Recently, The Film Stage caught up with Morgan Spurlock to discuss his new film POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, now playing. The film examples the role of product placement and advertising in movies. Here is what he had to say:
Is this part of your sponsorship deal, this whole outfit?
What’s funny is that it was all my idea. That’s the thing, as you watch the film, this whole pitch of the suit was my brainstorm, so now these are my own chickens coming home to roost. So yeah, comes with the territory now.
Did you really think that when you started out…
That anyone would give us any money?
…that you’d even think you’d have a film?
Yeah, we had no clue. When we started, we thought it was a great idea, we didn’t know if it was even possible, and then as every advertising agency said, “Absolutely not, we want nothing to do with this,” with the exception of Kirshenbaum and Bond. And then as we called every product placement company, and every product placement company said “we’re not helping you, we want nothing to do with this movie, and then only two would go on camera to do interviews, which were Norm Marshall and Britt Johnson And so then when we started calling brands ourselves, to be like, “let’s grab our own destiny here, let’s start calling the companies on our own,” and me and Abby Horowitz, the co-producer of the film, literally started calling brands, over and over again, and we kept getting “No, no, no,” “absolutely not,” “we want nothing to do with this,” “I already saw what you did to that other corporation,” “No way we trust you,” “You don’t represent our brand, have you looked in a mirror?”
The things they said were like some of the most terrible things, and at some point you just think, “Why are we going to keep doing this, if nobody is saying yes?” And, the thing that kept us going the whole time, was that for every person at the top that said, “I don’t want anything to do with this movie, there’s no way we’re helping you,” all the people that worked underneath them, who passed us up to that person, woul say to us on the phone, “I’ll do anything I can to help you, that won’t get me fired.” And so the fact that everybody down here wanted this movie to be made, but no one up here did, ultimately made us say we have to figure out a way to get this done.
What happened in the end, is that we called about 600 companies… and you’ll say “how did you call 600 companies?” Well, you break it down by category, so we’re trying to fulfill every category we can, every shoe, so think of every shoe company; first of all we called the Nikes, the Reeboks, the K-Swiss, the Treetorns, the Puma, Converse, all the way down the line… until we ended up with Merrell, the greatest shoe you’ll ever wear. We called every, you know, the beverage company, because if you’re going to have a beverage company, you start at the top; we called Coke, Pepsi, RC Cola… again, all the way down the line until we magically ended up calling POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice.
After 600 companies, 580 of who said no, we ended up with 20 companies that said yes. Which is remarkable; tenacity isn’t even the right word to describe the amount of work that it took to get the companies that are onboard, it was pretty phenomenal. And that was nine months; it was nine months until the first company said yes. It was January of ’09 when we got to brainstorming and decided to do this, to the first company saying yes was like August/September, like eight-nine months until Ban deodorant said “Okay, we’re in.” And it was like fifty-thousand dollars, the first drop in the bucket, which was the first one, so we were like “Okay, there’s fifty grand,” but what that one step did, Ban coming on board literally gave us the ability to say, “Well, Ban deodorant’s doing it.” Nobody wants to be first, no company ever wants to be first, and nobody ever wants to be last. So once we pitched Ban, and Ban said yes, we then an met with POM, and it’s one of those when you prompt people on the phone, and POM was like, “Well, if Ban deodorant’s doing it…” So here was Ban deodorant, lynchpin of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
We saw a little bit about the process of choosing the theme song, but with so many bands out there, what was it about Ok Go that led you to believe they would be the right fit?
Well, we tried to get a lot of other people, people who were already associated with brands and brand identity as well. We wanted to get Jay-Z and P. Diddy and people who have real brand associations to come in, and these people didn’t want to do interviews, because they were real big artist, like Beyonce. Of course we wanted to get these people, the people who have real brands and real ties to products, we really wanted to get to do it. And then Ok Go was a band who, the minute we started talking to them, have done sponsor projects already, they did an amazing thing with Range Rover, they did the Rube Goldberg project that was paid for by State Farm, so they had already worked with brands and had a bunch of brand experience, and had put their music in commercials too, and some commercials, as they say in the film, made them feel a little dirty and not like they should have done it. And so, after I met with them, I was like these guys are great, so when I proposed for them to do the theme song, they just jumped at the chance.
I guess I was also wondering if any groups had volunteered, or if you had to seek out for the music.
Well, nobody volunteers if they don’t know the movie’s happening. People only volunteer if they know it’s going on, so we ultimately had to contact the bands, [for them] to find out it was going on. I mean, word never gets out about my movies. I don’t send out press releases, I don’t say, “Look what I’m doing!” because it’s just not the way I operate, so not my MO. There was zero talk about this movie, nobody knew about this film, this was so under the radar [that] no one knew about this film until it was announced at Sundance. And so then once the film was announced that we were in competition, or that we were actually premiering at Sundance, people were literally like, “Dude, I didn’t even know you were making this film.” They knew about the Comic-Con film, which is the film that everybody thought I was working on, and I was, but this was happening simultaneously, because this is not a project you want people to know about.
