Production companies have their work cut out trying to sell directors to
ad agencies. Belinda Archer examines the pros and cons of pitching
Quizzing production companies about how they secure jobs for their
directors elicits a variety of colourful responses. ‘Bribery and
corruption,’ mutters one. ‘Fat lunches,’ ventures another. ‘Legwork,’
sighs a third, somewhat wearily.
It seems to be the multi-million dollar question. The job of either
launching a new career, relaunching an established talent who is
perceived to be past it, or even ensuring a continuing demand for a
director who is all the rage at the time, is by no means an exact
science. Different producers have different methods, but mostly it seems
to come down to hard grind, a significant investment in terms of time
and money, knowing the right people and having some clout in the
James Studholme, managing director of Blink, sums up the plight of the
producer: ‘People have tried all sorts of short-cuts and stunts, but
we’re basically selling to sellers, so they are not fooled by anything
Although their methodology may vary, most producers agree that it is
easier to break a new director than it is to re-establish an existing
talent. Agencies always drool at the prospect of discovering the next
big name, so their doors are ajar to producers’ approaches.
Nevertheless, the task still involves pounding the streets, knocking on
doors and endless phone calls.
The managing director of Rogue Films, Mark Andrew, who broke in numerous
directors while at Propaganda and Federation, emphasises the importance
of pitching the company and the director correctly from the outset:
‘There are many ways of getting jobs for directors. There is no formula
- producers all have their own style and they have to engineer their
pitch to the person they are dealing with. But it is very important to
have a company with a profile. That way, just as clients choose
agencies, so agencies choose directors.’
Positioning a production company correctly is an expensive business, but
it is what eases the whole process of selling new talent. Once you have
discovered a Tony, a Frank or an Anthea, agencies will gladly accept
your calls and invite you in.
Helen Langridge, executive producer at Helen Langridge Associates,
argues that producers need to have a strategy for selling their
directors: ‘You have to look at it as a product and think about what it
is that you are selling, and an agency will pick up on that. What they
want is something that is new and original.’
Studholme agrees: ‘Generally, people are looking for a point of
difference. This might be a financial opportunity, and not necessarily
creative talent. For example, you might be offering the opportunity to
shoot a commercial in Bucharest where people only cost 10p. It also
helps if the director has got a weird name or comes from somewhere
Putting together a reel is the next step. Production companies invest
thousands of pounds in getting the work on tape to peddle to agencies.
This can take the form of test commercials, short films, or anything
that demonstrates the director’s talents, whether it is creating
stunning visuals, eking out strong performances from actors or producing
snappy dialogue. Some production companies favour showcasing a breadth
of skill, others like to promote a special look - it is all to do with
deciding what it is they want to plug.
Either way, getting the right sort of material on to a director’s reel
is of paramount importance. It can quite often involve production
companies turning down assignments for a new talent if they are not
right for them, or directors being prepared to be systematically
rejected until someone takes that necessary leap of faith.
John Hackney, managing director of Rose Hackney Barber, claims that
Daniel Barber was offered a flood of work immediately after the company
took him on, but that he did not shoot anything for eight months. ‘He
had 21 scripts turned down because they were very much at the cutting-
edge, risque and pioneering and the clients were nervous because these
obviously have a high failure rate,’ he says.
Several production houses claim charity films and test commercials can
be very helpful in launching a director’s career. Rob Sanders, for
example, largely made it at HLA on the strength of the test work he did
for Holsten Pils, through GGT.
‘You have to remember that their first commercial marks them for the
future. Doing a shampoo ad for Procter and Gamble may not be right for
them - it is, after all, rather hard to show any point of difference
with a shampoo commercial. But tests are a good idea, so long as it is a
strong project,’ Langridge says.
Tests have the added advantage of demonstrating a company’s financial
commitment to a director. Langridge continues: ‘Agencies want to see
that you have put money behind a director.’
Producers must then carefully decide who they want to see their
director, and target accordingly. Langridge claims that there are
probably no more than 25 people in the business to whom it is worth
introducing a new name. ‘Lots of people are interested, but not everyone
is prepared to push the boat out and take the risk,’ she says.
Producers try a variety of ways to get to see agencies in order to
spread the word about their budding Frank Budgens. Some cold call, some
prefer to simply mailout their reels, while others book appointments and
sit down with the agency to talk them through the tapes. Some production
companies actually wheel in the director if they are particularly
articulate and bold enough to communicate their vision to an often
stubbornly unimpressed audience.
Frances Silor, a partner at Tomboy Films, claims that launching a new
name is not just about showing a snazzy reel and demonstrating to a head
of TV or a creative director that the director is talented. It may also
involve offering reassurances that they are nice to work with and
capable of handling the budget. Silor says: ‘You have to let agencies
know that the director isn’t stroppy or precious, that they are open to
ideas from other people and that everyone will be able to speak freely.
You also have to convince them that they will be responsible with the
The cost of breaking a director can be hefty. The combined expense of
putting together reels, which can involve around pounds 30,000-40,000,
doing non-profit-making test films and financing a good positioning for
the production company in the first place can be huge.
Most in the industry agree that it takes a minimum of six months to
launch a new name - and up to a year to establish them.
Langridge explains: ‘If, after one year, you are not getting anywhere,
you know things are wrong. If they are not going well after two years,
then pull out.’
