Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Director Morgan Spurlock might make the most accessible documentaries out there. He finds a way a weaving the message of his films with some of the most entertaining, self-narrated examples of his themes. He doesn't ask others to do his dirty work. He puts himself in front of the camera, taking all the risk to health (SUPER SIZE ME), body (WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN), and dignit, as in his latest film THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD, in which Spurlock personally pitches hundreds of corporations and brand-named products to become sponsors for the very documentary we're watching. The process and results are fascinating, and what Spurlock discovers about the state of marketing, product placement, and advertising is a real eye-opener.
Spurlock was in Chicago recently, wearing a lovely sports coats emblazened with the logos of all of his sponsors, including the juice company POM Wonderful, which purchased for $1 million the name rights to the movie, which is technically POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD. He's also always a great interview, and we've spoken a few times in the past, but this marks the first time we've actually sat down in person to chat, which we did the morning after a sold-out Q&A screening. While I had a captive audience with Spurlock, I also got a chance to get a preview of his upcoming doc on Comic-Con, co-produced by our own Harry Knowles.
Please enjoy, the comedy stylings and storytelling marvel that is Morgan Spurlock…
Capone: It’s good to see you. It sounds like you really hung out for a while last night after all was said and done.
Morgan Spurlock: I talked to every person who was there and even people who weren’t there, just people who were handing out in the bar.
Capone: Just on the way out?
MS: Yeah, it was great. I’m sorry, I’m eating my bacon…
Capone: You are not the first to eat breakfast during an interview. I asked a question on the site for people to get tickets to the screening, so I'll ask you: what is the most egregious product placement examples that you could think of…
MS: What was number one?
Capone: A lot of people brought up what they did with WAYNE'S WORLD, but that was more of a joke about product placement than anything.
MS: That’s like "30 Rock" and what they do all the time.
Capone: Then of course E.T.
MS: MAC AND ME was by far the worst.
Capone: See, no one brought up MAC AND ME.
MS: MAC AND ME is the most terrible example.
Capone: Does that even count as product placement when the entire movie is product placement?
MS: The movie is product placement.
Capone: I was about to say, “Does that even count?”
MS: YOU’VE GOT MAIL?
Capone: That was definitely in there, yeah.
Capone: It seemed like there was a time when the studios used to go to certain products and say “We would like to use you in our movie,” like they did in E.T.--because I remember that whole story about going to M&Ms first--to this other thing where the products are coming to the studios and saying, “What can we do?” When did that changeover happen, and why did it happen?
MS: I think that E.T. was a big switch for that, because you had a company that literally built a brand. Reese's Pieces became a brand out of that movie. They became something real, like real product. They were just this thing sitting on a shelf up until then. I was 12 years old, I loved M&Ms, and I loved Reece's Peanut Butter Cups, so all of a sudden it was like, “Oh my God, two things that I love in one!” I remember after the movie I was like “Mom, we’ve got to stop and get some Reese's Pieces on the way home,” and we did. So, it literally worked on me, like literally the next day there were Reese's Pieces in my house after seeing E.T.
So, I think that that was a real kind of wake-up call as to what was possible. I think that and even just for the merchandising, which is a separate thing in and of itself, of STAR WARS. The way that George Lucas turned STAR WARS into what it became, this toy machine, this franchise machine. I think of STAR WARS on the level of how you merchandise a film into E.T. where it’s you putting products in a film and they became viable. I literally think those two things were real paradigm-shifting moments.
Capone: But I don’t remember Reese's putting E.T. on there bags after that. That was unprecedented.
MS: They had to have.
Capone: I just don’t remember that. If they did, it had to be after the movie was long out. I certainly don't remember any pre-release marketing.
MS: There has to have been. How could there not have been an E.T. on a Reese's bag. Maybe not you know, maybe it was literally just the product.
Capone: I don’t think they were prepared for it.
MS: That’s true.
Capone: I think that’s what it keeps coming back to. Was there a point while you were in the early stages of this film where you…
MS: Where I was like, “This is never going to work?” [Laughs]
Capone: Yeah, where you were discouraged to the point where you were like “Okay, next idea…”
MS: Yeah, right? Throughout the whole process. When every advertising agency you call tells you they don’t want to work with you and that they don’t want to go on camera to talk about the movie, or every product placement company says, “We are not going to help you.” And we met with probably a dozen that would actually even sit down and talk with us, and only two would go on camera. So then when you start calling brands, and the CMOs [chief marketing officers] of all of these companies are like, “Absolutely not. We want nothing to do with this.” The thing that literally kept us going was the people who work for all of those people at the top who said no.
As we called, people who worked for these giant corporations and these companies and they would say, “I will do anything to help you that won’t get me fired.” [Laughs] All of that bubbling underneath, all of those people wanted this film to happen while the people at the top didn’t, I think that was the only thing at the top that kept us going.
Capone: I almost brought this up last night just because I figured the people here in Chicago would remember it, but there was always a phenomenon in movies maybe 10 or 15 years ago that were made in Chicago and any time they showed an L train, on platform there would be a Coke machine, and at the time there were no vending machines on L platforms. Now, reality has followed art and now they are there, because the transit authority is so broke that they will take money from anyone now. So there are Coke machines at every station. But that was always funny, like you would see something like WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, and the machines were always there.
MS: Wow, that’s incredible. Have the people who brought the parking meter rights, have they turned the parking meters into advertising poles yet?
Capone: I don’t think so. I don’t think they have done that.
MS: My prediction is that’s going to happen. On all of those parking meters, there will start to be little ads.
Capone: Maybe, and now that’s its not city owned anymore it’s entirely possible. They shot a huge chunk of TRANSFORMERS 3 here last summer, and again that’s basically a commercial for Hasbro. In fact, it just so happened that the day that I was there, the Hasbro CEO was there just visiting with his daughter. But they were shooting in this sort of outdoor parking garage and there were suddenly billboards everyone that had never been there, on every flat surface there was a logo.
MS: We called Michael Bay and tried to talk him into the movie.
Capone: Yeah I wondered about that.
MS: Of course, who are you going to call? Of course you’re going to talk to that guy. The guy who made THE ISLAND. The guy who made TRANSFORMERS 1, 2, 3. I had to, but we couldn’t get him. He was shooting TRANSFORMERS, so I’ll give him that as the out, but we tried to talk to A-list actors too. That was the big one, like I really wanted to talk to actors who in movies were forced to go [pretends to drink something while delivering dialogue] “I agree,” you know?
Capone: That would have been really interesting to hear what one of those guys would say.
MS: They would not go on camera.
Capone: I can’t imagine there’s a single one of them that enjoys doing that.
MS: And we could not get anybody to talk with us.
Capone: That’s pretty telling. That was a really interesting think you said yesterday about how audiences who see this are going to see these product placements all of the time now, whereas before they kind of ignore them as something in the noise of the background.
MS: That’s right, it literally takes away the noise in the film a lot of ways.
Capone: Or will it distract them from this point forward?
MS: Well, I think it will distract. I think it distracts in a way where literally it’s like somebody pulled the veil away, and you see the forest for the trees, like “Oh my God, there’s a forest right there. I would never have even seen that.” I think that it’s a great thing to be aware. I don’t think it will like take away your enjoyment, but I think it will ultimately make you notice how much you are being sold to everyday. And it’s not only in movies and TV, but you will see it everywhere now, you will become incredibly aware of how much marketing is around you.
Capone: Especially after you do that segment about Sao Paulo. It was really fascinating, because I hadn’t heard about that and that would never fly in this country. That’s never going to happen in this country.
MS: I think there will be some city after this film comes out that will do it, like a Portland, Seattle, maybe San Francisco, Miami. It would never happen in New York or Chicago. Definitely will never happen in Los Angeles. Could you imagine driving down Sunset Blvd, and suddenly all of those billboards are gone?
And Los Angeles would be the best representative of Sao Paulo, because of the sprawl. It’s a gigantic city, just like Sao Paulo is; it’s massive and the thing about it is, can you imagine “What would L.A. be like with no advertising?” It is a place that has as really beautiful landscape, like L.A. on a day when there’s no smog and it has just great and there’s blue skies it’s just fantastic, and I can’t even imagine driving down the road or into Hollywood and suddenly there’s no billboards anywhere. You would have such a different interaction with that city if there wasn’t advertising.
Capone: Probably the part of this film that made me the most uncomfortable was the section about the…
MS: The school section?
Capone: Yeah, and I’m sure that gets to a lot of people, but again I’m not in school. I know some people that are teachers, but I don’t think they have that TV channel…
MS: Channel 1.
Capone: That is the place where you say, “Wow, there has to be a line.” There should be, but there’s not.
MS: You are absolutely right, there should be a line and that’s why one of my favorite conversations in the whole film is one we had with Janet who is the one who sells sponsorships in Broward County School District, and so I said “Why are people upset about this?” and she says “Well because school is meant to be sacred. It’s meant to be this place where kids can come in, develop their own view points and ideology about the world.”
Ultimately, what you realize, through this film or what I realized making this film, is that nothing is sacred. We live in a place that if you are captive for one minute somewhere, someone is going to try to market to you there--elevator, gas pump, urinal, you name it, we are going to advertise to you in this space. And schools ultimately being the one place where I agree, “Where do we draw the line?” Here’s what’s also happening in New York now, so now in New York it’s like, “Do we have to live in a world where everything is brought to us by a sponsor?” That’s where we are going, and it’s not just about a documentary film, it’s about stadiums. Do you remember when stadiums used to be named after people?
