As co-founder and Creative Advisor of SpotLab – the
only commercial directing workshop of its kind – Jeff Nicosia has helped launch the careers
of dozens of directors. He's known for his unvarnished spec spot critiques and wealth
of information about the creative side of commercial directing. When Jeff talks, fledgling
directors listen. He's also a working copywriter and creative director
(jeffnicosia.com), having spent time at a few of
the biggest names in advertising – including TBWA Chiat/Day, Saatchi & Saatchi, and
Campbell-Ewald – creating award-winning campaigns for some of the biggest companies in the world.
The Spec Bank: Thank you for meeting with us. So, let's say I want to shoot some spots
and create a reel, what decisions should I make before I begin?
We sat down with Jeff in Los Angeles, where he lives, for a wide-ranging interview on how to
build a reel; some of the biggest mistakes new directors make; how to get signed at a
production company; and much more.
The key thing is, knowing right off the top what kind of reel you want to build. One of the
bigger mistakes I see directors make is they'll say, "I really like those Nike ads, I really
like those funny ads that Budweiser does, and I really like the special effects that so-and-so
does," and they're all over the map. When somebody wants to start a restaurant, they decide
what type of food they're going to cook. It's going to be an Italian restaurant, or a
And when you send a director's reel to a client for approval, they're going to want to see
What happens with a lot of directors is they just want to do everything. They don't
understand that it's a business of niches. It's all about picking your niche. They don't
understand that when I have a comedy board with a fashion edge, I'm going to look for a
reel that's a comedy guy with a fashion edge. They think agencies say, "Oh yeah, I'm just
going to shoot with Bob, because Bob's a good guy." Now, Bob may have an action sports
reel. Could Bob shoot the comedy/fashion edge? Absolutely. But that's not the way you pick
a director. Agencies pick a director for their specific board.
And most directors don't understand that because they don't understand how agencies
Absolutely! If you have to show a director's reel to a client, you practically have to have
that spot on the reel. Which is really a pain in the ass, but, unfortunately, it's the way it is.
Are there different niches in comedy?
Oh yeah, definitely. You have comedy dialogue, visual comedy, broad over-the-top comedy,
and then you have "comedy with X": comedy with a fashion edge, comedy with action, comedy
with effects, that kind of thing. But basically the main genres are comedy dialogue, physical
comedy, and subtle comedy, like black comedy.
Might somebody have a reel with all these different genres? Can they mix it?
Yeah, for example, Christopher Guest's reel, which is this sort of subtle, improv black comedy;
he's not going to have effects-based comedy, you're not going to see a Bud Light spot on his
reel. The guy who does Ameriquest probably isn't going to do Bud Light. That's not to say he
couldn't, but yeah, you definitely hone in on very specific genres. Comedy is pretty broad,
but a guy who does drama – heart-warming, family-type stuff, maybe even kids – isn't going to
do comedy, isn't going to do effects, isn't going to do underwater. Again, it's not to say
he couldn't, but that's just not how reels are bought. And that, to me, is the number one
thing that new directors have to learn.
When people go to build a reel, are they usually attracted to comedy?
I think they are. Comedy is the easiest thing to do...poorly. Comedy is very hard to do well.
Subtle comedy is the issue, and I think that a lot of people don't quite get that. The reason
I believe most spec spots turn out to be comedy is it's easy to write a little shtick. It's
easy to write a little skit, a little scenario, and then back into a product. The Bud Light
spot with the guy throwing the beer out of the airplane, that could have been a Big Mac, it
could have been a Slim Jim, or a cigar.
Should a spot fit into a client's current advertising –
I think what happens is oftentimes spec spots are written by the directors
themselves, so they look at spots as a funny little 30-second movie – versus a spot –
and so they do comedy. Also, a lot of spec spots are written by young agency guys and
they like comedies, so they're like, "Ooh, I've got this great dick joke I've always
wanted to sell, and it's spec, and I can get this through."
It's like when a copywriter does a spec book, you hear it a million times: "Yeah, that's
really impressive, you can do an ad about condoms. Show me you can do an ad about Tide,
and I'll hire you." It's also a layup to do an ad about public service.
– or could you find someone who's not currently advertising and do something for them?
You can do both. We tell people one of the big things is that, first of all, don't set the bar
too high. You may like Nike commercials, or you may like the HP color spots, but they're so
good, and people know them, why set yourself up for failure? It's like the cover band that
plays "Stairway to Heaven." Everybody knows what "Stairway to Heaven" sounds like. Do a
Zeppelin song nobody's ever heard of, or is vaguely familiar with. Because if you do that
one popular song, everyone's got a point of reference.
