Writer-director Morgan Spurlock made a splash with his first documentary, 2004’s Super Size Me, in which he used a monthlong experimental all-McDonald’s diet as a platform to launch an examination of fast-food industry practices and eating in America. The lively film made him as close to a household name as an indie documentarian is likely to get; often mentioned in the same breath as Michael Moore, he’s gone on to a Moore-like career of projects that combine social advocacy with spritely humor. His 2005 TV series 30 Days spent three seasons riffing on the Super Size Me concept by putting people into other 30-day situations: a border guard living with a family of illegal immigrants for a month, a Christian living with Muslims, a hunter living with animal activists, and so on. Spurlock returned to filmmaking for 2008’s Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?, which used a mock hunt for America’s supposedly greatest enemy as a springboard for a look at America’s misconceptions about the Middle East. He followed up with a series of smaller pieces, including directing a segment of Freakonomics and a Simpsons 20th-anniversary special, and producing projects including The Other F Word and What Would Jesus Buy?
Currently, Spurlock is promoting his latest film, POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold—which is itself about promotion. In order to explore product placement, branding sponsorships, and advertising in today’s media, he made a movie about his attempts to fund a movie via product placement. (POM got its name in the title as part of a million-dollar sponsorship.) Greatest Movie is typical Spurlock: irreverent, tongue-in-cheek investigative, and dynamic. Covered with the logos of his sponsors, Spurlock recently sat down with The A.V. Club in Chicago to discuss the original concept of the film, the contractual obligations he had to resist, and his POM ad proposal featuring an engorged penis.
The A.V. Club: When you started this film, what was the original idea? What did you set out to do?
Morgan Spurlock: We wanted to make a film that ripped open this whole world of product-placement-borne advertising, and get companies to actually pay for it. That was the whole concept. The original idea.
AVC: In the press kit and the film itself, you joke about the idea that product placement helped make Transformers and Iron Man and the like into huge hits, so it might make this film a “docbuster.” Did you think that was likely?
MS: That what? That it would help make a film successful? Well, those do help make films successful. There’s an awareness that comes from all this stuff being out in the trailer, and it’s beyond just a trailer or just a poster. Suddenly, you can’t go to a 7-Eleven without getting a Slurpee with a giant Iron Man on it. You can’t walk into Walmart without finding Iron Man shirts for sale. You can’t go to a grocery store without there being co-branded sodas for the film. So there’s this awareness beyond the movie that makes it feel like it’s an event. It’s not just a release. So the idea is that, with these partners, we would try and create the same thing around an independent movie, a small film that would never have this. And now we have this $1.5 million movie that, by the time it’s released, I’ll have 23 partners helping to promote the film and help build the awareness around it, which is remarkable.
AVC: You see a little bit of that in the film, with Sheetz’s Greatest Movie cups, for instance. What are the other companies doing to promote the film?
MS: Well, there’s a lot more in the film. You see the whole campaign start to take place. You see the pizza boxes being printed by Amy’s; you see the cups going in Sheetz; you see the ads going in the backs of seats of JetBlue Airways; you see the tags going on the POM drinks; you go into a Hyatt and turn on the TV and I come on the TV and say “Welcome to Hyatt,” and I’m wearing my robe with the towel around my head—
AVC: So that ad will actually be incorporated into the hotels themselves?
AVC: Was there any conflict between sponsorships? Talking about a Mini Cooper wrapped in logos—did you ever have a situation where, say, Mini Cooper didn’t want to display so-and-so’s logos, or work with so-and-so?
MS: No. Everybody who bought into the idea of what this film was, and signed on, knew what they were getting into. Literally, when UCS pitched the things at the beginning, they said, “Here’s what’s gonna happen.” We tell everyone, “Mini Cooper, you’re gonna be ‘the greatest car I’ll ever drive.’ We’re gonna cover your car in all the sponsored logos.” So they knew getting in that’s what it was going to be, and that’s what they signed up for.
AVC: With your previous films, there were often critical complaints that you present what you’re doing as an experiment, but you had a plan for the results going in. You knew you weren’t going to find Osama bin Laden, you had specific political points to make, you knew McDonald’s was going to make you unhealthy—
MS: I don’t know if that’s completely true. You can say, “It’s going to make you unhealthy,” but I don’t agree with that at all, because ultimately, nobody knew how sick I was going to get. Even the doctor said, “Well, maybe you’ll gain a little weight.” But who knew my liver was going to get so filled with fat that I was going to be on the verge of liver failure? Nobody could predict the extent to which that happened.
