It's hard to think of a director better matched to the high-concept task of the irreverent documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It is both "playful" and "mindful," two brand attributes that, in the course of the film, Morgan Spurlock also discovers that he himself possesses.
Largely amusing, and at times thought-provoking, the film should be seen by everyone in (or just interested in) the industry, even if just for a reference point about sentiment toward the practice of product placement.
That said, there are two fundamental issues plaguing the doc. After seeing the film, we spoke with Spurlock — it was, to say the least, enlightening.
The premise of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is that Spurlock will make a movie all about product placement, while at the same time funding that movie with product placement, including landing a title sponsor. A box office success since officially launching on April 20th, Spurlock tells us that the film met its 600 million media impression threshold of the Pom contract… while still at Sundance.
The smaller of the two problems facing Spurlock's Greatest Movie is that its high concept is set up around a straw man argument. Early in the film, Spurlock says of movies, "Co-promotion turns a movie into a blockbuster from a normal movie." A few minutes later, Spurlock says that his friends in the commercial moviemaking business all say "the reason they're great successes is the brand partnerships."
The argument that brand partnerships make movies into blockbusters is a stretch, with numerous counter examples from just the last few years (The Hangover, 300, Inception). The film never entertains the possibility that many movies would likely be blockbusters anyway and, as such, brands aggressively want to partner with what looks like a box office hit. Basically, Spurlock is saying that Toy Story 3 would have performed mediocrely if not for its brand partners. He's telling Jerry Bruckheimer, Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski that the only reason that Pirates of the Caribbean was a blockbuster was its brand partners.
We posed the question directly to Spurlock, asking him if all the tie-ins were maybe "more of an add-on to films that would have been blockbusters anyway?"
"I don't think it's a.. No. I think those films would have been big… I think that what those [marketing tie-ins] do is that it creates an event. It really creates an event around the film that ultimately makes the film much more successful."
We asked Spurlock directly if he thought Pirates of the Caribbean would have been a success without the brand tie-ins. He said, "Go to the first one and look at the tie-ins that were in the first one. And then look at the amount of tie-ins that came in the second one, as people were continuing to ride on the success of the first film and then continuing to oust and event into theaters."
When we pressed him again about a claim in the film, that filmmakers Spurlock knew had credited tie-ins as the reason for their hugely successful films, Spurlock told us that these directors all "basically said [tie-ins] help big movies."
In our interview with him, these slight redirections were typical as Spurlock repeatedly shied away from the hyperbole of the film, that product placements and cross-promotional marketing tie-ins are the primary reason blockbusters become blockbusters.
Adam Stone, one part of product placement expert team Adam and Cat Stone, responsible for product placements in recent Oscar-nominated and winning films The Fighter and The Hurt Locker, basically shipwrecks Spurlock's core point, telling us, "There are plenty of films produced annually that are rife with product placement or are supported by a tremendous promotional push from one or more brands that simply struggle at the box office."
Without a doubt, Spurlock is right when he sounds the alarm that product placement, in general, is on the rise. Interestingly, our product placement tracking shows, the actual number of products in blockbuster films decreased slightly in the past decade, from 22.1 brands per #1 US film in 2001 to an average of 17.9 in 2010.
A murky area that the film never really explores is how Spurlock asks the audience to take it on faith that movies like Transformers and TV shows like Heroes have some intrinsic artistic value and are not fundamentally commercial entities, born of focus groups and demographic test data.
It's important this question is ignored for Spurlock's premise to work; because if, say, Iron Man 2 is not "art," then product placement is hardly an outrage, and instead just one more exploited ROI value on a chain of a marketable considerations that, when fully assembled, become a film. That is to say, why get upset about commercialist interests inserted into something that itself is just a giant commercial project?
Asked if Transformers is "art," Spurlock says, "I'm sure that any filmmaker would argue that their films are art." Meanwhile, one of the successful directors the film interviews is Brett Ratner, who, when asked about "artistic integrity," flippantly chuckles, "Whatever."
Another director interviewed by Spurlock is Peter Berg, who criticizes the influence of commercialization on filmmakers, saying of the parent company of his NBC TV series Friday Night Lights, "GE doesn't give a f**k about art." For the record, Berg's current "artistic" project is a major motion picture adaptation of the board game Battleship.
During our interview, Spurlock asked, "Will smaller independent films and filmmakers start to get, maybe not the same level of support, but the same consideration?" It's a great question, and one we would have loved to see the film investigate. Instead, Greatest Movie Ever Sold's focus is black holish, which is its second, and larger handicap.
For a film about product placement, Greatest Movie meanders all over the subject of advertising in general. In a fascinating segment, Spurlock visits Sao Paolo, where outdoor advertising has been banned. He looks into advertising on schools, but the only data he cites is for the billion dollar ad industry as a whole.