Is your budget something you need to figure out in advance? Do you need to spend a lot to make a good reel?
So I think it's important that you stay away from campaigns that are really well known.
Also, you can't come out of left field. If a company is doing very mellow, very
thought-provoking work, and you suddenly decide to do a crazy comedy spot, then
everyone knows this is spec.
The goal is for somebody to go, "Oh, okay, yeah, that fits into the campaign." They think
it's real. The best compliment that people say when they see one of our spots, is, "Is
that real? I think I saw that one." No, you didn't...you think you did because it's so
polished, and it feels like other things they've done.
It's interesting, you'll get different answers from different directors. Nick Santana is a guy
I always look at as an example. He was one of our early Group 101 directors, a very talented
dude, but he never spent more than $1,000 a spot. What he did was, he didn't spend money,
he spent time. So, instead of throwing money at a production, he threw time at it. He would
cast the hell out of it. And then when he had his actors, he would go out to lunch with them,
and talk and talk and talk to them, so that the day they showed up on set, they were ready to
go. He'd go out with a cheap camera, and shoot the whole spot, and edit it.
How important are the concepts versus the directing style?
Some people do drawings, he would literally shoot the spot. You know, just cheaply,
and edit it himself. He'd say, "Ok, I can see this is going to work, and this isn't going
to work." He was so prepared that when he showed up on set, it was clockwork. He never
paid his actors. The actors don't need to be paid. They just want to be in the spot. What
he didn't cheat on was his equipment. He didn't cheat on his camera guy. But, he found a
guy who wanted to work with him, who had his own package, and he used him for all his spots.
And his stuff looks great. If you go on the Spotlab site, take a look at his spots.
They all have an edge, and they all tie together beautifully.
Now, again, it really depends on the kind of reel you want to build. If you want to build
a comedy reel, I believe you can do it cheaply if you pick the best, smartest scripts,
and you have a framework in your mind. Think, "Ok, I can't shoot hanging off the side of
a cliff. I can't do this, I can't do that." If you know ahead of time that your budgets
are small, that'll help move you towards a type of shooting. If you love effects, effects
can be done cheaply if you find an effects place that wants to work with you. It's all
about figuring out, first, what you want to do. Then you have to figure out how you're
going to do it. Then you pick out your scripts.
We had a guy, a very big-time fashion photographer – Scott Rhea – who does beautiful
work. But he knew, because of the type of photography he did, he was going to have to
spend money. He couldn't do it on the cheap because his stuff was going to be beautiful,
and flowing, and lush. You can't do that cheaply, and he knew it. I think he spent like
$50,000 on three spots, and they're beautiful. We had a guy spend $30,000 on one spot.
I've seen guys spend $500. Ted Melfi, who's now with Gartner, never spent more than $2,000,
I think, on the six spots that he did.
Sadly, probably more important. It doesn't seem fair, but the reality is, it doesn't matter
how great you direct a spot, if the concept sucks, you can direct the hell out of it and
nobody cares. As a director, you're hired for the choices you make. You're hired for your
taste. If the concept sucks, I look at you and go, "You think that's a good spot? That spot
sucks ass." But a great concept can make a shitty director look good. It's just like motion
pictures. A really good script – if the director's smart and stays the hell out of its
way – suddenly the director's a genius. Then he gets on something that's difficult, and
you realize he's a fraud.
How many spots should you have? Is there a minimum number? A max?
If they're good, I think the minimum is three. Max is six. Different reps and different
producers tend to give a different answer each time I ask this question, but this seems
to be the typical answer.
Is it better to have campaigns, or six spots with different clients?
Different clients. It shows your range. A campaign is okay, but it shouldn't be three
spots with the same punchline. Or, rather, same set-up and structure.
Is there ever a time to do a :60?
:60s only make sense if it's big, anthemic, over-the-top, Microsoft, Coke...that
seems to make sense, if you're going for that European vibe, global. But again,
unless it's the greatest thing we've ever seen, people look at spots and go,
"Why couldn't you make that into a :30?" Directors fall in love with their footage.
And if your editor can't cut your spot into a :30, give it to another editor who has
nothing to do with the project, and I guarantee he'll be able to do it.
What's a good way to find inexpensive resources?
Beg, borrow and steal.
