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So You Want to Be a TV Commercial Director – Part 1

For the next couple of blogs I’m gonna take a light hearted look at commercial filmmaking for those of you that may be interested in a commercial directing career. The ‘Thirty Second Masterpiece’ has kept me busy, creatively fulfilled, and fed my children for twenty years or so.

So you want to direct a television commercial?

You’ve got to be kidding!

At  best, it’s art by committee.

At worst a TV commercial director becomes the conduit for twenty wannabes to funnel bad ideas to a shell-shocked actor after 86 takes as the sun quickly sets and your Executive Producer tells you: “…as of the last hour,  you’re making nothing on the job.”

It’s the most fun, satisfying, all consuming job on the planet.  It’s also the most frustrating, the most exhausting and the most humbling way to make a living known to man.  But the day rate’s good!

What’s a day rate?

New-FIAT-Commercial-3$10,000 a day. That sounds like a lot of money, right? – and it is.  But you only get paid for shoot days.

So, if it takes you a month to get the job and ten days to prep a one day shoot, you’re making $250 a day.  If you only shoot ten days per year that’s $100,000.  Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick but not enough to move to Malibu.


What insane person would choose this as a career?

If you make it into this world of commerce, art and illusion, you’ll probably fit into one of these TV commercial director categories.

THE “A” LIST DIRECTOR

There are only a few of these so it may take a while for you to get there, if ever.  But just so you’ll recognize one if you cross plaths…

An “A” list director may treat the agency with utter contempt, but somehow they keep coming back for more.  Nine out of ten times the spot will be great.  An agency team would rather go back home to their agency “suits” with a bad commercial directed by an “A” lister, than a good one directed by a lesser director.  “You’re right it’s not so great, but who knew?  We used Joe.  What more could we do?”

The ‘A’ list director may be an ogre to the crew because he works so many days per year.  Some shoot over 100 days a year.  That’s a lot of trickle down economy… enough to bite your tongue when you get chewed out on set.

Advantages: Massive board flow. The luxury of turning down almost every job offered, unbelievable creative freedom, and wealth.
Disadvantages: None.  Except dealing with the bad karma at a later date.
Day rate: $20,000 to $50,000
Prerequisites:  Talent, especially when it comes to dazzling the agency.  No mandatory fashion conventions on set, but usually dresses for power and success.

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THE HOT SHOT

Raw young talent, the “new” flavor of the month, on the verge of being hitting the big time.  Always hand-winding a 16mm Bolex or shooting HDV hand held footage from bizarre angles.  You avoid the obvious tried and true filmmaking conventions because you don’t know any better, but everybody thinks it’s art.  As he’s just getting started, he might shoot 30 days a year if he’s lucky.

Advantages: You don’t know what you’re doing so the work looks fresh.
Disadvantages: You don’t know what you’re doing so the work looks bad.
Day rate: $2,500 to $15,000
Pre-requests: Artistic Angst.  Spiked or no  hair, body-piercing, tattoos, oversized black clothing, combat boots.

THE DIRECTOR/CAMERAMAN

Director/Cameramen do it all. They shoot the film, they direct the talent , they shmooze the agency.  The creatives love them because they are able to deliver a unified vision, they don’t have to deal with two giant egos on the set.  The Producers love them because they save about $4000 per day.

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Advantages: High day rate.  You can do it all.  You don’t have to sit in video village with the client because you’re out there doing it on the camera.
Disadvantages: It’s all on you.  It’s hard to get a good performance from an actor when you’re looking at the cross hairs and watching for the microphone to bob into frame.
Day rate: $10,000 to $25,000
Prerequisites: You must be able to keep many balls in the air at the same time.  Must have a loyal crew to cover your ass, to fill in all the gaps you can’t quite get to.

THE OLD PRO

Been there, seen it, done that, but still passionate about the work.  Years of skill and experience bought to every aspect of the job.  Knows how to create good film, how to handle the client, the agency, the cast and crew.

Advantages: Production companies love these guys, because they rarely lose money.  They anticipate problems on the set and with the agency and stay one step ahead of the game. People think they’re psychic, because they know what’s going to happen, but actually they’ve just seen it all before. The Rep loves them because the reel sells itself.  Agencies love them because the work is good and effortless.
Disadvantages: Too old to get the really hip boards.
Day rate: $8,000 to $15,000
Prerequisites:  Real talent.  Able to stand on your feet for twelve hours.

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THE FREELANCE DIRECTOR

A hired gun that travels from city to city working for producer based production companies on a project by project basis.

