Is Morgan Spurlock a filmmaker trying to make a point about
product placement with his latest movie? Or is he just a guy engaged in some uber-meta self-promotion?
Wait, don’t answer those questions yet. We have another one first: Is it possible to write about this Spurlock release, which opens tomorrow in theaters, without mentioning the names of the companies that Spurlock agreed to promote as part of that documentary, even if one of those company names is in the title?
Let’s find out.
Here’s a Q&A with Spurlock, 40, the man responsible for the Academy Award-nominated “Super Size Me” and his latest film, “[The Beverage Company That Must Not Be Named] Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” Among the topics covered: why Spurlock bought the naming rights to Altoona, Pa., the reason that no A-list actors would go on-camera to discuss their experiences with product placement and an answer to the question, was “Super Size Me” really just an elaborate promotion for a certain fast food chain?
(Note: No, I did not realize this post would go live on the same day that ads for “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” would be splashed across the blog. The irony is not lost on me.)
So, can I write about this movie without mentioning all the product names?
Spurlock: [Laughs] Well, first it’s going to be hard for you to write the name of the title without mentioning a product. Because the name of the movie is a product.
What if I blot out the names?
Spurlock: Are you going to blur it out? Are you going to — what’s it called when they block out words in government documents?
Spurlock: Yeah. Are you going to redact all of the names in the article?
Well, I was thinking of treating them like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. Like, the Beverage Company That Must Not Be Named.
Spurlock: All “That Must Not Be Named.” That’s kinda funny.
I just read that you bought the naming rights to the city of Altoona?
Spurlock: I bought the naming rights to Altoona. So in two weeks, there will be a naming ceremony that we’ll have in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where the mayor will announce a proclamation: For the next 60 days, the city of Altoona will become [The Beverage Company That Must Not Be Named] Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pennsylvania.
Can I ask how much it cost to buy the name?
Did that money come out of the movie’s budget?
Spurlock: It basically came out of the money that we raised. I said, you know what, we should buy the naming rights to a town. We live in a world where there are sponsors for everything. People are buying the naming rights for everything. Why shouldn’t we buy the naming rights for a town?
What’s Altoona going to do with the money?
Spurlock: I think they’re putting it toward their police department.
(Note: Yes, I know there are products mentioned in the clip above. Some things cannot be totally redacted.)
In the movie, you show these “Greatest Movie” collectors cups and other products with the movie’s logo on them. So those tie-ins are real?
Spurlock: Everything you see at the end of the film is the co-promotion that’s happening right now to get the movie out. Like the [Talk Show That Must Not be Named] thing you see in the movie just aired [last] Tuesday. The collector cups will be hitting stores, hitting [Convenience Store That Must Not Be Named] locations, next week. All the [Vegetarian Prepared Food Company That Must Not Be Named] pizza boxes will be in freezers all across America. In the place where you can buy [Sunglass Brand That Must Not Be Named] sunglasses, all of the advertisements say “The Greatest Sunglasses You’ll Ever Wear,” and are in [The Sunglass Shops That Must Not Be Named] all across the United States.
That’s all being implemented right now to continue to do the same thing that an “Iron Man” does or a “Dark Knight” does, to create kind of this ubiquitousness of advertising and marketing that helps support the release of the movie and really turns it into an event. It really turns into something you have to see. Like if you got on [The Airline That Must Not Be Named] today and the plane takes off, I come on the video screen and I say, “Hi I’m Morgan Spurlock, the director of ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.’ [The Airline That Must Not Be Named] is the greatest airline you’ll ever fly.”
All the tie-ins make people aware of your film, but what’s the overall message?
Spurlock: Well, hopefully they take away from all the tie-ins that they should go see the film. What will happen when you go see the film is that one, it will change the way you watch film and television forever. You will never look at a Hollywood movie the same way again. You will never look at advertising and marketing the same way again. Because you start to realize everything that goes into the process to get you to buy something, anything. It really does show you behind the curtain for the first time. You get to see Oz pulling the strings.
What the film really does is it asks a very important question: Where do we draw the line? We live in a world today where everything is brought to you by some sponsor. Everything is brought to you by some corporation — from a concert to a subway stop in New York City ... They just floated a bill in New York City where now they are talking about selling the naming rights to parks and playgrounds. Schools now are letting marketing and advertising in so they don’t have to cut their budgets. So the question is, where does it stop? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line? I think that’s a real important conversation to have right now.
I agree. But what you’re doing to promote the movie could be interpreted as a suggestion that we don’t need to draw the line. Are you saying that?
Spurlock: I think the film brings up a real question of how much is too much. Where do you draw the line? Everything that I am doing reinforces the fact that we live in a time and a place — there’s a great interview in the film, one of my favorite interviews, where [a Florida school official] says — I’m asking her about schools and why are people upset about advertising and marketing coming into schools. And she says, well, because schools are meant to be sacred. Schools are meant to be places where kids can come in and create their own ideas and their own identities and their own kind of outlook on the world, free from outside influence. Now that all this advertising and marketing is coming in, that’s changing. And it’s going to continue to change.
What the film shows you, I think in a really smart way, is that nothing is sacred anymore. No place, nothing in this society, is sacred. Those places don’t exist. If you’re somewhere for a second, for 10 seconds, for a minute, someone is going to find a way to market something to you in that space. Everything we’re doing around this movie reinforces that ideology in a way that once you leave the film, will continue to make you think about it.
