Commentary

Rent This Movie...Because Morgan Spurlock Has a Lot of Money He Needs to Make

Apple's iTunes has become a powerful mainstay for digital downloads of film and TV in the last few years, but it will have to work some special magic to help documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock hit his benchmarks for "POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." If the documentary funded by product placement about product placement ever hit theaters in the U.S. it was too quickly for me to catch. The download showed up on iTunes for sale a few weeks ago and for rental this week. According to Spurlock himself in the film and associated interviews, the movie must make $10 million worldwide in order to satisfy some of primary sponsor POM's requirements for its $1 million sponsorship to be fully funded. But it won't happen merely in downloads. Spurlock needs to hit 250 screens worldwide, 500,000 downloads and DVDs, and achieve 600 million media impressions. He is on the promotion trail, armed with many bottles of POM and an embroidered logo sports jacket with JetBlue, Hyatt, Mini and his other top line sponsors occupying everything but the lapels.

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I like Spurlock, even if I am lukewarm on some of the output from his career of stunts. In one of the early scenes of "Greatest Movie" he gets his brand analyzed by professional, well, brand analyzers, and is told that Spurlock aligns with the dueling values of "mindful play." Sometimes the emphasis is more on play than mindful, I am afraid. I actually started covering him back in the day when he invented the street dare series "I Bet You Will" in New York. Then he was offering people cash to do stupid stuff on the sidewalks of the city, upping the cash offer until they agreed or walked away. The premise, pounded into the ground as usual in his brand of stunt-umentary, is that we all have our price.

One of the ad execs in this new movie actually comes closer to the truth about the genre when he gets something about Spurlock that the brand analyzers missed - a low level condescension towards the media he leverages and the audience he speaks to. Which is fine by me, except that I come away from a number of his documentaries feeling as if the excess he dramatizes never quite pays off in insight.

"Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is the kind of film everyone associated with advertising will have to see. At the very least it is filled with marketing all-stars from the major agencies and holding companies. As I think everyone knows by now, Spurlock endeavored to create a film fully funded by integrated programs. The film itself is about the process of recruiting brands and then implementing their in-film promotions.

For me, the core problem with Spurlock's approach is that the film always hangs somewhere between being a straight informative documentary about an interesting topic and a film about Spurlock's personal experience with the topic. The movie never commits itself to one or the other track fully enough to get the depth the topic deserves. Spurlock's setting up of the modern conundrum of fragmented media and the need for marketers to move beyond traditional ad methods is quite good, and the anecdotes about product placement inanity that comes up in the interviews with third parties are great. But we wish for more. Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky and Mark Crispin Miller all say exactly what they always say about media hegemony, but in such small bites they hardly have an impact. Likewise in watching Spurlock meet the creative limitations of working with sponsors, we wish we saw more detail about the practical ways in which he as a filmmaker is compromised. He walks into the POM offices with a pitch to promote the juice as an erectile dysfunction curative, showing himself in the storyboard with an erection. Are we supposed to judge the brand's response to that as unreasonable? Sometimes the excess actually undermines Spurlock's good point.

Which is to pick nits with a documentary that was truly inspired in its basic concept, as are all of Spurlock's adventures. Thumbs up, but it would be interesting to hear from you professionals in the field what you get from the film. 
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