Arriving at the Showroom Cinema to register for this year's Doc/Fest, I had to wait for a long line of volunteers carrying boxes of Pom Wonderful down the stairs. When I got to the registration counter I was urged to help myself to some Pom Wonderful “100% Pomegranate Juice”. Then I went to the press desk. “Have you got your bottle of Pom Wonderful? Take another.” Then to the box office to pick up tomorrow's tickets, “Have you got your bottle of....?” “Yes thanks, I have.” The reason for this will become clear.
This year Sheffield's Doc/Fest has moved from November to June. But someone forgot to tell the weather, so we encounter some heavy showers as we move between venues. As usual, the Showroom is the centre of the action, but this year the festival has spread out to several new locations, to include for the first time an outdoor screening on Devonshire Green.
Fortunately the press screening for the opening film and the press conference which follows are both in the same building. All clutching our bottles of Pom, we settle down to watch Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, starring Morgan Spurlock, who later arrives to answer our questions about the film.
Spurlock is exactly as he appears in his film: shiny, bouncy and very entertaining. He doesn't seem to have suffered too much from drinking all that pomegranate juice, though when someone asks whether drinking so much of it was bad for his health he tells us that the company is currently being sued for making false health claims. Uh, oh... Well, it didn't taste too bad.
Asked how he began finding his sponsors, he says he naturally went for the big brand names first, so Coca Cola, MacDonalds etc. From 600 calls he got 15 positive replies. Having decided to go for collector cups, he worked his way through the convenience stores, again starting with the biggest like 7eleven, until he came to Sheetz. Now he's looking for a U.K. sponsor.
Why did so many companies say no? Some for very personal reasons. When pressed, Abercrombie and Fitch gave him a long list of reasons why they wouldn't want their brand to be associated with him: he's pale, spotty, out of shape, has a beard etc. etc. Spurlock relates this in a very amusing way. He also does a wonderful impression of a Mane and Tail executive who decided he did like him and invited him to the Kentucky Derby, an invitation I suspect he declined. Most of the companies turned him down because asking for access to their boardrooms and their lawyers was just too much transparency and they were scared at the prospect.
Have all the sponsors seen the film now?
Well they all had the opportunity. There were three things which were agreed in all the contracts: the right to a creative consultation, the right to see the film before its theatrical release, and that the product would not be disparaged within the film.
But Spurlock didn't want to give them a private screening in a room full of lawyers, so he invited them to come and see it at Sundance with the public. 11 out of the 15 came and after the film were given a standing ovation. One woman told one of the sponsors “I'm gonna buy more of your products because you sponsored this movie. But I'm conflicted about it.”
The sponsors were well pleased. As Spurlock pointed out, all those who saw the movie will go away with those brands in their minds. He assured us we wouldn't forget Mane and Tail. I haven't.
On a more serious note, he talked about the ubiquity of advertising, saying “There has to be a definition of sacred space,” and referring particularly to what is happening in schools where, as we saw in the film, budget cuts are opening the way for brand sponsors to step in. “There needs to be a revaluation of education in America.”
There was a message too for young film-makers who seek sponsorship. Acknowledging that everyone has to seek funding from somewhere, he warned “When a brand comes in there's a 100% chance that the movie will be corrupted. It's a slippery slope.”
Then ending on a lighter note, “This movie will ruin T.V. and movies for you forever. When you see someone take a drink, you'll think “How much did they pay for that?”