I know what you’re thinking. Tim is offering a How-To on director searches because he wants to play to his own strengths, load the deck in his favor and become your eventual Director-of-Choice. Fair guess.
But, you’re not that gullible, I’m not that brazen and neither of us are that stupid. Right?
Well, let’s press forward and see what happens.
The one thing that I have learned about many of you (both during my time as an agency Writer-ECD and my last 8 years as a Writer-Director) is that you are nervous. Nervous about where the industry is going. Nervous about what that means for production. And nervous that you just don’t know enough about the craft of directing itself in order to recognize a good director or even a great director when you find one. So, you punt. You look at a director’s reel and try to find something that is a mirror of your concept. Or mimics the style you’re proposing. Which means that—despite all that has evolved in our industry--the process for choosing a director has not evolved since the Reagan Administration.
And that is sad. Because our industry has more than evolved. It has flipped and flopped, compressed, flattened and essentially been turned inside out in recent years. So, it stands to reason that many of our creative processes should be evolving too. Unfortunately, reason has very little to do with anything in our business anymore. Caution is king. Even when it comes to hiring directors.
Why? Well, beyond the aforementioned nerves, you also don’t launch into production every single day. So you don’t want to take a chance and screw it up. Understandable. And the reason that you get so few at-bats is that production budgets continue to shrink like a scrotum in Lake Michigan because marketing dollars have been diverted to all manner of other distribution channels.
But most importantly, you have busted your ass getting this concept approved for production. In fact, you’ve likely spent even more energy in the approval process (presenting internally then externally, explaining, defending, processing feedback tweaking, comforting clients, testing, discussing data, tweaking again) than you have in the actual crafting of your idea. I understand. I used to be a version of you. It can be exhausting.
So here you are with a project in your lap. And you have a zillion choices of who to partner with. Maybe we should start with how NOT to choose a director. Because the wrong way seems to be the prevailing way. I get a glimpse at a lot of Director Briefs through producers, creative friends and sales reps. And I think this is where the first mistakes are made.
Here are a few of the most common refrains I’ve seen. Followed by a few words of advice:
1.) “We’re looking for a Wes Andersen-style aesthetic”
If you want a Wes Andersen style, hire Wes. He shoots one ad campaign a year. Why? Because he knows doing any more than that would wear out the welcome. If you feel the need to window-dress a concept by borrowing his very specific style (stark compositions, droll performances), re-visit your concept. Because that may be a sign that it is weak. Almost any director can hire a production designer versed in the Wes aesthetic, lock the camera down tight and direct the talent to be “flatter, more deadpan!”. But those things will not make your idea any more interesting. Also, never forget that part of the so-called “Wes Andersen Effect” are those quirky, feature-length scripts typically written by Wes Andersen. Without that, the “aesthetic” is a bit hollow.
2.) “We’re looking for a celebrity feature director”
With today’s budgets, if you’re insisting on paying the day rate of a famous feature director it is probably more for PR or bragging rights than execution. Which is fine. Just admit that. Either way, I can almost guarantee you that hiring a feature director over a great commercial director will not get you better story, better cinematography or better performances. Much the same way that most novelists cannot write compelling ad copy, Celeb/Feature directors tend to bristle against the very notion of this pesky thing called Brand Stewardship. Which is one of the primary tasks of branded content in my view. Lastly, most feature directors shoot advertising so they can go buy a boat. It’s that simple. Exception: Feature directors who originated in advertising like Spike Jonze or Craig Gillespie. (Both of whom I revere as much as you do).
3.) “We want a director who can work with real people”.
Spoiler Alert: “Real People” are almost never real in advertising. Pranks, stunts, talking heads, and hidden camera executions are so incredibly engineered behind the scenes these days that they’re about as real as professional wrestling. But, I understand your dilemma. Clients demand “authenticity” so you sometimes have to use that trope. Just be aware that all the behind-the-scenes engineering is more akin to Realty TV than documentary filmmaking. So don’t waste a documentarian’s time with these kinds of boards. In fact, almost all directors are good at getting performers to feign authenticity. That’s called Directing.
4.) We want a director who can do quick-cut montages.
Don’t talk about editorial approaches when soliciting a director. Save that for the editorial brief. Talk about what is WITHIN those montages. Or what they build to. And why.
5.) “We need a director who is good with VFX.
Same as above. Just know that Visual FX is a team sport. And all directors have teams.
6.) “We want a director who is good with comedy-dialogue and casting”
Hello! This note actually makes sense. Because true funny doesn’t come easy. Some directors are pure visualists and this particular genre eludes them. This requires a real sense of comedic timing, an ear for great believable dialogue and an understanding of where in pop culture your particular brand of comedy lives. A director’s reel should reflect that knack—even if it looks or feels nothing like your boards.
7.) “We want a director who can do celebrity spokespeople.
