Don’t underestimate the brands
By Kate Bulkley
For Broadcast June 16, 2011
Morgan Spurlock’s new doc offers a cautionary tale, says Kate Bulkley.
At Sheffield Doc/Fest last weekend I loved hearing AA Gill stump Nick Fraser by asking him about the purpose of a TV critic. “It should be to convert individual tastes into some sort of general notion of what should and should not be done on television,” said Fraser, the erudite editor of the BBC’s Storyville. “That’s totally wrong,” retorted Gill. “The job of a TV critic is to sell newspapers. My job isn’t to improve television.”
Quite right. Gill is not in the business of fixing TV, but he has opinions - just like the kind of ‘docudramas’ made by Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame. They are neither one thing, nor the other - “mules”, according to Gill.
With that ringing in my ears, off I went to see Spurlock’s latest film, which lifts the veil on the world of advertising and marketing. Spurlock believes humour gets you further than preaching, and Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold has a cheeky premise: worried about the growing influence of advertising on our lives, Spurlock decides to get brands to pay for his film on the topic.
The process he goes through to negotiate with brands such as Pom Wonderful (the pomegranate juice company that ponied up $1m to be the title sponsor) is the meat of the film. So is it a documentary, a drama, or simply one long advertisement?
It certainly turns the normal operating rules of documentary and journalism on its head, just as the UK starts to embrace product placement.
Basically, the Spurlock mantra is that everything is for sale and he has even designed a suit that is plastered, racing-car-driver style, with the logos of the film’s brands. He sported it at one Doc/Fest session but not another, and when asked why, he said he was required by contract to wear it on a “best effort” basis.
Clearly Spurlock hired some good lawyers and although the brands are amazingly pushy - the contracts resembled “phone books and each took three to four months to negotiate” - he still managed to reserve final cut on the film. Yet, at the premiere at Sundance earlier this year, the brands got a standing ovation.
So did Spurlock sell out? Well, without the brands, it’s unlikely he’d have raised $1.8m for a doc, let alone one critical of advertising (Supersize Me cost $65,000).
But Spurlock admitted in the Sheffield Q&A that the brands did outfox him. “It took so long to get the contracts negotiated that I said: ‘Let’s get the money in the bank so we can focus on the film’, and so we didn’t negotiate for success.” Instead of ensuring extra money for extra exposure, the brands are now enjoying a cheap ride on the back of the Spurlock-created media buzz that exceeded the original media impression targets (600 million) just one month after the film’s premiere (900 million). According to Spurlock, the total is now 5 billion worldwide.
Spurlock’s adventure into brand-land tells some cautionary tales for producers: make sure you have good lawyers and don’t undersell. Brands need talented content-makers more than you need them.
Oh, and did I mention that my next column is open to big-money sponsorship to cover essential items such as a nice new iPad2? The Greatest Broadcast Column Ever Sold. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?