Making Commercials vs. Making Indie Features (Take 1)

March 10, 2014 — 1 Comment

Why Making Commercials is Better Than Making Independent Feature Films

Nine years ago my business partner and I were in the throes of casting an independent feature while we scrambled to raise a little over two million dollars to finance it. This was our first at bat and we were swinging for the fences. We eventually struck out. But for one brief, shining moment we had a hot young actress on board who was coming off her first Oscar nomination. (She’s been nominated four times since, most recently this year.) It also appeared we were going to sign an older British actor at the top of his game who at the time had a pivotal role in one of the biggest studio franchises of that decade.

Working out of another partner’s office in Santa Monica, our small producing team was engaged in the proverbial chicken and egg scenario: which comes first – money or cast? In the independent film world it’s hard to get either without the other. But we were making progress by employing self-made tycoon Earle Jorgensen’s motto: “Hustle, that’s all.”

Our young writer/director, who would be making his feature directorial debut with this project, was making a living directing commercials at the time. As an actor he’d had a supporting role in the biggest breakout movie of the previous year – a monster that had cost $400,000 to make and grossed over 46 million theatrically. He’d also made a splash at Sundance with two shorts he’d written and directed. Neither the big breakout movie nor the shorts were paying his bills. Thus, the commercials. During the volatile year we were developing this film I had a couple of opportunities to visit the sets of commercials he was directing.

I’ll never forget driving onto the Sony lot – the historic former MGM studios in Culver City – to visit the set of one of those commercials. A Fortune 500 cereal company was spending $750,000 in production alone for a two-day shoot. They were shooting on film – glorious 35mm, the envy of every Indie director who ever settled for Super 16. A sixty person crew of consummate professionals filled out the departments. The elaborate exterior set was a stone’s throw from the Irving Thalberg building.

Here we were in the cradle of movie history, cast and crew making magic that would end up being a thirty second broadcast spot. Just as I was doing the math on our film’s 24 day shoot would benefit from having the $325,000 per day these guys were spending, someone from craft service stopped by my seat in Video Village with a tray of fresh fruit smoothies they’d just made on the catering truck. The craft services PA probably thought my tears were those of gratitude. They were not.

One of the great frustrations of our business is the near Sisyphean task of raising $500,000 to make an ultra low-budget feature film when Big Brands will spend that much on production for a single broadcast spot. Frustrating maybe, but there’s no big mystery why it’s so. There are a lot of reasons a national advertiser is willing to write a huge check to an ad agency that in turn will hire a production company to make a spot that rivals the quality of a network show or studio film. Here are four:

1. They know WHAT they’re making. I’m not just referring here to the script. They’re also clear on the genre, the tone and the emotional connection they want the audience to make with the ad. By definition they also know what they’re not making. That kind of clarity breeds confidence — the good kind.

2. They know WHO they’re making it for. Because advertisers are selling from the get go, they know who they are trying to reach. And that’s who they make their ads for. They’ve evaluated the market and are confident there are enough people out there who are likely to be interested in the subject of their ad to warrant spending the time, effort and money to make it.

3. They know exactly HOW MUCH it will cost to make it. They don’t want to spend too much and they’re just as averse to spend too little. They’re willing to commit the funds necessary for production and post. They’re not just hoping to get the ad in the can then figure out how they’re going to get through post. This is not just a function of the advertiser having access to huge piles of money. It’s a function of a decision-making process and a commitment to the plan that emerges from that process.

4. They know HOW they are going to get it to the people for whom they’re making it. Before they start production the agency and the advertiser have some idea of what kind of media buy this spot will get. Sometimes they’re aiming for an event like the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Oscars, etc. The bottom line is, no one makes a national broadcast spot to prove they can do it or just because they’re jonesing to make something. They start with the end in mind — they start with a realistic expectation of where this thirty second masterpiece is going to be distributed. That’s why they spend the money. They know it’s going to be seen.

Looking through these four filters makes it a little clearer why someone might be willing to spend millions on advertising for her business and still be hesitant to put a few thousand dollars into your independent film. Let’s take it a step further: indie writers, directors and producers who would adapt and apply these filters to their projects would go much further toward winning the confidence and commitment of potential investors than those who don’t.

I read a lot of scripts, hear a lot of pitches and evaluate a lot of projects in the course of a year. I don’t come across many low budget film projects that are clear on what’s being made, who it’s being made for, how much it’s really going to cost and how it’s going to find its audience. Oh, there’s a script. There’s a few storyboards. There’s a list of friends and contacts in the Industry who may or may not be on board. There’s usually a business plan with some cut and paste stats of independent films that hit the jackpot. But I rarely encounter the low budget project that knows what it is, who it’s for, how much it’s really going to cost and how it’s going to get to its audience. And while some of those things are more “knowable” than others (there are always variables) each of these four items deserves serious consideration.

Who is thinking about this on your team?


One response to Making Commercials vs. Making Indie Features (Take 1)


    Rev. –

    Thanks for this. It is great advice. Many indie movie-makers that I know start with some passion and little else. Passion is important but unless you know who your audience is and how and why they might come to your piece you have little chance of “breaking out”. You should always have two questions to ask of your project: Who would pay for this and why? Sometimes the answer is that people will pull money directly out of their pockets and buy a ticket to see what you have made e.g. go to the movies, rent a DVD or watch it on a pay VOD service or one of the ever-growing list of streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu. Sometimes advertisers will pay for your piece because it will draw an audience to their product or service – have you seen “Farmed and Dangerous” Chipotle’s new web-based sitcom/dramedy? It is also worth it for content providers to shop their wares to various ad driven venues e.g. cable and broadcast networks on the premise that people entranced by your stories will watch and that same audience will hang around to watch the ads that are interspersed through your narratives. Perhaps they will pay to have one or more of the characters in your story use their product or service in the hopes that this product placement will cause your audience to buy it. It is possible that the answers to these questions will lead you one of these strategies or a combination of them that will help you get your piece produced and in front of an audience that will appreciate it enough that you will be able to pay your rent/mortgage for one more month and do it all over again.

    If you want to make movies, part of the process is figuring out how to make them pay. ‘Cause all God’s chi’lins gotta pay rent. Even you.


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