AVC: But even if you didn’t know the full parameters, you had a plan and an agenda. Here, the process seemed a lot more open. There was a potential that nobody would pick you up, or that everybody would.
AVC: Did you go in with any end point in mind, or any idea how it was going to go?
MS: Whenever you come up with an idea, you always make an outline that says, “In a perfect world, here’s what will happen in this film.” And of course that never happens, and it gets thrown out the window with the first day of shooting, because every person you want to talk to won’t talk to you, and the places you want to go, ultimately you can’t travel to, or whatever. And so with this film, we knew where we wanted to start, which was trying to get these people to pay for it. Would it ever happen, will it ever work, and where will we end up? We didn’t know.
I remember when I had this picturesque version of the perfect movie we were going to have—I wanted to have the end of the movie feel like a commercial, where my sponsored, branded life literally becomes like a 30-second spot as I’m driving my car through the perfect neighborhoods of suburbia, as the girls are skipping rope and water is coming out of the fire hydrant, all in slow motion. I wanted the end of the movie to look and feel like a two-minute branded commercial, with all the sponsors involved. But as we started making the film, we began to realize that the end of the film should ultimately be the promotion and marketing of the film. So that literally you can see everything that I’m critiquing at the beginning of the movie ultimately becomes the tools that we use to put the film out. And so it’s a real organic process when making a documentary, because one door slams and another one opens, and the one that opens leads you in three directions, to people you never thought you’d talk to. So that’s what made it interesting.
I really wanted to talk to an A-list actor in this movie. I really wanted to talk to somebody in this movie who, at some point, had to say, “That’s very interesting,” and hold up their branded beverage in a movie or in a TV show. But we couldn’t get anybody to talk to us. To get an A-list actor to go on camera was impossible. That’s why one of my favorite things is, I love the director scene, where you hear Quentin Tarantino and Brett Ratner and Peter Berg and J.J. Abrams literally talk about the business. It’s so refreshing to hear incredible honesty from these guys about what goes on, and just to hear their openness about it. I love that scene.
AVC: Did you have a contingency plan in case you couldn’t get any sponsors or those directors to talk to you?
MS: [Laughs.] We had no contingency plan at all.
AVC: So this whole thing could have just fallen apart?
MS: It could have completely imploded or exploded in our face. I would have wasted a year-plus chasing people. That’s the thing: We got the idea in January 2009 and started calling ad agencies first. Who has access to these brands and companies? Ad agencies. Those are the ones to call. So we call all the ad agencies and no ad agency would help us, with the exception of Kirshenbaum & Bond, my friend whom I’d known about a decade. Then we said, “Let’s call all the product-placement companies.” No product-placement company would help us, and only two of them would go on camera to do an interview: Britt Johnson and Norm Marshall. And they wanted nothing to do with the film. So that’s when we said, “We gotta take this into our own hands, and we gotta start calling these companies directly.” So literally, we just started cold-calling, myself and Abbie Hurewitz, the other producer on the film. We called 500 or 600 companies, just cold calls. We wanted to sell out every category, so every shoe company, every airline, every drink. We called all the fast-food companies, because you can’t have a blockbuster without a fast-food tie-in.
AVC: Did you call McDonald’s?
MS: Of course we did! It was the first one we called. Of course they didn’t call back. Burger King didn’t want anything to do with it. I thought In-N-Out Burger would love it. In-N-Out Burger was perfect, because I thought we could create not an Unhappy Meal, but a Displeased Meal. With action figures. It would have been such an incredible tongue-in-cheek promotion thing, but they didn’t want to do it. So that’s when we called Sheetz. We said, “We need collector cups; we need to go to 7-Eleven.” 7-Eleven said no. Circle K said no. Wawa said no. Sinclair said no. Literally everyone down the line until we came to Sheetz. It was a regional chain—we met with them, they said yes. So now, in all 400 Sheetz locations will be collector cups for the movie. But it was a long time from Ban, which was the first company that said yes—from the first phone calls in January to Ban coming on board, it was about nine months. It was a long time of filming, traveling, shooting, spending money, and literally with zero money coming in.
AVC: How did you fund the film before it got sponsored?
MS: We were paying for it out of our pockets. It was all sweat equity. So as long as we could keep the lights on at the company, that was fine. And simultaneously, also what was happening during that time is, we were doing the Simpsons special. So we were producing that while still chasing people for this movie.
AVC: How did you get involved in the Simpsons special?
MS: They called me. They literally called me out of the blue, Denise Sirkot and Al Jean, the producers of the show, and they said, “We want to make a special about the show, and we want you to do it.” And I was like, “This is the best phone call I’ve ever gotten in my life.”
