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Is this a non-issue? A should-be-major-controversy? A blatant travesty? Until last week, it didn’t seem to bother anyone too badly, but something has changed. A brief recap…

Ramin Bahrani’s epic short film Plastic Bag, which recounts the sweeping life span of an actual plastic bag—voiced by the inimitable Werner Herzog—from a grocery store to the Trash Vortex of the North Pacific Ocean, was first released online in the spring of 2010 after screening at various high profile festivals (Venice, NYFF, SXSW). Just a few months later, another short film appeared online. This one, titled The Majestic Plastic Bag, was produced by advertising giant DDB as well as Partizan Pictures for the environmental advocacy group Heal The Bay, and it recounts the sweeping life span of an actual plastic bag—voiced by the inimitable Jeremy Irons—from a grocery store to the Trash Vortex of the North Pacific Ocean. Sound familiar? See for yourself:

Plastic Bag

The Majestic Plastic Bag

In the name of a good cause—which everyone seems to agree this PSA is—it seems silly to nitpick about creative thievery. But with last week’s news that The Majestic Plastic Bag has found a high profile slot at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where it will precede Marshall Curry’s If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, the game changes. Or does it?

To be honest, I was more personally affronted by John Hillcoat’s George Washington Redux Levi’s commerical this past summer, but this turn of events does bring into question the stubborn and at times arrogant behavior of advertising agencies and their complete lack of regard for the creative efforts of filmmakers both big budget and small.

I’m the last person in the world to be condemning Sundance right now, but even taking that baggage into account, I think the real problem here is with these advertising agencies, who repeatedly jack actual shots and ideas from films yet never suffer any consequences. We, as creators and viewers and appreciators of art, need to take a stand and let these agencies know that it is not okay to behave in this manner without crediting or reimbursing their victims. Try coming up with your own ideas every once in a while, jerkies.

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

  • Filmgurl6

    I find it disturbing that Sundance would accept an ADVERTISEMENT as a short film. I find it even more disturbing that Sundance, which has supported Bahrani and his **original** work, would accept work that is such a blatant rip off.

    December 14, 2010
  • OH bike commuter

    Yes that is a travesty and Sundance should have done its homework. Next thing you know they will be honoring the fake Nobel winner the Chinese put up, and the fake dali lama wannabe. While they’re at it probably should honor all the clean coal power plants that are online now, and the management foresight of the old GM.

    December 14, 2010
  • Filmjerk

    A.) Its a stolen idea in the format from a 30 year old PBS style nature show. Minus two for creativity right off the bat.

    B.) Why is it in the Sundance Doc Section of all places. Its been on youtube forever and it even calls itself a mockumentary. So its the doc short section? Huh?

    c.) Advertising has been stealing from art for years but at least Partizan or DDB should have had the smarts to offer the Job to Mr. Bahrani in the first place. Ignoring everything else PLASTIC BAG is just a Better film then MAJESTIC PLASTIC BAG. Hiring the man himself would have made the difference and avoided the issue. Instead they get a substandard film that people are calling a rip off. Classy advertising. WWDDD? What would Don Draper do?

    December 14, 2010
  • Jon Spielberg

    I showed both of these to my film students and the universal response was “WTF!”, followed by a request to bring in a lawyer for a seminar on rights, fair use and “how to sue the bastards”. Blatant theft in the service of a “good cause” is not justified. The class consensus was that at a minimum the Bahrani film should have been credited, and the proper move would have been to hire Bahrani to create a wonderful and new project for the campaign in the first place.

    December 14, 2010
  • bagmad

    I think “Majestic Plastic Bag” just surfaced in a trash vortex of its own. Clean it up before it poisons the water.

    Herzog vs. Irons? Are you kidding? Herzog ate a shoe once. Irons won’t even see it coming

    December 14, 2010
  • threeseas

    The fact that ‘The Majestic Plastic Bag’ has found a spot anywhere near the Sundance Festival is beyond me. To reward this film is unethical and seems to be a blatant breach of what the Sundance Institute stands for: “Sundance Institute has always provided a space for independent artists to explore their stories free from commercial and political pressures. By providing year-round creative and financial support for the development of original stories for the screen and stage, Sundance Institute remains committed to its mission to discover and develop independent artists and audiences across the globe” —

    ‘Plastic Bag’ is an ORIGINAL story told by an independent artist. ‘The Majestic Plastic Bag’ is not original and was not made by artists. To award this film is to hang a $20 poster of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in the Met. You put paintings in Museums because they are the real thing. Let’s not get confused, because this is very simple. ‘Plastic Bag’ is the real thing. ‘The Majestic Plastic Bag’ is not.

