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.

How to Choose An Actor

When you’re shooting a TV spot, you’ll see about 50 people audition for every role you’ve written. Typically, you’ll watch all of these online, and you, your partner and the director will mark the ones you like best. These actors (maybe a third of the people you originally saw) will come in for callbacks, which you’ll usually attend in person. Actor after actor will come into a small room with a camera and act out the scene for you.
I’m shooting with a director who’s very good with actors and dialogue, and I’ve learned a few things from him in callbacks that are great guidelines for choosing actors:
  1. Watch their eyes. Their eyes will give away whether or not they believe in their character and the scene. That sounds very ethereal, but when you’re watching 50 different actors audition for one role, just watch the eyes and it will become apparent who’s into it.
  2. In dialogue, watch the person who isn’t speaking. It’s easy to look at the person who’s reciting the lines you or your partner wrote. But if you look at the actor who’s supposed to be listening, you can tell if they’re invested in the other character or not.
  3. Good actors support their co-actors, bad actors automatically shift into competition. We were auditioning for the role of a father and a son building something together. The son was supposed to say, “You’re going to need a new crosscut saw.” When they start adlibbing, the best actors would simply smile and respond, “Yep. You’re right.” The bad actors would say, “There’s nothing wrong with that saw!” And then the sons would reply, “Come on, Dad! This thing’s been around since the Jefferson administration!” And then the Dad would say, “Ah, you kids don’t know quality when you see it.” Bad actors are looking to stand out, and pitting themselves against any other actor in the room is the easiest way to do that.
This isn’t the kind of thing you’ll learn in portfolio school. So tuck this away and use it when you start casting actors.


Remember, watch the eyes…

And remember, bad actors avoid competition…