Capone: Or the city…
MS: Yeah, or the city. So now in New York, we just sold the Atlantic Ave. Subway station to Barclays, so now it’s going to be the Barclays [Center] station. I don’t know what the full name is going to be, but they bought the naming rights to that subway station.
Capone: I don’t know if they bought the name rights, but there’s one not too far from here where it’s an Apple store right over one of the subway stations, and they took over, they remodeled it, and every scrap of advertising is Apple related.
MS: Incredible. So, the city council in New York also just passed a law where they are going to start selling off the naming rights to parks and playgrounds. Where do we draw the line? Do I want to take my kid to the “Pepsi Playground”? Do I want to take him down the “Hostess Twinkie Slide”? I personally don’t.
Capone: The one student, that girl you talk to, has the line about how “Schools are supposed to be places where we learn to think and not be told what to think” and that’s it, that’s perfect. That’s all you need.
MS: I love that line. I hope she’s at Vasser or somewhere right now.
Capone: I love that she just goes “Oh some guy in the 1800s said this…”
MS: It was incredible. [Laughs]
Capone: I did want to ask, because you are working with Harry [Knowles], about the Comic-Con documentary.
MS: I just watched a cut on the way here.
Capone: He’s been sort of keeping me updated about it over the last year.
MS: I saw him at SXSW, and he was like, “When am I going to see a cut of the film?” I’m like “Soon, very soon.”
Capone: So, what is the approach that you are going to take there, because he kind of told me that you solicited some individuals.
MS: The whole goal for us was to follow people who were all coming to Comic-Con for very different reasons and kind of see this “Geek Mecca,” and being someone who grew up loving comic books, what that place is about means so much to me. So, what I want to do is just make sure we are true to what it means and so I wanted to make sure we see through the lives and interactions of people who are coming there for very specific purposes, a collector, a comic book salesman, or a guy who’s been selling comics for like 50 years, somebody who wants to be an artist who draws comics…
Capone: That would be a great vantage point.
MS: Yeah, and so it’s cool to kind of see them come into this place, some of them for the first time. Yeah, it’s cool.
Capone: When do you think that will make it out?
MS: We are banging away, and hopefully we will be done in the next couple of months.
Capone: Are you going to have a chance to screen it at Comic-Con this year?
MS: We were talking about that and ultimately it’s a conversation I need to have with Harry and [producers] Stan [Lee] and Joss [Whedon] as well as Thomas Tull who is our producing partner on the film is “Do we want to screen the whole film at Comic-Con, or do we want to show a piece at Comic-Con?” Either way, we have to do something, because we made a book as well. We made a photo book. So we did all of these interviews with people and we took pictures, and so we created like the yearbook we all wish we would have had where it literally goes from Guillermo Del Toro to Eli Roth to of course Stan and Joss in the photo book with quotes. And then there are people in costumes or people who brought their grandmother and people who are there with their kids for the first time. It’s cool.
Capone: Yeah, the generational aspect will be a nice touch.
MS: It’s like people like us who are now taking our kids there. I remember when I took my kid to the Comic-Con in New York, he was a little freaked out at first and wanted me to carry him around. He was so excited to see Darth Vader and the stormtroopers, although he’s a little scared to see them in person. So, I have this great picture of me holding him with Darth Vader and the stormtroopers, and he’s looking at them. Now all he wants to do is go. When he knows that the comic book convention is coming he’s like “Daddy are we going to go to Comic Con?” He wants to go to the one in San Diego this year, it’s cool.
Capone: That’s going to blow his mind. That still scares me.
MS: For me like I’m exhausted after like two hours. The mind fuck for a like a four year old, I can’t even imagine. He’s going to be fried.
Capone: We were talking before about “crossing the line,” that neuromarketing thing…
MS: How crazy is that? It’s scary.
Capone: You did that…
MS: I believe it. I believe it works.
Capone: Shouldn’t our responses to certain things be a little bit of a mystery? That almost takes the fun out of advertising.
MS: That’s the whole thing, it let’s you know that literally that advertising businesses are always one step ahead. It’s almost like pre-cog marketing.
Capone: Had you told me about that ten years ago, I would have gone, “That’s a great sci-fi, near-future idea.”
MS: And the fact that that’s actually happening is unbelievable.
Capone: You’ve tackled more serious subjects in some of your other films, what is the biggest problem you have with this practice?
MS: [Laughs] I think the biggest problem I have is when it’s so completely in my face. I hate that. I understand the whole idea of like you are making a $200 million dollar movie, the necessity of co-promotion and the necessity of making sure that people know that the film is out there, and so that’s why you have your toys in Happy Meals and you have the T-shirts out and the collector cups and the Slurpees in a 7-11. But I think for me what I ultimately think should happen is they have to kick all of these companies out of the writers' room. You have to let them stop having say in how things were integrated in film and television and let creative people be creative.