    December 14, 2010
  • Leolo

    Its bad enough that they copied the most integral aspect of the story but they also ruined it by taking out the emotional angle and created a much less interesting piece….A clear violation and it goes to show you how little Sundance really knows…..Authority on independent films????? Please…….if they were, Slamdance would have never been created……Hope the piece gets pulled from Sundance

    December 14, 2010
  • Anonymous

    It is impossible to believe Sundance was unaware of a short film which premiered at Venice International FF, was narrated by Werner Hertzog, is an extra on Werner Hertzog’s new DVD, and was directed by a filmmaker which has multiple and varied connections to Sundance. Simply put, Sundance is promoting theft among artists and might as well seed torrents of the movies it shows. I find the wording of the Sundance wiki to be ironic, at the least:

    “The Festival has changed over the decades from a low-profile venue for small-budget, independent creators from outside the Hollywood system to a media extravaganza for Hollywood celebrity actors, paparazzi, and luxury lounges set up by companies that are not affiliated with Sundance, though the Festival itself has tried to curb these activities in recent years, beginning in 2007 with their ongoing “Focus On Film” campaign.”

    December 14, 2010
  • Krsara7

    Not cool Sundance. Not cool.

    December 14, 2010
  • jmackie

    Fight! Fight!… I suspect they both stole the idea from Sam Mendes, who stole it from Nathaniel Dorsky, who stole it from a buncha little-seen movies dating back the 1920’s. (At least Dorsky admitted it.)

    December 14, 2010
  • David

    A couple of things.

    — Did DDB do this pro bono? Knowing how much ad agencies get paid for viral marketing campaigns, I am sure they made a nice profit if they charged their standard rate – total agency fee probably $500,000 with production costs at $100,000. HealtheBay lists revenue/expenses for 2008 at approximately $5 million, so this amount would seem something they could afford.

    –Did Jeremy Irons get paid or do this pro bono?

    –Who came up with the idea? “Heal the Bay” or DDB? Did “Heal the Bay” approach DDB and say “We just saw this great video. Can you do a much shorter, more effective riff on it and market it virally?” Or did they just ask DDB to come up with viral marketing ideas entirely on their own. The answer would help determine how much the original filmmaker should be compensated.

    –If no one made a cent from this, then the original filmmaker should be at minimum credited somehow such as ‘inspired by ‘paper bag’ at the end. (I realize they didn’t include any credits in their 4 minute film.)

    -If as I suspect some folks made a nice profit, then the original filmmaker should have been paid a fee. It doesn’t matter that it is for a non-profit. If DDB can charge them, then the filmmaker should get paid.

    -Finally, as a matter of course to affect public policy, the shorter film is much more effective. A lot of people will watch a 4 minute film (in terms of mass market). Not the same with an 18 minute film. The 4 minute film is ‘cute’ – dry humor, cute animals playing, enough to really help it go viral. And sure enough, it has almost 1.4 million views so far, 6 times more than the original. If the goal is to affect change, then DDB should be commended, and they deserve credit for ‘commercializing’ an idea that will help a cause.

    I would recommend Sundance invite the original filmmaker to the festival and show both films together as a set piece, and DDB return any/all fees charged to “Heal the Bay”.


    December 14, 2010
  • mSealy

    I’m all for adding more voices to the cause… but when done in this way… This hacky rip-off of an amazing and thoroughly original film seems to distract from the issue.
    DDB and Partizan have produced a canned, uninspired short th…at is minimally effective in co-opting a good idea and at its worst could thwart the efforts of a very compelling, poetic and sublime film, Plastic Bag!
    Still, I have no doubt that Ramin Bahrani’s epic original will be vital and moving for decades… whereas this copy, a majestic swindling of another artist’s vision, will likely end up adrift in the Pacific.

