Morgan Spurlock, who pigged out on McDonalds hamburgers for 30 days in his documentary Super Size Me, returns with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a film about product-placement in movies and television shows. It is billed as "a movie all about advertising - completely paid for by advertising". It follows the docu-star on the road as he attempts to get his film completely bankrolled by corporate sponsorship, while also exposing the business' insidious role on the big and small screens.
Spurlock learns how to develop his own "brand personality" and gets product-placement tips from Hollywood film-makers, including Quentin Tarantino and John Wells.
Spurlock came to fame when Super Size Me was Oscar-nominated in 2004. He put on 11kg during his fast-food experiment. Then he searched for America's most wanted man in 2008's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, travelling around the Middle East to discuss the war on terror with the Arab people. He directed his FX reality TV series 30 Days from 2005 until 2008, in which he or another participant was placed into a lifestyle that was completely alien for 30
His latest film was an instant hit when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Spurlock explains in the film: "What I want to do is make a film about product placement, marketing and advertising where the entire film is funded by product placement, marketing and advertisement."
When not rejected by companies (he with his producer made 600 cold calls) he had some major successes. He reportedly managed to get a total of US$1.5 million ($1.77 million) from 15 brands including Hyatt hotels, Mini Cooper, Carrera sunglasses, movietickets.com, and even the deodorant brand Ban.
Often he got a frosty reception when he made calls because people still associated him with what he did to McDonalds in Super Size Me. Many brands wanted creative control of the movie - "almost every contract we received had like 50 pages thick with demands" - so he "whittled it down to 20 pages" - he said. The companies often claimed they got to approve how they were integrated into a film in every frame.
The film's official but long-winded title, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, is publicity for a California-based pomegranate juice drink that is paying US$1 million to be the title sponsor. Spurlock has also bought the naming rights to a small Pennsylvania town for 60 days. For a fee of US$25,000, Altoona will be called after the full title of the film.
POM Wonderful owner Lynda Resnick said: "It was a leap of faith, but we so loved what he did with Super Size Me, and we are very transparent as a brand. We have absolutely nothing to hide. There was nothing he could say that could hurt us and a lot he could say that could help us."
Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino, of Brooklyn's dance-punk duo Matt and Kim, are equally pleased to be in Spurlock's film: "We've been fans of Morgan's work for years, and just being asked to be involved with his new movie was enough to say 'yes!' But after seeing a preliminary cut, it was so funny and entertaining and addressed something that as a band, we think about on a regular basis. It was even awesomer, if that's a word, than we could have expected." Spurlock interviews Matt and Kim about their experiences. The band's single Daylight was used in a Bacardi Mojito commercial in 2009, and then sold 600,000 copies, when most radio stations wouldn't play it. Spurlock used the band's music as the movie soundtrack and their new single Cameras for the opening credits.
"I've been a long-time fan of Matt and Kim and jumped at the chance to meet them and get their music into the movie," says Spurlock. "I thought their catchy, high-energy melodies would be perfect for a film that tears into the world of marketing and advertising. And when they agreed and allowed us to use tracks from their then-unreleased album Sidewalks, I was over the moon. The music worked even better than I'd hoped and really gives the scenes, especially the opening, a punch and personality that I felt was truly unique."
But it wasn't just Matt and Kim's experience with product-placement that attracted him. He says: "They, much like this film, embrace a real DIY philosophy. I just knew they would get it."
Spurlock's mission in his movie is to pitch his idea, find funding and creatively integrate the product placements into the film's plot. He drives a Mini and takes off a shoe to advertise it during a business meeting. On-screen arrows point out the brand of clothing that he wears, including Old Navy trousers. His aim is that "everything from top to bottom is branded, from beginning to end".
He pops into a company which Hollywood uses to test movie trailers. It uses MRI machines to examine viewers' brainwaves to discover which adverts make more of an emotional impact. He flies to Sao Paulo in Brazil, which has banned all outdoor advertising - just for comparison's sake.
He developed the idea for his film after watching an episode of Heroes, where he was shocked by the product-placement tactics.
When the cheerleader Hayden Panettiere is given a Nissan car by her dad, Spurlock had a light-bulb moment to make a film that ripped open the advertising world in films and TV shows. He talked to his partner, co-producer Jeremy Chilnick, and they set to work on the entertaining documentary film.
Spurlock, 40, was born in Parkersburg, in West Virginia. He graduated with a BFA in film from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 1993, then worked as a playwright before making Super Size Me, which was a winner on the festival circuit and became a surprise commercial hit.
He currently lives in New York City and is married to the vegan chef Alexandra Jamieson, who helped him to lose weight with a detox diet after he made Super Size Me. Off the back of hubby Spurlock's movie, this led to her publishing The Great American Detox Diet.
He said recently: "After you watch this movie, it will change the way you watch film and television forever. You will completely dissect everything, you will see it all now.
"And not only will you see it in the movie, but after making this film, I've become so sensitive to it in the outside world I see it everywhere. I see marketing and advertising everywhere I go now.
"And I think that level of awareness is a great thing."
Who: Morgan Spurlock, visiting film-maker
What: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Where and when: Sky City Theatre Wed, July 27 (6.30pm) and Thurs, July 28 (3.30pm)
- TimeOut / Independent