AVC: How did that compare to something like Greatest Movie Ever Sold, where you’re doing things by the seat of your pants, vs. having the backing of a huge, rich company that specifically wants you?
MS: Well, it was just different since being a fan of the show, The Simpsons were so long in my life, I think it was a real validation in life for us. I was so excited to do it, because this is a show that shaped me so much through my college years, and how I look at the world, and to be doing a show with big network Fox, and doing a show with so many people I admire—Matt Groening and Jim Brooks—it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
AVC: Your first two films were advocacy films, both funny, but with a sense that you’re addressing a real problem that you take seriously. That seems to be lacking here—you seemed to be more playful, like you were laughing at the ridiculousness of the situations you put yourself into. Do you have strong personal feelings about product placement?
MS: I think what the film does a great job of showing is, there is a real question within the film that people leave with. Or at least the people I’ve spoken to who’ve seen the film. And it’s this question of, “Where do we draw the line? Does everything in the world have to be brought to you by some sponsor?” And I think the film does a great job of asking that question and making us realize that literally you can’t go anywhere without there being a sponsor somewhere: concerts, sporting events, and now in New York City, they’re selling off the naming rights to parks and playgrounds. They just sold the Atlantic Avenue subway station to Barclay, so now it’s going to be the Barclay Subway Station. It’s kind of unbelievable. So for me, I think with this film comes a real examination of what happens, but in a way that I think is very palatable and fun. I think it’s definitely the funniest film that I’ve made, and the most accessible film that I’ve made. People have really responded to it. Because of the humor, I think the film is incredibly funny and honest; I think that transparency that’s in this film really makes it work.
AVC: Sure, but it’s a much lighter humor than your other films. It lacks the force of actual anger at the situation. Is there any emotional involvement here?
MS: I think the minute you start being mad—I think Super Size Me was funny, but there wasn’t anger in that film. I also don’t think Where In The World… had a tremendous amount of anger in it. I think both those films dealt with topics that were incredibly serious, as is the idea of how marketing and advertising work, because we’re marketed and advertised to every day. But I think what this film does is make it incredibly accessible to a very large number of people, and I think it does start a conversation. When people leave this movie, it will change the way you look at film and TV. You watch film and television again, and you will notice advertising and marketing in your life in ways you’ve never noticed before. That also means it’s a film that advertising agencies don’t want you to see, or else they would have been a little more excited to work on it. Yeah.
AVC: As you’re looking at your sponsorship contracts in the film, it seems like all your sponsors want final cut, or at least right of approval. But at the end of the film, you make it clear that that didn’t happen. Did you wind up negotiating out of those stipulations?
MS: Absolutely. When the first contracts came, they were 50 pages thick, and you push back and push back and push back, then whittle down and whittle down until they end up being about 20 pages thick. They all wanted final cut of the movie, which we said “Absolutely not.” Then they wanted final approval of all of the scenes that they were in within the movie, which we said “Absolutely not.” And so what we offered them was a creative consultation where we agreed to talk to them about how we were going to include them in the movie. We had conversations on the phone like, “Maybe we’ll see you here and doing this.” There were conversations about that, and how we’ll see products in the movie. We talked to them about it. And every brand you see in the movie, we gave a non-disparagement clause to, like, “We won’t disparage your product in the film. We’ll disparage every other product we want, but not you guys.” We also gave them the ability to see the film before theatrical release. So once we got into Sundance, they said, “Great, come to our offices and show us the movie.” I was like, “Absolutely not.” The last thing you want to do is sit in a conference room with people saying, “We look terrible. Get the lawyers.” They’re just dissecting it in a vacuum.
We didn’t want that to happen at all, so we said they should come see it at Sundance, where they could see it play with a real audience, and the kind of people who will ultimately see it in theaters. So 11 of the 15 sponsors who were on board at the time came to Sundance, saw the film play, and literally were ecstatic. The film played through the roof, they were really happy, they got standing ovations when we announced them after the film. There was a woman in the front row who said one of the greatest things after the film. She goes, “I just want you guys to know, I want to thank you guys for making this film. The fact that you made this film is inspiring to me. So what I’m gonna do is, I’m going to go out and support you guys. I’m going to buy your products. But I gotta tell you right now, I’m conflicted by that, because I know that’s what the whole film is about.” So that was the very first thing said at the Q&A. I was like, “Awesome, that’s great.”
AVC: What did the Mane ’N Tail people think when they saw the film and saw you guffawing over their product?
