This post is a compendium of tactical and strategic tips for independent filmmakers – all seen through a frame of ruthlessly sharp reality checks.
Who is your target?
Whether they realize it or not, every filmmaker with a modicum of ambition shoots projects in the hope of impressing someone.
The problem is that many independent filmmakers do not fully understand whom they should be trying to impress and, more importantly, what the target is really looking for.
In this post I will consider some of the targets to impress in feature films, short films and TV commercials — how they think, what they want, a few strong caveats and some very bad news for one particularly parasitic group of people who will soon get their comeuppance.
1.0 Feature films
1.1 Studio executives and talent agents
Whether or not your feature film will impress a studio executive or talent agent depends on both the film and the agent/executive in question. If your feature film ticks the right boxes in the agent’s or executive’s mind, you are in business. In general, “impressing studio executives” is too vague a mission to be fruitfully pursued by filmmakers. Additionally, be warned that the “dim studio executive” stereotype exists for a reason.
Some film director agents, notably Robert Newman at William Morris Endeavor, have real respect for filmmakers and an excellent taste in film. He is the agent who gave Robert Rodriguez his big break, back in the early 90s when Cinderella stories were still possible.
You can email agents who represent directors and ask them if they are willing to watch your film. You should describe the film and any prizes it won, but as always, your query email should be ultra-brief. If they express interest, send them a DVD.
1.2 Film festivals
When it comes to film festivals, the picture darkens considerably.
The crushing majority of film festivals are not in fact the least bit interested in “helping” filmmakers: they have agendas that they do not disclose and that in any case change from year to year.
Their imperative is to attract as many submissions as possible, because submitting a film to film festivals requires the payment of quite a substantial fee.
In return for your money they will watch your film and decide whether to include it in the festival, but I have the unshakable and well-founded suspicion that not all submissions are actually watched by film festivals. They do not, however, ever fail to collect the submission fee, which they do with great alacrity.
Film festival officials would pretend to take umbrage at my assertion, but there is simply no way of being sure that they actually watched your film from beginning to end – they can simply claim that they did, and you have no way to prove otherwise. It is the perfect crime for them. I cannot imagine anyone with a shred of life experience really believing a word these guys say.
If you think that film festivals are pro bono organizations that want to nurture filmmakers, you are naïve and you fit the perfect profile of the needy, compliant filmmaker who is easily seduced into parting with hard-earned money in return for a glimpse of promised opportunities.
Film and video competitions are even more shady.
1.3 Independent producers
Impressing independent producers and investors once again depends on whether your film satisfies the taste and sensibilities of the parties in question.
Independent producers typically have a script that they are madly and unreasonably in love with, even though the population at large would find many of these scripts tedious and self-indulgent, entirely devoid of mainstream appeal. They need a director who will make the film that they have in mind. If your reel shows evidence of the style they want, you have a chance.
Impressing film distributors is a much more reliable and predictable game, for one simple reason: distributors are not the least bit interested in “helping” directors — all they care about is whether they can successfully market your film, and that is a variable over which filmmakers have a lot of control, if they do their homework.
If distributors think they can make money off your film, they will snap it up regardless of the film’s intrinsic merits.
Conversely, if your film is a work of genius but cannot be successfully marketed, they will never touch it. You can save yourself an awful lot of grief by fully taking this point on board. Most filmmakers think their idea is a unique and special snowflake that will achieve massive success as soon as they unleash it on the world, but leaving reality out of a business plan is a reliable path to frustration.
So how do you know in advance what distributors are looking for? You can investigate the past and you can try and foresee the future.
You can investigate the past by going to Box Office Mojo and look up the historical box office performance of independent films. You can search by genre and get a pretty clear idea of what your feature film is likely to make at the box office.
If the kind of film you have in mind has traditionally done very poorly, you cannot reasonably expect your film to be any different. It’s called a reality check, and it can save you a lot of heartache.
As for predicting the future, this requires a bit more effort. You basically have to talk to film distributors and ask them about the trends they foresee. This is tricky, partly because predicting the future is intrinsically challenging, and partly because film distributors are not generally well endowed in the cognitive skills department.
You can attend film markets and film festivals and chat to as many distributors and film buyers as you can. In my experience this is about as enjoyable as buying a used car off Craigslist, but your experience might differ.
1.5 What your target is thinking when you got it right
This is the approximate inner dialogue of the target when you have successfully made a favorable impression:
Distributors: “Wow, we can really make a ton of money off this movie, without much trouble!”
Independent producers: “Wow, this filmmaker has a really distinctive style and I love it — I want this director to work the same magic on my beloved script!”
Talent agents: “Wow, I can realistically convince studios to hire this filmmaker to direct big movies – that will be a juicy 10% slice for me!”
Film festivals: “Wow, giving a prize to this film really fits our sociopolitical agenda — let’s do it!”
2.0 Short films
The hope for short films, as in feature films, is to impress executives, agents, film festivals and independent producers who might give you a break, but short films have one advantage of over feature films, apart from the obvious fact that they are cheaper and quicker to produce: with short films you can make a strong impression in the space of 10 minutes, which is often all the time you get anyway.
