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Selling Spurlock’s latest film

By Staff | Oct 26, 2011

“Star Trek” and “Super 8” director J.J. Abrams told documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock that he “believes in storytelling, not story selling.” Abrams, who shot “Super 8” in Weirton, W.Va., makes his comment during an interview in Spurlock’s latest documentary, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

Spurlock grew up in Beckley and has produced a string of documentaries that, in his words, “don’t tell people what to think.” His 2004 documentary, “Super Size Me,” received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Following a holiday conversation about teen obesity, he exclusively ate “super size” McDonald’s meals for 30 days gaining 25 pounds.

The production went on to gross about $28 million dollars. It was made on a $65,000 budget, and, he told an audience Sunday afternoon at the Keith Albee Performing Arts Center, “not one person got paid” during the lensing. About $30,000 of the budget went for travel expenses. During the shooting he often took Craigslist day jobs to help ends meet for his crew.

Spurlock often straddles the thin line between the credibility and truth mandated of a documentarian and healthy doses of humor.

For “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” he exposed how selling and marketing have become nearly 24/7 assaults on our minds and wallets. The film’s premise: to fully capitalize the project through product placement and advertising. For those unfamiliar, when you watch a flick and see an actor drink a Pepsi the studio suits have likely told the director the soft drink company is kicking in production money. The same phenomenon carries forth with cars driven and clothes worn.

But Spurlock targets subliminal advertising, which has grown due to the abandonment of traditional media (i.e. television) in favor of the Internet and Tivo. Marketers search for a captive audience which can’t fast forward or silence their commercial. Those familiar with Internet tracking “cookies” have a grasp of the not so humorous twinges that will likely spur advertising into previously unheard locations.

The fortysomething writer/director relied upon his prior stand-up comedy experience during the Marshall Artists Series after-film Q and A.

Vividly depicting his own “love / hate” feeling concerning Amazon.com, he explained “they know everything you have bought in an algorithm. Explaining that “television and Internet is becoming one pipe, he revealed that Amazon’s on-line meta-data know when you are more likely to purchase, for instance, the new “Star Wars” Blu-ray collection.

However, he predicts that Internet placements will become more personal. “The [cookie tracker] will know I love Reebok and you like Nike,” thus, prompting the appropriate image to be seen on each computer.

His movie chronicles a school district’s hunt for subsidy funds, just as buses, taxis, billboards and stadiums seduce extra bucks through naming rights. The film depicted the now accepted “gateway” advertising brought to American schools by Channel One. In exchange for an in-room tube, the class watches a daily 12 minute news program containing commercials.

School advertising otherwise has largely been confined to athletic-related banners and signs, but the filmmaker told of a high school in Minnesota that has sold advertising on school lockers for assistance in balancing the budget.

Of all the potential placements for marketing, Spurlock finds schools the most objectionable.

“They should teach kids to think, not what to think,” he told the audience at the Keith Albee Performing Arts Center.

Revealing that his current home city of New York has started selling naming rights to parks and playgrounds, the filmmaker told HNN “that anything that has to do with nature should be free of advertising. I should be able to appreciate a tree that was not brought to me by a tree sponsor.” He continued, “Right now, no place is off-limits. Today, I saw my very first television overtop of a urinal.”

Spurlock and his filmmaking team endured a stunning number of “no’s” from potential advertisers that would pay for the flick through exposure. “We received mountains of rejection,” the director/producer revealed. Actually, they averaged two yesses for every 100 calls. After the success of the McDonald’s themed, “Super Size Me,” you might expect the fast food chain to have been first in line. No, “they would not even call us back.”

Even potentially “offensive products” turned down Spurlock. “I tried cigarettes, a gun manufacturer – Winchester & Remington; I wanted to get the ‘greatest shotgun you will ever use.’ I called BP. What company could use positive spin more than that company? I promised we would not say the greatest oil ever spilled.”

Spurlock said, “We did not go after alcohol because I wanted to ensure we could get the movie in schools.” Nor did they try for a magazine, such as Hustler. “Anything that would keep the movie out of an educational environment” was not considered.

After landing Hyatt Hotels and Pom Wonderful, the concept seemed more likely to go before the cameras. But, even with a number of product advertisers agreeing to fund the flick, the corporations had a variety of contract demands, including control of the final cut.

Spurlock refused to lose creditability; he declined allowing “sponsors” to have approval of the final cut. Viewers of documentaries have to have empathy and trust in the filmmakers. Corporate mouthpieces would mean money for a movie but not the one envisioned about marketing concepts. In short, Spurlock gave his backers three promises: (a) They would not make disparaging remarks about the brand; (b) A creative consultation would occur prior to shooting; (c) The sponsors would be shown the film prior to nationwide release.

When the movie played at the Sundance Film Festival, he invited all the advertising partners. In addition to cast and crew receiving a standing ovation at the screening, the advertisers received a similar ovation for their willingness to be involved in the creative project.