Sunday, May 10, 2009

Armchair Expose: The Advertising Industry

I have worked in the advertising industry--on the production end--for about nine years now, off and on, in Chicago and Los Angeles. Oh, what mine eyes have seen...

Most people have no idea what goes into the making of a commercial, so I shall forthwith explain, to the best of my knowledge:

A client--let's say Kraft Foods--has an advertising agency under contract for a set time period, say two years. When Kraft wants to unveil a new cheese-flavored product, they tell the agency to draw up a campaign for them.

Months of work go into the nitty gritty of the new campaign.

The Creatives (as they are known) at the agency toss around ideas and ultimately devise a universal phrase, tagline, or theme that will be used for the print campaign, television commercials, product packaging, etc (ie, "Come see the softer side of Sears!").

Then ideas for the content of the commercial campaign are tossed around. They will usually shoot between 2 and 12 commercials in one stretch, all somehow unified by the theme. After months of planning, the best ideas are scripted out, drawn up (literally--as detailed storyboards), and presented to the client in a series of meetings.

The client either approves the ideas or, more likely, tells them to make small changes based on whether or not their legal department will let them get away with certain things, or whether or not they think the idea will alienate any of their customer base or conflict with their brand image--or sometimes just because they want to exert a little power, show who's boss, etc.

At this point, the advertising agency puts it out there that they will accept bids from production companies for the opportunity to make said commercials. The competition is limited but fierce.

The production companies who decide to make a play for the job choose a director from their stable whom they feel is a good match for the campaign, based on his or her strengths, reputation, and previous work.

The director then submits an almost-always-laughably-written treatment of how he would direct the commercial, what little bits of sexiness, humor, or camera moves/editing techniques he might inject into the already-written commercial.

It always amazes me that one of the creatives from the agency doesn't just direct it, since that's all they want to do anyway (most of them ultimately become directors and exploit hteir industry connections to get jobs, knowing talent is irrelevant; the ones who don't become directors usually split off and form their own lucrative boutique agencies, emphasizing their 'edginess,' 'hipness,' etc). The campaign is already drawn up; the commecial is already written; the storyboards are already drawn; why suddenly bring in another cook?

As a result of this, the production company/director search is fairly irrelevant--the advertising agency is really just looking for the company that will submit the lowest bid BUT also give them a director they can brag about to their client (and friends back home).

"He's David Duchovny's brother...and he did that campaign for __X__ that was so edgy--it's exactly the feel we're looking for..."

"I'm in LA, on set. Yeah, shooting a commercial for the new Volkswagen campaign. Roman Coppola is directing--yeah, his son. It's pretty awesome..."

"Rocky Morton will direct--he's one of the biggest directors in the business, wins all kind of awards, a total'll be great." (No mention that he also directed superturd Super Mario Bros)
As a result of the competition for the lowest bid with an accomplished or recognizably-named director, budgets have gotten smaller and smaller--in all the wrong places--and preparation time has become shockingly minuscule.
I recently worked on a series of two commercials for a major fast-food chain that was awarded to the company only six days before the two days of shooting were to commence--not much time for casting, location scouting, crew assembling, set-building, wardrobe shopping/fitting, etc.

Considering how long the campaign/commercial has been in development at the agency by the time shooting begins, it is amazing what stupid bullshit will still happen on set.
I worked on a Volkswagen commercial years ago, in Chicago, in the summertime, for their "4-motion" cars--a kind of proprietary part-time four-wheel drive system intended for their all-season customers.

The concept for the commercial was that a shitty old car made by somebody else (in this case a rented brown Ford Taurus from the '90s) would be spinning out of control down a snowy/icy road and a guy sitting in a nearby VW 4-motion vehicle would watch and say "glad I have my VW with 4-motion" and drive away safe and sound.

As a result, $20,000 was spent to build a remote controlled, driveable, spinning turntable that could hold the weight of the Ford Taurus and drive it safely down the street, spinning in place.

We paid the guy who did the snow in Fargo to drive down from Minnesota with his five-person crew to snow-up an entire office park we rented out. Gigantic blocks of ice were fed from a freezer truck into another truck--a modified 5-ton giant snow-cone machine--and sprayed everywhere for hours and hours, overnight and in the morning. When I showed up at 5am, my coworkers and I had to help the art department rake around ice chips to make the scene look a bit more realistic. Everything was set, the camera was ready to roll, the heavyweights had arrived from their 5-star hotel, and then...nothing happened.

I went over to video village, where gophers like myself set-up director's chairs for the client and agency representatives to sit and watch everything unfold and make comments like "hmmmm...I like it...but can we try him in a blue shirt instead, even though I said he needed to be wearing a red shirt?"

In this instance, on the VW commercial, the discussion was about the snow: "I'm worried that people who live in areas where it doesn't snow are not going to want to buy our car..."

I was blown away. What?!

