Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: Slick pitch

The Greatest Movie Ever sold (2011) • View trailer for The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Noam Chomsky describes it best, during a short interview within this documentary: We approach the inevitability of testing the water by tentatively sticking in a toe ... then, before we realize what has happened, we’re suddenly swimming.
Morgan Spurlock and his young son have fun concocting their own commercial
for JetBlue, a whimsical endorsement that's far more creative and entertaining
than most of the ads that clutter an average hour of television. Clearly, Spurlock
could have a second career, should he so choose...

Chomsky is discussing whether filmmaker Morgan Spurlock will be able to retain his artistic integrity while explaining the pernicious onslaught of branding, advertising and product placement in a movie financed solely by branding, advertising and product placement ... but the observation holds equally true in all sorts of other contexts.

Looking back on the 1950s and ’60s, the presence of the advertising industry seems laughably quaint ... and wholly manageable, from the standpoint of a citizen on the sidelines. Advertisers spread their messages through newspaper and magazine display ads, roadside billboards, radio spots and television commercials and sponsorships. Characters in movies and TV shows never consumed products that we’d recognize; the labels on cans, bottles and boxes were always vague, indistinct and nonspecific.

How times have changed.

Watching television in this ad-laden 21st century has become an exercise in frustration, with station logos, informational crawls and pop-up announcements obscuring so much of the screen image that it becomes difficult to follow the plot ... not that this matters much, since precious little story can be told in the roughly 40 minutes that aren’t commercials in an average prime-time hour. Quite a few cable and satellite channels are nothing but commercials, and radio stations that play more than one song between eardrum-shattering ad spots are becoming an endangered species.

But that’s just the obvious stuff. Spurlock, in his engaging new film, is much more concerned with the advertising industry’s subtler behavior: product placement, whether blatant or clandestine. The days of “Brand X” fuzziness are long gone; now on-screen characters drink Cokes and chow down on Subway sandwiches. They proudly wear name-brand clothes, check the time on name-brand watches, and drive name-brand vehicles.

As Spurlock demonstrates, in a few eyebrow-raising clips, sometimes a show’s very dialogue will be crafted to include brand-name product placement.

The assault has become ubiquitous and omnipresent; there’s literally no getting away from it. Public schools across the entire country sold their souls years ago for “free” technology: TV screens in every classroom ... in exchange for children obediently remaining in their seats each morning, during the product-laden “infotainment” daily show on Channel One. That’s our kids, being indoctrinated by the advertising industry, in the very place — the halls of learning — that should be free of such malicious interference.

How many restaurants can you cite, even here in Davis, that don't have TV screens? A local pizza joint recently went from one to four. Gas stations blare ads while we fill up. Entire buildings have become display ads, much as Ridley Scott envisioned them years ago, in Blade Runner.

Speaking of big-screen science-fiction, consider 2002’s Minority Report, and how mall display windows modified their advertising message when Tom Cruise’s character walked past. We chuckled at the time, thinking the concept rather cool.

Not even a decade later, that technology has become a crucial weapon in the advertising industry’s 24/7 assault on our sensibilities. Just a few months ago, Mark Zuckerberg’s master plan finally was revealed: All that profile data so willingly volunteered by Facebook’s 600 million users — who have obligingly supplied interests, likes and like-minded “friends” — now is accessible by advertisers who employ this information to fine-tune their message according to consumer behavior.

There’s simply no getting away from it.

“Only when we sleep,” suggests another of Spurlock’s interview subjects.

And if advertisers could figure out a way to invade our dreams, I’m sure they’d jump on it.

Spurlock’s major complaint, as a social observer, is that the advertising industry’s behavior is — for the most part — deliberately clandestine. Sure, on one level we recognize the ubiquity of ads, but few perceive the increasingly sneaky behavior behind the science of advertising ... much the way the fast-food industry worked hard to conceal the artery-clogging nutritional dangers of its primary menu items, which Spurlock exposed so well in his career-making 2004 debut, Super Size Me.