Advantages: Production companies very often have “inside” relationships with certain agencies but do not have a Director on their roster that fits the project.
Disadvantages:  If you’re a freelance director you have to reinvent the wheel every time you mount a production.  You will be working with a new producer, a new agency, and a new crew.  None of your familiar shorthand commands and methodologies will be available to help you.
Day rate: $5,000 to $10,000
Prerequisites:  Have viewfinder, will travel.

THE TABLETOP DIRECTOR

Shoots food,  small retail products, toys, slices of lemon tumbling through water at 1000 frames per second.  Lots and lots of shooting days in a small studio.  If you have a good day rate and you work 200 days a year, you can get rich quick.

9144009_origAdvantages: Production companies love these guys, lots of billable days, controllable production logistic.
Disadvantages:  Boredom, a yearning to be out side on a lush location, soaking up rays, waiting around for the perfect sunset.
Day rate: $5,000 to $15,000
Prerequisites:  Patience, attention to detail, ability to withstand endless comments about the pizza “cheese-pulls” looking too stringy or too greasy.

THE HACK

The fire has gone out.  Probably still able to craft a good spot given some decent creative.  How bad could it be if it’s a good idea?  But Agencies still like this kind of director.  They’ve traveled all the way from Chicago in the middle of winter and they’re in Los Angeles… the last thing they want to do is go over twelve hours.  In fact if the Hack can “beat the caterer” (wrap before lunch arrives), they can spend the afternoon on the beach at “Shutters,”or on the golf course.

Advantages:  Sleeps like a baby the night before the shoot, “What me worry?” Retires comfortably if he’s played the market right.
Disadvantages:  A lack of excitement, little self respect .
Day rate: $2500 to $5,000
Prerequisites:  Able to feign enthusiasm for a mediocre idea.  Good raconteur, knowledge of wines for those agency dinners, good people skills.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the Agency side and we’ll have a little fun with them!

If there’s anything you like me to cover in this blog… drop me a line bruceloganblog@gmail.com

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Join the conversation

7 Responses to “So You Want to Be a TV Commercial Director – Part 1”

  1. Pamela Jaye Smith on October 16th, 2015 4:48 pm

    A fun look at it all — and quite familiar, some of it. Well said, Bruce. I’ve sure enjoyed working on some of your commercials with you.

  2. Bruce Logan on October 16th, 2015 8:36 pm

    Hey Pammy, Glad you liked it… yes we’ve had a lot of commercial water under the bridge.

  3. Marc Blake on October 30th, 2015 5:45 pm

    Bruce, I wanted to produce artist featurettes for our local Fox TV affiliate. How in the heck do I get them to air my shorts? Turns out (6 months later) because of “who you know” my work was accepted by their station manager. THEN, I was told that they can be 60 seconds. WHAT??? W H A T !!!! “Can I have 90 seconds… my goodness!” The answer, “NO.” So I had to quickly figure out how to turn a 20+ minute documentary into a 60 second featurette. After producing a number of them, I’ve learned to LOVE 60 seconds spots. 30’s are cool, 15’s are a kick. I’m like in a whole new world of cut to the chase hit and run (in a positive way). THAT SAID, I just spent over 130 words to speak to you where I might have simply wrote, “cool article.” Oh well… live and learn.

  4. Ryan on December 9th, 2015 11:44 am

    Really nice look at the rates. Thanks for sharing this information.

  5. Akber Munawer on February 3rd, 2016 4:22 am

    I am from Pakistan.. work in the advertising field.. the above categories exist here as well.. i could place directors as i read the description!
    Very interesting read.

    Cheers!

  6. Da Han on June 14th, 2016 1:45 am

    Great article

  7. ABHIMANYU on October 23rd, 2016 1:14 am

    I ALSO WANT TO BE A PART OF TV I ALSO HAVE MY YOUTUBE CHANNEL AB ARTS . I WANT TO BE AN ACTOR

About the Author


Bruce Logan, ASC was born in London. His love of imagery started when he was hired by Stanley Kubrick to work under Douglas Trumbull on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He came to California in 1968 and worked as a DP on over a dozen films, including: Tron, Star Trek, Airplane, Firefox, High Road to China, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Big Bad Mama, and Jackson County Jail. He did visual photography for most of these films as well. He has shot commercial films for most of the major companies: Pepsi, GE, Visa, Chevrolet, Pontiac, DuPont, Contac, Sprint, Amtrak, Suzuki, Sunlight, and Armstrong. And—he has applied his talents to making music videos for such high profile performers as Prince, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Glenn Frey, The Go-Gos, Karyn White, Tevin Campbell, Hank Williams, Jr., and Michael Cooper. See Bruce's full bio here.

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