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SUNDANCE Q&A: Morgan Spurlock on How He Courted Advertisers to Help Create a 'Docbuster'

Morgan Spurlock
Matt Carr/Getty Images

A regular at Sundance, Morgan Spurlock -- who won the documentary directing award for Super Size Me in 2004 -- returns this year with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

The meta-doc, which is in the documentary premieres section, will have its world premiere screening Saturday afternoon at the Library Center Theatre. Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions scooped up North American rights on Thursday and announced that Sony Pictures Classics will release it in the U.S. in April. As he hustled to finish the project, which details his efforts to get corporate sponsors to bankroll the movie, Spurlock spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how many corporations turned him away, his in-progress Comic Con doc and his 2004 holy s--- moment.

THR: What was the original spark for this movie?

Morgan Spurlock: By the time we get to Sundance it will be almost two years to the day from when we first came up with the idea for the film. And it came from a conversation that me and my producing partner and co-writer Jeremy Chilnick were having about the world of movies and TV, and this whole concept of branded entertainment which had started to really come to the forefront, where there were companies that were representing advertisers or brands and were trying to get them to pay for original content on the web. My first company before Warrior Poets was a company called The Interactive Consortium, which was all about creating programming online and then spring-boarding it off to film or television. Things had come full circle since I started that company to now, where people were looking at the web as being a place to incubate ideas and create things much like the early days of television. And it became a real push--post the TiVo revolution--of trying to put advertising actually into content, to the point where it felt like in the middle of certain TV shows and movies you were watching a commercial.

THR: I remember the WGA put out a white paper a few years ago about product placement, and how writers would have put a script to bed and then someone walks in and says, "Write in a scene with a bottle of Coke." And they're like, Do we get paid for that?

Spurlock: They're like, "No, no, no, we get paid for that." The more that Jeremy and I talked about it, I said, "It would be great to do a film that's all about the world of product placement and advertising where the whole film was actually paid for by product placement and advertising." That was the germ of the whole idea.

THR: That's one of those eureka moments, but then you have to execute it.

Spurlock: [laughs] Well, that became the interesting caveat. First we started trying to get ad agencies on board to come and help us make this film. And agencies wanted nothing to do with it. We wanted to have these people be the liaison to brands, to companies. They already had the ears of these corporations and were somewhat trusted by them, so why not get them to help us? And it was a real uphill battle. We wanted an agency to be our partner to help us go to brands, because ultimately we wanted to have the whole film underwritten by brands. Which is what we had happen.

THR: What are the top five brands that signed on?

Spurlock: I'm not gonna tell you. [laughs]

THR: Is that because you don't want to ruin the surprise for the doc?

Spurlock: Yeah. Once people see the film at Sundance everything will be out of the bag. For me, the journey that happens over the course of the film is fascinating.

THR: It's meta in that sense then, that part of the film is you seeking out the brands?

Spurlock: Well, literally, the film is about the process of me trying to make the film. You're with us almost from the beginning as I'm trying to make this film about product placement and advertising and I'm trying to get brands and advertisers and companies to come on board and so you follow me through the process of trying to convince people to be a part of this movie and actually pay for the film.

THR: It's one thing when it's Fox and X-Men, and Wolverine opens a bottle of vodka with his claws. But what are you offering them?

Spurlock: And then suddenly here's this documentary filmmaker that everybody you speak to is like, "You already ruined this other corporation, why would we want to work with you?" [laughs] I've already got one strike against me.

THR: So what are you offering them? You can't offer them a hundred million dollars at the box office.

Spurlock: Well, we are trying to create a docbuster! That's the thing. I'm like, Why can't we make a blockbuster documentary? If what makes Iron Man so successful are all these brand partners, why couldn't we do that with a documentary?

THR: That is a ballsy statement, I'll give you that. We'll see how it plays out.

Spurlock: [laughs] Well, the thing is, we had this idea that if having all these partners helped make these films successful, would it actually help a documentary? That's the question. That's the idea. It's not like we're coming in saying we already made Iron Man. I'm coming in saying that that's part of what makes those big films even bigger. Will it work on a different scale? Will this ubiquity of messaging help also push out and make a documentary a successful movie?

THR: What was the strangest, most unexpected or hardest part of putting this one together?

Spurlock: Just getting people to agree to want to be a part of it. [laughs] There were countless people that we spoke to along the way that were like, "The last thing we would ever do is put someone like you on a billboard. There's no way we would put an average Joe like you in any of our ads."

THR: Sounds like you took a bit of a beating out there!

Spurlock: We were like, "Just think of it, we'll have your brands in the movie." This one person said, "I'd rather kill myself." Along the way as you're talking to people who work in this business, they're saying, "Listen, I want to keep my job, you have to understand that." The people are like, "I'll be a laughing stock." It was incredible.

THR: It sounds like the kind of thing that once you get a few people on it gets easier with each new sponsor.

Spurlock: Yeah. It's amazing, once you had one--because nobody ever wants to be first, and no one ever wants to be last--once the ball started rolling it did become easier. And then when you see who the first brand is that comes on board, who's the first company that stands by it, it's amazing. It's ridiculous and great.

THR: Do you feel pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to replicate the cultural impact of Super Size Me?

Spurlock: Super Size Me was such lightning in a bottle. It was such this zeitgeist moment. The invasion of Iraq had already happened, and this became kind of the new enemy in America: obesity in the United States. And so, I think that film represented a lot of conversations that were happening, a lot of concerns people had, and did it in a way that didn't feel like medicine.

THR: It certainly wasn't medicine for you.

Spurlock: Yeah, it definitely wasn't medicine for me. But I'm very realistic in knowing how special that movie was for what it represented and that to try and find that lightning in a bottle again is difficult. So for me, I just try to find ideas that I'm compelled by, that we would be able to have an interesting take on. And I think The Greatest Movie is another one of those films that deals with something that is very much in the pop culture narrative of our time right now.

THR: The content of this new film lends itself to a lot of outside-the-box marketing ideas. I'm assuming that you have some things in your bag of tricks to break out. Is there anything at Sundance that we can look forward to?

Spurlock: There will probably be some stuff we try to do marketing-wise at Sundance that may be a little different and unique. The biggest thing is to unveil the film and the idea of the movie and save a lot of the bigger ideas for the actual release of the film.

THR: Have you seen a big change in the documentary financing world in the last six years?

Spurlock: It's become a lot harder to raise money. I've been really lucky that on the success of Super Size Me and 30 Days that we still had the ability to raise money. The people that are at least putting up money have pulled the purse strings a little tighter. So where you may have been able to get larger budgets, that it's a little bit tighter than what you could have raised. But we've been really fortunate in our ability to still raise money. I think the buyers market is what's changed more than anything else. The thing is now, there are people that are still willing to take chances on docs, but the money that a lot of people will pay up front for documentaries has gotten smaller.

Next page: Spurlock's thoughts on directing a Revenge of the Nerds movie, his favorite Sundance moments and advice to new filmmakers.