned for the next CLIPS show in May, which includes more on “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

Michelle Tennis, social media manager and feature writer for CinemaCLIPS.com, can be reached at CinemaCLIPSdotcom@gmail.com or follow her on twitter @CinemaCLIPS. 

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