Sunday, August 28, 2011

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

Written and Directed by Morgan Spurlock
3.5 stars (out of 4)

Morgan Spurlock likes rules. His work is a hybrid of social experimentation and documentary filmmaking. This style started in his critically praised directorial debut, Super Size Me. He subjected himself to a month of fast food, but there were rules. He didn't let himself consume anything that wasn't from McDonalds. He stopped exercising and made sure to limit the amount of distance he walked. Spurlock also decided that he would try everything on the McDonalds menu at least once, and when offered, he must accept the super size upgrade. I'm not sure that the effects on his physical health were surprising, but the film sure was entertaining.

The experimentation idea was expanded into his television show, 30 Days. These experiments were of a more explosive nature. Spurlock himself was the subject of some episodes, but usually they feature people with very strong beliefs. For instance, an atheist agreed to live with a Christian family for 30 days. Another intense episode involved illegal immigration. The show featured a man who was part of a border patrol volunteer group. They patrolled the border with guns looking for people crossing over the river and fences along the boundary of U.S. and Mexico. Spurlock asked this man to live with a family of illegal immigrants in Los Angeles for 30 days. As you can imagine this was a tense situation. Forcing people into confrontation may not sound like a good idea, but in most cases those involved experienced a paradigm shift in their way of thinking.

When I first heard the premise for The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, I thought that it would represent a more traditional approach to documentary filmmaking. I was wrong. This movie is classically Spurlockian.

Spurlock's idea was to make a documentary about brand sponsorship in movies, which is completely sponsored by brands. He wanted his entire budget to be met by his advertisers. The first 30 minutes of the film explores the learning curve. Being an independent filmmaker, he knew very little about pitching ideas to advertisers.

After consulting some public relations gurus he finally got some chances to pitch his ideas. This is where Spurlock's past success proves to be a detriment. Most of the companies are aware of Super Size Me and are uneasy about being featured in a Morgan Spurlock film. Many big companies won't even return calls once they hear who's involved. Unwilling to give up, the determined director turns his gaze towards smaller companies that may be willing to risk more.

There were different levels of sponsorship up for purchase. The top level was to be featured in the name of the film. The fine folks at POM Wonderful were ready to do business. He lands the sponsorship, but it’s not all upfront. He has to meet a lot of contractual obligations before he gets the money. His first task is to design some advertisements to be used in the movie itself. His ideas are clever, but the high council of pomegranate juice is not impressed. They turn down every idea and send Morgan back to the drawing board, literally.

Morgan goes on to land some bigger sponsors including Sheetz and Mini Cooper.

That's where the rules come into play. He has contractual obligations with every sponsor that must be met in the course of the film. There are about 15 sponsors in total so his promises to companies start to degrade his artistic integrity. Morgan agrees to do 30 second commercial spots for different products during the film. He also promises to drink only POM Wonderful while blurring out every other beverage on screen. He agrees to always fuel up at Sheetz gas stations. He also conducts interviews in Sheetz as well as at Jet Blue airport terminals. At one point he is discussing truth-in-advertising with Ralph Nader. During a random point in their conversation Spurlock takes off one of his shoes and lays it on the table. He mentions to Nader that Merrell shoes sure are comfortable and that he should try a pair. Nader gets the joke.

Like Super Size Me, I'm not sure if I learned anything from this movie. I already knew McDonald's is bad for my health. Likewise, I already knew there is an endless amount of advertising in the world. There was some interesting exploration on the efficiency of advertising, but the movie wasn't heavily focused on that aspect.

What makes the film work is Morgan Spurlock himself. This man has one of the quickest wits I've ever. One potential sponsor asks if there is a 100% satisfaction guarantee if they decided to sign a deal. Spurlock replies, "For me? Yes." Clever quips combined with intelligent insights keep the film utterly watchable. If Morgan Spurlock decides to make a documentary about crock-pots, then I'll be the first to buy a ticket.

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