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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Non-Oscar movie news

As I write this the announcement of the 2010 Academy Award nominations is literally only a few hours away — and I’ll most certainly be discussing them tomorrow — but this late bird has some other worms to catch, starting with goings on up in Park City.

* Yes, Kevin Smith and the premiere of his long planned “Red State” is the talk of the geek movie blogosphere today. Sundance can be a real circus and Smith was, I gather, both ringmaster and clown as he jokingly joined the protest staged by the detestable, publicity loving, Westboro Baptist Church who apparently noticed that Smith was attacking them. That was followed by a 26 minute pre-screening talkathon — which I’ve yet to bring myself to watch, though I’ve read the highlights — in which he announced his plans to distribute the film himself.

As for the response to the movie goes, the reviews have been extremely interesting. The fact of the matter is that Smith has so gone on out of his way to attack film critics, it’s kind of hard for any of us to have an opinion of one of his films that isn’t colored by the silliness at this point. No surprise, then, that reaction has been dramatically mixed. Not everyone even agrees if it’s actually a horror film or a religious-themed thriller. Sort of a more violent and bloody, less musical, version of the 1973 “The Wicker Man.”

Avatar* Speaking of talented makers of entertaining but highly imperfect films whose need to communicate can often place them at cross-purposes with themselves, James Cameron has told Entertainment Weekly that he’s working on the screenplays for two “Avatar” sequels with the intent of releasing them over Christmas of 2014 and 2015. To his credit, I think, Cameron says he’ll donate some portion of films’ grosses to environmental charities, who can use all the help they can get, considering our planet seems to be melting right at the moment.

* And speaking of directors who at times have worked at cross-purposes with themselves, no one has ever done so in grander fashion than the late Orson Welles. It’s starting to look like his legendary unfinished 1970s project, “The Other Side of the Wind,” may finally get a release of some sort. Because Welles never edited most of it, there’s a school of thought that the film should be released only in unedited form. This is one of the more stupid schools of thought I’ve encountered. Thank goodness, DVDs can make the unedited rushes available to anyone who wants to imagine how the man might have edited the film itself, but rushes are not a movie.

As far as other “lost” Welles films, Kevin Jagernauth mentions a miraculous restoration of his badly truncated, “The Magnificent Ambersons.” I’d settle for a decent restoration/re-release of his Shakespearian opus, “Chimes at Midnight.”

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* Chris Hemsworth — aka Mighty Thor, God of Thunder — has seen the Avengers script by Joss Whedon and, guess what, he thinks its “incredible.” Ordinarily, I’d be skeptical of a star’s good opinion of his own movie, but this Browncoat needs it to be incredible. It better be incredible. No pressure, though.

* Another Sundance sale. For what sounds like a small but intense love story, “Like Crazy” fetched a relatively big price.

* Sam Raimi is still chatting up the possibility of some kind “Evil Dead” reboot.

* An item left over from last week relating to another kind of evil dead: Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’ “The Dictator” based on a novel claimed by an obscure author you might have heard named Saddam Hussein. This is one movie I really have to see.

* I really enjoyed interviewing Morgan Spurlock and he was as nice as could be, but he failed to mention anything about his latest, very clever sounding stunt-documentary “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which has been getting great press at Sundance. Jerkface.

  

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