The suit is by Ted Baker of London and Morgan Spurlock owns three copies: charcoal gray, nicely fitted, festooned with lavishly embroidered logos of his various sponsors.
Hyatt. Jet Blue. Pom Wonderful. Mini. Old Navy. Sheetz. Imagine Jeff Gordon gone corporate and you’re almost there.
“This is actually Version 4.0,” Spurlock says, sitting in a midtown Manhattan conference room. “We’ve got all 22 sponsors on there. I’ve got three of this version.”
This is the official uniform – “the greatest suit ever made” – for Spurlock’s new documentary, whose official title is “Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” The Oscar-nominated Spurlock felt compelled to look at the world of product placement and branding, inspired while watching part of the second season of the short-lived hit series, “Heroes.”
“I was a huge fan of ‘Heroes’ – Season One is one of the greatest ever,” Spurlock. 40, says. “But Season Two went downhill – and then one night, Hayden Panettiere’s father gives her a car and she says, ‘Oh Dad – not the Nissan Rogue!’ And I thought, I just saw a commercial in the middle of a show. It was an ‘A-ha!’ moment.”
He and producing partner Jeremy Chilnick brainstormed the idea and decided to make a movie about the manipulative world of product placement – and finance it by selling product placements in their own movie, including the naming rights. Hence, the presence of juice company Pom Wonderful’s name in the title.
(Spurlock and his production company just bought the naming rights to the city of Altoona, Pa. For the next 60 days, it will be known as Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pa.)
“Product placement isn’t anything new,” Spurlock says. “Jules Verne sold naming rights in his novel ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and Thomas Edison ran ads for his own companies in the background of the first motion pictures. When TV was created, it was supposed to be a box to sell stuff to people.
“I remember when I was 12 and I saw ‘E.T.’ I loved M&Ms – but then I saw – what’s that? Reese’s Cups? In an M&M-sized candy? On the way home from the movie, I made my mom stop so I could buy some. So the same day I saw them they were in my home.”
As he did research for his film, Spurlock set out to answer the question: Is there any place left where you don’t see advertising brands or logos?
“Is anything still sacred?” he says. “Is there any place where advertising and marketing shouldn’t be? And we found that, no, apparently, there’s no place that’s free of it – everything is for sale.”
Well, not everything: For a few minutes in his film, Spurlock takes his camera to Sao Paolo, Brazil – a city that has legislated virtually all publicly displayed advertising out of existence.
“I’d been there in 2004 and it just had the feel of a whole different place,” Spurlock says. “You drive in from the airport and it’s billboard, billboard, billboard. And then you hit city limits – and it stops. Completely. No posters, no signs – nothing. It’s really remarkable to see.
“The city just said, you know, we’ve got all these problems – let’s start by getting rid of all of the distractions so we can see clearly what we need to do. Well, all of the advertising companies fought it – but now everyone loves it. When we were filming there, I didn’t talk to one person who missed that kind of advertising. Now you can see the architecture.”
The film is just the latest manifestation of a filmmaking process that often begins with Spurlock reading his newspaper and saying, “That would make a great movie.” Since his debut success with 2004’s “Super-Size Me” and subsequent ability to create a “Morgan Spurlock” brand identity – witty, iconoclastic, a needler who pokes pointed fun – it gets easier for Spurlock to at least get his ideas listened to.
“I still get more ‘no’s than ‘yes’s – but the people who say yes are more eager,” Spurlock says. “And my phone calls are answered now. That’s a big one.
“This is a hard business. I was at the Aspen Festival and some young people asked me, ‘What advice can you give about doing what you do?’ And I said, ‘Quit – get out. Stop now because it’s a hard business.’ On the other hand, Woody Allen says that half of life is just showing up. I went to film school with people who had more talent, people who were so gifted at the craft of filmmaking, who are now very successful stockbrokers.”
“Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” has cross-pollinated the film with its commercial sponsors, with an eye toward creating the kind of box-office waves that buoy other features with commercial tie-ins. In other words, he wants the first commercially underwritten documentary blockbuster – a doc-buster.
“How will we know if we make it?” Spurlock asks. “If, after Week 3 in theaters, we greenlight the sequel.”