Short films are also slightly more likely than feature films to impress the TV commercial crowd, but for that to happen, the requirements are very clear and stringent:
To impress the TV commercial industry, the short film must be very tightly paced, impeccably shot and very pretty to look at. It must be “stylish.”
Experience has repeatedly shown that this is the sort of short film that gets directors signed at TV commercial production companies. Some of them might deny that, but all I am interested in is what they actually do, not what they say. By their deeds you shall know them!
3.0 Spec TV commercials
This is the official, tried-and-tested way for a director to break into TV commercials and land paid work with a TV commercial production company. It is the closest an aspiring director ever gets to having a clear-cut career development protocol to follow.
The beauty of breaking into TV commercials is that it is absolutely crystal-clear whom you are trying to impress: that would be (a) Executive Producers at TV commercial production companies, (b) TV commercial Directors’ Reps and (c) advertising agency creatives.
3.1 Spec TV spots: fake spots to get real work
A spec TV commercial is essentially a fake TV commercial that you produce at your own expense for the purposes of building a reel and getting signed at a TV commercial production company.
The consensus is clear on the fact that you must use real brands and that the script should be written not by the director, but by a serious TV commercial copywriter.
You see, TV commercials are not simply a 25-second mini-movie with a five-second logo and voice-over at the end: they are very carefully written to appeal to the product’s target audience, which in turn was elucidated with highly technical, data-driven market research.
It is not a game, and if you’re serious about your TV commercial directing career, you will not mess around writing your own scripts. You should instead collaborate with somebody with proven talent and experience in writing TV ads.
If you get this wrong, your TV commercial spots will fail, even if they are brilliantly directed. It is not entirely fair, but that it is how it works, and this post is all about the reality of the targets you are trying to impress and what they are really looking for.
Having completed your TV commercial reel (consisting of a minimum of three TV spots), you then contact the Executive Producer at TV commercial production companies and ask them if they are willing to watch your reel.
These days the best way to do that is to e-mail them and submit a link to your reel. This is standard practice and it is not considered pestering, as long as you do not e-mail them more than once. There is a list of TV commercial production companies on LA411, and you can also search on Mandy.
TV commercial Executive Producers vary in quality: some are very intelligent and great people to work with; others have such poor judgement that they don’t realize how badly they are embarrassing themselves with their illiterate and juvenile blog posts (you know who you are).
If they like your reel, they will show it to their Director’s Reps to get a second opinion and to ensure that your reel is marketable.
3.2 Director’s Reps: easy earnings (with your hard-earned money)
Very briefly, the role of the Director’s Rep is as follows: they receive the boards from the ad agencies who wrote the TV commercial script for their client. Depending on the requirements of the script, the Director’s Rep at every production company then decides which director on their roster to put forward for that particular job.
If the script is for a glamorous car commercial, they will put forward the director on their roster who has a reel with glamorous car TV spots.
If the script is a comedy TV spot for a fast-food brand, they will put forward the director on their roster who has a reel with both fast food and comedy in it.
As a TV commercial director, you will only ever get work with the characteristics that are already present in your reel. The director who is awarded a job is the director who already has that same spot in the reel (more about this below).
Having received directors’ reel submissions from all reputable Director’s Reps in the country, the ad agency holds conference calls with the small number of short-listed directors, after which they award the job to whichever production company represents the director they want.
Again, despite the apparent meritocracy of the process, the director who gets the job is usually the director whose previous work is most similar to the TV spot being made.
The rep of the chosen director then gets paid a percentage of the director’s fee – sometimes as much as 18%, which is scandalous, unreasonable and unjustifiable.
In addition to getting a cut of the director’s fee that is twice as large as that charged by all other agents, TV commercial Director’s Reps also charge a monthly retainer – a flagrantly illegal practice for agents, which is why they re-branded themselves as “sales reps.”
This clumsy change of name does not elude my fraud radar – it is my contention that they call themselves “sales reps” for the specific purpose of circumventing state laws that ban agents from charging up-front fees.
Why doesn’t California’s Attorney General investigate these odious parasites? They are de facto talent agents and get away with charging up-front fees by simply re-branding themselves as “sales reps.” They make a mockery of the Law and the entire TV commercial community wants to see them get their comeuppance. The Illinois and New York Attorneys General should do the same, since the three big hubs for Director’s Reps in the U.S. are Los Angeles, Chicago and NYC (for the West Coast, Midwest and East Coast markets respectively). Nail them!
A Director’s Rep who is signed with ten production companies makes $5000 per month just with retainers ($500 from each client), regardless of whether they successfully obtain work for their directors – do you think the rep will lose any sleep if none of her directors ever work? Sure, they try, but there is no pressure to deliver with that kind of guaranteed income.
I keep tabs on a rep I once worked with, and her list of clients keeps changing: why do you think that is? My guess is she isn’t doing a very good job, and the production companies she represents pay her retainer for a few months before getting fed up and firing her. I know it’s what I did!
Firing an underperforming Director’s Rep is a tough decision for a production company, because an unrepresented company stands little chance of winning bids, and there are only so many reps, so they just take it on the chin.
