So You Want to Be a TV Commercial Director – Part 3: The Production Company
We’ve taken a little light-hearted look at the commercial director and we’ve slightly dymistifyed the advertising agency. In this third and final part, let’s take a look at the woes of the production company and see how it functions.
In the golden days of advertising, the ‘60s and ‘70s, owning a production company was a license to print money. A five million dollar budget for a job that took six to eight weeks at 35% “markup,” could net you 1.75 million.
Your offices were ostentatious. Your parties were as lavish as a Sultan’s birthday. Your directors rarely bid against other people because the agencies were glad to just to get the work done by anyone proficient. You could pay your crews top dollar and get the best people.
Sweetheart companies still exist but they are few and far between, and their 18-25% mark-up on million dollar jobs is earned by hard work and cut throat competition with other companies.
Now, companies have to claw their jobs away from thousands of other companies. They probably have modest offices (or even virtual offices) representing a list of ten or more directors on their rosters. They throw their director’s reels at the agencies hoping that one of them will stick.
The Executive Producer
The owners of some of these multi-director shops are sometimes in it for the quick kill… but sometimes for the long haul.
The former… keep their budgets secret, skimming from the top, giving their Line Producers a much reduced bottom line amount to make the commercial.
The latter… are content with their “mark up,” sometime even investing some of it to improve the commercial, perhaps buying an hour of overtime for the Director to shoot a few extra scenes for the reel.
A good hand-on Executive Producer will help the Rep maintain good day-to-day relationships with agency executives, help close the jobs, wine and dine the clients, even be the cheerleader to the agency and clients in “Video Village.” “Wow, that was a great take. I think we’ve got it. We should move on, right?”
As a Director, the Rep is your closest ally. The person without which there is no career.
At worst, they will be your “reel carrier,” someone with twenty director’s reels under their arm, one of which is your. They shuffle the deck, then throw one of them into the DVD player while talking about last night’s football game.
At best, they know your work and personality, they will steer the Agency Producer in your direction, telling them why you are the right Director for the job and how well you will compliment and be a collaborative partner to their creatives.
The Rep is probably the most discerning person when evaluating your reel. They have to actually sit and watch your work being screened by the buyer. Everyone else just wants your reel to be good so you can get the job… and they can suck off the tit.
The Rep is like the tires on a race car… It’s where the “rubber meets the road”.
The Line Producer
Your line producer is your greatest ally. (And, this time, I really mean it). They are the person that turns your creative ideas into reality. Utilizing their knowledge of production and finance, they will stretch the dollars to encompass all you hopes and dreams.
The way I work with a Line Producer is to create a “wish list” of production values that I would like on the set. The Line Producer then tells me, “That’s more than we can afford.” I will then reduce my expectations, they will get financially creative, and we will end up with a workable compromise… and make a great commercial.
But the Line-Producer can also break you.
Very often, when I’m working for an unfamiliar production company, they will try to “double team” me. Meaning that the Line Producer or sometimes even the Executive Producer will stick with me during the early pre-scout and pre-production, but then hand me off to someone else… promising me that they kept copious notes and they will pass them on to the next producer. This could be the Line Producer that they didn’t have the money to hire for the early pre-production or even an Assistant Director.
A lot of things fall through the cracks with this kind production methodology. There nothing worse than being on the set, turning around looking for the wind-machine, which has always been part of the concept, but your Producer swears they were never told about it.
I have learned to insist that one person, my ‘Producer of record’, have all the information about the shoot, and that they never leave my side when creative and productions decisions are being made. One production person must have all the information and be totally accountable. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Now let’s assume you have a great reel, and a great Rep,and the Agency wants to “bid” you on the project. This is probably the only profession on the planet that you are required to do most of the work before you get the job. Bidding a job is a lot of work.
You have to do a complete treatment, a shot list, a storyboard, style-sheet, and a break-down of all the equipment, facilities and talent that you will need. Your producer will then put it all in a budget and summit it to the agency.
The next step is the Agency conference call. This is where the Director learns about the creatives’ expectation and the creatives learn about the Director’s vision. I usually start these calls by asking a lot of questions, drawing out everyone’s agendas. Then it’s time to commit to your vision, which might be a make or break moment… but what the hell!
I can often tell, by the willingness of the agency creatives to engage, how serious they are about considering me for the job. To placate their clients, an agency is required to get multiple bids, even if they know exactly who it is that they want to do the job. If I don’t feel they are really interested, or if they won’t take the trouble to do a call at all, I will give them a “check bid.” A check bid is a cursory guesstimate for the agency to give to their clients. It’s usually on the high side in case all the other bidders fall out and you end up having to do the job after all.
After the creative call, it up to you to work with your Producer to put together the most appropriate bid. Then it’s up to your Producer and your Rep to close the job. There is a mystique to being the Director, so you don’t always want to appear over eager and get involved in the closing process.
The way you usually know if you got the job, is that the agency keeps calling. They phone your producer asking follow up question from the creative call, going over dates, setting up casting sessions, etc. It doesn’t bode well when the phone is silent, even if they tell you they aren’t awarding for a week or so.
It usually comes as a phone call from your producer in a good news/bad news format. “The good news is that you got the job. The bad news is you got the job… and that you will have to do it for 20% less than it really takes to do the job.” And so it begins…
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