“Congratulations and happy graduation, young director! Now that you’ve been studying for so long, you finally have the opportunity to realize and achieve your dreams instantly.”
Is this really how it works? Is it that easy to become a director? I am not quite sure. Welcome to the real world! Of course, luck may be on your side:
FIRST SCENARIO (THE BEST)
You find yourself in the right place at the right time and are invited to take part in a super cool paid project. Then, it is easy — do your best, finish your first project, put it up in your portfolio and present yourself to new clients.
You start working hard on whatever role comes up on set — PA, set organizer, AD, and you wait… no one knows exactly how long it will take to start your own project… if ever. It could take a lot of time and there is a risk you might get comfortable in one of the above‐mentioned roles;
You create a portfolio without being commissioned, i.e. create а spec commercial. It sounds logical but is it worth it? Well, the answer is: “it depends.” Creating a spec commercial can provide you with valuable experience, especially compared to other projects at the start of your career. Mainly because you are on your own — being a producer, director, coordinator. The real process on set — try, make a mistake, try again and again, over and over — that’s the way to gain experience and eventually create a very strong and inspiring audio‐visual product, which you can include in your portfolio. But these are the good aspects of specs. You may encounter quite a few difficulties along the way.
So, is it worth it? Here are two possible answers:
YES, IT IS!
If you are gifted and ambitious, there is not a single thing that could stop you from seeking the best start of your career. Spec ads are the best possible way to showcase your potential if you manage to achieve a real commercial look and feel. You have creative control over the project. The lack of financial support tends to make you more creative, as you have to find smart solutions to your problems.
But first — you need an idea — simple, clear and powerful. You need to find “soulmates” that share your passion and to concentrate all your skills in the final result. You and your team must be dedicated to the process. We have examples of some of today’s top movie directors and producers that started out as commercial directors, and many of them used specs to start their careers — people like David Fincher, Ridley Scott, Spike Jonze, among others. I chose to show you two of the best spec commercials that we have in the digital world today:
The gold goes to Daniel Titz and Dorian Lebherz for their Johnnie Walker spec ad Dear Brother. They were both students at the Film Academy of Baden-Württemberg when they went into production.
The silver goes to Eugen Merher for his Adidas spec ad Break Free. He, too, was a student at the Film Academy of Baden-Württemberg when he produced and directed this spec commercial.
Both specs are based on a simple idea, a strong message, and an unexpected ending. These are some of the key ingredients for creating a commercial that makes you proud and could, as is in the case of these filmmakers, become a viral sensation. To be as precise and honest as possible, I asked for the opinion of a young Bulgarian director, Ivan Botev, who started his career creating spec ads. One of his specs was for Nike. According to Ivan, he had a lot of time, but no money, so he shot the commercial over a period of three months, using the rare moments when the whole crew was available. They had an unbelievable adventure, including a police chase and a car rental which they nearly crashed. They were thrown out of locations and each of the crew members took several roles on set.
Choose the kind of spec ad you want to shoot carefully. It is highly possible that the shooting will take you longer than planned, so you should pick something you are really passionate about. An idea or a concept that you believe in so much, you will work hard to see it on screen.
NO, IT’S NOT COMPLETELY WORTH IT
Let’s flip the coin and look at the other side of is it worth it. There’s no doubt you will face a lot of difficulties. When you have zero budget, each individual in the project works for free, simply because they believe in the idea as much as you do.
There may even be some unintended repercussions to shooting on spec. According to Blogger Nick Kemble, potential clients may not look favorably on spec content, especially if you’re further along in your career. A spec commercial should look like it was commissioned by a real brand and it should be able to compete alongside mainstream commercials.
HOW CAN PITCHING PLATFORMS HELP MAKE YOUR SPEC WORTH IT?
Platforms such as Tongal for example introduce another option. They give you the unique opportunity to work for real money and real brands. However, for your Tongal application to be considered seriously, you will need some relevant work in your portfolio. So, we asked ourselves ‐ are spec ads helping in this case? Are they effective? And the answer is “Yes!” Why are we convinced? A young Bulgarian director named Viktor Ivanov recently won a Pitch for National Geographic Explorers Video Series on Tongal and is currently shooting the project in California. When I asked him if there were any speculative ads in his portfolio, it turned out that a speculative commercial had actually pushed his Pitch across the finish line. Viktor received a proposal from a friend, who works for an advertising agency, to shoot a super low‐budget video for Volvo Bulgaria. The only condition was to unleash his potential and to create art that excites him. And the result is obvious ‐ the “Short stories of long distances” video. Having something relevant in his portfolio strengthened his Pitch.
So… is it worth it? My final thought is: Strive to develop your potential in as many ways as possible even after you have been recognized or become an established director. Call it what you want ‐ specs, side projects, experiments… everything that brings you additional experience as a commercial filmmaker is definitely worth it!