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Q&A – Morgan Spurlock on Selling Out, Buying In, and the Greatest Advice He’s Ever Received

Have you noticed how product placement has become blatant in movies and on television programs? Tony Stark drives an Audi R8 through Iron Man 2. American Idol judges sip from Coca-Cola cups, with the logos turned toward the camera at all times. Morgan Spurlock certainly noticed. So the Super Size Me director set out to see if he could make a blockbuster documentary — or, as he calls it, a “doc-buster” — that’s fully funded by corporate sponsorships. The result, titled Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, has opened in theaters, but, as Spurlock told during a recent interview, the sponsorships and promotions won’t stop there.

Q: So you came up with a promotion for the movie by changing the name of a Pennsylvania town?

A: The town formerly known as Altoona, Pennsylvania, is officially Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pennsylvania. It just rolls off the tongue, right? It’s great. And they are very excited about it. But it’s temporary. It will be that for the next 60 days.

Q: I was surprised by the number of corporations you approached for potential sponsorship that seemed visibly afraid of what you might say or do in the movie.

A: Oh, yeah. Well, the rejection rate in this movie was around 97.5
percent. Our success rate was 2.5 percent to get people onboard.

Q: Do you honestly see yourself as that controversial of a figure?

A: I think that, from a corporate standpoint, where I already made
this one film that kind of eviscerated one company, they’re going
to think it’s always better to be safe. In a corporation, where you’re
all about controlling your brand and your image, why take a risk that
could potentially blow up in your face? I think that’s why the companies
that are in this film really succeed. They are willing to take that
risk, and that’s why the film works.

Q: What percentage of Americans, would you guess, is aware of product placement in their pop culture?

A: I think it’s pretty low. If you consume a tremendous amount of
media, like I do, it’s a very different thing. We see it all of the time
in everything that we do. But for someone who grew up in a small town,
like my home state of West Virginia or where we just were, in Altoona,
I’d put it at less than 50 percent.

Q: The most striking images in your film were of São Paulo, which
has banned outdoor advertising. The city is pristine, and it makes me
wonder if we could ever transform our cities into that.

A: I think we could, if we started slowly and worked in stages. Take
Times Square, for example. You wouldn’t have to eliminate all of the
advertising in Times Square. Give yourself an area. Take five blocks
north of Times Square and five blocks south. Add two avenues east and
west, and say that will be your area. Then you’d say, “We’re going to
pull back into a few more areas of New York City.” Is that possible? I
think that’s completely doable. Because then you are keeping what is the
draw of Times Square, which is why people go, but you are saying, “Okay,
for the rest of this, let’s reclaim some neighborhoods.” In terms of a
full-city elimination of advertising, like in São Paulo, I think it
could happen in a place like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, or maybe
Austin. A progressive city probably has the ability to push something
like that through.

Q: If you had said ten years ago that New York City would put a
pedestrian-friendly area in the middle of the street in Times Square, I
would have said you are crazy.

A: Right. But it happened. So I think you are seeing that an idea
like you see in São Paulo isn’t impossible. And what I love about it
being in the film is that it just represents a great idea. And it brings
up questions of, Where do we draw the line? Where do we start to
pull back? How much is too much? Where do we reclaim that sacred space
where we say, “This space is going to be ad free, commercial free,
marketing free.” I think that’s a great thing to think about. We live in
a world where, every time I step outside, somebody is trying to sell me
something. I think there is the question of the push back.

Q: Watching your movie, you seem to enjoy pitching ideas to potential
partners as much as you like editing film and shaping your narrative.

A: I feel that if you want to work in this business, you have to
enjoy the pitch process. When you see me in the rooms pitching my idea
to corporate brands, that was a very different sell then when we’ve had
to go out and sell ideas for TV shows or films. But all of those years of
rejection from pitching movies and TV-show ideas finally paid off.
[Laughs] I had more than enough practice.

Q: And yet, from the time you came up with the film’s concept,
there’s no way you could have known what the film’s ending was going to

A: [Laughs] Literally, from where we spun the top at square one, we had no idea where we were going.

Q: That’s not the ideal way to make a film.

A: [Laughs] Absolutely not. And there was no plan B.

Q: But that’s documentary filmmaking. You never know which direction a story will take you.

A: That’s right. I got some of the best advice I’ve ever received as a filmmaker back when I was making Super Size Me. A friend said, “If the movie that you end up with is the exact same movie that you envisioned in the beginning, then you didn’t listen to anybody along the way.” That’s a mantra that we stand by. I let people
steer us in different directions. I let the ebb and flow push us wherever the story may lead. And I think that’s what makes great stories.

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