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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.
THR: What are you most psyched to see in the Sundance line-up this year?
Spurlock: Last year I was on the jury, which was the greatest thing ever. It was the best time I’ve ever had at Sundance, because I had no responsibility except to go see films. I saw 28 movies, it was awesome. I saw all the 16 in competition that I had to see for docs, and then I saw another 12 in top of that. I was averaging three movies a day, usually. Sometimes four.
THR: Anything jump out at you in this year’s program?
Spurlock: I really want to see James Marsh’s new film, Project Nim. I love love love his movies. I think he’s really brilliant. I love Man on Wire, so I’m really anxious to see that. I love Steve James, I love the way he makes films. His new movie is going to be there. Kevin Smith’s new film. My favorite movie at Sundance last year never got picked up by anybody, which was Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. That was my favorite film of the festival.
THR: I loved that! They hit it so on the mark.
Spurlock: So on the money! I went to the midnight premiere of that film, and that thing played so through the roof. I was like, if somebody buys this film and puts it out as alternative programming around Halloween, this movie would clean up. I heard that they showed it to people before Sundance, which I think was the mistake because nobody got to see it with that raucous audience. I loved that movie.
THR: Have you been offered fiction films in the last few years? Like what?
Spurlock: There are a couple projects that I’m attached to right now that we’re trying to put together, so hopefully sometime in the next year one of those will happen. There are two good ones. Knock on wood, one of them will happen.
THR: Any that someone else went on to make?
Spurlock: Yeah, when Super Size Me first came out, I was approached to direct a lot of comedies. I got approached to do a Revenge of the Nerds remake. I want to find the right movie to have be the first fiction film that I do.
THR: What’s going on with your Comic Con doc?
Spurlock: We’re editing it right now. I just watched a cut today. I really love the story. We followed so many great characters into Comic Con. What you start to see is that Comic Con is a place where there are stakes, and people actually do go looking to have their dreams realized. Whether it’s a collector or an artist or somebody who owns a comic book shop, it’s really fantastic because Comic Con is a backdrop of real people’s lives.
THR: You’ve also got a built-in audience.
Spurlock: Yeah. We did so many great interviews while we were there. We shot this past Comic Con, we shot it in July .
THR: What’s Joss Whedon’s part in it? Did he write material for it?
Spurlock: Joss and Stan [Lee] both came on. They’re executive producing the film with me. Joss just came in to give us ideas about casting, give his thoughts about how he thinks it should be representative. The next cut I’m going to send him to get his thoughts and comments on.
THR: Are you trying to get it ready for Comic Con this year?
Spurlock: Absolutely, we would love to have it be at Comic Con. But first step: Make a great movie.
THR: You’re also producing an Iraq music school project?
Spurlock: Yeah, that whole idea came out of a photograph I saw in National Geographic about this music school in the middle of Iraq in this bombed-out town called Sulaimaniya where there’s a guy who teaches kids how to play music. It’s beautiful. We have a director that we’re working with. A guy named Dane Lawing went over there and shot and is doing that piece. It’ll be a short doc, probably about 35-40 minutes.
THR: What is your favorite Sundance film?
Spurlock: That’s a tough question. There were so many films before I ever went to Sundance, films that I loved, like Reservoir Dogs is one of those movies that whenever it’s on I could sit and watch forever. Some of the lines in that, the music in that–the minute I hear Sundance, I think of that film. And then if I think of when I went to Sundance, I was there with Napoleon Dynamite. Jared Hess and I were there at the same time. It was an incredible group of filmmakers that was there that year, from doc to narrative, it was pretty exciting.
THR: What is the memory of Sundance that most stands out for you?
Spurlock: I was somebody who loved movies, and grew up watching films my whole life, and never wanted to do anything else but make movies and TV shows and somehow be involved in the entertainment business. I had no idea what that was growing up in West Virginia, but I just knew I wanted to make movies, even though I didn’t even know how to do that. So even when I was in high school and college I would be watching the films that came out of Sundance, these people who took these little movies that they made for nothing that blew up and changed their lives-from sex, lies and videotape to Reservoir Dogs. So there I was in 2004, and about five days into the festival, a movie reviewer at a party comes up to me and says, “So, Mr. Spurlock, how does it feel to be the belle of the ball?” And it was at that moment when I realized, Holy shit, I’m that guy. I’m the guy who made the movie for nothing that is coming here and having my life change right before my eyes. I am Kevin Smith, I am Quentin Tarantino, I am Cinderella right now, and literally things will never be the same. It was a holy shit moment.
THR: What’s the one tip about Sundance you would throw out to a first-timer about to head up there?
Spurlock: The biggest thing I tell everybody is, as a first-time filmmaker I made it a point to talk to everyone, I made it a point to meet as many other filmmakers as I could. If somebody wants to talk about my movie, I want to talk to you. Let’s talk right now! The greatest thing that I tell filmmakers is it’s so overwhelming and it’s so exciting you need to take a step back, take a breath and just realize that there are thousands of other people that would want to be where you are right now. It’s so easy to take that for granted and it’s one of the greatest gifts that could ever be given to you, it’s one of the greatest experiences you’ll ever have. You are one of 120 films out of 5,000! You are in a very special class of filmmakers. You’ll never get it again, especially for your first Sundance, your first film, you’ve gotta take the time to enjoy it.
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