Spurlock's Movie 'Sold' To Product Placement

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Morgan Spurlock knows product placement is the rule, not the exception in Hollywood, and has become a critical part of paying for projects. So instead of trying to disguise the ads, he's made it the centerpiece of his new film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

NEAL CONAN, host:

In his new film, Morgan Spurlock notes that product placement happens all the time in movies and on television, and he's become a critical part of movie finances. So he made that concept the heart of a new documentary.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. MORGAN SPURLOCK (Filmmaker): So what I want to do is make a film all about product placement, marketing and advertising, where the entire film is funded by product placement, marketing and advertising. So the movie will be called "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." So what happens in "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is that everything from top to bottom, from start to finish, is branded from beginning to end.

CONAN: Well, after he sold the above - the title rights, the movie became called the "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." If you've seen the picture, did Morgan Spurlock sell out? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Morgan Spurlock joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back with us.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Thanks for having me. Great to be back.

CONAN: And I have to - before we ask about this movie, I have to ask you about a previous film you made, "Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?" At the end, we see you, well, approaching the northwest territories in Pakistan and, well, deciding maybe you really don't want to go there. And turning around - it turns out, when you turned around, you were heading in the right direction.

Mr. SPURLOCK: I was going back in the right direction, I know. We had just come from Islamabad. We headed to Peshawar because that's where everybody was pointing us towards, you know, Waziristan, saying that's where we should be headed. And, yeah, who knew I should have just been going, you know, northeast about another 25 miles?

CONAN: So at the end of the long quest which you participated in, what do you take away from the death of Osama bin Laden yesterday?

Mr. SPURLOCK: Oh, I mean, I think that, you know, there's a tremendous amount of closure for a lot of people, you know, here in America and around the world. And I think that the real question is, what do we do now? You know, where do we go from here? It's - I think that there's a real opportunity now to re-engage a lot of people to kind of put forth a message that, you know, we believe in, you know, a real peaceful process and that, you know, we really want to make sure that we make sure everyone knows that, you know, that we don't see Islam as being the root and cause of all these problems. And, you know, I think we have to do everything we can, as we show in the film, to kind of steer, you know, the young people that kind of get swept into this very early on, who are convinced that this is the answer to find other ways.

CONAN: All right. Well, let's get back to your more recent project, which is out in theatres now, "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." And this - I wonder. One of the things you're doing in this film, you explained to us, is that in order to get paid by a lot of your advertisers, the people who came up with the million-and-a-half dollars you needed to make the picture, you had to promise contractually, in some cases, to come up with a number of impressions, number of people who are going to see the movie, hear about the movie, hear about, essentially, their product.

Mr. SPURLOCK: That's right.

CONAN: How many impressions do you get for being on NPR?

Mr. SPURLOCK: Well, I hope we get dozens, maybe even hundreds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. We're going to put you over the top.

Mr. SPURLOCK: That's right.

CONAN: I'm glad we can help you out.

Mr. SPURLOCK: This one interview could just - this could be the one that, like, pushes me over the top of the hill.

CONAN: And it's interesting because that's the kind of conversation that we don't really understand when we see a character on a TV show...

Mr. SPURLOCK: Yeah.

CONAN: ...sip a Dr. Pepper or a guy in a movie drive off in a Lamborghini.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Or all the background conversation that you - you see the negotiation where they say, how is he going to hold? How long is he going to hold that can in the Lamborghini before he puts it down and drives away? Is he going to hold the can, take a drink and say, oh, I love Pepsi, and then drive away? You know, these are all things that we, ultimately, had to negotiate in our contracts or out of our contracts more than anything else over the course of making this movie.

CONAN: And it seems like, well, a slight concept for the construction of a documentary. But you actually get into some interesting angles to it, among them, in fact...

Mr. SPURLOCK: Yeah.

CONAN: ...that in Sao Paulo, Brazil, there's a city that has banned all outdoor advertising.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Yeah. It's incredible. What we do is we use this whole idea of product placement as a much larger jumping-off point into this, you know, conversation about, you know, marketing and advertising in the world at large.

