Commercially Viable

It seems like the perfect recipe for successful advertising: accomplished documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple at the helm of a 30-second television ad spot in which real people, users of the prescription drug Paxil, talk about their struggles with generalized anxiety disorder and how the drug helped them.
April 1, 2002

It seems like the perfect recipe for successful advertising: accomplished documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple at the helm of a 30-second television ad spot in which real people, users of the prescription drug Paxil, talk about their struggles with generalized anxiety disorder and how the drug helped them.

Testimonial is not a new method in advertising, but it is an effective tactic for pitching a product or service to the public. Using testimonials from ‘real’ people heightens the effectiveness factor considerably. Who better to capture personal testimonials than documentary filmmakers – people who make a living capturing unscripted moments.

‘The best time to use [documentary filmmakers] is when you want to capture reality; as opposed to scripted drama or comedy,’ says Meg Rogers, senior VP, senior creative director for McCann Erickson in New York, the agency behind the Paxil spot. ‘For the project we were working on, the most dramatic way to communicate with our consumers was to show them the reality of what we were talking about. The concept was to do a documentary, so we looked for the best documentary filmmaker we could find, which was Barbara Kopple. In certain instances, reality is the most powerful way to communicate.’

Kopple (known for her docs Harlan County USA and My Generation) – along with other documentary heavyweights such as Peter Gilbert and Steve James, of Hoop Dreams fame, and Dogtown and Z-Boys’ Stacy Peralta – is repped in the U.S. by Nonfiction Spots, a production company based in Santa Monica that specializes in commercials that incorporate real people. The company was created in 1995 by producer Loretta Jeneski shortly after she met Gilbert and James, who were enjoying the buzz surrounding their film Hoop Dreams. Jeneski was soon introduced to Kopple and was impressed by her documentary work.

‘It seemed like a logical move to have a production company that was devoted entirely to documentary filmmakers, since they seemed to have such a specific outlook on the work and have such a special talent,’ says Jeneski, who has been involved in commercial production for close to 20 years. ‘There wasn’t another company in the U.S. that existed like that. It just sort of organically evolved into being.’

Other production companies have since followed Nonfiction Spots’ lead and represent documentary filmmakers. In France, Paris-based Dissidents represents journalists and filmmakers who do commercial work, such as Gilles de Maistre, Philippe Borrel and Pascal Vasselin. Founded by producer Pascal Dupont in 1999, its filmmakers have done spots for clients such as MacDonald’s and the French National Police.

Dissidents partnered with Nonfiction Spots last year so each could represent the other’s filmmakers on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Dupont says nothing has yet come of the association (due to a slow economy), but he remains optimistic they will work together in the future. He also has a theory as to why doc-makers and journalists may be sought after over regular ad directors. ‘Most of [the people I work with] hold the camera themselves, so it’s about having an eye in the direction of the people you’re shooting and another eye to see the context. You also have to be able to launch questions in order to have this person destabilize or laugh or go on with the story that you want to have. Only experienced journalists know how to do that.’

Widening the net

The generous financial rewards available in ad work are a strong motivator for doc directors to get involved in commercials. The budget for an average commercial spot runs anywhere from US$125,000 for a lower-end project to upwards of $1 million for higher-end fare, depending on the number of shooting days and the complexity of the spot. Typical shoots last one or two days, but some continue up to two weeks. The director of a spot is paid a day rate, usually in the range of $12,000 to $20,000 per day, with the accomplished directors at the higher end of the range.

Filmmakers like Kopple and Gilbert, who have won Academy and/or Sundance awards for their work (Kopple has nabbed both honors), fit the description of ‘accomplished’. In terms of payment, says Jeneski, doc directors are treated the same as other commercial spot directors.

Commercial production also offers documentary filmmakers another way to express themselves through film. Notes Jeneski, ‘All of these directors who are directing commercials are first and foremost documentary filmmakers. They do commercial work in between their documentary projects.’ She continues, ‘I’m sure the financial remuneration is nice, commercials certainly pay better than documentaries, but it’s my experience that the directors, rather than just being documentary filmmakers, are filmmakers, and making things with film is what they do more than anything else.’

In addition to the Paxil spot, Kopple has done commercials for Reebok and Ford’s Race for the Cure, a fundraising campaign for breast cancer, and says she would like to pursue more commercial work: ‘In order to be creative in your life, you should try to do a lot of different things, and for me, all of them are fun and challenging and take you on a great journey.’ Kopple is currently wrapping a doc miniseries for ABC in the U.S. titled The Hamptons.