As a result of this brief discussion, the entire 90-person crew had to stand around waiting for the snow to melt. Tens of thousands of dollars an hour to wait for snow to melt. Easily $10-20,000 to make the snow in the first place. A million-dollar-budget commercial, directed by the guy who made American Movie (and then parlayed that cult hit into a lucrative career directing commercials for VW, Nokia, et al).

The final result? A commercial where a brown Ford Taurus spins down the road for no reason and a guy in a VW car is glad he is in a brand-new, spit-polished VW, for some reason (it's newer?). There is no snow or ice around. It might as well be summer in Hawaii.

Huh? How long was this idea in discussion at the advertising agency? How many meetings did they have? How many snow and ice-coated pictures did they draw while mapping out the commercial? How many representatives of the client and agency approved the concept at multiple stages of the game? And nobody brought this up until the snow was already paid for and covering every square inch of an entire office park in Hinsdale, Illinois?

You can see why products cost so much these days...

At the end of each day of shooting, the exposed film (yes, they still shoot on film) is driven to the lab by one of the gophers. This is one of the most blatantly nonsensical customs in the industry. The film is loaded and unloaded by the least-experienced and lowest-paid member of the camera crew and then driven to the lab by the least-experienced and lowest-paid person on the entire crew. If either of these people mess-up, hundreds of thousands of dollars were completely wasted and the entire commercial needs to be reshot.

The gophers--known as PAs, for Production Assistants--make $200/day whether the day is two hours or 28-hours long. Yes--I know many people who have worked up to 28 hours straight. My own personal best is three 20-hour days in a row, when the agency wisely realized they needed to rewrite the entire 3-commercial Bud Light campaign because it wasn't funny (usually they just shoot and air them anyway).

PAs have been paid $200/day for the last 15 years. It is one of the only non-union positions on the crew. A bit of perspective: high-school-drop-out Blutos carrying around lights and extension cords make $500/day and have houses in Malibu and jet skis and jacked-up pick-up trucks and motorcycles and flatscreen TVs in their shitters, etc. Teamster dudes who do nothing more than drive around a van make $500/day. Wardrobe stylists and Production Designers make $1200/day. Directors of Photography make $8000 for a 10-hour day.
Directors make $15-20,000 a day. Yes--a nine-day shoot, plus two days of prep, would net a director $220,000 for 11 days of work. Wow. You are correct to be outraged.

And yet, it gets worse.

Years ago, I worked on an Herbal Essence shampoo commercial in Chicago, directed by legendary music-video director Hype Williams (who long-ago sold out) and starring Ashanti as 'the girl who has hair to wash.'

At one point, I was sent from downtown Chicago to suburban Skokie--in rush-hour traffic, easily a 2 hour round-trip--to purchase the last remaining brand-new (at the time) photo/video-capable iPod in the metropolitan area.

The producer, who was flown in from Phoenix, almost never worked and wanted to give it to Hype as a present, because he saw somebody else's on set and mentioned that he wanted one. Nevermind that Hype was being paid $20,000/day and that the commercial was already tens of thousands of dollars overbudget and still going strong...

Earlier that day, I had to drive to the South Side to pick up a special lunch for Hype and Ashanti and their respective posses, from a famous soul-food joint, despite the fact we had already paid $15/head for them to have a gourmet catered lunch. When somebody from one of their posses ate Ashanti's mom's lunch, I had to go back for more. These two trips easily ate up several hours of my work day. For no reason.

The next day, I had to pick up Hype at his hotel--The Peninsula, the most expensive hotel in Chicago--and drive him to the airport. [How much money do they spend on this guy and they can't get him a car service?] His luggage barely fit in my Jeep Cherokee because he not only had his overstuffed suitcases, but also an entire top-of-the-line desktop Mac--complete with oversized, widescreen monitor. He told the producer he wanted to do a little rough 'editing' in his hotel room while shooting, so rather than renting one, the production company bought him the whole set-up. It was never opened.

The only plus side to all this excess was that after Hype stopped off to make a few purchases "at that cashmere joint on Michigan Avenue" and wolfed down some Garret's popcorn literally like a wolf might, I got to hear the less-interesting--but still fascinating--end of a phone call wherein Snoop Dog gave Hype some much-needed relationship advice.

But has anything ever gone wrong with PAs handling the film, you ask?

Answer: Yes.
In Chicago, years ago, it was a cold-ass winter day. The PA driving the camera truck home--loaded with over $1 million worth of equipment and all the exposed film from the job--stopped off at a 7-11 for a pack of smokes. He wanted to leave the heater on while he popped inside, so he left the truck running. Before he got back to it, somebody else had already driven it away.

The next day, the producer and production manager took thousands of dollars of petty cash and went around to every pawn shop in the city to look for camera parts, lenses, accessories, etc. Believe it or not, they were able to find everything and knew it was theirs, since they had all the serial numbers listed on the rental order.

Later on, the truck was found down by the river, right next to Chris Farley's van. All the exposed film was sitting safe and sound in the onboard darkroom.

For every 999 times the film and equipment is delivered safely, something like this happens. So why risk it? (Another, more common, example is leaving the film on top of the car and driving away. Ooops!)
Okay, so let's say nothing went wrong and the film was safely delivered to the lab. What happens next?

