What It Really Takes to Become a Successful Commercial Director [Interview]
Ever dreamed of making that spot for that car or store or electrolyte beverage that touches millions? Take it from Ryan Booth, it ain’t easy to get into this space, but if you’ve got the vision, you’ve got a shot.
Two and a half years ago, Ryan Booth up and moved him and his family to NYC. The plan? Make a living as a commercial director. Booth hadn’t always been set on the path to directing. In fact, he started as an audio engineer, and then cut his teeth as a DP, where he eventually got the idea that he really, truly, had something to say as a director. “Not only that but when I got into filmmaking my wife was pregnant with my oldest daughter,” explained Booth to No Film School. “So, I knew I couldn’t can't just float around. This thing has to work.” And it did. Names like Nike, Google, Spotify span Booth’s resume as a commercial director for Pulse.
How exactly do you develop the skills to direct commercial? How do you break in? How does being a commercial director even work? Ryan Booth was kind enough to sit down with No Film School to wade through this nebulous world to answer both nuts and bolts as well as more philosophical quandaries. “This would have been really helpful for me a while ago, just because I could have understood when it was the right time to try to push into that space,” he explained. Lucky us, Booth is paying it forward!
First things first, you need to watch this video where Booth explains a crucial element of being a commercial director: exercising that creative engine, the muscle of curiosity. (For him, it sometimes means unpaid, unassigned portrait street photography.) Watch!
First: Understanding the current commercial landscape
To understand what it takes to make a commercial, you first have to understand the difference between commercials, film, and branded content. Booth breaks down what's changed in the past 10 years, and how that change that got him invited into the commercial world.
Booth: Commercial directing is a very defined silo. It's one avenue of filmmaking. There's a path in progression from how you enter, to where you end up being the top commercial director of all time. There’s a whole group of people, from agents, reps, production companies, executive producers, all of these infrastructure people who exist execute, facilitate, and create commercial content. Then, you have another silo, which is film and television projects. It's movies, it's TV shows, it's more or less projects commissioned by networks. It's producers and production companies commissioning content that they then go off and sell to distribution outlets. It is its own system and world, as well with its own agents, and managers, production companies, et cetera. And, those two worlds, relatively speaking, are not super connected. I could be the best commercial director on the planet, and it would not mean that a film and TV producer or Netflix or anything like that would know me. Like Ryan who? They are not worlds that interact in an explicit kind of way.
Now, there's a third silo, which kind of skips between, which is more or less branded content. Branded content is just borrowing a lot of the language from film and TV. They are either scripted or documentary type projects, but they're usually paid for by a brand. So, you're kind of borrowing from commercial and borrowing from film and TV. I directed a documentary about a musician making a record in Iceland, and it ended up being a 10 or 12-minute long piece. But that was paid for by Google. So, that's this kind of weird thing that's happened in the last 10 or 12 years that is relatively new. It is this gray area middle ground.
What I've been doing and the thing that I ended up finding with Pulse, was to create this more structured commercial content. So 60 and 30-second spots aimed for television. The business is changing and I can't really speak to that because I'm so new to this space, but I do know what my experience is now. And there is a language, process, and procedure to making 30 and 60-second commercials. And you do have to be invited into this world. Then, initiated with how it works. Then, you just start pitching.
"They're talking to three directors no matter what. So, I'm competing against two other directors every time I pitch on a project."
How Ryan Booth first got noticed by the commercial world
(Hint: First he progressed his personal projects.)
Booth: What happened for me, and I continue to say it to remind myself, is that at any point in which my career has progressed forward, a personal project happened immediately before that progression. So, I just was really interested in something. I wanted to try something. I wanted to make a short documentary, or I made a performance video, or I made a short film, blah, blah, blah. And typically speaking, that has been the thing that has led to the next iteration of my career. It's seen by somebody. It goes wherever, but really all it means is like I made something that has my own point of view, and "voice". People respond to a pure point of view is the short answer.