    December 14, 2010
  • Errol

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

    December 14, 2010
  • Adamgraham12

    for a good cause but a shocking shocking rip off

    December 14, 2010
  • Tully

    Yikes! Anyone care to defend Sundance and/or the ‘creative’ team behind THE MAJESTIC PLASTIC BAG?

    December 14, 2010
  • mauro

    Majestic Plastic Bag is an unbelievable rip off.
    Very sad to see that this happens. Who protects creative property!!!!
    Sundance has been a big disappointment in the last years concerning short films.. doesn’t quality matter anymore???

    December 14, 2010
  • Alex_B

    No one creates in a vacuum — all ideas build on others. So I don’t fault agencies or independents for not doing wholly original creative work, though it’s clear this is a case that does show a lot of, ahem, borrowing.

    It is pretty silly of Sundance to program the second film, both because it’s already been so widely released, and because it’s the furthest thing from an independent work. To present it as such just makes a joke of the festival. And here I thought last years “revolution” branding of the festival was silly …

    December 14, 2010
  • nightwriter

    It was bad enough when “the Majestic Plastic Bag” was released…a flat, heavy handed copy of Bahrani’s delightful short. But at least initially it appeared that its only purpose was as a fundraising vehicle. But “now for this pitiful imitation to be used to advance the Director’s career and heighten his profile? An entirely different conversation…That this should be shown at Sundance is a disgrace…

    December 14, 2010
  • Filmjerk

    Those filmes – mendes in particular had flying plastic bag. It was not a character with a life and a voice. This owes more to red ballon then to American Beauty.

    December 14, 2010
  • Nick B

    This would be a major controversy, without a doubt, if “Plastic Bag” were a full-length feature and “The Majestic Plastic Bag” were a full-length mockumentary. It’s a blatant travesty, regardless. I don’t find “The Majestic Plastic Bag” funny at all, so it loses its value as a send-up or “mockumentary” to me. If there’s no entertainment value resulting from the ironic contrast between the knockoff and the original (as should be the case with a true send-up), then “Majestic” is just an underhanded, supercilious fraud of a film.

    By contrast, and perhaps truly ironically, the fact that Sundance programmed “Majestic” underscores the value of the original film: the strength of concept of “Plastic Bag” shines through, even in the degraded form of a pale imitation.

    December 14, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Also, as others have hit upon, submitting this copycat short to Sundance is not about “a good cause”. The “good cause” was Heal the Bay. Submitting to Sundance is about advancing one’s career in film. The “filmmakers” are trying to advance their careers by deliberately copying another short which was made 6 months before this one. (Which is different than trying to say everything is a copy of something that was done 60 years ago). Not only were the scenes directly copied, even the use of a famous narration was copied. The only thing they couldn’t get, because they’re too lazy, was an original score.

    If this really was about “saving the planet” as Heal the Bay is trying to say it is, you would think they would have asked to see if they could attach Plastic Bag with their cause.

    Where there’s smoke….

    December 14, 2010
  • Farzad

    I’ve been teaching TV & Cinema for 15 years at college level, and this event just disgusts me.
    Try doing this with Disney … I mean, try creating a mouse and name it … say Milky Mouse … and see how it goes! Disney will sue you out of your noise and they should. It’s theft, copyright violation, and utterly unethical.
    This is how you do NOT make a film and how you do NOT run a festival.
    Sundance completely destroyed its reputation with this.

    December 14, 2010
  • alex

    incontrovertible thievery. shame on the copycat filmmaker and even greater shame on sundance for promoting this advertisement as a film.

    December 14, 2010
  • Lifter035

    Here;s the link of movie that was done by my friend in Croatia in 2007

    December 15, 2010
  • Dtvluke

    I take it neither the originator (term used loosely and advisedly) nor the Ad Agency have seen American Beauty? Please – the original idea was the classic art video guy who shoots the mundane and elevates it by forcing you to engage with the everyday. I think it was in Ecclesiates – “There’s nothing new under the sun”. Except appropriation – which is Post Modern speak for stealing sh!t LOL!

    Luke Caldwell
    dpf, Sydney/LA

    December 16, 2010
  • Come on, start from ourselves to get used to reduce the use of plastic bags and bring cloth bags for shopping.

    February 23, 2011
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