Thanks to the Raindance organization for their invitation to, and their inspiration in, writing this article. The Raindance credo is simple: if you want to make films, just make them. In making movies, there are many paths to independence. This article speaks to one of them: commercials and industrials.
1) Learn the craft, earn the cred
Many great filmmakers have learned their craft – and built up their professional and financial cred – by making TV commercials and industrial and corporate films. When we say ‘industrial/corporate’, that includes music videos, fashion videos, corporate promotion, advocacy films, public service announcements and much more.
2) Do like the pros do
Ridley Scott. Sofia Coppola. Wong Kar-Wai. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Guy Ritchie. Spike Lee. Jonathan Glazer. Spike Jonze. David Fincher. Harmony Korine. The list goes on: feature directors have made TV commercials, industrials and promotional films while making important and successful motion pictures. Respected commercial/promo directors like Sophie Muller, Jordan Scott and Gordon Von Steiner have the chops to helm full-length features. All of them consider themselves ‘independent’. They call the shots in their careers. Why not do what these pros do?
3) Learn and master the movie business
The film business is more about learning the business of film than filmmaking. When you make TV commercials and industrials, you work with, and learn from, business people. Become a master: your knowledge base, reputation and bank account will grow magically.
4) Take your work to world-class levels
Advertising and corporate filmmaking are about results. Millions of dollars and the reputation of a brand are at stake. BMW hires world-class directors to do their mini-movie series, The Hire; Heineken’s continent-hopping sagas unfold in thirty-second splashes; Johnnie Walker’s TV campaign exhorts the world to ‘keep walking’. These advertisers are financing filmmaking at its highest level of quality.
5) Learn to connect with your audience
While you’re selling a product, you create an emotional connection. There are compelling messages about self-empowerment embedded in the sales pitch. As a filmmaker, you are your own brand- learn how to sing your own praises without being obnoxious.
6) Freedom to make the movies you want
One of the world’s top fashion photographers, Bruce Weber, has made ground-breaking commercials for Calvin Klein, classic music videos for Chris Isaak and The Pet Shop Boys, and one of the best jazz documentaries ever, “Let’s Get Lost” about Chet Baker. I once asked Bruce about his choices as a filmmaker. His reply was succinct: he enjoys having the freedom to make the movies he loves. Commercial can and should be creative. Just like with lo-to-no budget filmmaking, you’ve got to learn to love your constraints.
7) Embrace the reality of movie making
Global markets are the reality today. Movies are an essential part of that market. Embrace it. Balance your personal values with a realistic view of business. Innovate. Carve out your unique niche. People will pay you to make films that reflect your vision while expressing theirs.
8) It’s not about being famous, it’s about being excellent
Countless individuals power the making of television commercials and industrials. Every facet of filmmaking is executed in a microcosm that mirrors feature filmmaking. In thirty seconds, a million dollars can easily be spent: that extrapolates to well over a 200 million dollar feature film budget. Not everyone may know their names, but the people who make these movies are as good as anyone in the industry. You can learn from them, if you put aside your ego. Don’t worry about being famous. Focus on being excellent. The rest will happen in due time, because great people want you to succeed.
Cynics say TV commercials are a compromise. But virtually all filmmaking involves compromise. Intelligent compromise has its rewards. With all due humility, I share with you my Great Fortune to have collaborated with top professionals all over the world – all because I worked in the advertising business that taught me how to make films. I never went to a ‘proper film school’. I learned – on the job – to write, cast, produce, direct, edit, and market a film. My clients happily paid my ‘tuition’. Every one of my films made money. Many won awards. I learned that making a movie is an act of courage and an act of faith, for the filmmaker and for those who finance that film. I learned from Master Filmmakers, that learning never stops.
In a TV commercial, in just a few seconds, you can change the world. With a corporate film, you can inspire thousands of people in an organization to inspire millions of others. Work with sincerity and dedication to your craft. You will gain respect. You will gain the means to truly be an independent filmmaker.
A footnote via George Bernard Shaw: “Independence? That’s middle class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.” In the movie business, we depend on each other.
Raindance founder Elliot Grove has said, “work to inspire others.” Film is a collaborative work blending art and commerce. Advertising films, at their best, blend art and commerce seamlessly. And inspire us. The advertising world wants fresh talent. By embracing the endless opportunities afforded fresh talent, that talent empowers itself. That talent can be your talent. That choice is your choice.