Hot Docs preview: Birth of a Salesman

Morgan Spurlock sold 22 brands on taking part in his new documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Now he's selling the film to international audiences via the festival circuit, including tonight's spot as opening film for Toronto's Hot Docs festival.
April 28, 2011

Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary is a cheeky look at advertising and product placement in a film sponsored by product placement and advertisement. Currently making the rounds at film festivals, it’s easy to spot Spurlock and entourage. Just look for the fleet of Mini Coopers and the filmmaker’s choice of wardrobe, a suit covered in logos.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold has made a lot of noise this year, since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Besides being Hot Docs’ opening night film, it also had a splashy opening in Los Angeles on April 20 and will open Sheffield Doc/Fest.

The documentary sees the Super Size Me director approaching numerous advertising and marketing experts, as well as brands themselves, as he pitches them the chance to co-promote his film. The camera goes inside those pitch meetings, in which slightly bewildered ad execs try to understand what exactly the film that they’d be partnering with is actually about.

In all, 22 brands have partnered with Spurlock’s documentary and 30-second spots devised by Spurlock for those companies appear throughout the film. In one particular placement deal, gas station/convenience store Sheetz offers the first “documentary collector cups” in its locations.

Spurlock – speaking to realscreen from a Hyatt, one of the brand partners on the film – says that one of the goals of Greatest Movie Ever Sold was to become a documentary blockbuster, or “docbuster.”

Spurlock says that beverage brand POM Wonderful, as title sponsors, gave the doc-makers parameters that the film had to meet before they could receive the full $1 million and thus attain the goal of “docbuster.”

“If we play on 250-plus screens, [get] 600 million media impressions,  if we get $10 million at the box office, we’ll be on our way,” he says.

Before the Sundance premiere, 15 brands had come on board, such as JetBlue Airways, Mane ‘n Tail shampoo, Hyatt, Ban deodorant, and POM Wonderful. After Sundance, seven more partners joined in, including Old Navy, Trident gum, Petland Discounts and Carmex lip balm, which led to the crew going back to film a scene of Spurlock inside an Old Navy to add to the final cut.

It wasn’t always so easy. At the beginning of filming in January 2009, before first participating brand Ban deodorant came on board, the filmmakers were “burning money out of our own pockets” in financing the film.

After 600 calls to major companies, including Volkswagen and McDonalds, which rejected the pitch, the film started to take shape. “The vision for us was to make the most honest and transparent film we could,” he says. “As we were pitching them, we wanted to explore this issue once we had them on [camera], the impact of marketing and advertising on society and I think it was a really organic process. It really shape shifted along the way.”

Over a hundred interviews are seen in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, with man on the streets, ad execs, CEOs, musicians and Hollywood directors Brett Ratner, Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams. But there were subjects that Spurlock just couldn’t get on screen for the film.

“I really wanted to interview an A-list actor, somebody who in one of the shots [would] hold a Coke can next to his face as he delivered his line. We could not get an actor to talk to us, which was pretty amazing,” he says.

As for McDonalds rejecting Spurlock’s pitch, might that have had a little something to do with Super Size Me?

“Maybe,” says Spurlock. “None of the fast food companies would talk to us. The fact is that not even an In-N-Out Burger would do it. Wienerschnitzel [didn't] want to do this film. I think it’s me and the whole idea of that film [Super Size Me] in general.”

The doc also includes a trip to São Paolo, which has a “Clean City” law that effectively bans advertisements posted in the city. The film also examines the issue of advertising creeping into U.S. schools.

“I think those are important pieces of the story,” offers Spurlock. “When you start talking about where [to] draw the line with marketing and advertising, here are school districts that are letting advertisers come in to make up for budget gaps. Where is that sacred space?

“What São Paulo represents is a great idea of what’s possible,” he continues. “Not that we should be banning everything from every single town, but here is a town that said, ‘You know what? Enough is enough and we’re going to draw the line and see what happens.’”

As for where the line will be drawn when it comes to bringing more brands into his film, Spurlock says that for now, the window is closed, but there is room to add other interested advertisers for the international and DVD releases.

While the filmmaker is fulfilling contractual obligations, casually mentioning in the interview that POM Wonderful is “the greatest anti-oxidant you’ll ever drink,” he maintains that he didn’t sell out through the process of the film.

It took months of negotiation to tell every sponsor that they wouldn’t get final approval, since they all had it written into the contracts they issued to Spurlock.

“Had we given up the final cut of the movie [to the brands], then yes, we would’ve sold out 100%. By retaining that cut, maintaining the creative integrity of the film, I think we avoided that,” he affirms.

When it comes to the big question of bringing brands to the table as partners in doc-making, Spurlock says that while co-placement might work with some docs in the future, it won’t work with them all.

“I can’t imagine something shot in Rwanda, [and] somebody’s suddenly sitting there with a Coke in the middle of an interview,” he says. “What you will start to see is companies coming in that will sponsor projects and give money just so they can be aligned with them. There may not be placement but there may be support.”

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.