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The Ad Guys Take Charge

Directors of commercials are in demand at studios, thanks to low-flying salaries and mass-appeal know-how.

July 25, 1999|WARREN BERGER | 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.


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