Well, the film is processed at a set time, along with film from random other jobs in town (the 6pm bath, the 10pm bath), and a pre-arranged messenger arrives to pick up the processed film.

The messenger takes the film from Burbank to Santa Monica (a 22-mile drive), to a post-production house, where the film is transferred to digital video by a colorist who bills $450/hour (although he probably only gets $200 of it, dividing the rest between the facility and his one or two assistants) and uses a millon-dollar magical computer to tweak the colors and lighting of the raw footage.
Once appropriately touched-up, where shit can be turned into gold at the push of a button, the DVDs of the day's footage, known as dailies, are messengered over to the production company or to set, so the director can look at it and admire his handiwork.

Once the shoot is completed--all the film exposed, processed, colored, dailied, etc--everything is shipped to an editor by a company called BellAir.

BellAir is like FedEx for the über-rich. They offer a service known as counter-to-counter, which means that one of their delivery dudes picks up your package, takes it to the airport, and personally loads it into the cargo-hold of a plane. Once the plane lands in New York (not always, but usually--it depends where the agency is based), another BellAir delivery dude picks it up at the airport and hand-delivers it to the editing facility. It is only one step short of paying someone to actually hold the film and fly to New York--which also happens on occasion.

At this point, the editor creates a rough cut of the spot(s) based on the storyboards, scripts, and conversations he has had with the director. The next day, the advertising agency producer and a client representative and a few other people come into the editing room, watch the cut, and tell the editor how he should have trimmed down the several hours of footage to a 30-second commercial.

The editor also continues to receive very different (usually covert) instructions from the director of the commercial. The agency cut, as it is known, is always the one that airs, while the director's cut is for his own personal use and is usually never seen again, although it may appear on his sample reel.

Once edited, all the film is then re-colored, tweaked, retransferred, and ready to go. It is shipped out to the networks for broadcast during whatever time slots the advertising agency has purchased for their client.

A commercial, or 'spot,' in the parlance of the industry, can be a regional spot, a national spot, a foreign spot, a global spot, a Super Bowl spot, etc. Maybe they will only broadcast it during Mad Men, maybe only during sporting events, maybe only once--during the Super Bowl. I worked on a Britney Spears Pepsi commercial years ago which was only aired in Japan during the World Cup--I never got to see it.

Actors who appear in commercials--who are chosen after a rigorous casting process (that has more to do with their 'look' than their acting ability, since they are usually onscreen in 2-second clips) where the agency folks and director might see 500 people for 10 roles--are compensated based on where the commercial plays (nationals are the most lucrative) and and how many times it plays.

An actor in a McDonald's commercial who says "Try our new choco-mocha shakes!!" might make $40,000 if it stays in rotation for a bit. Guys like Subway's Jared and Verizon's 'dude with glasses' who are spokesmen get paid based on an annual contract, as are lesser people like "the woman in the Lincoln commecials." They get a ton of money up front (example: Lincoln woman who says "check out these new sexy Lincolns" and does a little car-show-girl arm wave got $300,000 for a one-year contract for 4 spots), are required to be avaliable whenever, for a set number of commercial shoots, and are not allowed to appear in a commercial for another company.

So when all is said and done, a $500,000 commercial shoot that resulted in two 30-second commercials (and a couple trimmed down 15-second versions) actually costs quite a bit more, when you add up the fees paid to the actors and the airtime purchased. The total cost is easily in the millions of dollars. All to say something as unneccessary as: "Drink Coke, cuz we bought up all but two of our competitors and we've arranged to be the exclusive carbonated beverage sold in 60% of all stores and restaurants! And we're totally cool, too!"

The biggest mystery for me, still, is that I have probably worked on 200 commercials in my day and seen, at best, five of them. Where do they go? I don't watch much TV, which explains it away a little bit, but still--wtf? I'm sure some of them never make it to air, some of them are maybe only played in Europe, Asia, during Oprah, game shows, soaps, whatever.

It's not like it matters--of all the spots I've worked on, I probably only wanted to see a handful. Most are cringingly unfunny or just plain stupid. I still want to see that Britney one, though--especially because they only were able to get off about 4 of the intended 14 shots (or something paltry like that) before her mom forced her to leave because a private plane was waiting on the runway, at a cost of thousands of dollars an hour, to take them to a family funeral. (Britney was a sweetheart by the way; we kicked a soccer ball around together for a bit, I briefly fell deeper into lust, etc.)

Well, that's about all I have to say about it right now. Hope that was informative and maybe even enjoyable.




Karl said...

This is the most awesome post on your blog.

And all true. Depressingly.

Requst: Please write a post about the Saturn commercial you worked on, featuring the biggest A-hole director in the biz, that was SCRAPPED by the agency because they considered it unusable.

PS-Saturn is now defunct.

Goodtime Charlie said...

funny--i started an article about that guy called 'the biggest asshole i ever met'

i will try to revisit it sometime this weekend and post it on sunday

glad you liked this one