From the Legends to the Wannabes, Soho is ready to bust with talented
directors. Caroline Marshall inspects the market
Some commercials directors launch like fireworks and burn out fast.
Others, like Tony Kaye, have slow-burning fuses and the capacity to
change our view of the world. Consider that there are 930-odd directors
signed up to about 250-odd production companies in London (about a
quarter of each group are dedicated solely to ads) and you realise that
all members of the directing species need thick skins, persistence, an
ace producer and optimism to rival Pollyanna’s.
Since we published a similar feature just under two years ago, the
commercials market has seen competition intensify, budgets get tighter
and few directors with guaranteed work.
And yet Campaign once received, anonymously, a copy of the accounts of a
production company that showed the owner had personally banked about
pounds 3 million in the previous financial year. But such stories are
rare, and with newcomers to the business far outnumbering the scripts
available, it is obvious that many are destined to be also-rans.
The Advertising Association calculates that the industry spends about
pounds 495 million a year on producing commercials, a sum which Campaign
estimates represents about 5,000 films. Given that only a fraction of
the production companies dedicated to making ads can guarantee a
continuous stream of work for their directors, the industry can be
divided into a number of ‘species’ defined by talent, experience and
The most exclusive group of the directing species is the Legends: film-
makers whose fame dates from the 70s and who now shoot commercials only
when on leave from Hollywood or pet projects.
This group encompasses the likes of Tony and Ridley Scott and Alan
Parker; Parker’s last commercials were three Commitments-inspired spots
for Murphy’s through Bartle Bogle Hegarty. He is now working on Evita
and will be tied up in post-production until 1997.
A second select crew runs the Legends close. Averaging about two
commercials a year, these top-flight features directors include Mike
Newell, Mike Figgis, Jon Amiel, Richard Loncraine and Mike Leigh, who
won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with his latest release,
Secrets and Lies.
At Leigh’s production company, Cowboy Films, Lisa Bryer, the managing
director, says that these features stars have one thing in common: they
are brilliant with performers. She says: ‘When commercials are not all
style over content, it is extremely important to be able to direct
talent. The look and the feel comes from the lighting cameraman and the
art director, but the performance can only come from the director.’
Newell, who followed his hit, Four Weddings and a Funeral, with
commercials for Yardley’s and Nescafe, has just finished his latest film
and is now back in London looking at commercials scripts. Richard
Loncraine, who has worked through James Garrett for 30 years, released
Richard III this year and shot ads for Renault’s Megane and Laguna, plus
some BT Bob Hoskins spots.
The truly maverick talent, Tony Kaye, who directs for pounds 10,000 a
day, is still out on his own. His combination of high craft and art-
house style brought him multiple honours (and the only gold) for Volvo’s
‘twister’ at this year’s D&AD. The last year has seen Kaye
characteristically busy, with his Reebok celebrity extravaganza and the
black-and-white films, ‘old man’ and ‘bicycle’, for Guinness, through
Ogilvy and Mather.
A fourth clutch of directors is the Establishment. These elder statesmen
command between pounds 8,000 and pounds 10,000 a day - a hefty price tag
reflecting that they have been working at the top of the commercials
world for a decade or more.
Establishment directors include Paul Weiland, Graham Rose, David Garfath
and John Lloyd. Garfath’s film for the Queen Elizabeth Fund for Disabled
People, for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, was considered the best work at
Cannes last year, where it received a special award - not the Grand
Prix, but only because of its charity status.
From Establishment to Stars, where the talent is typically (though not
always) younger. Importantly for agencies, Stars are cheaper. They work
for a daily rate of between pounds 6,000 and pounds 8,000.
Three names have graduated to this category from our Crossovers section
of 1994: Frank Budgen of Paul Weiland, Paul Arden of Arden Sutherland-
Dodd and Jeff Stark of Stark Films.
Budgen, one of London’s most prolific directors, has notched up numerous
spots recently, including the Holsten Pils ‘asshole’ spot and the
Capital 95.8 ‘static’ ad, both for GGT. Add to this VW’s spoof sci-fi
documentary through BMP DDB, McCann-Erickson’s ‘feeling is everything’
for Durex, and BBH’s ‘yuppie’ for the Audi A4 and you have an idea of
the Budgen effect.
Another Star director to watch is Tarsem, who left Spots in May for the
new UK office of the US production company, @radical.media. Tarsem’s
recent credits include Wieden and Kennedy’s ‘forces of darkness’ for
Nike and BBH’s ‘washroom’ for Levi’s.
Nipping at the Stars’ ankles is a unique species - the pounds 3,500- to
pounds 5,000-a-day directors who have switched from being agency
creatives. These Crossovers have direct experience with clients that
breeds a very specific approach that the idea of an ad is as important
as its look. These include Mark Williams, Mark Denton, Graham Fink and
Trevor Robinson, of Tango fame.
The Crossovers could have included Chris Palmer, who was in the category
last time with Mark Denton, under their joint alias, Bert Sprote. Bert
Sprote was the Redwing directing partnership that produced the sensual
Haagen-Dazs heat-sensitive ad though BBH. But the workaholic Palmer, now
out on his own as Gorgeous Enterprises, has crept up a category into
This is the place for the pounds 5,000-a-day film-makers with unique
edge who are building their reels and their reputations fast. Palmer’s
elevation is thanks to his ‘walker’ spot for Golden Wonder through O&M,
as well as films for Birds Custard, Budweiser, Carling Black Label,
Cadbury, NatWest and others.
Palmer is joined in the Hotshots category by the Douglas Brothers, who
are moving into commercials from photography; by Andy Morahan of Guess
jeans ‘cheat’ fame; and by Danny Kleinman - the star Limelight director
whose recent credits include ‘Ron’ for BMP DDB and the National Dairy
Council, the title sequence for the Bond movie, GoldenEye, plus imminent
spots for John Smith’s through GGT and Boddingtons through BBH.
Laura Gregory, who produces for Andy Morahan at Great Guns, says of the
Hotshots: ‘These names would never be up for the same job, they each
have a distinguishing style that’s their own. But, if they were to
compete, Andy would be my favourite.’
Next comes a prolific group of directors, the Workhorses, who often
command more than the Hotshots in daily fees, but whose work for high-
profile household names is seldom awarded or lauded by their peers. This
breed includes the likes of Ross Cramer, the veteran commercials
director who left Rose Hackney Barber last year for Will Van der Vlught
and has recently made his mark for casting and directing every ‘Harry’
From the Legends, who command up to pounds 15,000 in daily fees, to the
Workhorses, who make a good living from shooting slick commercials for
household names, these groups dominate the production industry. But
still more film-makers, the Wannabes, are anxious to join the fray.
Here is a fit-to-burst bunch that runs from features directors such as
Larry Clark, the director of Kids, who has just signed up for
commercials, to the television sitcom star, Martin Clunes, and includes
new-generation talents such as Anand Tucker and Tom Connolly, both of
whom are accomplished documentary film-makers.
Sara Cummins, a producer at Sloggett Films, where Tom Connolly directs,
says: ‘There are so many Wannabes out there - some of whom have genuine
talent, vision, craft and technical ability. They will definitely endure
any fads to become stars if they are well sold and supported. However,
there is a huge number of trendy directors whose existence as such is
justified by their ability to fulfil, albeit in a unique way, merely one
or two of the criteria needed to be termed a true craftsman.’
The sheer number of Wannabes is the single biggest factor governing the
commercials production market. That, coupled with the fact that top US
directors like Peter Smilie are increasingly keen to work for UK
agencies, where they find the best scripts, is set to make Soho more
competitive than ever.