To those in the ad business, a surge in the number of directors has become all too apparent. How many directors are actually shooting commercials these days is anyone's guess. The Directors Guild of America has more than 20,000 members, though that includes all categories of directors. The Source Maythenyi, which zeros in on commercials directors, has recently seen its databank surpass the 4,000 mark for the first time, but that doesn't include all the part-timers and dabblers who are now directing commercials on the side. "I've heard estimates as high as 6,000," says Richard O'Neill. (Those considering fleeing to the U.K. should be aware that it's even worse there, with over 1,000 directors now jostling for a share of a much smaller pie).
It all began with that long-ago British directorial wave of the 1970s, led by the likes of Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne -- an invasion that rocked the world of veteran, up-through-the-ranks American commercials directors, and revealed how vulnerable they were to outsiders who could sate advertising's incessant craving for a new, distinctive look. By the time the next wave of marauding directors arrived in advertising in the 1980s -- this time coming from the exotic land of MTV -- complaints could be heard throughout the industry about "the glut of commercials directors."
Those were the good old days, it turns out. Producers and directors who thought the market was getting crowded back then were just getting a taste of what was to come in the '90s, and particularly in the last couple of years.
While agencies are feeling swamped, directors are feeling squeezed. O'Neill says he's hearing tales of directors who haven't shot anything in years, and veteran helmer Bob Giraldi -- one of the busy ones -- says that some longtime veterans "are losing out on jobs or being forced to take jobs they would have turned down in the past." Pamela Maythenyi, who runs The Source Maythenyi, points to "companies that have 12 directors with only about four of them actually working." Steve Wax of Chelsea Pictures adds, "There's always been talk about a glut, but I've never heard more fearful talk [than now] by directors about lack of work."
The nouveaux directors are coming from everywhere, it seems. With advertising now more hip than ever, indie filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Neil LaBute are cashing in their ad chips almost as soon as they've wrapped their first big-screen effort. Film school kids aren't even waiting that long. They're skipping the arduous task of making that first film, and heading straight to advertising with a couple of spec spots on a very short reel. Against all odds and any logic, they are, in some cases, being warmly embraced (OK, so maybe they don't know how to coach an actor -- but hey, they're fresh).
Then there are the agency expatriates, who represent "the biggest influx into directing right now," says rep Tim Case of Case Management Partners. Creatives who've defected to existing or startup directing companies suddenly seem to be everywhere, with companies sporting hot names like Hungry Man and Tool of North America. In the past it was only the occasional art director who made the jump to directing, but now you're just as likely -- maybe more likely -- to find a former copywriter doing it, and "even agency producers are forging in," says Judy Brink, director of broadcast production at Fallon McElligott. At the same time, agencies are increasingly adopting a do-it-yourself approach to directing, to save money, maintain more control over the creative process, or just to have fun. Even the head of an agency, like Goodby Silverstein's Jeff Goodby, can occasionally be found behind the camera. "Today, everybody's a commercials director," Giraldi sighs. "The creative guy, the chauffeur, everybody."
Industry veterans say the walls that once separated bona fide, proven directors from mere wannabes have been coming down for some time. "In the past, to become a director, you had to have experience with talent or come up through the ranks of DP," says Maythenyi. "Now, there's no more having to grow up -- you do a couple of music videos, or even a couple of spec spots, and you're considered a director." Jon Kamen of @Radical Media agrees: "There's not as much mystique to being a director now," he says, "and the apprenticeship period is shortened, if not gone altogether."
Technology has helped make it easier to shoot a commercial with limited expertise. "The newer film stock is much more forgiving," says TBWA's O'Neill, "so you can shoot without having perfect lighting. It's almost like you now have a lot of directors running around with instamatic cameras."
The novices have also been helped by recent creative trends toward non-slick, anti-advertising styles in commercials -- the kind of look featured in the now-ubiquitous mockumentary commercials. Such advertising "doesn't have to look fabulous, or even very professional," says Tom Mooney of the production company Headquarters. "It can be like home movies, and it works." Giraldi agrees that such advertising "can be shot with any kind of camera, in just about any location -- which opens things up to lots of people. And the more inane and disconnected the commercials look, sometimes the more interesting they are."
Many believe that advertising's fascination with offbeat, distinctive visual styles has created a flavor-of-the-month environment, which in turn has fueled the director explosion. "After the music video revolution, distinctive visual style became the thing that everyone was looking for," says Chelsea's Wax.
That can be bad news for some of the more established pros. With so much emphasis on hip new visualists, "it's gotten to the point where if you're over 25, you're considered old," says Maythenyi. It doesn't affect the A-list of veteran directors, like Giraldi, Pytka, and Tarsem -- in fact, producers say these top performers are in more demand than ever, because they combine visual style, storytelling, experience, the whole package. "There may be a glut of a certain kind of visual director, but there's still a dearth of the guys who understand story, narrative and emotion -- the guys who can make you cry," says Tim Case.
But the second tier of experienced directors is scrambling. They're not A-guys, they're not cool kids, and they're not cheap. Producers say some veterans may have priced themselves out of a market crowded with affordable newcomers. "I know some great directors whose careers are basically over, though they may not know it," says Headquarters' Mooney. "They're not being considered, even though they may be right for the job. Everyone wants to be associated with the hot new guy. It's sad."
So why are so many formerly carefree copywriters willing to put up with all this fierce elbowing and conference call humiliation? "It's the most fun you can have in advertising," says Bryan Buckley, who traded in copywriting for directing years ago, and hasn't looked back. Buckley, who directs for Hungry Man and is known for ESPN SportsCenter spots and the Budweiser lizards, cites creative freedom and control as the main draw for crossover creatives. But the money factor should not be overlooked, either: "A lot of agency guys see the huge amounts of money they can make directing if they can break through the gauntlet," says O'Neill. "They know it's tough out there, but they figure they've got friends back at the agency who'll give them work."
That allegiance only goes so far. "I see all of these creatives going off to be directors and sometimes I think, What do you know about composing a shot, or dealing with lenses?" says Fallon's Brink. "I question their ability to bring something other than a creative point of view. It reaches a point where you have to wonder, How is it that everyone can be a director? Aren't there any established criteria anymore?"
Some believe the glut can't go on forever. "With a lot of directors not working, I think we're in a period of fallout already," says Maythenyi. Nick Wolner of Crossroads Films says the director boom was partly tied to a surging economy, and may already be fading. "When the economy is in the final throes of the bull market, as we are now, people start cutting production to maintain earnings," he says. "That's starting to happen already."
Ultimately, the weeding-out process will be based on talent or the rather obvious lack thereof, observers say. "Even if it's true that the mockumentary style has made it easier for some to break in, that doesn't mean they'll last," says Kamen.
Meanwhile, the hopefuls continue to arrive. Says Buckley: "I'm sure lots of creatives are sitting in their offices right now thinking, Hmmm, maybe I should be a director."