Directing Commercials: How to Get Your Foot in the Door

By Lee Jameson / Film Education Coordinator

Well-known filmmakers like David Lynch test different techniques in commercials

Directing commercials can be lucrative for filmmakers, whether as a side gig or while developing a feature. But how do you get started? Last week, our offices were packed with filmmakers seeking insight on how to do just that.

Commercials agent Ezra Burke from Content Chemics provided our members with an overview of the industry and tips for getting a foot in the door, including advice on assembling a standout reel and pitching your work. Here are the top five highlights from Burke’s extended Q&A to help you break into the commercials business:

1. Getting Started:

Burke recommends doing your research to “learn what filmmakers you admire are doing in commercials.” When they’re not shooting features, directors like Nicolas Winding Refn and David Gordon Green, whom Burke represents, are making money and experimenting with different techniques through commercials. To see how they do it, check out David Gordon Green’s commercials with Chelsea Pictures.

2. Selecting the Right Company:

Speaking of Chelsea Pictures — known for supporting independent female filmmakers — Burke recommends considering your personal style as a filmmaker when selecting a commercial production company to work for. “Every company has a different flavor and approach. Think about your style and what holes it can fill on a company roster, because each company has different opportunities.”

Burke cited Portland-based Wieden + Kennedy, which has produced campaigns for Old Spice and Levi’s, as an example of a company with great taste that produces exceptional work and supports its artists.

3. Creating the Commercial Reel:

Your commercial reel should convey a consistent voice and showcase well-crafted images. Burke advises, “Truly, less is more. You should include 3-4 brief clips on your reel.” And keep your shorts short. “If you choose to put a short on there and it’s over 2 minutes long, it better be really, really good because honestly, [reps] are not going to get that far into it.” Your reel should be stylish, succinct and provide reps with a voice they can sell.

4. Selling Your Style:

Research where you are needed. Ask yourself, “Where can I be useful on a roster? Can I be useful in bringing a style that fills a hole where another director on the production company’s roster left?” Production companies are “almost always looking for comedy. They’re also looking for people that have credits and awards.” When reaching out to pitch your work, include a link to your reel in a brief email. “Keep your email short,” Burke recommends. “The work should speak for itself. Don’t send long emails pitching your work to reps.”

5. Learning on the Job:

One reason why so many A-list feature directors work in commercials — besides the substantial paychecks — is that they get the opportunity to test out expensive cutting-edge technology. “If you do your research and watch a lot of spots, you’ll learn that well-known filmmakers are out there testing different techniques in commercials. This is an extremely technical end of the industry and you’ll start to notice how high the visual craft is in commercials. There’s some extremely complicated visual effects work being done in commercials.”

Commercials can be a great outlet for improving and expanding your skills as a director, even if your main goal is directing feature films — just ask Project Involve alum Jon M. Chu, who directed both the recent Microsoft Surface commercial as well as the upcoming G.I. Joe: Retaliation.


November 8th, 2012 • No Comments

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