And, you know, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, you know, five years ago, they created an act called the Clean City Act, where the mayor basically said, we have so many problems, you know, so much pollution. Before we can actually confront these problems, let's get rid of the distractions. Let's get rid of the visual pollution. So they banned all outdoor advertising. No billboards, no posters. There's no ads on taxis, buses, no fliers, anything. And what's happened in that city is remarkable. And it's - when you're there, it's a stark awakening to kind of the environment and the people, and it's something to see.

CONAN: There is also something utterly creepy called neuro marketing.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Yeah. It's - which if you imagine the future, if you imagine this crazy futuristic world, where - when they're doing this right now, it's not that it's not happening 20 years from now. It's happening right now in MRIs across the country, where they're putting in hundreds of people to watch commercials, and then they're re-editing the commercials based upon your response, your brain waves. So it's really catering to the desire synergy of your brain about fear or about craving, about sexual instinct.

And what they do is these commercials are now tailored toward the overwhelming majority of people, you know, that - so that you get a real, raw visceral response. So while it may not work on everyone, the majority of people will want to buy it or feel like they want to buy it without even understanding why.

CONAN: And the opportunity to place that in the context of a dramatic or comedic context, it raises the opportunities to manipulate the emotions even more.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Absolutely. And I think that what, you know, what our film did in a great way was start to kind of, you know, use these corporations' money and use their, you know, use their influence to kind of pull back the curtain on an industry that I think a lot of us don't really get to see. I think that was -that's the best part of "The Greatest Movie."

CONAN: When you're pitching to your various clients, one of them includes Sheetz, which is a chain of gas stations and convenience stores and - well, Stan Sheetz, the president and CEO, challenges your pitch and he wonders, given your reputation, if you may be trying to, well, if this might all be mocked and you're going to throw them for a loop.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. STAN SHEETZ (President and CEO, SHEETZ): When we think of the probability of, like, negative press is that, like, here's this jerk, you know, who's making this, you know, horrible marketing movie, you know, with the assumption that Americans are idiots, okay, and then that's what they talk about on "E!" or something, okay?

Morgan is an idiot. He thinks all of Americans are idiots, and all of the people who sponsored this film are idiots. They're bigger idiots. What does that do to our brand?

CONAN: Well, what did it do for Sheetz?

Mr. SPURLOCK: Well, I mean, I think it's - I think that what this movie shows about Sheetz is it shows they are very, very savvy marketers. I mean, here is this regional chain that has about 400 stores where, you know, now they're getting national and international exposure as being part of this film for a very nominal investment.

You know, they put $100,000 upfront. You know, if we hit all the benchmarks, it will go up to 250. And, you know, I think it makes them look very, very savvy. And, you know, now, in all 400 Sheetz locations, you know, across, you know, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, you know, you can get the "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" collector cups, first time ever a documentary with collector cups. So Sheetz is setting the precedent.

CONAN: And we want to get some callers on the line, too. If you've seen the film, did Morgan Spurlock sell out? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

But before we get there, people will be curious, you made a film about a well-known fast food product in a picture called "Super Size Me."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Did MacDonald's participate in...

Mr. SPURLOCK: Yeah. You know, I call, you know, it's like I called MacDonald's because, you know, we were trying to make a blockbuster film, you know, and you can't have a blockbuster without having a fast food partner.

So I called over and over and over and, you know, I was leaving messages. Hey, it's Morgan Spurlock. You might remember me. I promise it'll be completely different this time. Call me back. You know, not one phone call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Just like a girlfriend who...

Mr. SPURLOCK: That's right, exactly. I have the same relationship with them that I've had with past girlfriends. I keep calling. They never call back. Works out great.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get some callers in on the line. And again, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Ken joins us on the line from Liberty, Missouri. And did Morgan Spurlock sell out?

KEN (Caller): Well, of course he did. I mean, if the Kratt brothers make a sell about lemurs in Madagascar, they have to go to Madagascar. If Morgan Spurlock wants to make a film about advertising, you kind of got to sell out. You got to go there.

I mean, I don't see how you could not go there. I mean, otherwise, it's not -he's making a film, you know, looking through a window, you know, he's outside the whole element looking - he's looking at the whole problem from the outside in, and I don't think that's the proper way to make a film.

Mr. SPURLOCK: I completely agree, with the exception - the one question that we ask in the movie is that am I selling out? And there's was a guy who has a great line, and he goes, no, as long as you do better than they do, then you're not selling out, you're buying in.

