Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock organized a daytrip to Altoona, PA, to help promote his latest movie “Pom Wonderful presents the greatest movie ever sold, Altoona, Pa.” Screen Comment’s Eric Isaac was on the plane]
I met documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock at JFK airport early in the morning. He wore a two-piece suit festooned with the logos of the numerous companies (fifteen in all) who sponsored his latest documentary, “POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Altoona, Pa,” a gleeful examination of product placement in movies. Spurlock Spurlock went all out to make a film about advertising and product placement in movies by funding his documentary with advertising and product placement. As simple as that may sound, the story isn’t.
The question that Spurlock and his team asked themselves is, if stadiums can sell their names to the highest bidder, why can’t a town, and how much? It turns out that that figure is $ 25,000. Searching for the town was pretty easy. Altoona, Pa is the home of the corporate headquarters of Sheetz, one of the main sponsors of the film.
To poke fun at advertisers in a movie funded by advertising makes about as much sense as “Super-Size Me” being funded by McDonalds; at least on the surface. In the film, POM’s owner Lynda Rae Resnick (POM was the key sponsor, paying upwards of one million dollars) insists that transparency, in the way that they do business and how much they pay to be in a film, is important to them—with a few caveats. The film has to gross 10 million dollars at the box office and there has to be 650 million media impressions, which is no small feat. Last week the film was given a limited release and according to Yahoo! has made a little over 100K.
Sheetz is. In the film, it is introduced during a pitch meeting to the owners. One of the owners was pretty skeptical about how this film could even be made. Morgan turns to the camera and says “This is the film. We are making the film right now”.
Sheetz, a family-owned chain of gas stations-cum-convenience stores based in Pennsylvania is headquartered in Altoona, PA. It is pretty clear that this small rust-belt town, with its many boarded-up windows and closed down businesses, could really use the money in exchange for the town’s name. A 25,000-dollar donation check to the town doesn’t really go a long way, but it also begs the question, could they have gotten more? In his speech to the town of Altoona, Spurlock said this about the mayor, “I would first like to thank him for returning my calls. A lot of people don’t like to do that. Thank you for being a man whose elevated sense of irony is only matched by his inability to negotiate.”
For the film’s premiere at Altoona’s theatre Spurlock was going to walk down the red carpet accompanied by a miniature Shetland pony. When the theatre’s manager saw it, she said “Get that damn poodle off the red carpet, it’s rented. If it shits on the carpet we lose our deposit. WHO brings a dog to a movie?”
The premiere was a hit and a massive cocktail party was thrown for the audience of 2,000 afterward. For a small town in central Pennsylvania, this would probably be the “greatest day ever,” a phrase that Spurlock used repeatedly throughout the day.
Corporate funding can easily translate into unwanted influence over the movie. When I asked Spurlock if he thought that his vision of the movie had changed since its inception he told me, ‘every documentary should change from the original vision. They are organic and unscripted and you can’t say, I am going to tell this story and fuck what everyone else thinks. Some of the best stories come from tangential story lines that you never predicted.”
Considering that one of the main clauses of the contract was that the sponsors had final cut, one would fairly assume that changes were made. But if Spurlock is a maverick thinker, sometimes defiantly so, he can also negotiate tactfully. “They [the sponsors] wanted to see it before Sundance, in a conference room, and the last thing I wanted to do was show them this through the long narrow tunnel that is their vision of the film which is “This is how I see my brand” and ignoring the bigger picture that is this film that they are a part of. I suggested that they see it at Sundance with everyone else. In the end, the sponsors were ecstatic about how well it was received, and I think that was better than having them dissect it.”
The next few weeks will determine the success of this film and whether branding in documentaries is successful enough for sponsors to justify their participation. In this case, however, they already have a leg up by being involved in a project that has already created a lot of media attention for some of its bizarre antics, and also because they have a sparklingly-friendly spokesperson known for his integrity at the helm. If “POM Wonderful” is successful you might be looking at the next step in the moneymaking business of filmmaking—franchising. “If we’ve really made a Docbuster, which is what we really wanted to do, then by week four or five we will green light the sequel, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold 2 – The Quest for More Money, ” Spurlock said.
In a few months, the show “Damages” will move from FX to an advertisement-free platform on DirectTV. Corporations will always find a way to get their adverts to the consumer, even if it means resorting to the silly but all-too real antics of placing its brand in places you cannot avoid. Money is not an obstacle when it comes to advertisers making an impression on you. In his “address” to the town of POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, PA, Spurlock declared, “let this be a day for everyone to learn from: no matter what your price, someone, somewhere in the world will pay it.”
(photo: Eric Isaac for Screen Comment)