Documentary director Morgan Spurlock breaks off mid-sentence and searches the Internet for a movie marketing tie-in that recently caught his eye. "Hold on, I want to hear what it says." He lets the commercial for the 2012 Acura TL run, waiting for the closing line: "It's the newly refined Acura TL … the official vehicle of the movie Thor."
Spurlock breaks into laughter. "Amazing!"
That kind of cross-promotion would have been a godsend for his irreverent new documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. The film, which opens the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto on Thursday, follows Spurlock as he throws himself squarely into the world of corporate marketing and product placement - by trying to get companies to sponsor the film he is making.
Product placements, commercials within the documentary itself, even naming rights (POM Wonderful is a juice company, known mainly for its pomegranate drink) were all up for grabs. The intention was to show how pervasive marketing is in all aspects of media.
But as we see in the movie, which hits theatres next weekend, Spurlock didn't fully know what he was in for. "When you start getting into business with a corporation, especially when it comes to entertainment, there is a 100-per-cent chance that your idea is going to become somewhat corrupted," he says. "You give them an inch, they are going to already want six. It's just what they expect."
The demands were numerous, and threatened to undermine the film: "They wanted final cut of the movie, and they wanted final approval of all the product shots in the film, of which we said no. We pushed back on all those things, and it was a miracle that we got all the brands to agree to it."
If he hadn't succeeded, Spurlock says, "then we would have completely sold out the movie. It would have been a 90-minute commercial, and we wouldn't have gotten to ultimately tell the story that I wanted to tell."
The director, who is based in New York, spent 10 months cold-calling more than 600 companies, receiving rejection after rejection from marketing executives, until Ban, the underarm deodorant company, signed on. He also called every ad agency he could think of, and only one, Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal and Partners, would agree to help.
"And the only reason they did was because I've known [the heads of the agency]for about six years," Spurlock says. "But no other agency would touch this movie. They were scared to death of this film, worried that this is going to somehow ruin the cash-cow business that they had built up."
One product-placement company even threatened to use its clout to shut down the movie, according to the director.
During his many months pitching companies and agencies, Spurlock, who is best known for his 2004 film Super Size Me (in which he looked at the toll of fast food on Americans' health by eating only at McDonald's for 30 days), concedes that he often felt he needed a good wash.
"You start to feel slimy, as you start to go to some of these meetings. It's like, 'How am I going to come out of this and not feel completely dirty by the end of it?' " he says.
"We literally live in a world where you can't go anywhere now without someone trying to sell you something. The commercial-free zones are few and far between. Whether you're pumping gas or standing in front of a urinal, there are advertisements everywhere now."
So why did he decide to immerse himself so totally into this world that repels him? The inciting incident, as he calls it, was when he watched an episode of the TV series Heroes and one of the show's characters, Claire Bennet, played by actress Hayden Panettiere, was given a Nissan by her father in the show.
"And in the episode, she's, like, 'The Nissan Rogue! Oh my God, Dad, the Rogue! I love you!' And I'm, like, whoa, that was a little commercial right in the middle of the show I was just watching."