OK, it's a touch dramatic. And maybe the film won't quite live up to the trailer (wouldn't that be a first?). But there's no question that right now, a new wave of commercials director mania is sweeping over Hollywood, much as it did when Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne started entering the movie business two decades ago. The studios and top agents from CAA and ICM are scanning commercials reels and speed-dialing directors as never before. "It's remarkable," says Steve Wax, president of Chelsea Pictures. "Both agents and studio executives now have the same hit list of directors that Nike uses." According to Bryan Buckley, the director best known for ESPN commercials, who is now shooting his first film for Universal Pictures, the feeding frenzy has escalated to the point that "if you're a living, breathing director with about eight spots on your reel, somebody's going to offer you a feature."
And quite a few directors -- including some who previously professed to be ambivalent about pursuing films -- are beginning to snap up those offers. Tarsem is preparing to shoot his first film, for Warner Brothers, next year. Also next year, Kinka Usher (who just a few months ago swore that he was perfectly content shooting commercials) has signed on to direct his first film for Universal. David Kellogg will direct Disney's Inspector Gadget, and Michel Gondry will resurrect The Green Hornet. Tony Kaye is working on his much-anticipated first film. Frank Todaro wrote and directed his first film, a romantic comedy, premiering this summer. David Dobkin is working on his first film. Sam Bayer and countless others have development deals going. And the list goes on.
Some of the films coming from commercials directors are relatively modest affairs, as in the case of Buckley's mockumentary-style New Jersey Turnpike, slated for release early next year. But in other cases, directors with virtually no experience in long-form storytelling are being handed big-budget, potential blockbuster films.
Why would Hollywood studios take such a large financial gamble on newcomers with little or no track record outside commercials? Some believe it's a direct result of the recent box office success of several commercials directors in particular. Gore Verbinski is riding high from the success of his recent film debut, Mouse Hunt. Simon West scored a hit with Con Air. Onetime advertising whiz kid David Fincher, with successful recent films like Seven and The Game under his belt, is practically considered a grizzled veteran in Hollywood now.
And there's the man, Michael Bay. With two monster hits already to his credit (Bad Boys and The Rock), the veteran commercials director shot one of this summer's biggest potential blockbusters, Armageddon. So far -- and it's important to note that he has only been making movies for a few years now -- everything Bay touches has been boffo at the box office. And his enormous success, combined, to a lesser extent, with that of Fincher, West, and Verbinski, seems to have convinced Hollywood that ad guys have the Midas touch.
Peter O'Fallon, a veteran commercials director who just released his first film, Suicide Kings, says: "Because of the success of Bay and West, the rest of us are on the radar in Hollywood -- for the moment."
That qualifier at the end is worth noting, because this certainly isn't the first time Hollywood has had a passionate, and sometimes shortlived, affair with commercials directors. Since Ridley and Tony Scott began to cross over into film some 20 years ago, along with Lyne, Howard Zieff and others, there have been various ebbs and flows. Perhaps the most notable misfire by a commercials director in recent years was the infamous Bill Cosby vehicle Leonard Part 6, directed by Paul Weiland. There were others, mercifully almost forgotten -- such as David Kellogg's Cool As Ice, starring a pre-meltdown Vanilla Ice. O'Fallon notes that "there was a period a few years ago when commercials directors really bombed out, and you had studio chiefs swearing that they'd never use another one again." But Hollywood has a short memory -- and Bay, West, et al., seem to have vanquished the ghost of Leonard, for now.
In truth, observers say, Hollywood had little choice but to give commercials directors another shot -- because the studios' pressing need for fresh, affordable and malleable talent is greater than ever. "Five years ago, a commercials director couldn't get arrested at CAA -- they wouldn't take your calls," says Jon Kamen of @Radical Media. "But the battle cry from the studios forced the talent agencies to aggressively look for new people -- affordable people, but at the same time people who had the skills to handle a movie."
Commercials directors fit the bill for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they could be signed to first-time director deals that are far less costly (about $100,000 to $150,000) than what an experienced director would demand. In addition, commercials guys are "used to working within a budget and meeting that budget," says Tim Case of Case Management Partners, which reps directors. But perhaps most important, the ad guys simply know how to sell on film. "Commercials directors tend to be more market-driven," says Case. "They understand the need to deliver the 'beauty shot.' And a guy like David Fincher can design shot after shot that will travel to international markets. The global language of films these days is visual -- and commercials tend to be big visual, visceral experiences."
That's particularly true of the action films produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who has led the way in bringing the current generation of commercials directors to the big screen. "Action movies are events now," says Dan Lindau, a partner at Crossroads Productions. "They're less about building character or narrative, and more a sequence of big scenes and big bangs. That can play right into the technical strengths of a director like Michael Bay."
Kinka Usher believes that the movement of commercials directors into film is "the wave of the future," and is rooted in the commercial nature of today's films. "Films are becoming more commercial, and commercials are becoming more like little films," Usher says. "The lines are blurring. And the studios making these blockbusters need someone who understands mass appeal." Unlike, say, a film school grad, who is apt to be toting a heartfelt script and a highly personal vision for a film, commercials directors are more willing to adapt, in hired-gun fashion, to someone else's project (or to use the Hollywood parlance, the "package"). And they will "tend to look at things from the audience's perspective," says Usher.
Steve Dickstein, president of the commercials division at Propaganda Films, says, "Commercials directors are sought after partly because they're considered more flexible." Adds Tim Case, "The talent agencies are telling us that right now, commercial directors have replaced film schools as the farm system for Hollywood."