And so, you know, what we've been saying is that, you know, we didn't sell out to make this movie. We bought in. We bought in to this whole idea of Hollywood filmmaking, that this is how, you know, Hollywood says you need to make big movies and successful movies.

And, you know, I think that, had we let the brands dictate final cut of the movie - and I think that was the real turning point for people. You know, on a creative level, if we had kind of given up our creative capital, let them have control over the final cut of the film, then I think we would have sold out to no end. It would have been a 90-minute commercial, and that would have been disastrous.

CONAN: There was one of the sponsors, I think, above the title sponsor who wanted control over the final cut.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Yeah, them and every brand. Like, every company that came in wanted to have final approval of film, which we pushed back on all of them. But POM was the most resistant, because they're, like, well, were giving the most money, you know, were the title sponsor of the movie. And we're like, whoa, you know, too bad. This is how we have to do this. And luckily, it worked out.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Thank you, Ken.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jonathan, Jonathan with us from Shirley, New York.

JONATHAN (Caller): Hi. How you doing? It's a pleasure to actually speak to you guys. Morgan, I just want to say this is no way in how, like, you sold out. I think you did something really, really important with this movie that, you know, have been on a lot of our minds. You can't turn on a movie or a TV or anything like that without seeing some sort of advertising. And I think you did something ingenious by taking that whole system and just turning it against itself.

CONAN: I think he's going to be deeply offended by that.

Mr. SPURLOCK: I am so offended. I'm very angry. I'm very unhappy. No, you should have a POM right now. The thing that, I think, is interesting - it was just announced yesterday, which is the new James Bond film. They're just starting on "James Bond 23." A third of the budget for that film - so it's $150 million - $50 million of that film is going to be paid for by sponsors, by products that are going to be paid - paying to be put in the film. It's unbelievable.

CONAN: So you're a piker. You only answer a million and a half.

Mr. SPURLOCK: I know. Gosh, what was I thinking? You know What, if I was better looking and could drive an Aston Martin, then, yeah, I'd ask for more money.

CONAN: Thanks, Jonathan, for the phone call.

JONATHAN: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: And let me ask you also, there is a point, of course, when you finished the film, you're marketing the film, you become from a person looking for advertisers to place their products in the movie to being an advertiser yourself.

Mr. SPURLOCK: That's right. Yeah. One of the things that we did as we're finishing the movie, you know, we're coming up to the climax of the movie, I said, what we should do at the film as everything that we're criticizing in the beginning, we should use to market our movie at the end. At that way, it becomes very clear to people how it works, and they can understand the process, and people will see the film and know like the tools, the pieces, all the things of the puzzle that kind of got them into the seat to begin with. And I think that, you know, kind of seeing that come full circle, you know, this whole transparency of the process really works.

CONAN: And we have to ask a question post by Bob in Reno. We don't have time to get to his phone call, but he argues: The movie, given all the advertisements, should be free to watch.

Mr. SPURLOCK: That would have been a great idea. I think my distributor, Sony Classics, will probably disagree with that, but that would have been amazing.

CONAN: Morgan Spurlock dons a NASCAR-style suit in the movie as he appears on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" and various other things. Are you walking around in that full-time now?

Mr. SPURLOCK: No, I was wearing - on the televised appearances, like a lot of the national television like a word on Conan or on Kimmel and on Colbert, you know, it's almost like - just so people can envision it. It's like a two-piece suit, but it's like Jeff Gordon or, you know, Rusty Wallace or anybody - a NASCAR driver - is going to the prom. So it's like a formal kind of suit with all the logos all over it.

CONAN: And I assume this is going to then be, after the marketing of the film is over, be sold on eBay for further profits?

Mr. SPURLOCK: Well, we're going to auction it all for charity. That was an idea that someone came up with. You know, right now at ArcLight in Los Angeles, one is on display. There's been four different versions of the suit. You know, this one - because we were adding sponsors the whole time. We kept, you know, getting new sponsors sign on the movie. So we're at version 4.0 of the suit. And I think we'll probably stop there. And, you know, when we're all done, we'll sell them for charity.

CONAN: Well, Morgan Spurlock, thanks very much for your time today. Good luck with the movie.

Mr. SPURLOCK: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Morgan Spurlock's new documentary, "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," is now out in theaters nationwide - excuse me - "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." He joined us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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