Employing the same mildly snarky tone that made him such a camera darling in that earlier film, Spurlock crafted a new mission: to discuss and lampoon the advertising industry in a film that he’d finance wholly through product placement and commercial sponsorship.

His premise and approach are unapologetically blatant: His droll 90-minute satire begins as he explains the concept first to us, then to an ever-expanding series of potential corporate sponsors. Initially, we can’t imagine that any of these companies would jump at this chance to become part of a documentary that exposes and chides — no matter how gently and humorously — their very industry.

But that assumption proves a mistake, on two counts: Spurlock’s own inherent and considerable charm and salesmanship — he’d make a great product pitchman, and proves it several times throughout this film — and the still-true adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. (“Just make sure you spell the name correctly.”)

Thus, after an early round of unsuccessful cold calls organized literally by noting the owners of products available on supermarket and drug store shelves, we watch as Spurlock refines his approach, thanks to visits with marketing gurus such as Britt Johnson, CEO of Mediaplacement; and Aubrey Balkind and Peter Bemis, who run one of the entertainment industry’s most sought-after identity, branding and advertising firms.

Indeed, the opposing views of this film’s two sets of talking heads — the advertising industry gurus on one side, and the appalled social observers on the other — provide an engaging running debate on both Spurlock’s progress, and our national lock-step evolution into corporate cannon fodder. Spurlock even gets plenty of face time with the godfather of consumer advocates: Ralph Nader himself, still every bit as canny, observant and shrewdly perceptive as back in his headline-making heyday.

Eventually, Spurlock’s efforts bear serious fruit, and indeed he funds his entire $1.5 million movie by cutting deals with — to name but a few — Hyatt, Ban (antiperspirants and deodorants), JetBlue, Amy’s, Old Navy, Amy’s Kitchen (frozen foods), Carrera (sports glasses, ski goggles and helmets) and Sheetz (a Pennsylvania-based convenience store chain).

Pom Wonderful, proud maker of its 100 percent pomegranate juice and a variety of pomegranate-based products, even antes up the big bucks for naming rights ... which is why this film is properly titled Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

And, thereafter, Spurlock dutifully drinks nothing but Pom, wears Carrera sunglasses, flies JetBlue and ... well, you get the idea.

But collecting these sponsorships is not without peril. As Max Bialystock discovered, after financing his pending play by selling interest in 25,000 percent of it, the money ain’t free. Every one of Spurlock’s endorsements comes with a fat legal contract, each one threatening control of his own artistic vision ... hence his worried conference with Chomsky, cited above.

Suddenly, Spurlock’s larkish project obtains a level of suspense: Will he somehow retain his purity of vision, in the face of so much potential interference?

Even so, the process retains its whimsical side: By definition, every corporation and “partner” taken under Spurlock’s wing becomes “the greatest” at what it does. Thus, the four members of the indie band OK Go, signed to compose the film’s anthem, become the creators of The World’s Greatest Movie Theme Song ... which, of course, is called “The Greatest Song I Ever Heard.”

And when Spurlock appears on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night chat show, to shill for the impending release of his film, portions of that very interview are incorporated into the finished film. It’s part of the process, after all: reality filmmaking writ large, incestuous from start to finish. And that’s the point.

Ultimately, Spurlock reveals no great truths; we already know we’ve turned into advertising-induced cattle. But the nuances revealed in his film are intriguing, the tone is engaging, and Spurlock’s handling of the situation can’t help drawing a smile. His blatant, mid-film commercials are wonderful, and he even manages to sneak in his much-loved pitch for The Original Mane ’n Tail, a product you gotta see to believe.

If this new film appears to lack the immediacy and social impact of Super Size Me, which helped illuminate the way fast-food chains contribute to the fattening of America, maybe it’s too soon to tell. Perhaps, a few more decades down the road, once we’ve better analyzed a few generations of civilians exposed to advertising blight from cradle to grave, we’ll be in a better position to appreciate the message — so cleverly delivered via a humorous spoonful of sugar — that Spurlock weaves into this product-placement-laden documentary.

More power to him.

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