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Spurlock Takes on Branded Content

'Super Size Me' creator discusses latest film project
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“Super Size Me” may have triggered interest among marketers in Morgan Spurlock’s latest film—“Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”—but it also scared plenty away. In fact, nearly 600 companies spurned Spurlock’s offer to make them sponsors in exchange for financing the film.

Twenty-two brands did sign on, however, including Hyatt, JetBlue, Mini Cooper and Pom, which paid $1 million to be title sponsor. In all, the 40-year-old first-person filmmaker will take in $1.5 million, provided he meets certain box office, sales and media impression goals. His one regret? That he didn’t include provisions to get paid more if he exceeded the goals.

Sipping coffee and wearing a navy blue version of the logo-laden suits he dons to promote the film—which opens April 22—Spurlock sat down with senior editor Andrew McMains to discuss his meta-journey through the world of branded entertainment.

ADWEEK: The specter of “Super Size Me” seemed to put fear in the eyes of many people you interviewed.
SPURLOCK: “Super Size Me” is what got us in the room in a lot of places, what got call-backs and maybe more out of like for fear of not calling back (what could happen). Then, once we would get into the room, that was also the same thing that turned people off of not wanting to do it.

Kind of like my job. Everyone is always thinking, “What’s his angle?”
One was the angle and I think two, was control, because ultimately we wanted to retain control of the film. And that’s a scary thing for a lot of people to let go of.

You had agreements with the sponsors but were you tempted to push it a little bit because it might make for interesting friction?
We wanted to push it up to the edge in a couple of places. In my Hyatt contract, I couldn’t have an illegal firearm in the building, but I could have a legal firearm. So, I was trying to get a gun sponsor, so I can have like “the greatest rifle.” I wanted to be cleaning my legal firearm in my hotel—which was legal in my contract—but we couldn’t get a company to be the greatest rifle you’ll ever own.

What was your impression of branded entertainment going in?
Most of the branded content I’ve seen has been so completely blatant and in your face. It feels so retro and not forward thinking in a lot of ways. It feels like we’re trying to do the same thing we’ve done in the past, rather than try to do something different.

Is that mostly on TV?
It’s mostly TV, because I don’t think there have been a ton of branded entertainment films. Mountain Dew made a ski movie.

Did that impression change the more you learned? 
The more you talk to people who work in writers’ rooms and in Hollywood, (you realize that) the influence that brands start to have over the creative process is problematic in a lot of ways. It takes away from what ultimately should be a creative endeavor. It turns into a commercial.

David Lynch refers to product placement as “total fucking bullshit.”
Yeah, the way that most of it’s done is terrible. In the middle of a shot, somebody goes, “Yes, I agree.” Zoom in on someone drinking diet soda can.

He objects to it on principal. He doesn’t want their money; he doesn’t want their product. 
From his standpoint, he doesn’t want his creative process to feel corrupted.

Would you be happier if we didn’t have brands funding our entertainment or is it more the lack of transparency that bothers you? 
Transparency is a big one but it’s not that I think we need to have all these circles and arrows pointing to things on TV. That would be the worst thing you could ever watch. Can you imagine how terrible that would look on television or in movies? I’m a realist. We live in a world where people do drink Coke, they wear Levi’s jeans, they drive Mustangs. So, those things should be in movies. . . . I think there is some sort of a middle ground. But the biggest middle ground ultimately has to be one of creative influence. The writers, the directors—let these people do their jobs.

What does it mean when everything is for sale in our society?
That is the greatest question you can ask. It asks the question, “What's sacred? When everything is for sale, what’s sacred?,” which is a great question that’s asked in the film by the woman who sells the advertising in school districts. When I asked why are people upset about this, she goes, “Well, because school is supposed to be sacred.” What the film shows really openly and sadly at the same time is that we live in a time where nothing is sacred, that literally everything is for sale, anything.

In your industry, it’s difficult to raise money to make films. Was that the practical aspect of this movie?
Yeah, the practical aspect was that we literally were making a film that potentially, by the time it opened, was already making a profit.

What did it cost to make “Super Size Me” and how long did it take to raise that?
We paid for it ourselves. The movie that we made that got us into Sundance cost 65 grand. Nobody got paid, everybody worked for free. . . . If we had to produce that outright, that film probably would have been about a $750-800,000 movie.

It’s like the Huffington Post model. If you can get people to work for free…
You can build pyramids (laughs).

Who made the logo suit?
Ted Baker, the “greatest suit you’ll ever wear.”

You just have one?
No, no. This is Version 4.0. Version one you see in the film. We made another one for Sundance, which was Version 2.0. Version 3.0, I’ve just retired . . . This is the grand unveiling of the blue, this is my spring blue.

How would this movie be different if Michael Moore made it?
Uh, bigger suit (laughs). . .  He’s bigger than life. He’s bigger than a documentarian. He’s at a level that is not even documentary films. There are all of us who make documentary films and Michael Moore is on such a level beyond that—superstar level. The thing about Michael is that Michael makes a movie and it becomes front-page news. It becomes a story. As a filmmaker, what more could you ever want? People want to bash him. But I’m like, say whatever you want. The guy makes a movie (and) it literally is a talking point. Everybody wants to talk about it. It literally becomes a cornerstone of conversation. How would he have made it differently? I don’t know. I’m sure it would have been interesting.

In the end, did you co-opt your sponsors as much as they co-opted you?
We both made out all right. I think they might have made out a little better. I called (Pom co-founder) Lynda Resnick after Sundance. Matt Tupper, the president of Pom, came to the (Sundance) premiere, along with their marketing folks. It was very well-received. The film went great. So, I called her the next week just to tell her, “Wish you could have been there. It was fantastic. Everybody was asking about you. So, you have to come to the premiere when we have it because everybody is dying to meet the Pom Queen.” And she goes, “Oh, Morgan we’re all really happy. We’re all very, very pleased.” But she goes, “But don’t you wish you had ESP?” And I said, “Why? What do you mean?” She goes, “Because, if you had ESP, you’d of known how well the film was going to do and you’d of known to ask for more money.”