I made a short documentary about a football player called Five Star. It was literally about this heavily recruited high school safety in Nacogdoches, Texas who, during the course of our film was under the most intense pressure from all these schools. Hundreds and hundreds of text messages an hour from schools all over the country saying, "Please, come play at our school." He was paralyzed by this decision because his father had passed away a few years before, and he didn't have somebody in his life that he really felt understood what he was going through. He just wished his dad would walk in and tell him what to do.
We made this film about this young kid at the intersection of childhood and adulthood, having to make a very difficult decision, that impacts the rest of his career trying to make it to the NFL. So, I made the short film and it got a Vimeo Staff Pick. Then, it got into several festivals. And that is how I got invited to start pitching on commercials.
I got invited to start pitching on sports commercials because agencies and product companies saw this film that I made. They thought it would be an interesting point of view to see like, “What would this drafter do if he was making a commercial, a Nike commercial or an Adidas commercial or an ESPN commercial?” So, that is how I started pitching on commercials because basically, I made a short film about high school football.
"You do have to be invited into this world. Then, initiated with how it works. Then, you just start pitching."
A behind-the-scenes look on how a commercial pitch opportunity comes to you
If you think you can storm your way into the Nike CEO's office with a great idea, think again. Booth explains that there is a delicate dance where companies work with agencies who work with reps who work with you. Oh, and did we mentioned that each time he gets approached to pitch, he's up against two other directors at the same time?
Booth: A commercial is a big expenditure for a client. It's a big portion of the budget because not only are they making the commercial, but they're also buying air time. So, the money they spend to make the commercial, just a million dollar commercial, well, they're probably spending double that on the ad buy. So, it's like a big expenditure for them. It's a campaign. The [ad] agency has likely been pitching the client on what they would do for months, and months, and months. Once they feel like they have an idea that the client has signed off on, the agency is like, “All right, this is the campaign. Now, it's time to find directors to pitch on this process.”
Typically they go to a handful of what they call reps, more or less agents, who represent a handful of production companies. So, five or six production companies will be represented by one rep. They'll say, "Hey, we want to do this commercial. Who do you think would be a good fit for this?" That rep might say, "Well, I think Ryan from Pulse would be great because he has this project and this project. And B director from this production company would be great because she's great at this particular kind of thing. Then, maybe C from this other production company would also be great."
Once they identify the directors they want to pitch on the project, they will send you out a brief essentially saying, "Here's the project we're going to do. Would you like to pitch on it?" It's perfectly valid for a director to look at that and go, "You know what? My schedule isn't going to line up.” Or maybe, “I just don't know how I would bring something to this creatively." You decide if you want to pitch on it.
Then, you get on the phone with the agency and they walk you through what they're thinking. You ask them a bunch of questions, and basically, you start to imagine, “Okay, if we were to work together, how would we do this? And what's most important to them?” You have this exploratory conversation. Then, I go away and usually have four or five days to then come up with, "Okay. This is how I would make your commercial." Every project is triple bid. They're talking to three directors no matter what. So, I'm competing against two other directors every time I pitch on a project.
"If you win the project, then you literally get shot out of the canon, immediately into pre-production. A lot of times these commercials get made internationally. So, five days later, you're on a plane to Vancouver or Mexico City or Ukraine or any of these other places where they typically shoot these commercials overseas."
How you put together a pitch
No big deal, just put together 75 pages, imagine every frame, and then wait to find out if anyone cares!
Booth: The way that I do that is basically I write out a written form. It would say, this is literally how I would make a commercial. This is what it would feel like. This is why we're doing it. Here's what I bring to the table. Here's how we might structure it, or how I might approach it, and here's some specific thing or some technics that we might be able to use. Then, here's the script. Usually, when an agency reaches out to a director, they give you their version of the script. A lot of times, I will rewrite a certain part or put my own spin on it. This is how I would do it. That all ultimately ends up being a treatment that could be anywhere from 50, 75 pages long. It's an enormous amount of work. For all practical purposes, when I finish a treatment, in my brain, I've made this commercial. I've seen every frame. I have to invent how I would do everything. Then, I have to communicate that in written form.