Teaming Up

Kopple notes another advantage to working in commercial production: it’s predominantly a team effort, while docs are usually solitary pursuits. ‘I’ve had extraordinarily good luck, because I’ve worked with some agency people and clients who were wonderful and everybody really got behind the concept. On location, everybody wants you to be successful, so you’ve got a whole team of people rooting for you. Sometimes in a non-fiction film, because it can take a while longer, you feel like you’re in it all alone. ‘

A traditional commercial production project generally involves teams of people. There is the client company or service, the advertising agency that comes up with the concept, and the spot editor who cuts the scenes according to a storyboard. As Kopple says, the group effort offers support, but it can also mean a director’s creative freedom is hindered. Nonetheless, doc directors are often granted more latitude.

For doc-maker Gilbert’s project for Ford Blue Oval, the concept for the campaign was developed by ad agency J. Walter Thompson in Detroit. The campaign tells the stories of employees vying for certification and of customers receiving great service, which is part of the Blue Oval certification process recognizing exceptional service at Ford dealerships in the U.S. As Gilbert was shooting real people instead of actors, there was more freedom to improvise. The usual need to stick to the storyboard frame for frame, as in a traditional commercial with actors, was not as strict.

Says Jeneski, ‘Because of the work we do, agencies usually come to us relatively early with what they’re thinking about doing. They like the director’s input on the best way to achieve it and how to reach their goals and how to get the right real people… The agency may have a storyboard or a treatment or a concept, but everyone understands that even though that’s what has been approved, you’re still dealing with real people. If the objective is to get real people to come off on camera as being authentic and true, then you don’t put words in their mouth. It’s the director’s job to have the real person, or the talent, appear on camera, be comfortable, appear authentic and be able to relate the message about the product in a very true way.’

Chances are a documentary filmmaker will have to give up at least some of his or her creative authority on a given commercial project, but Gilbert explains why this is necessary. ‘The agencies know their clients much better than I could ever know them. That’s their job. My job is to help them.’ He continues, ‘Just like you don’t have final cut on a feature film, you may not have final cut on a tv commercial. The agencies and their clients deserve respect in the sense that you are helping them sell their product. They understand that product much better than I do, coming in for a couple of weeks and then going away.’

Gilbert has done spots for the New York Yankees, the New York Knicks and Ford. The Yankees and Knicks spots were a natural fit for Gilbert, given his shooting experience on Hoop Dreams, which is lauded as one of the great sports films of all time. Gilbert has also done humorous anti-smoking spots called ‘Truth’, with improvisational actors trying to sell children tacos made with the same additives as cigarettes.

For Gilbert, directing commercials is just another way to tell a story. ‘If you’re telling a story in 30 seconds, it’s still storytelling. It’s a challenge to get a point across in 30 seconds. In a documentary, I do it in two hours,’ he says. ‘When making feature-length docs or feature films, you don’t get the satisfaction of having something finished quickly – it takes a year, it takes two years. It’s fun to do something where you go out, you do it, and you feel like you’ve completed stuff… I like the challenge of making any type of film, and I look at these as little films.’

Spot Etiquette

There’s an inevitable question about ethics when it comes to documentary filmmakers making commercials, but for some it’s a non-issue. Many doc-makers, including Gilbert and Kopple, use the funds they get from commercial or other projects to finance their documentary films.

Gilbert says he probably wouldn’t have been able to afford his current projects – including a documentary about blues musician Taj Mahal, also titled Taj Mahal, and a film he’s working on with Michael Apted about marriage in America – had it not been for his work in commercial production. ‘All of my professional life I’ve done documentaries. They have been the love of my life. The fact is that in America, unfortunately, doc-makers are not really supported. We have to beg to get money,’ says Gilbert.

‘You are always doing things [to make money]. Early in my career, it was industrial films, [then it was] shooting commercials. You do anything that allows you to have the passion and to go broke doing your other films. I do what I have to do to get the films done and I don’t feel that’s selling out. Are there times when you’re torn over doing things? Always, but that’s a fight that you go through with everything.’

There are, however, certain commercial projects both Gilbert and Kopple avoid. Both stay away from doing commercials promoting cigarettes, and Kopple turns down offers to do ads for fur or products that harm the environment. If a product can benefit people in some way, it’s an added incentive for Kopple to get involved. She cites the campaign she did for Paxil as an example.

‘In the commercial side of it, I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t believe in. Paxil has been absolutely phenomenal for people and really changed their lives. In the pre-casting and the casting part of it, without knowing what we were doing, people were just telling us about their anxieties and their worries and things like that,’ says Kopple. ‘Some of those people had been on Paxil and said they wished they had known about it sooner. I think when you can sell something you feel strongly about as a filmmaker, that’s exciting.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.