Is ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’ the best documentary about product placement, marketing and advertising?
Filmmaker, humorist, television producer, screenwriter, bounty hunter* and journalist Spurlock is best known for the documentary film ‘Super Size Me’ and the reality TV series ‘30 Days.’ Invited to Reykjavík by the indie film distribution company ‘Græna ljósið’ (‘The Green Light’), the charismatic and witty American filmmaker answered questions from the audience at Háskólabíó, where his latest movie ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’ premiered, and was later interviewed at Hotel Nordica.
Being a famous documentary filmmaker does not necessarily equal the celebrity status of a blockbuster director. Most people react with a “who?” when they hear the name of Morgan Spurlock. When you mention ‘Super Size Me’ (2003), however, they follow up with an understanding comment: “Ahhh, the guy who did the MacDonald’s movie” where Spurlock takes the role of guinea pig for 30 days exposing himself to a diet of fast food for a month and registering the effects on his health.
I haven’t seen ‘Super Size Me’ because I am not a hamburger fan. But the reality TV series ‘30 Days’ (2005), which aired on Icelandic TV some years ago— in particular the episodes where Spurlock lives as a minimum wage worker in the States and in an ecological village for a month— impressed me back then and remain a vivid memory.
When I got a Facebook invitation from The Green Light to attend the premiere of his most recent film, ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,’ which was presented at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011, I didn’t hesitate to secure myself a ticket. I was especially curious to witness the Q&A session with Spurlock’s fans after the screening.
Instead of a trailer, The Green Light posted a link to ‘Morgan Spurlock: The Greatest TED Talk Ever sold’(19min 28sec) at www.ted.com, which I recommend watching. Besides Spurlock’s disarming humour and professional showmanship, it provides more than a good summary of the official 1 hr 28min film. I loved the idea of stopping regular people on the street and asking them the excellent question of self-awareness: what is your brand personality?
After calling over 650 companies to take part in the movie, Spurlock faced corporate fear of transparency, which is discussed in the movie, so he had to go back to the basics of what his own brand was. A PR agency called Olson Zaltman Associates found the keywords for him— “playful and mindful,” which led him to successfully finding the 12 sponsors who fit his personality type and the concept of the movie. It was pretty much like searching for a date.
After the premiere, I hesitated interviewing Spurlock. The audience laughed non-stop, but after I returned home, I wasn’t sure if I would remember the movie in few years. Meeting Spurlock for a coffee at Hotel Nordica turned out a memorable experience, though.
Naturally, my first honest question to Spurlock was:
How do you tolerate criticism? I checked the comments on Rotten Tomatoes and it coincided with my feelings.
OK, go ahead. It’s part of the business. You get used to it.
I am not sure the movie met my expectations of learning something new and eye opening. Yes, the example of the city of Sao Paolo banning street advertisements was impressive, but apart from that, I already know that advertisements want to buy my soul.
It’s the first documentary that shows what neuromarketing is: how a specialized company does MRI scanning to test the effects movie trailers have on the buyer’s brain. Did you know that? Or that the Channel 1 News donates TV sets to schools across the States in exchange for airing advertisements?
No, in fact, I didn’t. I guess, the seriousness of the message gets blurred by the excess laughter. Isn’t Channel 1 News just an American phenomenon? I’ve never heard of anything like this in Europe. I love the part where the teens complained that they didn’t need another acne commercial. Is it a recent development in the school system?
You see, there are things that you don’t know in the movie.
If you go into the movie industry with ambitions to change the world, you will disappoint yourself. If something generates a debate, it’s a good thing. I don’t want to tell you what to think.
If you can make somebody laugh, you make someone listen; the guard comes down.
No, Channel 1 News has been for 20 years inside the education program.
Do you think it’s possible to have New York City free of city advertising?
Not in all places. It’s OK to have it within certain limited areas.
How do you feel being compared to Michael Moore’s “arm-twisting” style or being accused of “look-at-me showmanship” (comment by Christopher Lloyd, Sarasota Herald-Tribune)?
Moore has a bigger bank account than me (laughs).
People who hate to look at me will see nothing of me in my next movie ‘Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope,’ which follows seven San Diego Comic-Con fans, and will be shown at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011. The San Diego Comic-Con is the most influential mega event in the comic industry, which some 150.000 people attend.
Are you only interested in documentary?
No. I am interested in any type of film. I am currently doing casting for the script of a good friend of mine, a type of “Erin Brockovich” movie, but we don’t know any details yet.
Are you aware of any legislative changes after your movies were made? I remember, The First Lady Obama took part in a massive anti-obesity initiative, and the TV culinary hostess Rachel Ray started a healthy diet campaign at the same time. Was it because of your movie?
Yes, there were changes. McDonald’s eliminated the “Super Size Me” option from their menu. The US Senate improved the nutritional quality in the schools. I think parents took more personal responsibility for cooking healthier meals for their families. After ‘30 Days,’ the federal minimum wage was raised. I have been stopped by people on the street to thank me because ‘Super Size Me’ changed their life, and that’s what matters.
Why are you called a “bounty hunter” on your Wikipedia profile, among other things? Where is it coming from? You should put it on your business card, so cool! Are you still a scriptwriter?
Bounty hunter? I didn’t know that! I guess, because of my movie ‘Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?’ (2008). Yes, I still write scripts. I always carry a notebook with me. I love stealing real dialogues between mother and daughter on the plane, for example.
I heard a great story in Reykjavík about an old guy who sold his house to buy an apartment in one of those new buildings when the crisis hit Iceland and he was the only one in the entire complex.
Despite my anxiety to interview a famous person, we managed to win each other’s initial trust within the 30 min of the interview. Perhaps because Spurlock has mastered the professional art of disarmingly charming showmanship. At the point when the talk lost formality and we went into personal taste in movies, animation and graphic novels, we had to stop. But I have this gut feeling that our roads will cross again. I don’t think Spurlock’s approachable politeness was just a matter of showmanship, though. It’s hard not to like his down-to-earth and curious mind with a winning dose of self-depreciative humour.
* If you are a fugitive, a “bounty hunter” (also known as “bail enforcement agent” and “fugitive recovery agent” in the States) tracks you down and delivers you to the law for a reward.