So, going off of that, how did you choose your subjects, like Matt and Kim? How did you choose the different voices and bring them on?
We had a great music supervisor, that I had lunch with in LA, a guy named Jonathan McHugh from Universal Music. I met him though one of our co-producers, Keith Calder, they had been friendly for years. So I sat down with McHugh to have lunch, and we started talking about the movie, he said “Keith said we should meet about your film,” so I’m telling him about it, and he’s like, “If you’re going to have the greatest movie ever sold, you’ve got to have the greatest soundtrack.” And so, this was in October/November of last year, it was fast. And so literally, within six weeks, was when I met Big Boi, Matt and Kim, Moby, and Ok Go, an literally we put that together in three or four weeks, and they were producing the original tracks, like the Matt and Kim and Big Boi mash-up, and all those things happened… so fast.
Most of the original production was done from December 15th to January 7th. I think the last shoot day we had for the film was about seven or eight days before Sundance, before the film premiered at Sundance. The Ok Go theme song, the master track for “Greatest Song I Ever Heard” was dropped in during our final mix, a day and a half before our movie premiered at Sundance.
Your editor deserves… (laughs)
Tom Vogt and Lou Goldstein… our audio engineer, Lou Goldstein, is the guy who wanted to rip my head off seventeen times. I’m like, “Lou, you know this is how we work,” and he’s like, “Yeah, I hate how you work.”
But I’ll tell you a quick story about Tom Vogt, our editor, because I want to sing his praises real quick. Tom Vogt, who came from South Park, [he] edited about 75-80 episodes of South Park, he did Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the South Park movie, he did Team America: World Police, and then he said, “You know what, I want to do something different,” so he moved to New York, got a job in a commercial editing house, started editing commercials. He and I met when he first came here, through my friend Julie Bob Lombardi, who edited Super Size Me and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden. He and I became friends, hit it off from the beginning, he’s like, “I really want to work with you, because I really want to make a documentary, I never have,” and I was like, “Well, when something comes along, I’ll let you know.” So the minute we got the idea for this film, and he was so done editing commercials, he was so fed up after four years, he was like, “Please, just get me out of here, I’ll work on anything.” I literally called him up within months, and I said, “I’ve got the greatest movie for you, it’s the best thing ever,” but it was; it was the best of both worlds because it married all of his comedic sensibilities with all of his commercial sensibilities. I think the combining of those two worlds with this worlds, it was just such a match made in heaven; it was serendipitous that he was in New York.
One of the most fascinating scenes was when you guys go to São Paulo where there is no ad promoting; that was amazing. Do you think that would be able to happen in any major city in the United States?
I think that it would never happen in New York City. I can honestly say it will never happen here, and I believe it will never happen here. I don’t think it will ever happen in Los Angeles. But I think, could it happen in certain cities in the states, like a San Francisco? Or a Portland, Oregon? Seattle? Austin, Texas? There’s no billboards in Vermont already, there’s no billboards in Hawaii, so it’s already one of those steps. But I think there are a couple cities that could pull something like this off, but it has to be one that is already pretty progressive in a lot of ways, and I think it has to be one that has a relationship with its environment, you know, that it’s not just a city, it’s not just high-rises. I don’t think Chicago would ever do it.
Is São Paulo still doing it?
Oh yeah, it’s been that way for about seven years. I think it was about 2004 or 2005 when it was passed, and in the beginning, all of the advertisers were like, “This is going to destroy the city! Nobody’s going to know where to go! Nobody’s going to know what to do! Businesses are going to collapse! The city is going to fall apart!” and none of that happened. Absolutely nothing happened. All the billboards were taken down, all the posters were pulled off the wall, all the advertising went away, and people still shopped. People still bought shoes. People still went to movies. They still knew where the museum was. Because, you know what, the internet still didn’t go away. All the other ways we get information didn’t vanish.
Your introduction of São Paulo is kind of a touchstone against which everything else can be measured.
I feel like that. I feel that where we’re opening doors in advertising is a big thing, like how we’re letting advertising marketing into schools, which I find to be one of the most terrible things in the film. The fact that we’ve so cut budgets, and we’re so wanting to save money, let’s take the money away from education. So, now these school districts are like, “What do we do?” So, now they’re letting these advertisers come in to place ads in the schools, trying to make up for these budgets, and it’s so little money. It is literally so little money that they’re getting… the advertisers are getting it at a song, it’s great for them. As the girl saying in the movie, which I really like, “What are we going to do? Are we going to go to Red Bull High?” That’s where we’re going. By the time my four year old son goes to high school, he could be going to Red Bull High, because here in New York City, they just floated a bill in New York, talking about selling off the naming rights to parks and playgrounds. So, as my kid goes to Red Bull High, and afterwards we go to Pepsi Prospect Park and hang out in the Hostess Twinkie Playground… yeah.
