The Ad Guys Take Charge

Warren Berger writes about entertainment for Calendar, Wired and other publications

When Kinka Usher finished directing his first feature film, “Mystery Men,” the movie was pretested in focus groups, as is often the practice with big-budget films these days. But unlike many film directors who balk at such testing, Usher welcomed the input. Focus groups are nothing new to Usher, a veteran director of commercials who is best-known for the “Got Milk?” and Taco Bell Chihuahua campaigns.

When Usher learned that test audiences were underwhelmed by “Mystery Men’s” ending, he promptly changed it--to give the movie what he calls “a big-cheer finish.” And indeed the Universal Pictures film ends on an explosively high note. If that seems like a somewhat commercial approach to filmmaking, Usher makes no apologies.

“A commercial director is more likely to look at things from the audience’s perspective, because we’re used to doing that,” he says. And Usher points out that with film studios investing huge sums in blockbuster films--"Mystery Men,” a $75-million action comedy about offbeat superheroes starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy and Janeane Garofalo, opens Aug. 6.--"the studios need to have someone shooting the picture who understands the concept of mass appeal.”

Which helps explain why Usher and other directors from the world of TV commercials are considered hot properties in Hollywood these days: They know how to play the game. This summer is bringing a wave of films from directors trained in the art of pitching Levi’s and Pepsi. Usher’s film comes on the heels of this week’s release of Disney’s “Inspector Gadget,” directed by David Kellogg, another one of advertising’s top directors; his credits include the popular “Pizza, pizza” spots for Little Caesar.


Two other top commercial directors, Simon West and Mark Pellington, also have released films this summer--Paramount’s “The General’s Daughter” from West, and Sony’s “Arlington Road” from Pellington. In Hollywood, “this is the summer of the commercial guys,” Usher observes.

In the fall, David Fincher, who cut his directorial teeth working on Nike commercials before crossing over to direct films like “Seven” and “The Game,” releases his newest feature, “Fight Club.” Also in the fall, Rupert Wainwright (who has shot ads for Reebok) will release his first major film, “Stigmata.” (Both “Fight Club” and “Stigmata” were pushed back to the fall because their subject matter was deemed too dark for the summer.)

While ad directors seem to be particularly hot this summer, the fact is they’ve been coming on strong in Hollywood the last few years, led by the phenomenally successful Michael Bay, who smoothly made the transition from shooting Coca-Cola commercials to producing blockbusters like “The Rock” and “Armageddon,” one of last year’s top moneymaking films. With the box-office success of Bay, West (whose first film, “Con Air,” was a hit two years ago) and Fincher, producers and agents say the film studios have become enamored of ad directors.

“It used to be that a commercial director would go to Hollywood and try to peddle a script,” says Steve Wax, president of Chelsea Pictures, a film and commercial production house. “Now the film studios are coming to them and begging, ‘Please make my movie.’ ” Adam Krentzman, an agent with Creative Artists Agency, adds: “The door is wide open for commercial directors in Hollywood right now.”


It’s not the first time commercial directors have crossed over to films. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a small group of directors, most of them British, successfully made the leap, including Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne. But observers say that first wave wasn’t nearly as large as the current one; according to one agent, there are so many commercial directors doing features that “some of the established directors are starting to have trouble getting films.”

Another difference is that in the past, commercial directors were more likely to start out by doing smaller, more personal films. Today’s crossover directors are in some cases being handed the reins on huge-budget films their first time out.

For Hollywood, part of the appeal of commercial directors is that they come cheap, at least initially. As Krentzman notes, the studios usually pay them a low first-time director rate of about $150,000. But though they’re paid like novices, most commercial directors bring practical, hands-on experience, Krentzman and others point out. Many of them have overseen and managed budgets on million-dollar commercial productions, sometimes dealing with star actors in those ads. And because they must satisfy demanding corporate clients, commercial directors are “used to working in a highly politicized atmosphere, which is similar to the dynamic of working with a film studio,” says Kevin Misher, co-president of production at Universal Pictures.


More importantly, ad directors can bring to films what Krentzman calls a “hip new look,” employing stylized camera work, dazzling special effects, and rapid-fire editing--techniques widely practiced by cutting-edge commercial directors trying to capture attention in the cluttered television landscape.

As advertising from the likes of Nike, Levi’s, Pepsi, Nissan, ESPN and Miller Brewing have become more creative and more geared to visual storytelling in recent years, “commercials have become like little movies,” says Usher, and they’ve also served as a kind of laboratory for developing styles and tricks that end up in movies. For example, in this year’s “The Matrix,” the film’s dazzling stop-action film tricks were similar to ones used in Gap commercials. And in “Mystery Men,” Usher also applied techniques he honed in commercials; his use of wide-angle lens shots, extreme close-ups, and atmospheric lighting combine to give the film an almost surreal look.

Because of this, the conventional wisdom these days is that “if you hire a commercial director, you can guarantee the film’s going to look great, even if it’s a bad movie,” says Wainwright. (An additional incentive, as Wainwright points out, is “you’ll be able to make a great-looking trailer out of it.”) Tim Case of Case Management Partners, a leading representative of commercial directors, said that ad directors also “understand the need to create something that can play well in international markets.” And they know how to “deliver the beauty shot,” says Case, referring to ad directors’ knack for making anything--down to a box of detergent--look pretty on camera.