Any director who can do #6 can do #7. With one additional, secret ingredient: GRAVITAS. You need a director who can hold his/her own with a towering celebrity ego. Not a sycophant. Celebrities are like a different species of human being. They all think advertising is beneath them and they’re likely only participating for an easy paycheck. They are also very, very accustomed to being told that everything out of their mouths is hilarious, profound or brilliant. In fact, even the nicest celebs will bring a team along with them to laugh or swoon at everything they say just in case the Director didn’t get the memo. And the Celebrity will likely have some of those “brilliant” ideas to apply to your script--which YOU will magically find yourself loving on shoot day because, well…they’re famous. So, find a director with a strong POV and presence.
8.) “We want a director who can do action/sports”.
Knowledge and passion for the sport-of-choice in your boards is always a bonus. But needn’t be a requirement. I’ve seen many, many directors make the jump from static comedy to action sport concepts. And vice versa. I’ve also seen branded content for sports brands that involves an athlete speaking woodenly to camera. You don’t need to be a former college athlete to pull that off. Hell, I’ve filmed combat sequences but I’ve never fired a shot at a human being. And I’ve directed feminine deodorant pad spots but I’ve never…Eh, you get the idea.
9.) “We want a female director”.
I am more than happy to step aside for this. Because, for decades the unspoken brief was precisely the opposite. So, if you want a She and She’s great, give her the job. But…take heed from this next bit of advice…
The worst thing about most of those briefs is how they reduce hundreds of individual human directors into the equivalent of bowling teams. Creatives or agency producers would be so much better served if they just shared the actual boards (with NDA of course) or provided a well-written synopsis of the concept. Directorial skill is a commodity. If a director has an above-average reel, he/she has the requisite skills. Period. But (there’s always a but) …
Here is the last, most important DON’T on my list:
Don’t scour director’s reels looking for your concept or an exact replica of the proposed style.
If you find it, that means your concept is, by definition, not particularly fresh. If your concept takes place at night in a suburban home and features a diverse cast, you don’t need to find a reel with night shoots, big houses and non-white people. I know this sounds like the most dumbed-down advice imaginable but this is fundamentally how creatives (and many producers) scrutinize directors’ reels. Don’t deny it. Most of you try to find someone who has already shot something extremely similar to your concept because that feels safe. Or you assume that such a point of reference is needed to sell the director to your clients. It’s not. And this approach is such a waste of the time you claim you don’t have enough of.
Again, we all have the skills. All of us. And we all need the work. But, here’s what you need:
You need someone who matches your (or your brands’) particular sensibility. So you can go onto create something original together. And the only way you’re going to find that is to de-construct your story and think about what it takes to make it. And then you need to talk to directors whose work or style that you admire and ask them how they’ve gotten it done. You need to invite that director to discuss your IDEA not just the execution of it. When that director recites the mantra “I love your boards!” you need to force that director to articulate why. What is special about your idea and—most importantly—they need to tell you what the audience is supposed to think and feel after seeing your content.
You’d be surprised how many directors cannot do this last thing because they’re so tied up in knots about sheer execution. If a director can show an understanding of the audience takeaway you’re going for, it will inform every single decision he/she makes in prep and production and then they’ll be able to steer the skills I’ve promised you they have. While applying the matching sensibility you have discovered that they have. That is what we mean when we use the term “storyteller” in advertising that so many of you roll your eyes at. The “story” your brand or product has to tell comes not just from information and emotion but also emphasis. So, stop all the social media bashing on storytelling. It’s a very real thing. Even in a :06.
Here is one last word for you to keep in mind while looking at a director’s reel:
Dictionary.com defines it as: capability; innate or acquired capacity for something.
Listen, we know you typically only watch the first five seconds of each spot on most director’s reels. But, start taking just a few extra seconds and consider, “If he/she can do that, he/she can most certainly do this”. That’s aptitude. Even if that director’s reel and your boards look or feel nothing alike. If you focus on aptitude and sensibility, it opens you up to a whole new universe of qualified candidates.
I know agency creatives are busy. I used to do your job. I can empathize with your desire to find a handy, short hand formula for choosing the right director. So, here it is:
Matching Sensibility + Aptitude + True understanding of the Audience Takeaway + Not an Asshole.
It is honestly that simple! Finding the first 3 may require some work and subjectivity. But, it’s definitely worth it. And you’ll find yourself taking a lot more pride in your eventual choice.
Coincidentally, I once considered that formula as the tagline for F. YEAH & ASSOCIATES.
But, it didn’t fit very well on a skullcap or a T shirt.
I do, however, specialize in the “Not an Asshole” part. I promise. I know how it feels to have a director stiff-arm your ideas or use a tidal wave of condescension to wash you back into video village. It su-u-ucks.
But, asshole-ism is not the same as a strong point of view.
If you want to experience the difference, let’s jump on the phone.
PS. I love your boards.