As flaps go, it was more of a kid’s meal than a Big Mac.
After a low-level MTV employee asked for changes in an ad for the hit documentary “Super Size Me,” the film’s distributors tried to parlay the dust-up into a Michael Moore-type publicity blitz.
The dispute was quickly resolved -- the ad will run, uncut, starting tonight -- but the episode offers a glimpse into the new world of documentary marketing, in which controversy and big-league publicity gambits are increasingly part of the strategy for box-office success.
Leading the pack is director-provocateur Moore, whose 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine” grossed a record-setting $21 million and won an Oscar. This month, his “Fahrenheit 9/11" won the top award at the Cannes Film Festival after an uproar over Walt Disney Co.'s refusal to allow its Miramax Films unit to distribute the politically charged film.
At least two of last year’s crop of successful documentaries -- “Capturing the Friedmans” and “The Fog of War” -- also benefited from controversies on the road to Academy Award nominations.
The runaway success of “Super Size Me,” however, has been noteworthy in its own right. The $65,000 documentary gained national attention in January during the Sundance Film Festival, where filmmaker Morgan Spurlock won best director. Since its May 7 release, the film has grossed $3 million. Last weekend, it made the box-office top 10 list -- in the bottom slot -- even though it was playing in only 148 theaters.
“Super Size Me” chronicles Spurlock’s one-month all-McDonald’s diet and the ill effects on his health. As the film rolled out in theaters, McDonald’s Corp. unwittingly fed the movie’s hype by announcing that it would eliminate “super sizes” and introduce a health-conscious “adult happy meal.” (The company maintains that both initiatives were in the works before the movie’s release.)
“Every time [McDonald’s] said something to attack the movie ... it helped,” Spurlock said in a phone interview Thursday from Australia, where he’s on a promotional tour. “How ironic that the movie won the MTV New Documentary prize at the Full Frame Festival in April and then had its commercial rejected. It shows how much power is being wielded by the food industry -- and how much information we’re not getting.”
According to an e-mail provided by IDP Films, which is distributing the movie, an employee in MTV’s ad clearance department said the network was rejecting the commercial because it was “disparaging toward fast-food restaurants.”
For the ad to be approved, the employee told IDP, it would need to delete the phrase “you’ll die,” a comment on the alleged effect of the monthlong fast-food diet. The MTV employee said the commercial also could not air during a span in which a fast-food ad was airing and that a scene of the filmmaker about to vomit must be axed.
An MTV spokeswoman, Janet Hill, said that although revisions were initially requested by a “junior-level employee,” the decision was overturned by a higher-up after he learned of the “mistake.” Hill said the spot would air in a way that makes “commercial sense.”
“We’re thrilled they’ve come around and made this course correction,” said RJ Millard, vice president of publicity and marketing for Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films, for which IDP is the distributor and marketing arm. “Our objective was to have a showcase on MTV, an audience that’s one of our primary target demographics.”
McDonald’s, which advertises on MTV, says it has suffered no ill effects from “Super Size Me” and the film’s dire message of weight gain and health decline. Company spokesman Bill Whitman said Spurlock, a comedian, “has quite a bit of fun with a very serious issue. The movie has nothing to do with McDonald’s -- it could have been done in any kitchen in America -- and it hasn’t hurt our business at all.”