A growing appreciation of these skills has changed the way commercial directors are now perceived in the film community. “Commercial guys didn’t get much respect in Hollywood in the past, because they were considered less creative and maybe even a little crass,” says Jon Kamen, president of the production company @radicalmedia.


“Five years ago, a commercial director couldn’t get arrested at CAA [Creative Artists Agency]--they wouldn’t take your calls,” Kamen says. But now, CAA agents like Krentzman scour the reels of commercial directors, and talent-hungry studio executives are paying close attention to what comes on during television station breaks.

“When I see a cool commercial on TV, I track down the director right away,” says Brian Witten, senior vice president of production at New Line. “I’m meeting with these guys every day and trying to find projects for them.” The interest is running so high, says Case, that it is beginning to seem as if “commercials have replaced film schools as the farm system for Hollywood.”

While studios have embraced ad directors, the relationship has sometimes been rocky. Some say the studios expect ad directors, who are used to answering to clients and ad agencies, to be more compliant than film directors. But in the past two years, there have been several high-profile skirmishes between film studios and the commercial directors they’ve hired. The ad director Marcus Nispel, hired last year for the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “End of Days,” was subsequently replaced, but not before he raised some eyebrows in the film industry. Nispel told Premiere magazine that he had demanded “the same respect you would give a Coppola or a Kubrick,” even though it was his first film.

Also last year, the veteran commercial director Tony Kaye ran into problems on his first film, “American History X,” after he resisted editing changes requested by the studio, New Line; Kaye subsequently criticized the studio in trade publication ads that he purchased, but the film was released with his directing credit over his objections.

Advertising Age Editor Anthony Vagnoni says that veteran commercial directors like Kaye are in fact more apt than young filmmakers to assert their independence on a film set. “They’re used to being treated like kings when they’re making commercials,” says Vagnoni. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, who has occasionally shot ads between working on his films, adds: “The top commercial directors are likely to say to a client, ‘I’m directing this, so sit down and shut up.’ ”

Considering that commercial directors can earn in excess of $1 million a year, a foray into the film world--where, at least at the beginning they can make only a fraction of that--can be a bit like slumming. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has used Bay, Tony Scott and other ad directors for his films, says: “Commercial directors sometimes look down at people in the film business and say, ‘I’ve made millions, what have you done?’ ”


A more widespread criticism of commercial directors is that they tend to make films that are heavy on style and light on substance. “Oftentimes there’s a lack of warmth or depth in some of the movies made by commercial directors,” said one Hollywood agent who asked not to be named.


According to Sonnenfeld, “The problem is that in commercials, you’re trained to tell a story visually in 30 seconds,” Sonnenfeld says. “So these guys are very good at creating a visual style and using special effects and quick-cut editing. But there’s not much room in commercials for emotion or character development or plot. They often don’t know how to deal with any of that.” (Ironically, that’s almost exactly the criticism leveled at Sonnenfeld’s “Wild Wild West.”)

“Inspector Gadget” from director Kellogg plays right into those complaints: It features a special effect in virtually every scene, with little attention paid to plot or character. And Usher’s highly stylized “Mystery Men” suggests that ad directors may still be putting the look of a film above other considerations.

If commercial directors are developing a reputation for churning out superficial, effects-laden films, some of that can be traced to Bay, whose films have fared well at the box office but not with critics. Some critics have noted that Bay’s films seem to bear the hallmark of someone used to telling stories in short, loud bursts: In reviewing “Armageddon,” Entertainment Weekly said the film consisted of “images edited with such nervous stroboscopic intensity that they seem to be knocking into each other. . . . Bay doesn’t stage scenes, exactly--he stages moments.”

Bay says hyper-stylistic, frenetic filmmaking “has been used since [Alfred Hitchcock’s] ‘Psycho’ or before. It’s not an invention of commercial directors.” In “Armageddon,” he says, “I wanted the feeling to be frenetic, with confusion. That was right for that particular movie.”

Bruckheimer, a onetime advertising man, says that commercial directors have gotten an unfair rap. “Critics have a bias against them,” he says. “They say, ‘He’s just another commercial guy, with no substance.’ But you can’t generalize that way.”

Apart from Bay, West and Fincher, however, the current crop of commercial directors remains largely unproven commercially, that is, at the box office, as well as critically. Usher’s film hasn’t opened yet, while the verdict isn’t in on Kellog’s film and Pellington’s “Arlington Road” has taken in roughly $15 million in two weeks.

Nevertheless, Usher believes that the movies of Bay, as well as West’s “Con Air,” may have given commercial directors a bad reputation as being unable to “produce anything that’s about people.” For that reason, Usher says, he carefully selected his first film. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t all action, that it had characters and a story,” he says.

Usher points to the diverse crop of films coming from ad directors right now, and says, “I think these films will show that we can do sophisticated work too. I think the critics will be encouraged by what they see.” But whether they are or not, Usher says they’d better get used to seeing ad directors on the big screen, adding: “There’s no question that we represent the next generation of movie makers.”