Morgan Spurlock sells out – literally –to expose the shady, increasingly invasive world of product integration and its impact on writers in his new documentary POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
In his newest, most logo-laden documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock is told by a fancy branding expert that his personal brand is “Mindful/Playful”. That’s pretty spot-on for the tone of the new film, which is funny and almost breezy, while also starkly showing how not only pervasive product integration has become in film and television, but how terribly good these branders and marketers are at their jobs.
The Mindful/Playful mood is captured in the doc’s closing scene: a Spurlock voice-over implores viewers to fight to get away from the ever-invasive reach of corporate shilling as we see him crossing a beautiful creek with his adorable young son. At the last minute, he looks at the camera and plugs the Merrell hiking shoes they’re both wearing. It’s the irony Spurlock can’t get enough of, and it is the central hook of this experiment – Merrell’s money funds the very documentary that seeks to sound alarm bells about how overwhelmingly rampant and impactful corporate marketing in original programming has become.
The shoe bit, like the film, is the kind of joke that makes you laugh right before you feel disgusted. As largely unknown as product integration is to the general public, writers of film and TV know it well and that it is at a tipping point of prevalence.
Spurlock spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site from the road, on what will wind up being an almost seven-month promotional tour, all done wearing a suit with the logos of each of the 22 companies who funded the film.
What inspired you to do this film?
The whole film came from an episode of Heroes I saw. I just loved season one of that show. Season two I thought started to lose its compass a little bit and one of the things that happened is there started to be a lot of product placement. In this particular episode, Hayden Panettiere, the cheerleader, is coming out of school, and she’s sad and her dad says, “Oh, honey, we wanted to save this but…” and he reaches into his pocket. As he does that it cuts to the front of a car, and as the camera dollies past the Nissan logo, it cuts back to him and he’s dangling the keys in front of her face. Rack focus to her face and she says, “Oh my God! The Nissan Rogue! Daddy, I can’t believe you’re giving me the Nissan Rogue!” I was like, “Wow! I just saw a commercial in the middle of this show just now. That really happened!”
So the next day I was in the office with my producing partner Jerry, and we started talking about it. He was just as blown away by seeing this, and we started talking about other TV shows and movies that had this. We thought, “What if we made a film that kinda ripped open this whole world of product placement and advertising and got brands to pay for it?”
Going all the way back to that Heroes episode, how long has the journey of this documentary been?
Photo: © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics
Morgan Spurlock in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
Two years. Well, we saw the Heroes bit earlier. It was January ’09 when we said, “Let’s make this movie.”
Even though you’re a documentarian, did you ever entertain the idea of doing this as a written feature?
There are a couple companies that do this in Los Angeles that we wanted to follow. There are a couple lawyers that help connect writers with placements and companies that do this from start to finish and no one would let us be a part of that process. It was pretty remarkable how protective they were. They didn’t want this to get out – they didn’t want people to know about it, and they didn’t want to reveal how it went down.
For me what was fascinating was how little people wanted to talk about it.
Did you expect them to readily want to talk about it?
I thought we would get a little more access than we ultimately did. The fact that I had to call 600-plus companies to get the 22 that are ultimately co-promoting the film – and it’s amazing we got 22. I thought we’d be able to get a product placement company that would help us. No dice. There wasn’t one that wanted anything to do with the movie.
In the film we see how, when you get the contracts from companies that are interested, nearly every one asks for final approval of the film. How tough was it to not allow final approval?
It was months. The average time from when we first got a contract to the time we actually signed one was about three and half to four months. Over that time, there was so much give and take, and at some point you have to make compromises to them, like, “We’ll do this interview this way, or when we go to promote the film, we’ll refer to the product in this way.” A lot of things were original things that we stood strong on. Some companies wanted to recoup their full investment and get a piece of the movie, to which we said absolutely not – nobody got either.
This is perhaps a dumb question, particularly for a guy who’s on a publicity tour in a suit covered with brand logos, but did you ever actually get concerned that this movie would wind up just being advertising.
Had we let the brands get any type of stake in the film or how it ended up, then I had big concerns that it would turn into a 90-minute commercial. Since we were able to maintain that control of the spirit of pulling the curtain back on this world, that didn’t happen.
What would you like filmmakers and writers to take from this?
From a creative standpoint, what the film shows with regard to writers and Hollywood and TV shows is that, ultimately, we need to kick the brands and the companies out of the writers’ room. We need to let creative people be creative and not let marketing executives dictate content. If they want to put money into a show, it’s totally fine, but we need to get away from shoving products down our throats within content. The more we can let creative people do their jobs, the better off everyone’s going to be.
But having said that, what’s your honest feeling about the future with regard to this?
There’s going to be more of this before there’s less. That’s what I believe. There will have to be even more of a deluge before people say this has to change. Writers and creators have to have some type of power and influence, or a least a power of attorney, over their programs and ideas. Ultimately, that’s what has to happen.