MS: Well here’s the thing: Mane ’N Tail is one of the companies that said they weren’t going to do any promotion for the film—we could have their product, totally fine, but they weren’t doing anything for it. They saw the film at Sundance, and then they were like, “What can we do? What can we do to promote the movie? What can we do to get the word out there? We can put bottle tags on the bottles! We can do that! We can put a sticker on there to promote the DVD. What do you need? What do you want to do?” They were so on board after that. They called me like two weeks ago and said, “What are you doing May 5 or 6?” I said, “I don’t know, why?” They say, “Do you want to come to the Kentucky Derby?” With Mane ’N Tail? Absolutely! So we’ll go there. That’s the weekend the movie opens in Lexington. So I’ll be at the Kentucky Derby with Mane ’N Tail. It’s going to be fantastic.
AVC: You did end up with a bunch of contractual requirements that we actually see play in the film, like inserting ads in the film, or doing an interview in a JetBlue terminal. Were any of those obligations particularly onerous or problematic for you?
MS: I’m trying to think. Most of those things were stuff we pitched to them. We pitched them the interview in the terminal. We pitched the interview on the plane. We pitched me staying at a Hyatt. We pitched me only eating Amy’s pizza on film. We met with all these companies and said, “Here is what I will do.” Most of those things were what we were originally pitching to them. But I don’t think any of it was too bad. I’m just trying to think, and running through all the brands in my head. No, I don’t think so. No.
AVC: You worry a little in the film about selling out, and talk to Ralph Nader about how to avoid it. Did approaching the film in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek way help you keep from feeling like you were selling out to sponsors?
MS: I think the fact that we were able to maintain control—that was the biggest thing. That really maintained a sense of integrity with the film. And especially with myself. Ultimately, we got to make the film on our terms, and got to tell the story that I wanted to tell. And even as it was being manipulated—even as you can see the story being manipulated while I’m pitching commercials to POM Wonderful, and they shoot them down and say, “You know what commercial you should make?” and you see them turn the tables and tell me the commercial they want me to make. And that one makes it into the film, in this incredible section about truth in advertising. Which I love. I love the way that whole section plays out, from the first pitch to the commercial playing.
AVC: Did you really think they were going to go for those ideas, though? The POM execs seem like they have something of a sense of humor. But some of the content you propose, like the woman with vertical boobs, or the guy with the huge erection—
MS: It was fantastic!
AVC: But did you really think they would say, “Yeah! We want a guy with a huge erection to be our spokesmodel!”?
MS: Had to go for it. The worst thing they’d say is no. It would be hilarious. And we did end up shooting that spot. And originally, I wanted to put it at the end credits after the movie. But right after Sundance, we sold the film to Sony, and we were rushing to get the film to theaters, and we’d already submitted it to the MPAA, without that at the end. And when you resubmit films to the MPAA, you have to literally list everything that’s new or is changed in the cut, so they can be on the lookout for it. And the last thing I wanted to say is, “By the way, look at this giant erection in the end credits!” So it’ll be the greatest DVD extra ever.
AVC: Are there going to be a lot of DVD extras? It seems like a very tangential film with so many different things going on that there might be a lot of loose ends you’d want to throw in.
MS: There’s a ton. I think we’ve already delivered about an hour of DVD extras. There will probably be a little bit more. There was an interview I just remembered yesterday during the Peter Berg interview, and I want to pull it out. He’s doing Battleship now, which is like a $200 million movie. It’s amazing. But he talked about the movie, and the pitch process for him when going to fast-food places to get into a Happy Meal, or to get into a Kids Meal at Burger King. Literally, you go in and pitch and they’re planning for two years from now. Summer of 2013, they know what’s going to be in Happy Meals for four months. It’s incredible. It’s crazy to think about. So that whole story, and him talking about going in for the pitch process to become a Happy Meal, is genius.
AVC: One of the contractual obligations you have is that the film has to make a certain amount of money, and has to earn a certain number of media impressions. How’s that coming, and what happens if it doesn’t?
MS: Well, then we just don’t get the rest of the money. They owe us $400,000. We had to hit 600 million media impressions. We hit 900 million just coming out of Sundance. So by the time the movie comes out, it’ll be way in the billions. Which is incredible, for a documentary film to have that much attention. It’s pretty remarkable. So we fulfilled that. So now the question is the per-screen average. Can we get on 250 screens? We’ll be on that many screens worldwide. Will we get 500,000 downloads of DVDs? Will we reach $10 million worldwide at the box office? So each one of those are different parameters and steps.
AVC: So this accounting process goes all the way through to the DVD release?
MS: Absolutely. At least. It’ll literally go all the way through to at least the end of this year.