Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

"False Advertising"
"Oh, Trailers are Commercials, too, Ya Know...and Movies are Products"

Is it a surprise to anyone that product placement is so prevalent in films?  With budgets bursting (the next "Batman" movie will cost 250 million dollars), movies turned to corporations to have them co-finance their films by making sure their products were featured prominently with labels out.  It's a form of advertising that is the basics of making your product known—get it in front of eyeballs.  Each image of your product burned into a cornea is called an "impression"—an impression that builds familiarity and is a push to induce the buying of it.  And if those eyeballs are lid-locked while watching a movie at your local cineplex (heck, you even paid to see it!), so much the better—there's no chance you'll be going to the 'fridge to miss the "message."  E.T. famously ate Reese's Pieces because M&M's passed on a movie deal.  The little sugar-nodules sales soared.  Every James Bond film bristles with banners—billboards are crashed into, every electronic monitor had to include the "Sony" name, and car companies supply the cars and fill them with cash—you didn't think all those disposable Aston Martins came without gratuity, did you?*

Fact is, your basic present day blockbuster couldn't be made without a recognizable label turned towards the camera.  And if there was a way for historical epics to put "Budweiser" on the Mead-sacks and "Wilson" on the cross-bows they'd do that, too.**

Even independent films do Everything Must Go and its ubiquitous cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon attests.  You can argue that it is for verisimilitude, but I doubt the studios would care how much their films resembled The Real Consumer World if there wasn't some cash passed under the table.

Morgan Spurlock has taken the approach to the logical extreme: his Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a documentary about product placement in films that explores the process while simultaneously exploiting it to completely fund itself.  It's a film of the corporate interests, by the corporate interests and (however cynically he might have gone into the thing) for the corporate interests.  The entire movie about product placement in the movies is about acquiring the product placements to fund the movie.

It is a little bit brilliant.  Essentially, he walks into boardrooms with a video camera recording the whole process just to say "this is what you're buying...right now.  How much are you going to give me?"  Name above the title goes for a cool million.  Sporadic Spurlock ads (there are three) go for 50 grand.  In addition, he is able to secure helpful "aids to production"—hotel rooms, gas, even a fleet of seven cars—if he can ink a deal to make sure that they are shown in the film...and they are.  Interviews are conducted in gas station cafes, drinking the advertisers products—even the shoes-leather that Spurlock burns to hit the pavement to meetings is paid for.  Not only that, he makes deals for promotional cups that promote his movie and his clients.

There are so many hands washing each other that you almost expect a cameo by Howard Hughes.  But who he gets to talk about movie-marketing is good enough.  Industry insiders talk about the business of branding (Spurlock turns out to be "Mindful"/"Playful"), increasing opportunities, testing the efficacy of the images (through MRI brain-scans—even the trailer is tested on Spurlock to see how his brain reacts).  Experts on societal influence (Noam Chomsky) and consumer protection (Ralph his relaxed puckiest), advertising (Bob Garfield from NPR's "On the Media" and Advertising Age's Robert Weisberg), discuss the dangers of dealing with the devil and mixed messages.  A fascinating clutch of interviews with film-makers seems to gloss over the impact and influence that corporatization has on the movie decision-making: John Wells (seen editing Company Men), J.J. Abrams, Brett Ratner, Peter Berg and Quentin Tarantino weigh in on how it affects their process—Rattner is alarmingly blase ("Artistic integrity?  Whatever..."***) while Berg is pragmatic ("GE is my boss and they don't give a fuck about Art") and Tarantino chortles over how, for years, he's pushed to shoot his restaurant scenes at a Denny's (he loves Denny's), but is constantly rebuffed (still, he's done a lot for the European McDonald's market).  Even an amused Donald Trump shows up—probably a little miffed that he didn't come up with Spurlock's scam.

Pretty soon, it becomes apparent that the whole thing is a perpetual motion money-pushing machine and that money buys a lot of movie-magic.  What is most disturbing is the offers Spurlock gets, unbidden, once he proves he's willing to play ball in an advertiser's field.  "How do you say 'No' to that?" he painfully asks at one offer.

As I said, it's all a little bit brilliant.  He delivers his message while they deliver the goods.  If there is a down-side to Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, it is that there is so much to say, so many Madison Avenues to explore that the film rather breezily loses its focus.  But, one should expect that when traversing a slippery slope, no matter what kind of shoes you're wearing.

I was the only one in the theater watching this (a shame, really), but as I was exiting the theater, I was flagged by the ticket-taker—a woman I've had a jocular joshing relationship with at my local art-house.  She handed me a complimentary chilled bottle of Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice for watching the movie.  I laughed all the way to the car.

Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a Matinee (with gratuity).

* Yes, Bond DID drive an Aston in the novel "Goldfinger," and the movie's gadget-weighted DB5 became "the most famous car in the world," but Ford also provided their prototype Mustang for the '64 film, which made that new model a hot seller.  Sony and MGM plan to get $45 million for product placement in the next Bond—an all-time record.

** The biggest scam for blatant advertising is MTV.  When it started, it was the first 24 hour TV station broadcasting only commercials—those "promotional" videos made to promote record sales.  Now, the videos are more popular than the recordings themselves.  Nothing succeeds like excess.

*** How dare he?  Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go see Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides—the fourth movie inspired by a Disneyland ride.

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