Things Portfolio School Didn’t Teach Me: Awarding A Director

The process of getting a director to shoot your TV spot, online film, long-format video, etc. isn’t something you can really teach in portfolio school. But here’s what I’ve learned over the years:
  1. After a client as okayed a script, you’ll work with a producer to find a director. Sometimes the producer works for the agency, sometimes he or she is freelance. That usually depends on the size of the agency.
  2. Typically, the producer will have some ideas of which directors will work best for your concept. But you should have some ideas, too. If it’s a dialogue-driven spot, you should look for directors who handle dialogue well. If it’s a car spot, you want someone with a proven track record of making sheet metal gorgeous. Don’t just focus on the concept. Look at the acting, lighting, film quality, and camera angles. It’s a much harder job than just saying, “That spot was cool.” I recommend keeping notes.
  3. You will usually narrow down your list to three to five directors, and then jump on the phone with them. You’ll walk them through your spot, and they’ll throw out different ideas of how they’ll treat it. This will also give you an idea of which director you think you can work best with. Again, I recommend keeping notes.
  4. After that call, you’ll receive what’s called a “director’s treatment.” It’s usually a pdf that goes through their vision. They’ll talk about casting, music, lighting, etc. I always look for directors who can take my ideas and make them better, not just regurgitate what they think I want.
  5. The producer and the account executive will submit the bid from each director to the client. As a creative, you can easily go your entire career without knowing what it costs to produce a commercial. But I’d encourage you to find out. It helps your concepting if you know that client has $2 million to spend vs. $500,000.
  6. You’ll present the director reels and estimates to the client (probably won’t present their treatments), and make your recommendation. The client will have the final say, so you should be happy with all three directors. Your second choice may be $100,000 cheaper than your first choice. Or your third choice could have a spot that the client likes more than any other. Best case scenario is having three directors you love so much, you want the client to make the decision for you.
  7. Your producer calls one director to award the job, and the other directors to deliver the bad news.

Directors Reels and Student Books

This is a room in my agency full of directors reels. Each one of those DVDs on the shelves feature anywhere from one to six different directors. And each director may be showcasing three to eight spots. And there are a few more walls full of DVDs you don’t see in this picture.

This isn’t too different from a creative director or agency recruiter sifting through the sea of portfolios they receive each week. So here are some of the things we can learn from a room full of directors reels:
  1. Most directors (and usually the best ones) are represented by a production company. Just like most students tend to come out of portfolio schools. I can tell you which production companies tend to rep the best directors. And I can tell you which portfolio schools tend to produce the best graduates. Nothing’s guaranteed; I’ve worked with bad directors at some of the best production companies, and I’ve seen poor student work come out of the top schools. But generally, talent produces talent.
  2. I can tell you which directors I want to work with without even looking at their current reels because their reputation precedes them. Building a body of work like that might be a little difficult for you as a student. But it’s something to shoot for. I keep about 10 directors in my head, which is better than being one of a thousand on these shelves. Entering student award shows and trying to get into CMYK is a good way of jumping off those shelves.
  3. There are other directors who are less famous (either because they’re new, or simply haven’t been discovered yet), that I really want to work with. I get to know about these directors when their reps come to the agency and offer to screen their reels for anyone willing to watch. Not every screening I attend is amazing. But I do keep a list of the names that stand out to me. That’s not too different from a student who invests time and money traveling to different cities for interviews, instead of waiting for an agency to call them. I want to work with the people I know best. And if I don’t know you, your chances are that much slimmer.
  4. I don’t always have work for directors I like. Maybe they’re not right for my current project. Or we’ve already awarded the job to someone else. Or we need someone with a little more experience. But I still keep my list of directors I want to work with one way or another. It’s the same with students. The agency you want to work for may not have an opening for someone in your position. But that doesn’t mean they won’t hire you the first chance they get. So be sure to stay in touch.
  5. Imagine a director who calls me once every couple of weeks to see if I have any jobs for him. That would get annoying. Unless that director were calling me to share his latest spot that was truly worth sharing. Then I’d think they were hard-working, dedicated, talented and prolific. Students who send me new work are always more interesting than students who want to “remind” me of the same book they showed me a couple months ago.
  6. Imagine a rep who comes in to screen a directors reel, and decides that the best way to help that DVD stand out in this sea of reels is to put it in a silly case with green feathers sticking out of it and macramé all over the casing. Would it stand out? Sure. Would it make me want to hire that director? Nope. Because I only want to see the work. If it’s bad, it will make the dog-and-pony packaging that much worse. If it’s good, I’ll wonder why they thought they needed anything else cluttering it up. Students, beware of conceptual portfolio bindings and resumes. Let your work speak for you.