Director’s Reps have quite the cushy job, but that gravy train will end soon, even if the Law doesn’t get to them first – there are bigger forces at work these days: non-trivial issues such as a chronically ailing economy, for example. The reps will be the first to go, particularly as ad agencies have already started shifting to an in-house model of TV commercial production. The clock is a-ticking!
This is a big topic, but my quick advice to aspiring TV commercial directors is this:
Do not ever agree to pay a monthly retainer to a Director’s Rep who claims she can represent you.
If we all take this approach, we will force them to stop charging monthly retainers and we will instead simply give them a percentage of our earnings not greater than 10%, which is what every other agent gets paid. I don’t see why they should be any different. They are getting away with murder, and directors can stop them simply by saying “enough — you’re done.”
But as I wrote above, the foundering economy will get them first, I guarantee it.
Back to the Executive Producer getting a second opinion from the Director’s Rep: the Director’s Rep will watch the reel and will advise the executive producer on whether she can sell the director to the ad agencies. If she believes that this director will never get work, the production company will not sign this director, even if he is demonstrably a filmmaking genius.
3.3 A TV commercial director’s reel must be ultra-specialized
Breaking into directing TV commercials involves building a reel that will convince TV commercial production company executive producers and director’s reps that you can realistically be chosen by the ultimate choosers, namely, the agency creatives who wrote the TV spot for their client.
Ultimately, however, what many aspiring TV commercial directors simply do not understand is that even if the production company signs you, they are not the ones who give you the work: the work comes from the ad agency that wrote the script for the brand they work for.
The agency creatives choose the director they want. This is why there is no point in a TV commercial production company signing you if they do not think that agency creatives will ever choose you to direct their TV spots.
The ad agency decision makers in the TV commercial world are some of the most fearful and cautious creatures on this blue planet, but they are the ones who ultimately choose directors. Some of them think that they are sublimely gifted Artists with a divinely mandated mission to blow us away with their preternatural talent, so you have to grit your teeth and pretend that you admire them.
To please agency creatives, a TV commercial director’s reel must be hyper-focused and specialized: if the reel is not specialized in anything, that director will quite simply never see a single day of paid employment in TV commercials.
If the spot for which you are being considered features blonde talent filmed in front of a white background but your reel only has a blonde filmed against a red background, you are out of luck. I once watched a spoof video about this aspect of the TV commercial business and it was spot-on.
It doesn’t sound like the land of meritocracy and opportunity, does it?
I once knew a filmmaker who was pretty talented. He spent his inheritance on shooting six spec TV spots – mid 5 figures. The production value was truly off the charts — the work looked amazing! The car commercial in particular was truly mind-blowing.
Fast forward six years, and he still hasn’t seen a single day of paid employment as a TV commercial director.
The reason? His reel had no focus: there was one car commercial, one food commercial, one glamour commercial, one comedy commercial, and I can’t remember what the other two were.
There isn’t a Director’s Rep in the world who can successfully represent a director with such an unfocused reel.
Put yourself in the rep’s shoes: what is she supposed to tell the agency creatives when she tries to convince them to award the job to this director?
Is this guy a car director? Clearly not, because there was only one car commercial on his reel.
Is he a comedy director, then? Absolutely not, given that there is only one comedy spot on his reel. And so on.
Whichever area of specialization you consider, he wasn’t eligible for it, because he did not have more than one spot in that category. Six beautiful spots; a five-figure inheritance blown; no paid work to show for it.
If this guy had been told in advance how the TV commercial business works, he could really have gone places, not least because he is a great guy to talk to and would have done pretty well in conference calls (essentially a telephone interview in which agency creatives give short-listed directors the opportunity to offer their take on how they will direct the TV spot).
4.0 So what does all this mean?
If you understand the true motivations of the people who hire directors, your chances of getting where you want to be will increase considerably.
Contrary to what we sometimes think, Directors are not the center of the Universe.
When directors are paid to direct, they are part of someone else’s business model.
5.0 Summary of main points
1. Studio executives tend to be dim and impressing them is a lottery — not a mission that you can realistically pursue with any kind focus.
2. Impressing talent agents involves convincing them that they can realistically get you work so that they can extract 10% of your earnings, and they tend not to fancy 10% of zero.
3. Impressing distributors involves convincing them that they stand to make good money from your film, and you definitely can’t bluff this: they will assess the marketability of your film in a matter of minutes.
4. Impressing film festivals mostly involves a fortuitous match between your film and whatever agenda that particular film festival is nurturing this year. If you are a true outsider — and most filmmakers are — you had better appreciate that you are not part of their agenda.
5. The only constant with film festivals is their insatiable appetite for submissions, because each submission carries a hefty fee.
6. TV commercials provide aspiring directors with the clearest and most reliable path to getting paid work, as long as the rules of the business are followed to the letter.
7. To be awarded a TV commercial, a director’s reel must be ultra-focused on one particular area of specialization, and furthermore the reel must happen to have a spot that is very similar to the one being prepared by the agency. Potential is not appreciated in the TV commercial business; only past performance is.
That was fun – I hope you find this useful! 🙂