Thursday, 29 September 2011 INDEX

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
The first trade journal I ever worked on was called Building Trades Journal. It was primarily sold through newsagents and had a fairly large circulation (about 25,000). At the time we were extremely reluctant even to print press releases and copy clearance, when you show what you are about to print to the company concerned, was virtually unknown. It did happen but it always led to much hand wringing and mental anguish.

BTJ employed a lot of journalists and was a relatively serious magazine. Readers really wanted to read it, or at least look at the technical features and the adverts. They would hardly have paid for it in such large numbers if it had just been candyfloss, pages filled with vanity journalism.

All that changed when controlled circulation swept the land. Instead of the journalists being the main (or at least a significant) earner of revenue, they became simply a cost. With controlled circulation people get sent copies of what was now being called business to business, or b2b, magazines whether they read them or not. Advertising was now king. Magazines printed the press releases, sometimes even embarrassing public relations firms by printing rubbish they'd assured their clients would never be used. They had to print them since they simply had no time to source proper editorial with the smaller journalistic staff that became the norm. In the era of controlled circulation, magazines didn't need large editorial departments.

As a result readers stopped bothering very much about editorial (they knew it was just disguised advertising). Copy clearance and paying for editorial space (guaranteed editorial to match advertising, for example) became quite common. The next red line (only facts could be corrected, the style had to be left alone) soon disappeared.

In a way all this happened because readers stopped buying b2b (trade) magazines. Perhaps, more accurately, the market expanded and presented with a bewildering choice it began to be almost impossible to guarantee sufficient numbers of eyeballs to make advertising worthwhile. People simply had too many other competing interests for their time. Television, radio, cinema, company brochures etc. etc. All came along after trade magazines.

A similar dilemma faces the film industry right now. In the internet age it is said information wants to be, perhaps must be, free. Whatever information is, it is bound to include films in the long run. Anyone who has used the BBC web site must realise that the old ways of watching films are threatened by the availability of high quality films streamed over the internet.

Faced with a possible collapse of both cinema and DVD receipts, the film industry is having to look at alternative income streams. Morgan Spurlock's film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, catches it in transition moving from one distribution system to another and, equally frighteningly, changing from a viewer focused income system to a company focused one.

This film, which is being featured in the Guinness World Records as the movie with the largest number of product placements in history, made a profit before it even reached its first festival.

It is, of course, a criticism of product placement and the panoply of associated techniques designed to commercialise film in a way we have never seen before. It unveils the system, etching out the naked truth on the screen for all to see. But this is not an ashamed nudity.

The marketing gurus who appear on camera attempting to corrupt the film they are appearing in, are perfectly well aware of what's going on. They've not been fooled for a moment. They are taking part because they know it works. The mantra is: all publicity is good publicity.

But on a deeper level, business has given up worrying about what you or I think. You may be disgusted with the corruption but there's nothing you can do about it except move to São Paulo (the city that the film reveals has abolished advertising).

Morgan Spurlock has done an enormous amount of work on this film and covered virtually every conceivable angle. It should be compulsory viewing for every film student. It is also quite funny in parts. That said it is not a great work, more a horror movie than a documentary.

The concept behind the film is a development of Vít Klusák & Filip Remunda's 2004 film "Czech Dream" in which an all too real advertising campaign is run to launch a phoney department store, along the way revealing the unpleasant face of marketing.

If the film industry follows the path charted by the b2b magazine business, expect product placement marketeers to have the dominant voice in a decade or two. The creatives (now known as the film makers) will be relegated to making the film equivalents of press releases and advertising copywriting. After a showing at the NFT in September 2011, Morgan Spurlock hinted that this was already the case when it came to films with a budget of more than $50m.

A thoroughly depressing film. But watch it (in more senses than one) if you care about film.

Posted by Jonathan Brind at 09:47
Thursday, 29 September 2011 INDEX