You ultimately got to keep creative control. Was there anything you wanted to do, but were forced not to?
Part of what I think makes the film work, is that we were pushed and pulled in different directions creatively to have to fulfill certain sponsor obligations, like shooting in the plane or shooting in the terminal, disparaging Germany… I think all those things, you start to see how much influence they have. When you see me pitch POM, and I’m pitching the commercial ideas, and they say “Yeah, that’s all good, but you should actually make this commercial.” So you do start to see this idea of truth in advertising, and how it actually works, and how much influence they can have over creative content. Now when you watch, and you see someone in a movie or tv show, and they’re sitting in a car, in a parking lot, with a Taco Bell in the background, you’re like, “Wow, so was the contract that they had to sit in a car in the Taco Bell parking lot, or was it originally Taco Bell to say we want them in the restaurant, and they said ‘well, how about if they’re in a car outside of the restaurant, so we don’t have them inside…’” You start to think about, where were the contract negotiations in something like that, it will change the way you look at Hollywood movies. You’ll never watch a big Hollywood movie the same way again after seeing this film, and I think that’s a great thing.
It was kind of funny, when you talked to people like Brett Ratner about the notion of selling out, because those are directors who have to deal with those issues.
Well, that’s what I love about Brett. Brett says, “Listen, I make big, giant movies,” and when you make big giant 100+ million dollar movies in Hollywood, that’s part of the price you pay. These tie-ins will happen. Unless you’re making like an Avatar, and while they may not be happening in the film, they’re going to happen like crazy outside of the film. All the Coke promotion, just to be associated with a movie like that when it comes out, is going to be completely a 360 relationship, whether it’s soda or Happy Meals, you name it. But when you’re playing at that level, it’s great.
That’s what I love, I love the honesty of all those guys. As they said, “it’s the movie business, this is how it is”. Peter Berg, one of my favorite lines in the whole movie is, “They don’t give a flying fuck about art.” You know, this is a business. And right now, he’s directing the 200 million dollar adaptation of Battleship the game into Battleship the space movie, so it’s like Battleship in space where it’s like Aliens are going to be battling one another. So, Peter Berg is doing the Battleship movie, and it’s a 200 million dollar movie, and so when you’re dealing on a budget that 200 million dollars, they’re going to want their money back… they’re going to want it back and then some. But for a 200 million dollar movie to make money, because the split between theaters and studios, it’s a 60/40 split, in which only 40 goes back to the studio. For every dollar that someone spends in a money theater, that movie has to make 500 million dollars to be profitable. So that’s why they want the cups and the t-shirts and the Happy Meals, anything that can lower their marketing budget, that push, so they can have this kind of iniquitousness of ideas, so it becomes an event around a movie, because, ultimately, yes, it’s crazy money.
Which is why we don’t turn to Hollywood for art.
But that’s why I love that Peter Berg talks about Paul Thomas Anderson, somebody who has said, “That’s not the game I’m going to play. That’s not what I want to do, those aren’t the stories I want to tell.” There Will Be Blood, one of the greatest stories to come out of the studio system, to come out of Hollywood, or True Grit, the Coen brothers’ last film; there’s great art in there, without one bit of product placement, and that movie made a bank of money.
Do you think that has to do with the fact those were period films?
Maybe. I think you can reach a point as a talent, and really make a stand. The more you get into present day, it’s hard not to, because again, everywhere you go, you walk outside there’s shit everywhere. Literally, you walk outside, there’s an ad somewhere, there’s an ad on a photo booth, a taxi drives by. Even if you go to where I grew up in West Virginia, into my town, there’s still advertising all over that town. You know, you drive down the road, there’s a billboard, there’s a poster on the side, there’s always still something, even in small towns. So, I think it’s harder not to have those things, just because that’s where we live now, we live in a real, branded society.
If anyone wanted to be sponsors of this film, could they have?
Well, we asked everybody; we went to the most offensive companies you could think of. I tried to get Bp to be a sponsor of the film; if there’s a company that needs real integrity right now, it’s that company. I was like, “C’mon, think of how great this will be for you guys.”
So you didn’t say “no” to anyone?
No, we didn’t say no to anyone. I went to firearm companies, I tried to get the greatest firearm you’ll ever use. I tried to get the greatest glock. We tried all these. I tried to get cigarette companies involved… I tried to get ones to create real ethical conversations.
After this conversation, it was announced that Spurlock and his production company Warrior Poets had finalized a deal to purchase the naming rights for the city of Altoona, Pennsylvania. The city’s new name, POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, will be effective on April 27, 2011 for 60 days. After an exhaustive search, the city of Altoona was selected by Spurlock because it is “a shining example of struggling cities all across America.” The money received by the city for the naming rights will be designated to the City of Altoona Police Department.
“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the shifting tide of business in America than by purchasing the naming rights to Altoona,” said Spurlock. “For the next 60 days, POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pennsylvania will be the most clever example of how an American city is marketing itself today.”
POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is now playing, check your local listings for screening times.