SXSW 2011: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

If there’s one thing you should know about Morgan Spurlock, it’s that he’s a remarkable showman. While his documentaries always contain some kind of academic value, his main intention seems to be entertaining the audience, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s what helped “Super Size Me” become such an immense success, and it played a big part in making “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?” – Spurlock’s much weightier follow-up – a lot more interesting than it would have been in the hands of another filmmaker. His latest project, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” doesn’t pretend to be about anything nearly as important as the issues he’s tackled in the past (obesity and the war on terror), but it’s without a doubt his funniest and most creative documentary to date.

It’s no secret that product placement has become an integral part of the entertainment industry, with billions of dollars spent every year by corporations looking to inundate our movies and television shows with subliminal advertisements. In an attempt to learn more about the process of this rapidly growing business (and hopefully make people more aware of what they’re being exposed to), Spurlock has set out to make a documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that’s funded entirely by product placement. It’s an ingenious idea, as the film operates both as an eye-opening lesson in brand integration and a satirical, first-hand account of how movie studios obtain financing from corporations.

The first half of the documentary focuses on Spurlock’s attempt to pitch his idea to various Fortune 500 companies, with many refusing to even take a meeting with the infamous director at the risk of looking like a fool. After Ban Deodorant comes on board as the first official sponsor, however, Spurlock has more luck persuading corporate executives to invest in the movie – including companies like Jet Blue, Mini Cooper and Old Navy – with POM Wonderful agreeing to pay $1 million to buy the above title rights.

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But what Spurlock soon discovers is that there are consequences that come with accepting that money, with some companies demanding creative control over the final cut of the movie or setting certain stipulations that he’s legally obligated to follow. Like, for instance, the idea that once POM Wonderful becomes the official drink of “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” he can no longer be filmed drinking anything made by their competitors. Obviously, Spurlock plays this for big laughs as he blurs out entire walls of Coca-Cola and Pepsi while shopping at the grocery store, and makes a point of zooming in on bottles of POM during interviews, but he also posits a good question about how much corporate interference is too much before you’re considered a sellout.

While guys like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky offer their opinions on the matter, Spurlock also speaks with those who have a little more experience dealing with brand integration in movies, including Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, and Brett Ratner, who not only admits that product placement is necessary, but when asked how it affects his artistic integrity bluntly replies, “Artistic integrity? Whatever.” You have to give Ratner credit for being honest, but Spurlock knows a great moment when he sees one, and his film is littered with other nuggets of comedic gold just like it – even manufactured ones, like a running joke involving Mane ‘n Hair shampoo with an awesome payoff in the end.

That may disappoint some people who feel like Spurlock’s shenanigans only dampen the impact of his message, but many moviegoers wouldn’t even be willing to sit through a documentary about product placement if it wasn’t so entertaining. The film will still teach you a thing or two along the way, but if you’re going to learn, you might as well as enjoy yourself while you do, because although it may not have the same cultural effect as “Super Size Me,” “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is Spurlock at the top of his game.

  

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Late night/early morning movie news

I need to keep it brief tonight, but there are a few items tonight that I want to catch up with.

* It nice to lead with some good news. Jailed Iranian director Jafar Panahi has reportedly been released on bail from his imprisonment. The director, who was supposed to sit on the Cannes jury, had been on a hunger strike. The acclaimed film-maker appears to be in trouble because of a documentary about the Iranian protest movement.

Shrek Forever After* The lower than expected box office performance for “Shrek Forever After” had an effect on Wall Street. Moreover, Patrick Goldstein wonders if those inflated 3-D ticket prices might already be starting to backfire. I tend to agree. People may not mind paying a little extra for something that feels like a real event, but 3-D is already starting to feel old hat and, as Goldstein reminds us, there’s a lot more coming.

* This story fell between the cracks a few days back — and Louis Black doesn’t work for me — but Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me“) really is doing that comicon documentary that was rumored sometime back. It was originally plugged as a collaboration of some sort with Joss Whedon, but it turns out Whedon is just one of a few geek superstars who will be executive producing. That’ possibly the most elastic job title in show business, so his involvement could be fairly minimal though I’m sure he’ll appear on screen. Accompanying Whedon in backing the film are none other than Stan Lee and Harry Knowles.

* A long time ago, I found the novel, Less Than Zero, oddly compelling reading in that it was a vivid portrait of a human train wreck. That being said, Brett Easton Ellis is certainly not dispelling the widespread opinion that he might be a jackass with his pronouncements about female directors. May he shortly be visited by the ghost of Ida Lupino.

* The real winner at Cannes: Eliot Spitzer.

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