Then I send it into the agency. The agency calls, and we have another conversation. This time, the agency just asks me a bunch of questions. “Well, how would you do this? And why did you think about this? We really like this, but what about this part? I don't know if that makes sense.” You know, this kind of back and forth kind of conversation about what is and isn't working about your concept. Then, essentially, they decide who their favorite director or treatment is for that project. They go away and have their meeting. They decide like, "All right, we think Ryan would probably be the best bid for this project." At that point, I find out that I’m the ‘agency recommend’ on this project. Then, the agent goes to the client and they pitch, and say, "Hey, here's what we've learned through this process of engaging with directors. Here's how the idea has shifted a bit. Here are the three directors. Here's how director A would do it. Here's how director B would do it. Here's how director C would do it. We think that director B would be the best for this project."
And sometimes the client says, "Perfect. Director B sounds great. Let's do it." Sometimes they say, "Yeah, I get why you like director B, but actually director C seems the most interesting to us." At which point they have kind of a back and forth. And sometimes the agency goes, "Okay great. You guys want Director C, perfect. You're going with director C." Then you find out if you won the project. If you did not win the project they say, "Thank you so much for the work. Hopefully, we'll catch you on another one." Then, that's it. You just spent two weeks pitching on this thing, and it's over. It's done.
NFS: That's kind of insane.
Booth: If you win the project, then you literally get shot out of the canon, immediately into pre-production. A lot of times these commercials get made internationally. So, five days later, you're on a plane to Vancouver or Mexico City or Ukraine or any of these other places where they typically shoot these commercials overseas.
It took me a long time to learn the process, and not just that, but to figure out, is this project going to be a good fit for me? Am I a good fit for them? Are we going to collaborate well? Are they scared of their clients? Is their client collaborative? There's a lot of political maneuvering of figuring out how best to kind of go about this. Sometimes you can just feel it from the beginning, like I think I'm going to get this one. It's a great fit. We're clicking with everybody. Then, a lot of times that in fact does happen. Sometimes I get on the phone after the first call with the agency. I'm like, “You know what, I just don't think it's going to happen, but I'm going to engage and go through this process because I think it's an interesting idea or it's really difficult and I think it'll be really a worthwhile endeavor to pitch on this, even if I don't get it.
Not everyone is meant to be a commercial director
There are some specific skillsets required to be a good commercial director, and part of that is understanding how to condense an idea into a single image.
Booth: It's a very complicated and complex process. Being a great director and being a great commercial director are not necessarily correlated. Some of my friends are incredible directors, incredible filmmakers, and they have the hardest time in the commercial space because there is this different skillset required. You have to be able to kind of communicate very well with people who don't do filmmaking for a living.
A lot of the marketing departments and these clients, they make one commercial every two years. They're thinking about the brand, not about the commercial itself, that's their job. So, you have to communicate with people who may not do what you do day in and day out. There's a very unique skill set that is required to do commercials well. It's just not for everybody, and I don't think there's any value judgment in that. Directing commercials should not necessarily be everyone's goal. For me, I don't really do music videos. I just conceptually don't get it. The way that music videos are made, it's like they're almost more like gallery pieces or visual metaphors, and I literally just don't quite understand how you would conceive of them in that way, and how to interact with labels and that kind of stuff. So, I don't really do music videos that much.
All that being said, for any readers who are like, “Man, I just really want to do commercials.” I spend the majority of my time writing treatments, and pitching them on conference calls. Then, occasionally I get to go off and direct them. It's a little different than you would expect, I guess, from the outside.
NFS: It sounds like a crazy process, but one that could be a lot of fun once you know what to expect.
