REVIEW: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 90 minutes | Release Date: April 22nd, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Morgan Spurlock
Writer(s): Jeremy Chilnick & Morgan Spurlock

“I can’t wait to get me some of that sweet Hollywood ad money”

At the end of the day, marketing works. It’s a concise line at the end of the film that perfectly encapsulates all we’ve seen. Whether artistic media utilizes the help subsidizing costs with product placement achieves or not, something will be advertised. You can alter logos or black out icons only so much before it simply draws attention to the camouflage and makes you realize the brand more. So why not, “take the money and run,” as Donald Trump says? Why not give companies the opportunity to advance their public exposure if it means you’ll be X-amount of dollars closer to the budget needed for completion?

Well, this is kind of, sort of what documentarian Morgan Spurlock sets out to accomplish. By creating a film whose revenue stream is completely acquired from advertisers, he will raise the curtain and let us see the process behind closed doors. POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is not an exposé on the process, though, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll be experiencing an all-inclusive look at why the industry operates as it does or why the public eats it up. All that is here, but it isn’t the driving force. Spurlock isn’t an Errol Morris putting cameras up and letting his subjects tell their tale. No, the man behind Super Size Me and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is a showman in the vein of Michael Moore. He engages his audience as the leading man, isn’t afraid to show sarcasm or frustration, and really wants to discover how blockbusters do it right alongside us.

Professionals who spend their lives seeking out the perfect marriages for products, audiences, and media throw out terms like ‘Brand Collateral’, ‘Brand Personality’, and ‘Faction’. Spurlock picks their brains for a rudimentary look into their process and goes through the psychological studies and Clockwork Orange-esque bombardment of imagery to discover his personal brand and neuro-marketing checkpoints. He visits people like Norm Marshall, an instrumental player in this type of marketing and someone who has strong-armed script changes to satisfy his clients in the past, to show just how much money is involved. No one is going to throw cash around without making sure they see a return on the investment. Contracts will be drawn and quotas set, making Spurlock discover he may have lost control of his project. By enlisting these advertisers he’s sold himself and his film to corporate America.

He journeys into the world of consumerism and begins to wonder if he sold out. He asks people on the street their opinions and retrieves soundbytes from both cheerleaders of the practice as well as dissenters. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold becomes its own giant commercial and acknowledges the fact. Spurlock isn’t hiding it and neither are his advertising partners. Transparency is key and thankfully none of the companies use their legal clout to strong-arm the filmmaker into compromising his vision. Had businesses like McDonalds or Pepsi or Nike came onboard, the look and feel of the work would have suffered greatly. Because the director was able to cold call and inspire firms like Mane & Tail—the genuine giddiness of Morgan wanting them to be a sponsor is fantastic—or Sheetz gas stations, he was able to bring on great minds willing to think outside the box and reach their consumers in a brand new, unique way.

And while we listen to common citizens or familiar politicos or experts on society’s penchant for consuming everything around them, it isn’t the most satisfying part. Maybe I’m alone in this respect because I prefer fiction to documentary and would rather be entertained than educated at the movies, but I love that Spurlock is able to make light of the whole situation. Yes, kids learn about the world through a corporate filter and see their imaginations stunted, no longer able to pick up a stick and pretend it’s a flying broomstick when they can get the ‘real’ Harry Potter sanctioned one instead. But we know all this; I know all this. I work in the advertising industry and see the sort of power struggles and jockeying for position happening so a two-inch by two-inch advertisement can be created. The system is more often a joke than not and thankfully Spurlock latches on to this discovery.

Issues of whether television writers or the brands buying commercials have more pull are addressed, a look at São Paolo and their ban on outside advertising is touched upon, and the creative ways institutions like the Broward County School District in Florida must think to combat budget cuts with school bus ad space is championed. No one tries to spin marketing as anything but the conditioning of the public; they don’t patronize the audience by pretending we’re stupid or unable to realize this truth. Instead, all involved welcome the opportunity to share insights and shine a more positive light on the game they play. Artists such as Big Boi, OK Go, and Matt and Kim talk about how selling their music brings them larger audiences and directors like Quentin Tarantino, Brett Ratner, and Peter Berg—who even places a Battleship box behind him to advertise his next film—talk about compromises and the realities of big studio budgets.

Everyone has his say, but at the end of the day it’s Spurlock having fun. And this is why I enjoyed the film. He refuses to cut out a scene where his largest sponsor, POM, vetoes all his risqué and hilarious commercial ideas in lieu of a direct assault on their competitors, he keeps in a shot of a Sheetz executive candidly admitting he isn’t sure if the director is genuine or trying to fleece his money, and he even shamelessly hocks Merrell footwear to Ralph Nadar. As the clients sign on, their products become prominent fixtures to the action. Thirty-second spots for POM, Hyatt, and JetBlue splice in to bring laughter and quality ad screen time and we even get to see how everyone decides to promote the film through stickers, guerrilla poster series, and Nascar-like Mini Cooper and leather jacket canvassing.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold therefore ends up not only serving its purpose to give us a look inside what Hollywood and corporate America have been doing to us for decades, but it also sells its own products. I learned about a couple companies I had never heard of before and now they are in my mind as alternatives or maybe replacements for goods I buy due to their willingness to take a chance on this little documentary that could. If not for my local supermarket lacking its presence on their shelves, I would be drinking a POM right now—I really do want to try one soon.

[1] Morgan Spurlock (Director). Photo by Daniel Marracino, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Left to Right: Morgan Spurlock (Director) and Ralph Nader (Politician, author, consumer advocate and four-time candidate for the U.S. presidency). Photo by Daniel Marracino, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Left to Right: Morgan Spurlock (Director) and Antonio “L.A.” Reid (Chairman & CEO, Island Def Jam Music Group). Photo by Daniel Marracino, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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