Spurlock scores great interviews with iconic figures like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky, and talks to other smart academics, but the focus (and Nader's zingers) are about the wider net of advertising's influence in general, not about product placement — the subject of his doc — specifically.
Data, numbers, stats, hard evidence — the grounding core of which made Spurlock's McDonald's takedown, Super Size Me, so credible — are completely absent here, except for an early moment when he passingly mentions the massive billion-dollar size of the ad industry itself and a segment on brain scans, which is fascinating, but really deserving of its own Nova special.
This engorged focus hampers the pacing of the film.
The highlights of Greatest Movie are the short ads Spurlock creates for his partner brands, which are integrated into the film itself. In one bit, Spurlock pitches a bunch of outrageous ad concepts to Pom, which shoots him down and instead tells him to use a more conventional "our product vs. theirs" approach.
Spurlock leaves the meeting questioning if product placement has caused a loss of creative control. But it's a ruse, because what Spurlock laments in that scene is what all ad agencies lament, that the client wants to go a different, less risky direction with a campaign. For that moment, Spurlock is using a universal truth about making commercials to criticize how product placement influences filmmakers. It's tricky, but disingenuous.
The film also misses the issue of who's using who here; POM Wonderful, after all, needs positive buzz and favorable press, and becoming title sponsor of Spurlock's doc certainly distracts from its own truth-in-advertising woes.
Even in plumbing advertising in general, Spurlock seems content with the big and obvious, going after the neon blinkity-blink of Times Square, or 30-second commercial spots. A shame, because the ubiquity of advertising and film and tie-is runs far deeper. Spurlock knows this, but like Michael Moore, tends to simplify points (we won't go so far as to say "dumb down") for bigger, surface, impact.
At one point, Spurlock appears on Jimmy Kimmel's late night talk show in a NASCAR-like, logo-emblazoned suit. The joke here is that Spurlock is promoting his sponsors, including sticking Ban's logo in the jacket's underarm area. But that's as far as it goes.
Greatest Movie doesn't once touch on the relationships between the late night shows such as Kimmel's that promote films in a quid pro quo relationship that gets them access to stars. How great would it have been for Spurlock to ask Kimmel what questions he was not allowed to ask his most recent celebrity movie-promoting guest in return for that guest coming on his show? Alas, we'll never know.
Then there is the real behind the scenes of the scenes film tie-ins the film completely ignores. For example, at the recent SXSW conference in Austin TX, Fast Company magazine raised promotional money by partnering with Lincoln and Pepsi (including a PepsiCo stage). Spurlock was a celebrity guest at the magazine's party there, greatly raising the profile of the event. Coincidentally, Spurlock and his film landed an exclusive profile in a subsequent Fast Company issue.
Heck, even look at us. We've been engaged in something of a Twitter showdown with Spurlock, who publicly mused that we were attacking his project in our January piece — implying that we're pro-product placement (and presumably anti-his film) just because our parent company is Interbrand, a branding consultancy. Hopefully Spurlock, or his publicist, took the time to note that we're critical of product placement when poorly done (and not integral to the plot), and that we cover the space as journalists, not as cheerleaders for the practice.
Lamenting film tie-ins by solely picking on Happy Meals and branded drink cups is a little like criticizing racism and not looking past the KKK.
The funny thing is that the Greatest Movie Ever Sold truly is like the product placement-heavy blockbusters it skewers in one very ironic way. Spurlock's film includes a robust number of Apple MacBook product placements, for which (we assume) Apple never paid a dime, though Spurlock has said in his interviews for the movie that he's an Apple fan.
Nobody in the film ever makes mention of Apple or drawn attention to the brand, and it's not one of the brands that Spurlock's shown pitching for sponsorship — even though Apple, as we have reported for years now, is the most product placed brand in Hollywood, appearing in more than one-third of all number one films at the US box office in the last decade (120 appearances in 350 films between 2001 and today).
Apple claims it pays nothing for placement. Spurlock told us that "Even unpaid product placement is paid product placement." So it appears Greatest Film Ever Sold has another sponsor to credit.
In promotional interviews over the last couple weeks, Spurlock has said, "We met a bunch [of people who work in product placement], but a lot them just wouldn’t go on camera… They were scared to death it was going to ruin the cash cow that they have been riding for however long. People were frightened."
We asked around a number of product placement pros and couldn't find anyone quivering under their desks after being approached by Spurlock. Even Britt Johnson, the founder of Mediaplacement who appears early in the film and consulted with Spurlock about his approach, said of the ruined cash cow, "I don't think so. Everyone knows this advertising is happening and it's no big secret."
We applaud Spurlock for addressing the topic, for doing so in an entertaining and engaging fashion, and for having fun with the process of funding his film by the means he's exploring to reveal how the practice works. We just wished he'd stayed more on topic, delved deeper into it, and challenged his own premise more than he did. And by all means, we encourage you to go see it and let us know what you think.