How To Do the Possibly Impossible: Break Into Commercial Directing
Veteran commercial producer and indie filmmaker Jen McGowan shares practical tips for breaking into the ad biz.
Professional commercial directors can make about $30K per shoot day, which—let’s face it—is no small chunk of change for your average indie filmmaker. In order to create the financial freedom to build feature film careers, many indie makers aspire to get involved in some aspect of commercial production.
Kelly & Cal director Jen McGowan has been behind the scenes on ad shoots for almost 20 years, during which she has shot in four countries, with everyone and everything from chimpanzees to the New York City Ballet to P. Diddy. However, though some bigger name directors like Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry have tried their hand at commercial directing, the industry is not easy to get a foothold in (especially for women, as Mashable reported). In fact, in her entire career, McGowan has worked with only three female directors and one director of color.
With the stakes high, but the odds stacked against newcomers, No Film School asked McGowan for her insider perspective on how the industry works—and how you can get a leg up.
NFS: What does it mean to be a commercial producer? What do you do?
McGowan: I work as a freelance producer and production manager. What that means is, I get paid on a day rate to hire everybody to show up, put everything together, hand it in to the production company, and walk away. That's it. In the commercial world, my role is just the creation of the shoot. We don't really deal with post. We don't deal with special effects. We don't deal with music. It's the production of the shoot.
NFS: How do the directors get hired?
McGowan: The brand hires the agency, the agency goes out to production companies with their boards, and the production companies present directors who are on their rosters. The agencies select directors to present to the brand, the brand chooses a director, the director gets hired. The director usually has a producer that they work with on a regular basis. Then, they execute the shoot.
“It's very frustrating for young directors. They're like, ‘I don't want to be put in a box.’ I'm like, ‘No, you don't understand. You need to put yourself in a box.’”
NFS: How does someone get represented by a production company?
McGowan: You have to have a series of spots on a reel. The thing about the commercial world is it's super specific and literal. For example, I saw this post on one of the commercial listservs that belong to: "I need a director that has Rube Goldberg experience." You know those Rube Goldberg machines? That specific.
But there are areas to break in if you’re willing to be specific. For example, I'll tell you where there is an opportunity for directors to work: tabletop directing. Think close-ups of water pouring out of a bottle cutting to into a glass, an ECU of a set of a woman’s manicured nails. Highly art-directed food, toys, or other products Basically a bunch of close-up shots.
NFS: Wow, so it doesn't matter if the director has any sort of creative vision as long as they shoot the very specific thing that the company wants to sell?
McGowan: I am not kidding you. It’s just a different world than features. In the Rube Goldberg case, they wanted someone that had that on their reel so that they could do another thing exactly the same [way]. It's very frustrating for young directors. They're like, "I don't want to be put in a box." I'm like, "No, you don't understand. You need to put yourself in a box."
NFS: What do you mean by that?
McGowan: You want to be put in a box. If you don't decide to put yourself in a box, you're not going to work, because people aren't going to understand what the fuck you do. You need to say, "I do dog food commercials. That's what I do. I'm an expert in dog food commercials." Or, "I do car commercials." There are people who do exclusively car commercials for 40 years.
There are only a few guys in the world who do car commercials. And that is why it’s so hard to break in, because there are only a few guys who do it, period. And when those guys die, their assistants do it.
NFS: Can a reel contain spec commercials and still be effective?
McGowan: Absolutely. But if you are doing a spec with a known brand, you'd better be speaking the language of that brand.
Take Dove. It is a known brand. You understand the feeling of Dove. You understand what they're communicating. You don't do a Dove commercial and use punk rock music and cast all boys. You need to think properly for the brand. By the way, like all things in life, there are exceptions, but this is the general rule in this world.
It’s kind of like surfing: you want to be just in front of the wave, but if you're too far in front of the wave, you're going to get crushed. Nobody understands it if your idea is five years [too early]. They want you to only be half a year ahead.
“The best thing somebody could do if they want to work in commercials is to create a reel of three to four commercials that speaks clearly to their brand.”
NFS: But you do hear about indie directors making commercials, especially documentary people.
McGowan: Documentaries are slightly different because they are a genre in and of themselves, like cars are a genre. Music is a genre. Babies are a genre. Tabletop is a genre. You want to be able to brand yourself as precisely as possible, so the best thing somebody could do if they want to work in commercials is to create a reel of three to four commercials that speaks clearly to their brand, of what kind of commercial director they are. And it needs to be high-quality. This is something that filmmakers really don't understand. Unless they're doing comedy, they have to have high production values, particularly in commercials. And if they’re doing comedy, it better be funny.
Look critically at the quality of your work. I don't mean in terms of creativity. I would never judge anyone else's creativity. But in terms of quality, ask yourself, “Does this actually look like anything on television, or in a theater? Is this something better than to just show my friends and my family?” Because if it's not, don't show it to people!
“Don't direct commercials because you want to be directing features. If you want to direct features, direct features.”
NFS: Aside from just money, what are the pros of trying to break into commercial directing?
McGowan: Well, it is a shit ton of money, and that's legitimate. Also, you get to work with some of the top crews in the business. You get to work with some of the best tools and toys. You get to work in the best locations. You get to spend hours on a single shot. I would say the average budget of a 30-second commercial— and this is just the shooting budget, mind you, which doesn't include post or talent—is usually about $300,000.
NFS: So it's like a whole indie film micro-budget just for the camera department for one spot.
McGowan: Yeah, that's fun to work like that. It's great to work with a big crew, a professional crew that knows what the fuck they're doing. It's amazing.
It’s funny because I had an interview on the film side of things a couple months ago. An executive said to me, "Oh, you must be used to working with smaller crews." I thought, "What?" Why would he say that? I thought that was so weird. And then I realized, it was because he saw me as an indie filmmaker and doesn't know that I work in commercials, too, because I keep those worlds very separate. But I am much more comfortable on crews of 60 or 70 than I am on these little cut-down indie film crews. The smaller crews stress me out.
NFS: When thinking about what production companies to approach after you’ve made your reel, is the AdAge Production Company A-list a good place to start?
McGowan: Oh my god, yeah. Those are the top companies. But there are tons others too. Just do your research.
NFS: How would you go about getting your reel in front of them?
McGowan: You just need to reach out and cold call, but you need to test out your pitch and your reel on the companies you’re less interested in first. If you have your list of 10 people that you want to go to, put them in order of importance and work your way up. Because if you get three no's in a row, don't waste your A people. Start again.
One more thing: I would really urge people to understand that commercial directing is an industry. It is a career in and of itself. Sometimes what happens, especially with young filmmakers, is they say, "I'm going to do X to get to Z." In Los Angeles, where there is a monstrous industry, you need to do the thing you want to be doing. If you want to direct commercials, fabulous, direct commercials. But don't direct commercials because you want to be directing features. If you want to direct features, direct features. Done. Or you're going to do that for 20 years and realize, "Holy shit, my path was actually a complete diversion."