CLOSE-UP: CRAFT - FILM DIRECTORS. A big name director is no guarantee of a good ad

Major film directors have had mixed success in the ad arena. By Mark Sweney.

The prospect of the Oscar-winning film director Sam Mendes creating his first TV ad is an exciting one for the advertising industry. It also sounds good for RSA Films, which has signed him.

Nevertheless, the move raises questions over what the real benefits will be and who will reap them. While every director needs to make a start somewhere, is the signing of Mendes, who has no ad-making experience, just a PR stunt?

"It is not a gimmick," Kai-Lu Hsiung, the managing director at RSA Films, insists. "We would only work with film directors that can do the job and have the time to put in."

Mendes joins a smattering of film directors who have made the transition to ads. They include: the Secrets & Lies director, Mike Leigh, who made "old baby" this year for BT Together through Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and has worked on McDonald's; the Brazil director, Terry Gilliam, who currently works with and made Nike's star-studded "no cage" and "secret tournament" ads for last year's World Cup; and Stephen Frears, of Dangerous Liaisons fame, who is with Tomboy Films and made "memories" for Kodak through Young & Rubicam in the 90s.

But one production company that is most prone to taking on feature film directors is the one founded by Ridley Scott, who along with his brother Tony "Top Gun" Scott, directs ads regularly through RSA Films. Most recently, Ridley directed Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Barclays campaign.

Hsiung says the phenomenon of sourcing big name directors has been driven by the ad agencies, particularly in North America and Japan. The demand has been such that at one time, RSA spun off a division, called Top Dog, that specialised solely in sourcing film directors. However, Top Dog has since been reintegrated with the main RSA operation.

"RSA is a bit different as it is owned by two feature film directors but we constantly get scripts in for Tony and Ridley - agencies want to work with them. There is a supply and demand driving it from the agencies and there is a hit list," Hsiung says.

Nevertheless, film directors tend to limit the amount of time they are willing to devote to ads. Lizzie Gower, the joint managing director at Academy Films, believes this can turn ad agencies off.

"Agencies are more interested in having a director around for the entire pre- and post-production work. Very often a film director can't do that because of cost, their diary, or where they live. Many are US-based and that means they are often free only to shoot and not much else."

While having a big name on the books can be good for business, the low output can make the signing of film directors a double-edged sword for production companies.

"Film directors can pull in high-profile jobs but if they only do one or two a year, it is difficult to keep the showreel up-to-date and both clients and agencies like to see a reel," Gower says. "For film directors to work successfully in commercials-making, they have to be dedicated and take the time to make it work, they can't just dip in and out. If that happens, the cross-pollination of skills and experience is useful for everyone internally."

To his credit, Mendes intends to devote himself to directing ads for the next year.

The use of film directors is also more widespread in the US and Japan for cost reasons. In the US, the going rate for an in-demand director is around $25,000 a day. In the UK, the top rate is about £10,000.

As most film directors are US-based, they tend to come to work on UK-projects with high price tags. And even if the agency has the budget, the ability to direct a great movie does not necessarily translate into making a great 30-second ad.

"In feature films, you are dealing with an audience, while in commercials you are dealing with a brand, which can make the two quite different disciplines," Natasha Wellesley, the managing director of Exposure Films, says. "I'm sure that when many directors make the transition they find it frustrating. On a film it is much more of a personal journey whereas in commercials, agency and client needs have to be dealt with."

For the launch of Orange in France, BETC Euro RSCG used the Hollywood heavyweights Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese - neither of whom had ever made a TV spot before. The big names attracted column inches, but the spots, "rugby" by Stone and "freedom" by Scorsese, received mixed reviews.

David Lynch's more recent work for Nissan Micra through TBWA in Paris also met with a muted response.

But Lynch's tie-up with TBWA in London for a "third space" spot for PlayStation in 2000 was better received, while the Face Off director John Woo's "airport" spot for Nike in 1998 is considered an all-time great. It will be intriguing to see what Mendes - the man behind American Beauty - can bring to a 30-second spot.