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SPA Presents: Morgan Spurlock, the Greatest Speaker Ever Sold

It took filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eight weeks to work off the McDonalds diet after his debut film Super Size Me, but from the first Big Mac nine years ago, he hasn’t stopped examining new worlds. From searching for Osama bin Laden to turning himself into a walking billboard in last year’s POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock has made a career of using humor to cause a reaction and create a dialogue.

In his presentation last night, as part of the Student Programming Association’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Spurlock had a packed Schwab Auditorium laughing as he discussed the strange world of product placement.

You know how shots of cars in your favorite television show always clearly display the carmaker’s logo? Notice how many movies show the protagonist typing away on his Macbook Pro? Well, Spurlock explained that it’s no coincidence. Advertising agencies pay studios to use their products, and as budgets for blockbusters go up, so do the amount of placements–just look at Michael Bay’s The Island.

From the beginning of his career as a filmmaker, he always wanted to do a documentary about advertising, but wasn’t sure what angle to take. While brainstorming with his producer, he came across the crazy idea of making a documentary about product placement while financing the film completely through product placement itself as a type of meta-commentary.

Then came the long months of cold-calling while trying to get sponsors. Spurlock said he called around 650 companies, including McDonalds, who obviously didn’t want to do anything with him, despite his best attempts. “Hey, a lot of time had gone by, maybe things would be different,” Spurlock joked.

Some companies turned him down, unsure of how the final product would look. Others signed on quickly taking a gamble–like Altoona-based Sheetz, which flew Spurlock to Pennsylvania in their company jet just to pitch the project. Others, like Abercrombie and Fitch, told him “we sell clothing, not pornography,” referring to his recognizable mustache.

Eventually, Spurlock gained more and more sponsors, as companies saw what others were doing and wanted to join in. Throughout the film, the line between advertising and reality dissolves, and by the end, it’s surprising how natural watching Spurlock sipping from a bottle of POM during an interview seems. Spurlock questions whether we should live in a world where everything has a sponsor, or whether some places, like schools, should be free of ads.

In a press conference before the event, Spurlock talked about his other projects, such as the television series 30 Days and a recent web series for Yahoo. Failure Club follows a group of people over the course of a year as they attempt to get over their fears of failure by working together on different projects. The show features Penn State graduate Jessica Hayden as one of the subjects.

According to Spurlock, the current state of documentary filmmaking is more democratic than ever, due to the psychological barriers that no longer exist. All filmmakers need today are a camera, a script, and an idea, plus the drive to keep going and make that dream a reality. Spurlock says that he has seen many of his film school friends go on to be great bankers, lawyers, and accountants because they weren’t happy with how long their careers were taking. In order to succeed in the film industry, he said, you need to be passionate, and wake up every day ready to make movies every second.

Spurlock said that journalists can’t just report who said what anymore, because what people really need to hear is the truth. News organizations like Fox or MSNBC are just looking for 60 second sound bites that they can quote from Twitter. He said that documentaries are becoming more popular as a way to go in depth on a subject, citing Eugene Jarecki’s recent Sundance U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner The House I Live In, which comprehensively examines the War on Drugs and its effects on America’s prison systems, as an example.

So what’s next for Morgan Spurlock? Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope, which he directed, examines the culture and stories behind one of the biggest comics, movies, and television conventions, San Diego Comic-Con. The film, which is produced by writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog, The Avengers), Stan Lee (creator of Marvel superheroes such as Spiderman and the X-Men, among many others), and film critic Harry Knowles of Aint It Cool News, will be released on April 6th in limited release, as well as with iTunes and other digital outlets.

As a film and comics nerd myself, I’m very excited to see what Spurlock has up his sleeves. And, if last night was any indication, so do hundreds of other Penn Staters.

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About the Author

Alex Federman

Alex is a Senior at Penn State who enjoys watching movies and television shows (probably a bit too much). He's a Film/Video major, with a Spanish minor.

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