Capone: That story about the Alka-Seltzer joke almost leading to getting all the cars from a film pulled was a little awful. (Laughs)
MS: Wasn’t that incredible?
MS: It just goes to show you how much power there exists there, and that’s the one thing that I don’t think people understand--you do because you’ve been covering and talking about films forever and been a fan forever--but people don’t understand like the whole idea. There are people who paid to be in my film, but then there are people who pay a guy just to make sure that their shit gets in movies. So what he does is like a prop master pulls up, he fills the truck with Dyson vacuum cleaners and Ray Bans and Heinekens and then when they are on set, and they're like, “Hey, we need a beer.” “I’ve got some Heineken on the truck,” and suddenly Heineken is in the scene. More precisely, Heineken paid somebody else to make sure they were in that scene, which is amazing to think about.
Capone: I remember for years when PCs were everyone’s favorite computer in the real world, but Apple was in every movie, like everyone had an Apple computer and they always. I literally think the reason they have that glowing apple on the back of every computer is so that it shows up in a movie or TV show and you know that’s what it is, it’s not just a sticker, it’s a light that you can’t miss.
MS: And they were so smart about their brand identity of how they kind of associated themselves with things, so if you ever see a scientist--scientists don't use a Mac; the scientist is on a PC. If you see anybody who works in an architecture firm or is a musician or an artist, anyone who is creative always works on a Mac.
Capone: Absolutely. So right now, I believe, some of the claims in your Pom commercial are being taken to task.
MS: The FTC [Federal Trade Commission] is actually suing POM right now, oh yeah.
Capone: So, clearly your movie is presenting them in a very good light while they are going through this.
MS: Well I think that's part of it, and when you talk about this idea of integrity being for sale, when you see me on the billboard at the end I’m holding the sign in front of my garage where it’s not this, but it says like “Integrity for sale.” Ultimately, that’s part of what this film explores, this idea of associating yourself with something positive to distract from another conversation, and I think that’s one of the conversations.
Capone: Can you retell the story you mentioned last night about the commercial for POM that is not in the film?
MS: Oh yeah, so we pitched this commercial for them, which is they have had studies done to show that apparently POM is 40 percent as effective as Viagra. So, I said, “We have to pitch a commercial around that,” and so literally I pitched this spot to them where are the end of the spot I’m talking to them and I have this giant erection in my pants, and they completely shot that commercial down, but I said, “We still have to make this. We have to shoot this commercial,” which we did. We shot it on a soundstage in New York, and I originally wanted to put that commercial on after the end credits and then couldn’t ultimately because we already had the film rated by the MPAA, and I didn’t want to tell the MPAA that, “Oh by the way we added this thing at the end of the credits, you should definitely watch that.” Suddenly my PG-13 is out the window. [Laughs]
Capone: Did you ever really think that POM would go for that commercial?
MS: They signed onto this movie, so I knew they were willing to take a risk and take a chance, so I was like “Fuck it, why not? Let’s try.”
Capone: You mentioned to them in the movie that it would be more of a web-based commercial, like a viral thing.
MS: Well, I knew they wouldn’t put it up on television, so I saw it as like a “But can you imagine if we put this thing on the web? Think how great that will be.”
Capone: You were also at SXSW promoting a film that you produced. Can you talk a bit about that?
MS: THE OTHER F WORD. Andrea [Blaugrund] and Cristan Reilly, the ladies who produced and directed that film, called me very early on, right after they optioned the book. The whole film is based on a book by Jin Lindberg, the lead singer of Pennywise, called PUNK ROCK DAD. His story is about being a punk rock father, saying “Fuck authority” for years and then suddenly he became the authority, and now it’s like “What do I do?” The film’s this incredible look at fatherhood. I think it’s one of the most beautiful films about fatherhood that I’ve ever seen. I was so excited to be associated with it, to help them find money, to help them get their movie made, and it’s great. It’s like here are all of these rock stars and punk rock dads who ultimately you think would be the worst fathers ever who I think are the most attentive dads who so make it a point to be good fathers. It’s pretty inspiring.
Capone: Has it been picked up?
MS: Not yet. There were about four buyers circling it out at SXSW, and so hopefully that will happen soon.
Capone: Alright good. Morgan, thanks.
MS: This was great. It’s an absolute pleasure to see you in person.
Capone: Thanks. I can’t wait to see what you guys come up with for this Comic-Con doc.
MS: It’s going to be good.
Capone: Harry has been telling me about those submissions for people that wanted to get followed, he just went through telling me about all of the people that had all of these heartbreaking stories.
MS: Some of them were unbelievable.
Capone: Well, thanks a lot.
[As Capone leaves, a representative asks if he would like POM to go.]
MS: You have to.
Capone: I probably should. I drank my other one during the Q&A last night. Thanks.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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