Just yesterday, for Mother’s Day, I released a personal project that I had been working on for a few months.
This autobiographical piece paints the portrait of a young boy losing a parent to an illness and hopefully also serves as a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Instead of turning this story into a narrative film, as most filmmakers might, I chose to make it a spec commercial for Gatorade.
No, this commercial spot has no affiliation with Gatorade. So, why make it? Well, creating unofficial content serves a similar purpose to making a fan film. The goal, of course, being to use the fan film, or spec commercial in this case, as a stepping stone, a calling card, or a portfolio-builder but with the added name-recognition of a larger brand, company or title. Much like the process of creating a proof-of-concept for a first feature, creating a spec commercial offers validation to others that your filmmaking abilities are trustworthy, and more importantly investment-worthy. In the narrative filmmaking world, producers, executives and investors are all looking to hedge their bets before taking a chance on a novice director. In a similar fashion, within the advertising world, big brands, ad agencies and production companies are all interested in you being able to prove your abilities before entrusting you with their next high-dollar marketing campaign.
Understanding the why of making a spec commercial requires us to look at the differences in approach to narrative filmmaking versus advertising-focused filmmaking, and the blurred middle ground between the two. Commercials are creative art forms just as movies are. However, both can be vastly different. Take, for example, the latest Taco Bell commercial you may have seen on television, or perhaps that pesky un-skippable ad before the last YouTube video you watched. You might not have been very impressed if you even paid attention to the advertisement at all. These particular ads might not have been bad, or uncreative, they just likely weren’t aimed at your specific demographic. As narrative filmmakers, we often have predetermined ideologies about the general purpose film as a medium should serve. Sure, it may be easy to say that Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bending epic encapsulates the pinnacle of what filmmakers can achieve and McDonald’s commercial’s don’t, but again that misses the point that these types of films serve different purposes. Both can be highly effective in their own right.
Now, what about the blurred middle ground between those two ends of the spectrum? A few years ago, AG Rojas, a young filmmaker at the time, directed a Super Bowl commercial for Duracell batteries. The short 60-second spot illustrated the struggle that a young hearing-impaired boy experienced growing up while trying to become successful as a football player. Based on a true story, the commercial showed the ups and downs, headaches and heartaches this player, Seattle Seahawk Derrick Coleman, overcame on his way to playing in the very same Super Bowl during which this commercial was being aired. Of course, the Duracell batteries played a vital role in always ensuring his hearing aid remained reliable throughout this journey. The piece was beautiful, engaging, emotional, inspirational, and memorable all within a matter of seconds. The ad looked incredible, too. It was gritty, raw, and filmed in cinema-aspect ratio of about 2.40:1. It felt epic, and clearly encapsulated the power of short-form modern media.
This type of narrative storytelling within the ad world has been around for years. Recently, though, narrative commercials have taken a stronger foothold along with the rise of branded content. It largely began in the early 2000s when BMW launched a series of videos helmed by A-List directors that were car advertisements essentially disguised as short films. If you haven’t seen The Hire yet, go check it out. This tectonic shift in the way companies advertised their goods and services further muddied the waters between advertising and filmmaking and helped to continue opening doors for commercial directors who wanted to get their feet wet in the narrative world and vice versa. David Fincher and Michael Bay, although vastly different in their styles, both notoriously started their careers in the ad world before transitioning into the feature film frontier.
Although commercial filmmaking and narrative filmmaking follow different paths, and nothing guarantees those paths will merge, one art form can certainly be used as a tool to gain traction in the other. Again, projects like my spec commercial, or someone’s fan film, are stepping stones to the next major milestone. It falls upon you as a filmmaker to decide how you want to leverage any of your endeavors for future benefit along the way to your respective filmmaking destination.
When formulating a personal project that would inevitably become this Gatorade spec there were a few criteria to which I wanted to adhere. First, being an autobiographically oriented piece that reflects my experiences losing my mother to pulmonary hypertension nearly 10 years ago, I wanted this project to be honest, sensitive and respectful as a tribute to my mother. I needed to make sure it would be something she would be proud to watch if she were still around to do so.
Second, I knew that making a film of any kind would have some form of impact on my filmmaking career, so it might as well be a positive one. Filmmakers can easily get pigeonholed into making more of the same types of films they’ve already made. Why not shape that mold for yourself? If I want to make sports-oriented commercials in the future, (which I do) I know that people are going to want to see sports-oriented content on my portfolio. To that end, I wanted to make sure that any project I invest my time and hard-earned money into would suit my tastes and aesthetic as a director.
This project afforded me the ability to have some fun with the visuals, as many commercials might. This film also allowed me to exercise my favorite aspect of directing though, which is to work closely with actors. Similar to short films, small commercial pieces like this offer flexibility to filmmakers who are interested in trying new things or experimenting with different styles. They can also be training grounds to further hone your abilities in one area of focus while working towards future projects. Let’s take a look at some of the recent success that directors have had using spec commercials to their advantage.
A few years back, while finishing film school, a talented director friend of mine, Joe Sill, took it upon himself to direct and unofficial commercial for Google Glass and one for Tesla. Joe and his team creatively used pre-existing products to tell interesting and engaging stories that earned a retweet from Elon Musk, which represents a major milestone for spec projects considering Tesla hadn’t ever formally produced a commercial of its own at the that time. Joe used his success to get signed to a director’s roster of a production company and he recently wrapped production on his first feature film. About a year ago, student filmmakers Dorian & Daniel created a number of spec commercials, one of which for Johnnie Walker went viral and garnered a handful of prestigious awards. The directing duo recently signed to Academy Films, the UK sister production company to Reset Content, which was founded by David Fincher. Another directing duo, The Freise Brothers were signed to RSA Films, a production company created by Ridley Scott, after their spec ad for Tesla caught a lot of attention on the internet.
As an alternative to making a short film and taking it through the film festival circuit, creating spec commercials can clearly be a path to a stable filmmaking career, too. And if festivals are your cup of tea, don’t fret, there are plenty of festivals that entertain advertising related submissions. Remember, though, when creating unofficial content, just like with making a fan film, you are infringing upon someone else’s property and misusing copyrighted material. However, unless you do something egregious that paints a brand or franchise in a negative light, they likely won’t pay any attention to you anyway. Using a brand’s namesake, creating unofficial content for a fraction of the cost, and promoting it as your own completely undermines the process and relationship that companies and advertising agencies share. (On the other hand, they are getting some free advertising.)
So, if you’re looking for opportunities to break into the film world as an up-and-coming filmmaker, don’t overlook the commercial world as a viable career path or as a resource to further hone your narrative abilities. The next time you watch an impressive and emotionally arresting 30, 60 or 90-second commercial, think about how you might be able to apply your skills and experiences to that particular filmmaking medium as an art form. MM