Morgan Spurlock, the director of pop documentaries Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, recently got into original web series with A Day in the Life on Hulu. Spurlock will deliver 6 episodes of the series, which will follow personalities as diverse as Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, stand-up comedian Russell Peters, ballet dancer Misty Copeland, mashup artist Girl Talk, and street artist Mr. Brainwash.
Episode 1 of Day in the Life covers affable billionaire Richard Branson. Branson is best known as the founder of Virgin Records, a company he no longer runs, so now his main focus is on the venture capital conglomerate Virgin Group, which is made up of over 400 companies around the globe. Virgin Group’s big undertakings include an airline, a bank, mobile phone service, space travel, and underwater voyages, but charities and nonprofits create the bulk of the company.
The main focus of this episode is Branson in Chicago shilling for Virgin America, an airline that has just added two new routes from Chicago to Los Angeles and San Francisco. We see his PR team planning his busy day, which includes the big announcement (decked out in boxer garb complete with boxing gloves, taking on all competitors), meetings with journalists, and surprise drop-ins to unsuspecting Chicagoans, to whom he slips an occasional free airline ticket. In the middle of all that, he has a meeting with Entourage’s Adrien Grenier and film producer Peter Glatzer, who are looking for Branson’s involvement in their environmentally-conscious multimedia platform SHFT.
There are a few things that are surprising about this episode. It’s kind of funny hearing a journalist tell Branson, “You’ve got five flights, but the big guys have over 2,500,” showing that despite being one of the richest men in the world, Branson has to start small and is still a little fish when it comes to this business. Also, listening to Branson rattle off all the artists that his Virgin Records once represented is amazing. He doesn’t lament not being in that business anymore, and is proud that his music empire was able to fund potential public space travel (Virgin Galactic) in the future.
Watching this, you get the sense Branson probably has had more exciting days. After all, this is the guy who has tried to break world speed records traveling in boats, amphibious vehicles, and hot-air balloons. The limits to a documentary form, much less a “day in the life” documentary form, is that we are probably seeing a mere shadow of an interesting person. You’ve also got to consider the, “shooting a documentary of me on this particular day works for me best,” factor. This particular day in the life of Richard Branson is hectic, for sure, and greatly important to him, but certainly doesn’t give us a complete picture.
This show is also a glimpse into the future of ad-funded web content. Being a full-length 22-minute episode, Hulu has a few more ads than normal sprinkled into breaks. Funding has to come from somewhere, and the web isn’t going to be able to show good and free content without someone footing the bill. Encompassing two ads at around one minute total for three commercial breaks, I have a feeling we will be seeing more in the future. Consider this: online, websites have total control over the ad content, which means you won’t be able to forward through it like a DVR at home. It will be interesting to see the threshold for ads on web shows. The study by FreeWheel explains that people are going to be willing to sit through these breaks, which is good news for advertisers and web producers.
Spurlock’s Day in the Life definitely has its limitations, but it’s a good start and still ultimately compelling. New episodes of Day in the Life play every Wednesday for another five weeks on Hulu.