Documentary Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock at CinemaCon – Part 2
As I mentioned before, one of the highlights for me at this year’s CinemaCon was having the opportunity to interview Morgan Spurlock, who was awarded the Documentary Filmmaker of the Year Award during the festivities just prior to a screening of the soon to be released “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which will be hitting theatres on April 22nd through Sony Picture Classics. So, without further ado, here is Part 2 with Morgan.
Although it may be hard to believe considering his success, Spurlock’s primary interest a few years ago was in making features not documentaries, but this passion has changed somewhat. “I still want to make features. I’ve just got to figure out when. I want to make docs forever. I do want to make my ‘Canadian Bacon’ at some point,” he shared referring to Michael Moore’s scripted film. However, that doesn’t diminish how important making documentaries have become to him. “I personally have gotten so much out of making docs and our TV series not only as a filmmaker and as an artist, but literally as a person…everything we’ve done I’ve personally felt enhanced by,” he said. “I would never want to give that up cause there’s something there that I find personally rewarding out of docs.” In a perfect world Morgan would chose to emulate Martin Scorsese’s example doing a scripted movie and then every year or two addingg a documentary to the mix.
Speaking about his earlier film “Super Size Me,” which made Morgan a household word, he admitted that it took him 14 months to lose the 25 pounds he gained for the film. The final five pounds were the most difficult taking nine months even though his blood pressure, liver function and cholesterol all returned to normal after eight weeks. The first 10 pounds came off quickly a fact Spurlock attributed to it being water weight since the food he had been consuming was so high in sodium. However, he became concerned about the yoyo effect he experienced with the final five pounds and called his mother for her opinion. She responded by telling him, “Congratulations, now you know how every woman in the world feels.”
Morgan’s new film “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is about marketing, so it was only natural that the conversation turned to how important that aspect is in getting a film seen. “That’s a really key point. I think filmmakers who make a move have a real field of dreams mentality. Suddenly it’s finished and people are just going to show up and see it. You’ve made a movie and it’s done and now you’ve got to get people out there to see it and that’s a hustle. It’s a hustle to get it out there. You’ve got to get people to write about it, to talk about it. For me, I tell filmmakers anybody who will talk about your film you need to talk to wherever they are. They write a blog, do a radio show, whatever. When you put your film out and you’re doing the festival circuit you should have everybody possible champion your movie and then literally what you start to do at that point, you start to build a war chest of great reviews, of great comments ,of all the stuff and then you start to chase distributors,” he asserted. Spurlock believes in getting people engaged and constantly talking up the film’s successes, such as telling how many full houses it’s been playing to and where, which he concedes takes a great deal of time and work.
Addressing the issue of self-distribution be said, “I think self-distribution isn’t an economic model that’s self sustaining right now.” However that doesn’t mean he thinks the traditional model works for everyone. Citing the story of a friend, he explained how this person spent 70k making a film and then couldn’t find a distributor. “Nobody will touch it,” he said. An offer for three thousand did come in from PBS, prompting Morgan to comment, “Now you’ve worked your ass off to get a film done and you get an offer for three thousand dollars. For me, you shouldn’t be in the film business to make a ton of money. You make movies to be seen by people wherever you can get them seen.” Continuing on with this train of thought he added, “The hard thing is you want to make sure you can make a living. You want to make films, so you can make more films. That’s all. You want to make one to make the next one.” At some point he does believe that a sustainable model for self-distribution will be developed pointing to the online systems being created. “Anybody’s going to be able to put a film up and drive people there and get revenue,” he said although he doesn’t believe the terms are favorable yet for filmmakers. He also mentioned You Tube as an example saying that 99.9% of what is shown on there is terrible and nobody’s ever going to watch it, yet there are also “great gems and diamonds” featured as well. “The cream always rises to the top. That’s the great part,” he added.
The video revolution that allowed people to be able to afford to make film has leveled the playing field for everybody. He attributes this change with enabling him to make “Super Size Me.” “Suddenly anybody with a camera and a computer and a great idea could make a movie,” he asserted. All that was required was a little money and the investment of sweat equity. “What that did, it gave all of these creative people who never had the ability to tell a story before tell these great stories,” he continued. On the other hand, it also gave people with no talent or expertise the same opportunity to produce films. “Now you have these people who are both fighting for the same space, the same bandwidth,” he continued. Then there’s the issue of the number of finite screens in America, which have continued to decrease. “You as an independent filmmaker are now fighting with other independent filmmakers and established filmmakers to get the same screens,” he said explaining that the theatres that used to support real arthouse movies in the 90’s have dwindled. “In big, big cities you might have one or two arthouses. The big multiplexes have squashed them and most of those big multiplexes aren’t going to play documentaries. I have a chance of getting into those because of the success I’ve had in the past, but if you’re a first time filmmaker and nobody knows who you are good luck. It’s not going to happen.” He added that a megaplex owner would rather put in a 2nd Harry Potter screen on a Friday night, knowing that his theatre will be packed.
Morgan stressed the importance of time in getting films out. “It’s always been critical. It’s more critical now simply because of the cacophony of conflict that’s around you all the time. You’re fighting against everything else, not just other movies, computer games. You’re fighting against video games. There’s so many things competing for attention.” He mentions a line from “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” in which one of the people in it talks about the decay rate of ideas. “You literally have two weeks. If you make noise during that two weeks you can sustain. The decay rate of ideas in our culture today is fast.” Spurlock attributes this to the 24 hour new cycle and the way we as a society consume media. It creates the need for real word of mouth among people in order to get your message out there. He believes this is particularly the case in the summer, when filmmakers are competing against the biggest movies with budgets and marketing machines that documentaries really can’t compete with. However, that said he feels he has produced an exception with “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. “In this case we came up with a lot of unique ways of getting all these other partners, which I think will help, but again, if you’re a smaller film it’s difficult,” he explained.
As for finding sponsors, Morgan advised, “Have tough skin. You’re going to get infinitely more no’s than you will yeses.” He believes it’s the same thing with finding investors. “There’s always somebody who will invest in your ideas. You just have to find them.” He cautions that people will still say no even when you can point to past successes using his latest project about San Diego’s Comic-Con titled “Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope”, which is in post-production right now, as an example. He shared, “We had 10 investors say no to this movie and this is a film with Joss Whedon, with Stan Lee, me directing the film, this huge pop culture event and still people didn’t want to put money on it. We had to find the right person. It’s the same thing with anything.” He recommended finding the people who have an interest in your topic commenting, “Whether it’s about bone marrow transplants or homelessness, there’s somebody who cares about that. Nobody wants to be first, nobody wants to be last.” He added that once you have a person say yes it gives you credibility. “Once you have one investor it’s a lot easier to get three. There is strength in numbers. Don’t give up. Pound the pavement. Knock on all the doors you can.”
Before doing “Super Size Me” Morgan previously did online programming with the idea of using it as a springboard to film. His show “I Bet You Will” was the first show to go from the web to TV, being sold to CBS before moving to MTV. He recalled raising two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to bring the show to television and related how he planned to turn the web into a place where he could make pilots and test market shows. He is pleased that the tainted, low rent image of these types of ventures has changed. “Now it’s happening. Now it’s real. You have real names making stuff for the web now,” he said.
Morgan’s work has developed from this to premiering his films at Sundance, yet the uncertainty is always there. “You never know with a movie. You spend months in an edit and you’re alone and you think it’s funny and you think things work. Yeah, we liked it. The few people we showed it to liked it,” he said. Still he wasn’t sure. “I can’t sit down when a film premieres. I stayed in the back of the room. I was pacing in the back,” he remembered then continued, “You know where beats are and what you think is funny. When those start to hit you think, this is going to be okay.”
Being a filmmaker and a father are what gives meaning to Morgan’s life and he plans to spend his time continuing to do both. In five years, “I hope that I still get to do what I do. I’ve been really fortunate,” he acknowledged. His son Laken will be nine then. Morgan said, “He knows what I do cause he’s come to the edit. I’ve shown him clips when the trailer came out. He knows that Daddy makes movies and Daddy’s on TV, but he doesn’t know what that means. I want to get him a little flip cam. They have little kid cameras. I want to get him his own still camera to shoot with.” He also wants to give Laken a tiny director’s slate. Maybe that’s a sign of things to come and one day we will see Morgan and Laken Spurlock, father and son filmmakers sharing their visions.