'Supersize Me' filmmaker sells out with a smile

Greatest Movie
Director Morgan Spurlock sells products and his new movie, "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," during a visit to Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, April 18, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Morgan Spurlock wants to sell you something. Actually many things. He's the maverick filmmaker who ate nothing but fast food for a month for his movie "Supersize Me." Now Spurlock has turned his attention to product placement in films.

Meeting Morgan Spurlock is an experience. He's tall with red hair -- and energetic to the point of being hyper.

And then there is the suit -- a blue two-piece blue Ted Baker suit, "the greatest suit you will ever wear," he said when he visited the MPR studios last week.

"This suit is covered in logos, embroidered, so it literally looks like I am going to the NASCAR prom. If a NASCAR driver went to prom this is what he would wear," he laughed.

To explain the ad-covered suit, you have to go back to the night Spurlock was watching "Heroes," then his favorite TV series. He remembers a scene where a father attempted to cheer up his down-in-the-dumps daughter by giving her a car. A camera shot shows the Nissan logo. The next shot shows the father holding the keys out to her.

"She goes, 'The Rogue! The Nissan Rogue! You're giving me the Rogue! Oh my gosh, Dad! The Rogue!' And I was dumbfounded," said Spurlock. "I was like, wow! That really just happened! I just watched a commercial in the middle of that show."

Product placement in TV and films is a multimillion dollar industry. Spurlock was so upset that the next day, he and his crew decided to make a film exploring -- and financed entirely by -- product placement.

He's everywhere
Morgan Spurlock parlayed his film into a national advertising phenomenon, claiming his is the first documentary with collector cups.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

It was easier said than done. Spurlock contacted hundreds of companies about the sponsorships. But very few of them were excited about the idea. Part of it was because of Spurlock the filmmaker.

"I got baggage," he said. "As my Mom would say, 'You got baggage, kid.'"

Some companies didn't want to get involved in an advertising expose.

"It doesn't sound like a movie I'd be excited about going to," said one advertiser in the film. "It goes against everything that we do," said another.

Others were interested, but not interested in him as in Spurlock the spokesmodel.

"Abercrombie and Fitch. I remember they said, 'Have you looked in a mirror? You are not Abercrombie and Fitch,'" recalled Spurlock. "It was terrible. One by one people just told me how ugly, how pale, how bald, how unattractive, how imperfect I was. We called over 600 companies to sponsor the movie and ended up with 22 that loved pale, ugly me."

Spurlock and Nader
Morgan Spurlock meets with consumer activist Ralph Nader who told him soon the only place to escape advertising is when you are asleep.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Those are the companies whose logos are stitched on Morgan Spurlock's suit. The "holy grail of product placement," as he calls it, is co-promotion, where a movie publicizes a product even as the product publicizes the movie.

That's why thousands of guests at Hyatt Hotels are currently getting room keys bearing Spurlock's face and the title of the film. There are shampoos, cars, and convenience stores both in the film and co-promoting it.

"First time ever: documentary with collector cups," Spurlock said proudly. "It's crazy!"

Spurlock acknowledged feeling proud, and evil at the same time.

"Which is what I love about the film. Because everything we are critiquing in the film is ultimately everything that the film is doing to get you to come into the movie theater to watch it."

The name of the film is "Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." The pomegranate juice company is emblazoned across the chest of Spurlock's suit, because it's putting up $1 million, two-thirds of the movie's budget.

Spurlock pitched his idea of a movie about product placement financed by product placement to hundreds of companies, and Pom Wonderful bought in big.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

But he hasn't received all that money yet. Spurlock has to meet certain benchmarks before Pom hands over all of it.

"We have to get 600 million media impressions to get the next stage of money," said Spurlock. "We also have to make $10 million at the box office, we have to play on over 250 screens worldwide, we have to have 500,000 downloads and DVDs."

Media impressions include appearing on the radio, and on websites.

"So thanks for pitching in," Spurlock laughed.

Spurlock said he doesn't expect to change the world with "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," but he hopes to raise awareness of just how much advertising there is around us, and how the system works.

When asked whether his foray into promotion means he's now too tainted to be an objective documentarian, Spurlock said he retained the final cut on the film, despite pressure from some of the sponsors, and he likes how it turned out.

Intriguingly, he is now getting requests from companies which have identified him as being what's known as brand-friendly. For example, he was asked to work on a film series sponsored by a well-known coffee company. He says he isn't interested.

If this movie is successful, Spurlock jokes that he's got his next project already in line.

"It's 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold 2: The Quest for More Money.'"

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