Sunday, September 22, 2013

Morgan Spurlock Recounts Experience, Offers Encouragement to Local Film Makers

By Christina Georgiou

"Super Size Me" director Morgan Spurlock offered advice and
encouragement to beginning film makers at a two-hour
seminar on Saturday. The event was part of the annual
city independent film festival Movies at the Mill.
To become a successful film maker, you don't have to go to film school, though it helps, Morgan  Spurlock said Saturday afternoon at a two-hour seminar held at Easton's city hall, where the "Super Size Me" director offered the benefit of his experience to about 20 attendees.

"The democratization of film making means more people can make movies," he said, adding that nearly anyone with vision, talent, and a prosumer video camera that is willing to put in the work and effort can make a good film.

"People ask me how to go make a movie, and I tell them, 'Just go make it. You got a camera? You got a computer? Go make it," he said.

Spurlock recommended that those that want to break into the business take any job that will bring them into the industry, recounting how he got his first job after film school as a production assistant after dogging a movie company incessantly until he got the job.

During that time, he continued to write scripts, eventually writing plays as well, and used the time not only to hone his skills, but also to make contacts and learn the ropes of the business.

Morgan Spurlock describes his astonishment at
being handed a $250,000 check from an investor.
He used the funding to launch "I Bet You Will",
which was first distributed on the Internet in
three- to five-minute segments. It was later
picked up by MTV and ran as a full-length
cable television show.
One of those contacts led to meeting a potential backer, who bankrolled Spurlock's first Internet production, "I Bet You Will" with a $250,000 check.

Soon after, the show got noticed by CBS, who bought the rights.

But they didn't know what to do with the three- to five-minute format to successfully turn it into a television program, he said.

Spurlock got the show back, and soon after, sold it to MTV.

"They didn't know what to do with it either," he said.

And then 9/11 brought film investment and production to a near-standstill.

Spurlock, who had been living off of credit cards waiting for the money to come through from the sale of "I Bet You Will", found himself with $250,000 of debt. He was evicted from his apartment, and ended up living in his production company office.

As the nation recovered from the 2001 terrorist attacks, MTV picked the show back up, and Spurlock directed 52 episodes of the show, enough to pay off some of the debt.

After one $50,000 payment though, he realized that while he could use the funds toward reducing the debt, it would leave him without any funding to move forward. So he decided to make a movie instead.

Morgan Spurlock and attendees at his film making seminar
Saturday afternoon watch the trailer for "Super Size Me".
Over Thanksgiving at his parents' home, he got the idea for "Super Size Me" while watching the evening news, where he saw a piece on two young women who were suing McDonald's, claiming eating the food made them obese and ruined their health.

He was skeptical of the claim at first, he said--after all, no one forced them to buy the food and eat it.

But then he saw a spokesman for the fast food chain asserting that McDonald's food is "healthy and nutritious".

Not believing the spokesman either, he thought, "I wonder what would happen if you ate McDonald's for 30 days straight?"

And the idea for "Super Size Me" was born. The film eventually grossed millions, and Spurlock's share of the profits was enough to pay off his debts, as well as pay off four years worth of back salaries for his production company's six employees.

"We came out of that movie debt free, and not only that, everyone who worked for me came out of it debt free," he said.

But even with a great idea, distribution is still key to a film's success, Spurlock said.

"Super Size Me" debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the largest and well-known in the U.S., and also where many independent films get picked up by big studios.

However, the premise of "Super Size Me" initially scared off many potential distribution deals, Spurlock said.

"One by one, the heads of all the big distributors came up to us (at the Sundance Film Festival) and said 'Oh my God, this film is incredible. It's amazing, but we could never distribute this.' Because they need McDonald's to put their logo on those (movie theatre) cups," he said.

Eventually though, Samuel Goldwyn did distribute "Super Size Me" and it became a national success.

Since then, Spurlock has made a number of other well-known documentaries and television series, including "Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?", "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold", "Freakonomics", "Mansome", and  the FX show "30 Days", along with other projects.

Movies at the Mill organizer and local independent film maker
Gershon Hinkson, left, and Easton Mayor Sal Panto, right,
pose for a photo with noted documentary director Morgan
Spurlock after the film making seminar at Easton's city hall
Saturday afternoon. Hinkson says he hopes to make film
making seminars a regular part of the city's annual independent
film festival.
Working with large studios is a relatively recent development in Spurlock's work, and it does make it easier to complete a film, but it also means "there are more cooks in the kitchen," Spurlock said, but with the monetary and marketing support.

While being backed by a major film company means not having to worry as much about money, working with a large studio means deadlines are more strict too, but that's a good thing, Spurlock said.

"Deadlines force you to make choices," he said, noting that a lack of deadlines means many independent film makers end up dragging projects out.

Still, making a good movie doesn't solely depend on backing.

"You should make the film great, as great as it can be with the money you have," he said. "Creativity will always solve more problems than throwing money at them."

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