Tom Roston is moderating a panel on Saturday (May 5, 2012) in Brooklyn, NY, titled “Branded Documentary: Work and Play.” For more information visit

Marketing image for Morgan Spurlock's documentary "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold"
Morgan Spurlock calls it "buying in," not "selling out."

When the subject of documentaries and selling a product comes up, you have to consider with whom you’re speaking. The discussion might kick off with wariness about the dangers. Many documentary filmmakers are people with social justice backgrounds who are instinctively mistrustful of corporate interests using their medium to sell stuff.

This discussion has taken some new turns lately, what with the documentization (neologism alert!) of advertising and, well, television and film in general. So much of what we see, from car ads to The Bourne Identity to The Office, is made to look like it’s nonfiction filmmaking. It’s a way of making things seem more real, more visceral. And it means that line between branding and documentary filmmaking has grown ever thinner.

Morgan Spurlock took this bull by the horns and rode it all the way to the bank. Last year, he made POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a wink-wink-nudge-nudge critique of the commercialization of television and film, in a documentary that was lucratively (but ironically!) branded. Spurlock then doubled down by starting the Launch PAD initiative that sought to match brandmakers with filmmakers so both sides could reap the rewards of the partnership. The former get access to potential buyers and the latter get cold, hard cash.

Morgan Spurlock’s self-referential 2011 documentary POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold called attention to product placement and advertising in films.

And this leads us to that different set of people with whom we might have this conversation. Forget the issues of principles or politics, and let’s talk about one’s own livelihood. Many documentary directors aren’t exactly flush with cash, and they’d like to make a living doing what they do, so they work on commercials. (Yes, I call them commercials, even though many of the self-interested parties would prefer other terms, such as “documentaries,” “films,” “branded content,” “branded partnerships” and the like.)

You can’t spit without hitting a documentary director who hasn’t made some sort of commercial. And most do it without blinking an eye, because they aren’t conflicted about working for corporate interests. After all, they’re not necessarily making documentaries for social justice, but out of a passion to create. (Of course, the two are not exclusive, but permit me to go on.) I’ll just mention two of my favorite doc directors, who have made some good money directing commercials: Brett Morgen, who made The Kid Stays in the Picture, has made a lot of ads, for brands including Kleenex and Crocs, and Jessica Yu, director of In the Realms of the Unreal, made those “Swap Your Ride” ads for Ford.

There’s even an agency, Nonfiction, that identifies itself as representing nonfiction filmmakers who can deliver that authentic touch so special for branding content. Nonfiction represents such doc luminaries as Albert Maysles (Salesman), Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) and Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.), along with Yu.

Of course, Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) is at the top of the list of the most successful doc directors who’ve made commercials.

Errol Morris directed a line of commercials for Apple’s “switch” campaign, including this cult hit.

Morris must have pulled in millions of dollars for his commercial work over the past decade, including the subtle and substantive promotion of the worst beer on the planet. I poke fun at Morris, but I do so solely in jest, as I really have no judgment to pass over any of these filmmakers. (Except for Nick Broomfield — He went a little too far when he pimped his own process in order to sell Volkswagen.) These folks have to make money, and bless them for finding a way while still applying their craft.

I bring all this up because UnionDocs, the meeting space and place to engage deep ideas about documentary film in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is hosting a discussion this Saturday entitled “Branded Documentary: Work and Play.”

I’ll be moderating the discussion. Now, I can’t promise that the above thoughts will be the focus of the discussion, as there will be presentations by some amazing creative types, including Mssng Peces, Lost & Found films and Scott Thrift, each of whom have produced some pretty cool doc-type content on the web — and sometimes they’ve done it for money, working for interests like Levi’s, Chanel and Lexus.

So, come on down, y’all, talk some of this through with these smart dudes who are on the front lines. As for me, maybe I’ll chime in once in a while, but I’ll be absorbing the thoughtful thoughts while sipping margaritas, perhaps (Hey, it’s Cinco de Mayo!), on the side.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen