Making It

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Used to be that, if you wanted to try your hand at directing commercials, you went to film school, then called your uncle who worked on Madison Avenue. These days, you'll find the competition blocking your dear old uncle's door (not to mention his phone line). Up-and-comers in the world of spotmaking have been emerging from fields like photography, music videos, fine arts, advertising, and from the techie sectors of web design and online flicks. (Pamela Maythenyi, who runs the massive industry database The Source Maythenyi, says the number of working directors has jumped to almost 5,000 from 2,500 in the past decade.) So, short of crashing every industry party dressed in bear fur and a richly embroidered fez, what does a budding director have to do to stand out and get noticed?

Tim Case, who runs the repping agency Creative Management Partners, says that it doesn't take a reel full of commercials to catch a producer or a rep's eye. A former protege of the late, legendary producer-turned-rep Ray Lofaro, who had a famous eye for spotting promising directorial talent, Case says that "A reel can be one terrific spot." To make an impression on Case, however, those 30 or 60 seconds should really grab him by the throat. That rarely happens. "Ninety-nine percent of the spec work we look at is terrifying in its ignorance about the business," he scoffs. "Most of the spec spots I see can be summarized like this: hot-looking guy, hot-looking girl fucking on the hood of a vintage American truck on the beach, and a Levi's tag goes up. This is not a commercial. This is not worth seeing. This any asshole could do."

Case says that the spec reel should have two key things. "One, it has to be a terrific advertising idea. It has to be a concept that any agency creative would love to have come up with, that would be on their reel or in an awards show. The second thing is, the filmmaking has to be ambitious enough so that it shows something about the directorial talent. There are times when it's a terrific idea but it says nothing about the director. It has to have some casting, some film construction. It's got to have an arc. It has to show the guy can construct film. The goal in producing a spec spot is that you can go to a company and have them say, `Shit, we don't do work this good."'

Case recalls the memorable spec directed by Straw Dogs' Mike Rowles. The director, formerly with Limelight's commercials division, splashed onto the scene with a spot he created for Samson car batteries, featuring a dusty 1951 Chrysler in the desert, with vultures tearing it apart as if it were an animal's carcass. When one of the birds lands on the steering wheel, the horn goes off, continuing to sound as the entire flock flies away in a panic, demonstrating the concept: Samson batteries will outlive your car. The spot was eventually sold to the client and aired throughout theaters in Europe. It also made its tour of the awards circuit, picking up four international Clios and a Silver Lion. "It really jump-started my career, and certainly, I would have struggled a lot longer to build a reel if I didn't have such an attention-getting spot," Rowles notes.

Tom Mooney, partner/director of sales at Headquarters and another Lofaro alum, says it's crucial for a director to demonstrate a savviness of the industry. "I don't want to see some crazy little film that they did. I may love that and find it interesting as a filmmaker, but I need to see 30-second or 60-second spots that have a beginning, a middle, and an end, that have a product in it, that are idea-driven or visually spectacular." At other companies, though, a short film might do just fine, as long as the storytelling is good. Saatchi & Saatchi chief creative officer Tod Seisser, who helps run the yearly New Directors Showcase at Cannes, says that what makes directorial talent stand out is the ability to relay an idea. "It's not just about making pretty pictures or ugly pictures," he cautions. "It's thinking of the whole film conceptually and making sure that it's an engaging piece of communication, whether it's a 30-second spot or a 15-minute short."

It also needs to come to the point quickly. "Creative people have the attention span of gnats," jokes Larry Frey, a former CD at Wieden & Kennedy and one of the founders of 180, Amsterdam, who became a full-time commercials director at Radical Media last summer. "Agency producers and creative people are just brutal when it comes to analyzing directors," he says. "You've got to get them within those first two or three spots, or you're screwed. The shortest length of time ever recorded was the amount of time any creative person spends watching another creative person's reel with any attention, any degree of focus. I've done it myself. They sum you up in a couple of words. `Too bright. Too dark. Not funny. Dated. Too moody."'

Also, new directors have to be marketable. For Mooney, to be marketable means to be focused. "The reel can't be all over the lot," he says. "A director who comes in with a schmaltzy spot, a visual spot, a comedy spot, special effects - you can't sell that. Sometimes a director wants to be everything, but you can't be everything right away. You have to get in first. You have to be a rap star or a pop star before you go across the board. You can't be a crossover star out of the box."

But that can come later. In fact, spotmakers with more than one or two directing tricks up their sleeve stand a greater chance of thriving for many years. "A lot of the guys who succeed big time are very versatile," observes Pam Maythenyi. "Kinka Usher started as a comedy guy, but his Campbell's Soup emotional dialogue work is top of the line. Leslie Dektor can do big, beautiful, picturesque work, but he can also do the small magic moments. Pytka can do a humorous spot, a great visual spot, wonderful dialogue, and emotion."

Eagerness to try new styles and approaches counts for a lot in the spot directors race. "With some, you can see the fear," says Partizan Entertainment executive producer Steve Dickstein. "You don't see them changing; they're holding on to the same work they've done for years, and you see the world passing them by."

Also, it's smart for a director to keep current with the trends of advertising and pop culture. The two-person team known as Joe Public (see Creativity, November 2000) caught the eye of Tom Mooney at Headquarters because the duo's reel had a focus on real-people directing. Their comedic edge also fit well in advertising's comedy zeitgeist. And when Dickstein (yet another Lofaro trainee) was at Propaganda, Spike Jonze's early work struck him because it was in tune with the anti-advertising mindset of Generation X. "In order to reach those people, you needed to take their expectations and mess with them," Dickstein recalls. "Spike Jonze's reel was all about subterfuge. He had all this subversive stuff like skateboarding videos that were sold at skate and surf shops. It was very refreshing and very sophisticated for someone so young."

"Make sure you go to a company where you think you fit," offers Tom Mooney. Often, he says, directors gravitate toward the current happening production house. "The hottest company may not be the company where you fit," he warns. "Suppose you go to a company with 50 directors and you're the new kid on the block. You may die there. Or suppose you go to a hip company and you're not hip. If a director doesn't fit my company, I sometimes say, `I don't think I can sell you because my clients don't do that kind of work, and I don't know if I can start over.' Sometimes they think I'm lying, but I'd be wasting their time. I once had a wonderful fashion director. I have never done a lot of fashion and I couldn't get the poor guy arrested. I feel like I'm a pretty good rep, but I just couldn't make it happen."

Once a director has found a home, Radical Media proprietor Jon Kamen stresses patience. "Directors are always bouncing from one company to another. Extenuating circustances might make you need to leave one company and join another, but I see far too many new talent not sticking with it, or perhaps maybe not choosing the right company to start."

When it's finally time to work, a new director should walk the fine line between being a member of the team and relentlessly pushing his ideas. "I think we have a subconscious bias toward directors who have a unique vision," muses David Perry, director of broadcast production at Saatchi & Saatchi/New York, who, like Tod Seisser, is also involved in the yearly New Directors Showcase at Cannes. "It sounds like a cliche, but we're trying to give our clients a recognizable, ownable identity, so we like to feature people who are not in abundance."

In preparatory meetings as well as on the set, it's important to assert yourself. Kinka Usher says that "People on my crew tell me, `You actually direct actors. You set your shots.' They say there are so many directors who don't even do that, who just do what the agency tells them to. They basically become messengers between the agency and the crew."

And don't take B projects, no matter how enticing the money. "It's not what you shoot, it's what you don't shoot that makes you," Usher believes. "There are jobs that aren't so great. You do enough of those, and you're going to suffer." Radical Media's Kamen agrees. "Directors have to be patient and put themselves in a position of being able to choose the right opportunities. Often, when somebody is in a financial bind, it's completely understandable to take a job that's not ideal, but there are many directors who starved to get to where they are today." Some of the best were not successful in the beginning, Kamen says, noting his own Frank Todaro, and Tony Kaye (repped by CMP's Case). "They struggled, but because they struggled they eventually achieved excellence."

Of course, there's an art to snubbing an unattractive board. Case says a director might find a script appalling, but even though "the director has the opportunity to pass on it, he should never do that before he offers his vision for the work. Tony Kaye gets on the phone, and he'll say `Thank you very much for sending this to me. I know what you guys are trying to do, but I have another idea I want to share with you.' Most of the time you will not be able to push through the change -- because the agency doesn't like it or because the process has gone so far they don't want to go back, but occasionally you watch something sail through. You never know. People might take a big risk and say, `My God, that's brilliant, let's do it.' Even if the agency says no, people will walk away from that conversation and say `I can't use him on this spot, but I will the next time, if I get something where if have free reign, or I'm going to get him in earlier in the process.' It's putting bricks in the foundation."

Here's the other side to this particular coin: proposing change can backfire, too. Y&R/New York VP-director of broadcast production Ken Yagoda says one of the biggest turn-offs is "when a director has a fully formed idea and he hasn't listened to anything we might have said to him."

Radical Media director Frey seconds that motion. "I just think it's a bit brutal to treat the creative teams with anything short of empathy, understanding or even politeness. Maybe the work wasn't perfect and it needed to be refined, but still you've fought and carried this little flame with you and somehow kept it burning, and for somebody on the conference call to be rude, it's `Forget it. We're not interested.' "

"You have to be inclusive," acknowledges Mooney. "Directors have to include everyone in the process. It doesn't mean you have to be a wimp or give up your vision. There's no room for that old line, `I'm not going to shoot it your way because you're going to use it in the cut.' That's not to say I want the director to tell the agency every five minutes that they're right. There should be intelligent disagreement. We have to communicate."

Like any other creative field, advertising is a relationship business, and loyalty can count for a lot. It's one of the lessons learned by Leslie Dektor, who has been directing A-level commercials for 30 years. "Say you work with someone who brings a great project to you and you collectively do terrific work," posits Dektor. "Sometimes that same person will work on something they don't really want to do, but they've got to because it's part of their job. You can't walk away from that. You've got to be there for them and give them as much as you've got to give it. That's how you develop those relationships. It's crucial."

Pam Maythenyi's statistics confirm the importance of building lasting connections. "The key to see if somebody's going to be be successful," she says, "is whether or not they get repeat business. I look at the agencies the director has worked with, and if he's never worked at the same agency twice, that tells you something. Pytka shoots with maybe five agencies and that's it. He's got those relationships."

And while asserting yourself is OK, don't throw hissy fits. The age of collaboration between director and agency means that most of the bad boys and the primadonnas are no longer in demand. "It's not just about me, the director," explains Kinka Usher. "It's about what the agency has to go through and that the client has to sell product. It's important for an agency to feel like the director understands where they're coming from, how hard it was to get this board sold, how hard it was to get the financing for it. Respect the fact that this board went a long way before it go to you."

One more things, says Partizan's Dickstein: It's crucial for directors to disbelieve the hype, to understand what the word on Madison Avenue really is. "Just because a director is trendy at the moment doesn't mean that in three years, he's going to be looked upon in the same way. If you don't have people who whisper in your ear and tell you who you're pissing off, where you stand, keeping score for you, it's very easy to listen to the hype and believe that your success is unlimited."

So, it's a combination of factors that make a lasting directorial career: "Inventiveness, flexibility, an understanding of advertising as well as film, being opinionated but not petulant," enumerates Saatchi's Seisser. Adds Perry, "Those are the directors we invite earlier in the process than a director normally gets in. They've earned their place at the table."

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