Booth: Maybe it's just because there's not really a lot of time or need to explain it to people who aren't doing it, but I definitely feel like for me, if you sat me down and said, "Hey look, this is how commercials work, right? Here are the things that are ways to know if you would be well suited for this, or kind of here's what's that you can kind of start thinking about what you're doing and how that might kind of connect to commercials or whatever." I think this would have been really helpful for me a while ago because I could have understood when it was the right time to push into that space.
I would have understood the skillsets that I would need to get better at pitching or to get better at directing commercials. I think for me one of the things that I'm really kind of spending a lot of time working on is, “How do I distill down some of the ideas that I have to a single image?” Because a lot of times these commercials need to convey a concept, an idea, a story like that. I love long-form projects, letting a moment develop over time. In commercials, you really need to compress, compress, compress. That's something that I had to learn. How can I illustrate this idea or this metaphor in a single image? Then, we can build out from there. But if you were to only show one image from this commercial, would it convey the whole story? That's something that I'm having to continually refine – because that's a skill that you need to have as the commercial director: being able to condense in a singular way.
"What is it that you're uniquely contributing? How do you view the world? What is your set of personal experiences? Your history, your past, your identity. Nobody can take that away from you."
Beyond auteur: why directors get better with age
NFS: In the film, you say that your particular vision or aesthetic is something you have to protect at all costs. It’s difficult to do and must be very much so in the commercial world. Do you have advice to others on the best way to protect your voice as you go through your career?
Booth: I think your job as a storyteller, as a filmmaker, or a production designer, a wardrobe department, if you're a gaffer, whatever – there is something that you bring to the project that you're the only one who can bring. It's not just the director or DP. It’s everybody all the way down.
So, I think your job as a kind of filmmaker, no matter how that is expressed, is to know what it is that you're bringing to the table. What is it that you're uniquely contributing? How do you view the world? What is your set of personal experiences? Your history, your past, your identity. Nobody can take that away from you.
If you are able to not just identify but value that as your unique contribution to these projects, that is a buttress and a barrier against people who want you to fit a particular mold. I don't mean to say that there won't be collaboration or back and forth. I mean, the thing about filmmaking, it’s the ultimate team sport. I do not subscribe to the like auteur theory. I don't!
"If you were to only show one image from this commercial, would it convey the whole story?"
For me, part of the way I protect my vision is not by saying, “We're doing it my way or we're not doing it at all.” Instead, I try to identify where the environments, people, the agencies, the clients are. Where are the people that want me to work on this project because of what I'm going to bring to the table? Then, that point of view and approach, in conjunction with everyone else, is going to create something compelling. That's where the good work is going to be coming from, not based on going like, "Hey, we need to just execute this. Find me somebody who can do it. I don't really give a shit." So, for me, it's identifying where are the places where my particular vision or voice is being valued and leaning fully into those places.
What's really difficult about directing is a lot of times you don't really have anything to hide behind, and it can be a very vulnerable thing. I'm not the one who's shooting. I'm not the one designing the production design. I'm the one who's supposed to be getting everyone to be pointed at this particular direction, and it's a very vulnerable experience. Bringing my "vision" to the table feels like being incredibly vulnerable in front of people for a living. It's a very difficult and complex job. There are people who make incredible things when they're young, but I do think that the typical director, the prime of their career, is when they're much older. It takes that long to develop the kind of vulnerability, the skillset, the confidence in your own vision. And, to gather enough life experience to bring something to the table that is both substantial and compelling.
Pitching on commercials, I get rejected all the time. It's so hard. It's so hard to be told, “Eh, like I know you wanted to bring your little vision to the table and everything, but we don't want you. We want somebody else.” That happens all the time to me, but that's part of directing.
I don't mean to oversimplify it. It's deadly difficult. But I think that if we are willing to engage and be vulnerable, find the people who are willing to do that as well, and create a place where we can all bring what we do best to the table, over time we will make some amazing things.
Thank you, Ryan!