Resurrecting the career of a director who is perceived to be past their
sell-by date is a lot trickier. Agencies are interested in a new name,
but when companies are trying to re-establish an existing talent the
usual response they get is: ‘We’ve heard of him. Haven’t you got anyone
Andrew comments: ‘The thing you are up against in this business is that,
as a director, you are only as good as the last job you did. That is the
greatest strain. If you produce a dog, they will always judge you by
Studholme adds: ‘It is very hard and unfair for people who have had an
opportunity. There are a lot of good directors languishing in obscurity
because there is an over-supply of new talent, and so many slavering
neophytes and teenage Tarantinos coming along all the time.’
To break through such prejudice requires hard work and largely means a
director having to rely on their reputation. Silor comments: ‘The only
way to do it is to go through the people that you or the director have
worked with before. You have to be prepared to say you will work
cheaply, or for nothing, just to get new work on the reel. If you are
well-known and respected as a producer, then you can convince people.’
Equally tricky is the business of ensuring the work keeps rolling in for
the new directors, even when they are flavour of the month. The problem
is that the more fashionable a director is one minute, the more
unfashionable they could be the next. Studholme explains: ‘It is more
difficult to keep someone up there than to make them, because you are up
against the British disease where everyone wants to say ‘he’s lost it -
he was great last year but not any more’.’
Silor believes that it helps if the director does not develop a
particular style or look because that will only be good for a certain
amount of time and then it will inevitably go out of fashion. ‘You have
to know when to change your look, and you have to remain humble. You
must not just do the big, fantastic jobs - you’ve got to do the tiny
award-winners that are based on a great idea. You must not make people
think that you are too grand,’ she says.
Whether companies are selling new talent, old talent or off-the-boil
talent, battening down a job once you have succeeded in getting an
agency interested in a director is the next big step. Once a production
company has shown the reel, it then has to go away, do a treatment,
price it, compete with three to five other directors for the job, and
then wait weeks for a decision. And then they may only hear a fortnight
before a shoot is scheduled to take place that their director has landed
Nevertheless, production companies should spare a thought for agencies.
Being on the receiving end of a sustained, often frenzied hard-sell can
be wearing. The average creative sees around five to ten reels in a
regular week, which can increase to 40 or 50 when they are looking to
award a job. That is on top of seeing producers, being phoned by
producers and meeting new directors.
Many agencies have numerous lurid tales of the lengths that production
houses go to to sell their wares. One head of television at a major
agency says there is nearly always someone in his office at 8.30 in the
morning, without an appointment and armed with a showreel and a big
grin. Others moan about over-zealous producers talking incessantly
through a reel, plugging their director as the 14th ‘new Tarsem’ that
week and recounting a strange-but-interesting tale about his Albanian
However, as the creative duo, Jo Tanner and Viv Walsh, at Saatchi and
Saatchi emphasise, creatives don’t want a hard-sell: ‘We’re not
interested in anything that is beyond what is on the screen. The
preamble and the background stuff is fine, but it makes no difference.
The reel is the thing.’
As with all selling, if the product does not deliver, the salesman - or
the producer - may as well just pack up and go home.
GROANS AND MOANS
1. We don’t like the producer to come in with the reel. If a producer
comes in, it takes 45 minutes, whereas if we watch the reel on our own,
it only takes ten minutes.
2. It’s good if a reel demonstrates the breadth of their work. The idea
of pigeon-holing a director - for example, saying they do food - is
3. We like to see anything that is not an ad. If the reel has ads on it,
then all you are doing is picking the talent of another agency. We like
little TV programmes or short films. We always feel it is better if the
directors do what they enjoy doing on a reel. We like them to showcase
their ‘real’ work rather than ads, which are often just done for the
4. If producers come in with the reel, it’s best if they don’t say
anything and just answer questions. We’re not interested in a chat and
5. It’s better if they don’t post a reel. If it is just posted, we don’t
look at it.
6. It can be helpful if a producer hears we are doing a certain
commercial and pitches a director specifically for that job. It’s best
if they don’t let on and just promote the director at the right time, so
that a reel turns up on your desk just at the right moment.
7. We like it if the director comes along. Directors are more honest and
don’t bullshit like producers do.
8. We don’t like it when people ring up and don’t know the kind of work
we do or what awards we’ve won.
9. It doesn’t really help if a production company sends in a reel for a
particular job. That works against them. We decide, not them.
10. It’s very annoying if you ask a production company for Joe Bloggs
and they say he’s busy on another film but how about using Charlie
1. Creatives should say something when you are showing a reel. It’s
torture if they just sit there in silence.
2. We don’t like being stood-up - it happens a lot. It’s very annoying
when you cross town, battle through traffic and cancel meetings to get
to the agency on time, only to be met by a non-plussed secretary who
says: ‘But Tom’s in Greece on a shoot.’
3. I wish they would let us know whether we have been awarded a job, or
not, sooner. Quite often, we wait for two months for the go-ahead on a
pounds 200,000 commercial and - if we get it - the shoot turns out to be
two weeks later - it’s a logistical nightmare.
4. We would like agencies to be more frank. If we haven’t won a job for
a director, we would like to know why - in detail.
5. It’s very wearing - the first year with any director means a
considerable investment in terms of time, energy and money. It would be
nice if agencies were a bit more sympathetic and less arrogant.
6. The older, more established creatives tend to be more approachable
and constructive with their comments, whereas the younger ones seem to
try to want to prove themselves by being rude to us and condemning our
7. Many agencies don’t have the facilities to view the reel in a quiet
environment. Sometimes, I have had to do a presentation standing in a
crowded recreational area, or in a cupboard.
8. Many of the younger creatives see the production company as a source
of funds for having a good time on the shoot. They seem to think that
the producer and director will be willing to foot the bill at groovy
nightclubs and flashy restaurants. The logic appears to be that the
production company should be eternally grateful for getting the work.