Morgan Spurlock’s POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold officially opened the 18th Sheffield Documentary Film Festival on Wednesday evening, also providing the doc with its European premiering slot. Product placement and chasing sponsorship lolly was the film’s raison d’être, and as I write this I’m drinking a bottle of POM Wonderful itself, dished out free in the delegate centre. Yes, that’s right; the title of the movie is the name of a pomegranate drink.
"Spurlock arrived for the Q and A in a blazer adorned with sponsor logos, like the Lewis Hamilton of doc"
Spurlock does film about excess: too much liver fat in Super Size Me and now too much product placement in POM Wonderful. POM, the company, got the title slot as they gave him the most money to make the doc - $1 million: $400K upfront, £100K for the ad (there were ads through the film for various products including horse mane shampoo) and the last $500K for delivering on rigorous media impression and exposure targets. All the other sponsors, from petrol stations to deodorant brands, made up the remaining half a million. And it was not easy money: Spurlock himself cold-called 600 firms and it took 9 months to get the first yes. With a 1.5% rate of return on the successes versus the no’s, it’s a time investment strategy that’s pretty low yield.
But taking the desire for objects - and the desire to sell them - barefacedly into the ‘transparent’ world of the doc, Morgan seeks to turn the taint of lucre association on its head by dispensing with the secrecy. But the hallowed opinions on screen of no less than Noam Chomsky and various professors of media point out that once you dip your toe into the commodification pool, you’re sucked in to swimming with the sharks and may be ideologically eaten by the monster you seek to parody. Spurlock arrived for the Q and A in a blazer adorned with sponsor logos, like the Lewis Hamilton of doc. A concern is; does high irony shake off the brand association? And Spurlock’s ‘brand’ – what made him an investment option in the first place is - according to an agency who do this stuff - ‘mindful and playful’. With everything up for sale now, even our personalities have a price. Can the ‘objectivity’ of the doc filmmaker as a ‘trust’ aspect of brand be sustained after the immersion in the world of merchandise?
However, the film itself is zippy, pacy and funny. The first third is highly entertaining with knock-backs flying and Spurlock’s pitching sessions to the marketing men a reminder that he’s always a high energy, engaging guy. And, nicely, no-one gets to look bad – it’s the antithesis of a Baron Cohen approach. Spurlock isn’t taking the Michael, and when he’s asked by a would-be sponsor if he’s ‘just blowing sunshine up their ass’ for the money, we know he is – and so do they. With such candour and personality amongst the sponsors, they become doc characters in their own right - they even got a standing ovation at the screening in Sundance."With everything up for sale now, even our personalities have a price. Can the ‘objectivity’ of the doc filmmaker as a ‘trust’ aspect of brand be sustained after the immersion in the world of merchandise?"Whether the film does ‘make us more aware’ of placement pervasiveness – Spurlock’s claim in the Q and A - is questionable. Doc audiences are arguably already ‘aware’. It was after all teenagers in US schools exposed in class to ads that provoked the idea for the movie in the first place. His intention is that POM Wonderful follows Super Size Me as an educational resource. We wish him luck in tackling the multi-billion dollar product placement industry and de-programming the craving for brand that so much of modern life is defined by.
But Spurlock was bold in asserting that doc makers can’t be too purist about where money comes from – US foundations doling out money for docs are often funded through business after all. And if even the public-good realm of non-fiction film may seem like a longer shot in terms of return for investors, Spurlock now realises he undersold himself: he not only met all the targets for the money given, he surpassed them. As he said, he didn’t plan for success.
Having been too late for a packed out Just Do It, we went to see Sky’s production of Flying Monsters 3D, first shown on their 3D channel Christmas Day 2010, so this is no journalistic coup. However, the demographically-minded title belies a fascinating, thoughtful and gob-smacking looking film. And here was another documentary with an educational remit – it will show in museums for 2 or 3 years, and has had outings in IMAX and other theatres to date. This was the flip of the shoestring budget doc, so I asked in the Q and A how much it cost. ‘Lots’ was the abrupt and very non-commital reply from the commissioner. An icy air descended in the auditorium. The line producer swiftly attempted to lift the mood with a jolly ‘and more!’ I forgot we were dealing with Sky. We’d been exposed to a culture of transparency and plain-talking with POM Wonderful, so talking about money seemed culturally acceptable – it is why the Festival exists. But Sky’s remit is to corner and conquer markets – even those with a public service character. I guess the rather fabulous amounts they will pay to dazzle in the 3D world is not an investment they’re comfortable about sharing yet.
Documentary as a Festival phenomenon is, at Sheffield, a success, big or low budget. This year it’s more delegates than before – over 2000 - and more decision makers – over 200. How this pans out with all that austerity around is yet to be seen. But no-one ever went into documentary with thoughts of mega-money on their mind. Apart, possibly, from Sky.