Stephen Colbert recently asked you whether you are for or against product placement. You didn’t give him a straight answer.
Spurlock: He goes, “Are you completely against this or are you all for this?” And I said, “Yes.” At the end of the day, I agree with what J.J. Abrams says in the film. I’m about story telling, not story selling. I’m a realist. ...You can’t suddenly make a film where we’re going to just create brand-new products. Suddenly everything can’t be a 555 telephone number.
We live in a world where if you want something to feel like reality, you have to incorporate the things that represent reality. What I don’t want to do is come into an extreme close-up of a soda while somebody raises it up to their face, and they’re holding a can into the camera as they’re delivering a line of dialogue. Nobody talks like that. Nobody acts like that. ... We have to kick these people out of the creative process. None of these companies should be allowed to have a vote in what a creative person says or does. Let the directors direct, let the writers write. And if you want to be associated with something, be associated with it. But let’s let the smart people do their job.
I was really interested in the part of the movie where you talk to directors like J.J. Abrams, Peter Berg, Quentin Tarantino and Brett Ratner. I assume you had a lot more footage of those conversations that didn’t make it into the movie.
Spurlock: Yeah. We had probably an hour interview with every single one of those directors. I really wanted to get an A-list actor, somebody who’s had to give that line of dialogue while they’re leaning against the hood of a car or something, while there’s a giant logo in the front of it. And we could not get an A-list to go on camera. It was amazing. We could not get one.
Were they afraid to say anything that would be perceived as anti-corporate?
Spurlock: You never get reasons like, I’m afraid to say anything. The reasons were, oh yeah, you know, we’re just really busy right now. We can’t do it. The fact that 30 people are too busy to talk about this — I talked to four of the busiest directors in the world today. But you start to realize when they won’t go on camera, won’t talk about something like this, there’s a real level of potential repercussions, I think. Especially in the studio system. Or a judgment of how you’ll be viewed by speaking out against it.
Did the directors talk at greater length about how they’ve been hamstrung creatively by product placement?
Spurlock: Brett Ratner says it in the film — four guys show up to the set holding these cups and say, you need to put them in the scenes. And he’s like, what are you talking about? You start to see there is a level of input. When you’re making big movies like that, you’re making a $100 million movie, [the studio] is going to have real creative input in that, especially as they’re trying to create this whole co-promotional campaign around it that’s not going to cost them a nickel. ... You’re going to somehow see a fast-food company that somebody’s going to drive by or something so that all the Happy Meals get out in the world. They are going to try and push certain things to be tied in just so they can capitalize on those co-promotional dollars. And that’s what you see in the film.
You see in this movie the influence brands start to have over the film that I’m making. And for me again, I think the film is enlightening in the way that it pulls back that curtain and lets you see there is input that happens, even in little films like this.
The difference, though, is that in your film, that’s sort of the point. So you’re buying into it from the get-go.
Spurlock: In my film, it completely works and the thing is, I’m telling you how it works. In those other films, you don’t get to see those conversations. You don’t get to see everything that leads to the fact that somebody’s holding that cup and leaning against that car, or wearing that shoe. Now what this film will do is it will change the way you look at Hollywood movies. Because now the veil has been lifted. The wool is off your eyes. And you will completely look at things differently.
Don’t you think people are pretty savvy about that at this point, though?
Spurlock: If you haven’t heard, fast food’s bad for you, by the way. I don’t know if you heard that.
I did hear that. And I actually want to ask you a question about that. But let me ask this next one first. At one point, you say in the movie that you’re concerned that this movie will ruin your integrity as a filmmaker. Is that something you’re still concerned about now?
Spurlock: Had I let people have control over my movie and control over the cut, it would have been a complete sell-out move. Literally, I would have let them dictate what’s in the final cut of this film. And the fact that we were able to retain that speaks volumes about what the film represents. These are people who are willing to give up the preciousness of their brands and kind of let us run free reign with them. And what we end up with is something incredibly honest and transparent and unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a movie.
You may think people are savvy. But the fact is we’ve been so programmed and so desensitized to it that, look at Sao Paolo. When people see the Sao Paolo scene, they’re shocked. [Editor’s note: A scene in the film shows Sao Paolo, a city where all advertising in public spaces has been banned.]
We’re shocked by it. I have not had a screening of this movie yet where people aren’t like, I’m blown away by that. That place exists? Because we’re so used to being bombarded with marketing, saturated with advertising, we just think that’s the way it is and everything has to be. Suddenly when you see things different, there’s an awakening. There’s like, oh my gosh, I never realized this. I’ve never seen this before. The film does a great job of showing you the forest for the trees.
I’ve gotta go. I’m getting the sign ...
Can I ask one last quick question? Regarding “Super Size Me” — now that I’ve seen this movie, I started thinking about your first one and going, wait was that just an elaborate product placement? Because I kind of wanted a Quarter Pounder a couple of times while I was watching it ...
Spurlock: There were two camps of people that saw “Super Size Me.” The people who saw “Super Size Me” and said I am never eating this food again, and the people who saw “Super Size Me” and walked out of the theater and said, I’ve got to get some right now.
But that’s what happens when you make something like “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” People start to question whether they’ve viewed everything before in the proper context.
Spurlock: Yeah. Which is a good thing. I think that’s a great thing to have happen with this film. I think awareness is a great tool to be armed with.