How's this for professional stability: Rob Pritts has been with the same production company, Backyard Productions, since he got into commercials directing in 1991. He's moved from Chicago to the Coast in that time, but otherwise he seems to be the same easygoing and naturally funny fella he was in high school. In fact, he's working with the people he knew in high school. Pritts has been friends with Backyard founding partner Blair Stribley since they were kids, and the both of them were in an art class in high school taught by the other Backyard founding partner, Midwest rep extraordinaire Roy Skillicorn.
While Pritts, 44, continues his sure ascent of the commercials comedy ladder, with outstanding recent work for M&Ms, Altoids and others, he traces his comedic flair back to his family. "It was pretty crazy growing up in my household. There were five kids, and then my mom couldn't have any more, so my parents fostered four full-blooded Chippewa Indians. At times there were nine kids in what was a little house. My father was in heating and air conditioning; it's not a funny field, but he's a hilarious guy and so are his brothers. Actually, they're all insane."
However, Roy Skillicorn was just "OK" as an art teacher, according to Pritts. "It was high school art, plaster-of- Paris shit. He was young, like 23, so he was more like a peer." At any rate, Pritts, who'd been making Super 8 movies since he was 12, went on to film school at Southern Illinois University, about which the best thing he can say is "they had a lot of gear, so they attracted a lot of teachers," like George Romero of Night of the Living Dead fame. But big things didn't happen for Pritts right away. In fact, he spent a decade making industrials before his first commercials break. "I was in a hole," he explains. "When I graduated from film school there were no recruiting tables from Paramount. It was like, 'Shit, I guess I'm not gonna do movies.' Commercials were out of the question at that time because I wasn't really technical. But corporate was booming. I found an ad in the paper that said, 'Looking for film director/writer/producer. Must have car.' I should've known; this guy was running this thing from the basement of his house - he did film strips on how to clean offices. God, it was horrible."
He says he owes everything to Stribley and Skillicorn, who opened Backyard in '89. "If not for them, I'd still be doing industrials. But don't misunderstand, industrials got pretty good. After five years, I started a company doing video with a corporate ad agency, and the projects were more like corporate image pieces. I went all over the world and I was pretty happy with it. I had a wife, a kid and I was living in the suburbs - I thought that was gonna be it. But Blair had already started a company and I'd go watch commercials shoots. I didn't like the hierarchy of it all, I didn't like the pecking order. But eventually I changed my mind. The bottom dropped out of corporate in the late '80s, all those dollars went away. Blair continued to pester me, 'You're doing dry, boring work and you're a pretty funny guy. Just do a spec spot for The Loop.' So I did."
That would be "Bob in a Box," for Chicago radio station WLUP, known as The Loop, and a loopy spot it is. "It was a labor of love," recalls Pritts. "I wrote it, I was the location manager, my wife did the makeup and it cost like four grand. The actor was a janitor in the building where I did corporate." It features a crazy guy in a wooden crate madly tuning a radio receiver while kids cautiously peer at him like he was a zoo exhibit. It went on to air and win a Gold Clio, and it landed Pritts a Sega campaign from Goodby, Silverstein. He's been on a fairly steady roll ever since, with great spots for clients as varied as Twix and Vista Optical, and he's worked with comedy hotshots like Jerry Seinfeld, for AmEx, and Jason Alexander, for KFC.
Last year he even made his first feature, Touchstone Pictures' Corky Romano, a mob comedy starring SNL's Chris Kattan. Unfortunately, the film was beaten by the critics like it was a redheaded stepchild riding a rented mule. "You could say I'm back to square one," Pritts reflects without a trace of rancor. "First-time directors from commercials are picked by Hollywood producers who basically want to run the show. What are you gonna do, walk? You can't walk off your first movie." But didn't he know what it would be like going in? "No, I really didn't. I was a little bit naive. Anyway, the movie was a debacle from a critical standpoint, but it cost $12 million to make and grossed like $30 million. It wasn't a huge hit, but the studio was happy as hell." So he has hopes for a second feature? "Yeah, but either on an indie basis or through a studio but with more control. Unless the right script comes along. "
In the meantime, Pritts is enjoying great commercials scripts, like the current Altoids Sours mock-educational film campaign, from Leo Burnett, a lovingly crafted homage to retro docu-idiocy. "The casting was fantastic," Pritts notes. "Those people were just so pathetic! It was a little bit sad, because those kids really wanted to act and their parents really wanted them to get into acting. I'm not sure why, because they really didn't have a clue. And because they were clueless, I think you can tell."
So where next for Pritts? Where else but to invoke the Pytka Principle? "I like where I'm at right now, but if I have commercials aspirations they'd be to continue to do comedy that's not as slapstick or not as broad and maybe even branch out to do more general stuff. Joe Pytka's a guy who does everything; it'd be great to get those boards." Has Pritts ever shot anything outside comedy? "Oh, God. I did a PSA once for Alzheimer's, it was horrible. It ended up being funny. It was just not right."