Is that good for the state of filmmaking? "Not necessarily," Usher believes. He acknowledges that commercials directors are already beginning to get a bad rap in the film community because of a tendency to be more formulaic and "commercial." "In some cases, that bad rap is well-deserved," says Usher. "Look at The Rock and Con Air -- they're bad films." But from the studio standpoint, if they took in over $100 million, they're not bad at all. The only thing that can tarnish the new luster of commercials directors will be poor showings at the box office -- something that's almost certain to happen in the next year or two, with so many ad guys getting into the game. But for now, they're red hot because, as Dickstein notes, "in Hollywood, the excitement and the expectation level is very high for anyone who hasn't yet made a flop."
It isn't just the agents swarming over directors with promises; to some extent, commercials production companies have also been in the midst of the frenzy, and are helping to fuel it. With more commercials production companies -- including Propaganda, HSI, Manifesto, Crossroads, Chelsea and others -- now becoming increasingly involved in films (either by producing their own movies or by forming partnerships with studios like Miramax), the production company is increasingly serving as a pipeline that can help directors make the move into films. "The trend of directors crossing over is gaining momentum now, in large part because of the association of production companies with the studios," says Pamela Maythenyi of The Source, a commercials database service. "Before, the studios might not have known where to look for commercials directors; now there's a relationship already in place."
But there has also been something of an epidemic of overpromising by the production companies, who sometimes play up their ties to the film business as a means of attracting commercials directors to the roster. "What's happening is that commercials production companies are promising directors, 'If you work with us, we'll help you make your movie,' " says Stavros Merjos of HSI. "But for the most part, that's a lie. The chance that you're going to have a production company making a movie, and using one of its own directors on that movie, is very slight." Merjos and others say the primary thing a production company can do for a commercials director is to introduce him to the right people -- particularly the top agents at CAA and ICM, who can then help the director to get a film.
But sometimes, no introductions are necessary. These days, the talent agencies are watching for the best spots on TV, then finding out who directed them and making the director an offer. Such was the case with the ESPN SportsCenter campaign, made by Buckley and partner Hank Perlman. "The SportsCenter ads caught the eye of agents, and they started calling," says Buckley. Perlman adds: "When agents see something on TV and like it, they get really excited -- because they're used to looking at spec scripts, and this is something they can actually see, and they know it works." Agents wanted to attach Buckley and Perlman to a film that would, in effect, be a blown-up, full-length version of an ESPN commercial -- and eventually, the right project, the "mockumentary"-style New Jersey Turnpike, was found.
If that sounds too good to be true, there are downsides. One is that directors can get trapped in the style of their commercials, which isn't necessarily the kind of movie they may want to make. Charles Wittenmeier, who has directed Little Caesars spots, says he is continually being offered "broad comedies" by agents, and he has consistently turned them down. "I want to do something more independent in spirit," he says. "If you go the Simpson/Bruckheimer route, you're going to make money, but you have to do it the Hollywood way."
That doesn't seem to trouble Usher as much. "At first I thought, maybe I could do a little art film," he says. "But the fact is, you'll never be a player until your box office is over $100 million. If you have the opportunity to do something bigger, and it's good, you can't pass that up."
Those who do take the bait, however, should know that the process of making a big-budget film can be a difficult -- and at times excruciating -- experience. "For first-time directors, a big-budget film is a locomotive running at full throttle, and the director is just trying to hang on," says Propaganda's Dickstein.
Gore Verbinski, fresh from Mouse Hunt and still smarting a bit, says of the process: "You really get chewed up. You're surrounded by people you don't know, and everybody has an agenda. You're swimming with the sharks." Verbinski says that unlike commercials, "where you can usually resolve differences that come up, you can't do that with film. The process is like the peeling of an onion -- they slowly peel away layers of your film, and eventually you realize that it's nothing like what you started out with. And you may start out complaining and threatening to leave -- but eventually there's a point where you've invested too much, you have to see it through. And at that point, the people making the movie know that they've got you and they can do what they want."
Sounds like fun -- so is there any chance Verbinski would do it again? "Absolutely," he says, noting that the satisfaction of actually getting a feature film completed is tremendous. Wittenmeier, who continues to look at scripts searching for the right one, says: "I know some directors say they don't want to do a film, but honestly, who wouldn't want the opportunity to tell a story that's larger than 30 seconds?"
Once a commercials director moves into film, will he ever go back to shooting commercials on a regular basis? It's a big issue for the production business now that so many of its most talented directors are beginning to defect. "There's an inevitable talent drain on the industry," says Kamen. "It will take its toll at times, with production companies finding that their best directors are out of circulation for a year." Jeff Frankel of Manifesto says that already, some top production companies are finding that their once-strong director rosters are depleted. But Frankel also thinks that most of the starry-eyed lensmen will come back to commercials. "Directors love power, ego and control -- and they get that on the set in advertising much more than in films," he says. "They'll keep coming back because they know they can steer a commercial better than a movie."
Verbinski, who is doing spots now as he awaits his next feature, draws an analogy between shooting and, well, shooting up. "It's like being a junkie; you need a fix. You need to be shooting something, not just sitting in Hollywood meetings. Commercials give you a chance to do that."
Some feel that the experience of making films will improve these directors' commercials. What can the directors bring back from the big-screen experience? "More experience working with actors," says Wax. "Better storytelling skills. And maybe some humility, after having been through that experience."
Of course, all of this is based on the assumption that the ad industry will embrace these returning auteurs. Don't bet on it, says O'Fallon. "If you don't choose the right movie, you may find you've ruined your commercials career. Your clients move on while you're gone. And then you come back with this bad movie that you're associated with, and nobody wants to be around you. It's the nuclear bomb theory -- you demolish all your careers with one shot."