Morgan Spurlock can, alongside his more boisterous contemporary Michael Moore, be credited with bringing the documentary film to a wider audience not typically interested in non-fiction cinema, thanks to the success of his searing McDonalds documentary Super Size Me. While highly accessible and an important lesson, the film could nevertheless have fallen foul amid overt pontificating and dry lecturing, yet Spurlock’s everyman quality is what made that film, and indeed this one, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, not only urgently informative but also incredibly entertaining.
Admittedly Spurlock’s focus is somewhat less vital this time, what with product placement not threatening our lives (at least not directly), yet after the hit-and-miss gimmickry of Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, this is a film which, while probably even more gimmicky than that one, trains its focus with a keener eye, and arrives at a more concise and thoughtful conclusion on his subject. Touted by Jimmy Kimmel, quite rightly, as “the Inception of documentaries”, the film’s ingenious concept involves Spurlock confronting the sly world of product placement by creating a documentary film funded entirely by product placement, a daring concept which, both despite and because of its heavy commercialisation, is a perfect vehicle with which to broach the subject.
Beginning with a ‘Product Placement for Dummies’-type seminar, Spurlock draws on famous instances of paid placement in popular media, such as the infamous use of Converse All-Stars in i, Robot and Guinness in Minority Report, before qualifying his examples with the knowing, hilarious spoof of such crass practises in the classic scene from Wayne’s World. From here, Spurlock talks to just about everyone from University scholars to film directors on the subject, providing a psychological and economic assessment of the marketing tactic, gaining the most valuable anecdotes from Quentin Tarantino (who tried to put Wendy’s restaurants into several of his earlier films, but they balked at the subject matter), Brett Ratner (who surrenders himself to be a shill and a hack without much prompting), and perhaps most importantly, Peter Berg (who is the more pragmatic of the three, reminding us that these companies don’t really care about art, but you need their money for a high-quality blockbuster feature). What’s important is that Spurlock’s approach highlights the ubiquity of product placement everywhere we go; I felt instantly more aware of it when watching films in the days following my viewing of this documentary.
With his approach, however, Spurlock faces a quandary; in creating his “Docbuster”, will he have to sell himself out artistically to amass the $1.5m needed to finance his film? Such is the film’s talking point, and in mind-bending fashion, we see the slippery slope on which he pitches himself, straddled between artistic accomplishment and commercial viability, the balance tipping as the very film itself progresses. The most questionable aspect of his method arrives early on, when he rattles off a list of companies approached for placement in the film; by emblazoning their logos indiscriminately on the screen, regardless of whether they paid to feature in the film or not, is he not providing needless advertisement to these companies?
It is, however, essentially a minor quibble in an otherwise extremely gathered film; most interesting is observing how companies, who are typically used to sponsoring feature films rather than documentaries, react to his pitch. The point Spurlock’s film seems to make inherently, and perhaps accidentally, is that the companies who have invested in this documentary – especially POM Wonderful, who even paid for their name to be placed in the film’s official title – come off as smarter and more aware simply through their sheer involvement in it. I found myself respecting their bravery in the minefield of commercial advertising, though one mustn’t forget that the opinion of the relatively small number of people who will see this film about these companies likely isn’t worth the money paid, especially the $1m POM Wonderful agreed to pay Spurlock. Their exit strategy, however, is simple; a clause in their sponsorship contract stipulates they will only pay-up if the film grosses $10m at the box office, which it of course never will.
The potentially heady subtext of this clever experiment works ostensibly because of the man at the helm; Spurlock has, unlike Michael Moore, no pretension to the lectern, nor is he overly sarcastic or snide in his dealings with the companies. There’s an affable charm to his presentation of a subject which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly igniting fierce protests right now, and as such an aggressively probing approach simply isn’t needed; Spurlock is smart to keep it light and fleeting, while still changing our minds in small but important ways.
Morgan Spurlock brings an affable everyman charm to this mind-bendingly insightful critique of a world awash in commercial calculations at every corner.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold opens on limited release in the U.K. this Friday
This article was first posted on October 11, 2011