Craigslist, Mandy.com, USC Film School kids. The thing is there are all these people who
want to be what they aren't – they're trying to get to the next level. So don't be afraid
to ask. Don't be afraid to talk to an editor at an edit house: "I'm doing a spec spot, do
you want to edit for me?" You get one guy on board, that editor knows a sound guy, that
guy knows a mix guy, and the mix guy knows a colorist. It feeds on itself. You assemble
your team. And everybody wins, because everybody gets something for their reel.
What if you're a director who's come up with an interesting technique... is it better
to do something nobody's ever seen before? Or do you just want to shoot the hell out of a good script?
Depends on the situation. Depends on what you want to be as a director. If you want to be a
visually driven director... we've had members go through the program, visually driven
types, and their stuff looks absolutely gorgeous. But they're not treading any new ground.
I think that if you've got an interesting technique, that's great. But you're almost making
it harder on yourself if you don't combine that interesting technique with an interesting
concept. The interesting technique on its own has to be so amazing to make up for your
average concept, that you're hurting yourself.
Any thoughts on working with creatives?
I think you have to do it. I say this all the time with SpotLab, when we do our interviews,
and people come in and we watch their spots. We've seen some awful spots – from talented
directors. They'll look great, and sometimes the casting is good, and the editing is good,
but you're looking at the concept, and you're like, this concept is juvenile.
Should you have other stuff on your reel? Like music videos?
And the moment you look at it, you just know. We'll ask, "Who wrote that?" And the
director will say, sheepishly, "I did." And I lay it out every time. "So let me ask
you a question: do you want to be a copywriter?" And, of course, the response is:
"No, I want to be a director." "So why are you writing scripts?" Copywriters and
art directors write scripts. Unless you want to be a creative, don't write your own
scripts. Otherwise, you just spent all this money on an average script.
Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, like agency creatives who become directors
and write their own scripts. But oftentimes even they won't even write their own scripts,
because they're a better judge of somebody else's scripts.
No. Well, it's funny. We get asked that question at every SpotLab meeting. And the answer
is: only if it's really good. Really good.
Nowadays, people are doing webisodes and spots specifically for the web. Should that
kind of thing go on your reel?
Only if it's good. Like everything else.
Is it cool to shoot something that's 47 seconds long and say, "Oh, it's a webisode"?
A lot of these guys say, "It's for the Internet," because they didn't have the ability to
tell the story within 30 seconds. People are always asking me, "Should it be a :30?
Should it be a :60?" We're pretty firm: it should be a :30. That's what people shoot.
The point is, I want to know whether, as a director, you can tell a story in 30 seconds.
And if you can't... It's like film directors who shoot three-and-a-half hour movies,
and when you watch, you're like, "Dude, this could have ended an hour ago."
As a creative director, you've hired many directors. Are you ever going to take a chance
on a new director for a half-million-dollar shoot?
My only take on the web is the same as putting a student film or a music video on your
reel: if it's extraordinary, if it makes me go, "Holy shit, you gotta check this guy out!",
then put it on. If it's anything less, then no. What is your goal? Is your goal to be a
commercial director? Then you need to have commercials on there. There's gotta be the one
"holy shit" thing on your reel. And if that one "holy shit" thing happens to be a webisode,
then great. But if it's just a stupid little piece that you say, "Oh, it exists on the web,"
and it's not particularly interesting, or exciting, then what's the point?
On half a million dollars? No. Don't need to.
So how does a new director break in? You finished your reel, now what?
It's like anything else. The first step is getting the reel. The second step
is getting signed to a production company. Nobody is going to hire you for a real
budget job unless you have the support of a production company. That's the way it is.
Whether it's for the insurance, financial support, whatever it is, you must have the
backing of a production company, or people will not shoot with you...on anything
of a decent budget. And nowadays, on anything of a shitty budget, too.
Does getting signed guarantee you're going to shoot spots?
Nope. Getting signed only guarantees that you can. [Laughs] Occasionally, people will do a
loan-out. You'll be talking to a production company about a spot, and they don't have anybody
who seems to work for you. They'll say, "Well, there's this guy we've been talking to. He's
not under contract with us, but we like his work. What do you think?" And because you're
going through an established production company, you might do it. That's really the only
way an un-signed director will get a shoot.
When you say the industry has changed, what do you mean?
Now, it used to be, if you wanted to shoot for $50,000, or $100,000, you might take a
chance on some nobody, or a guy with his own production company, because they're cheap.
The industry's changed so much that the guys who used to look down their noses at anything
under $250,000 will gladly shoot at $70,000. The guys who used to shoot for a million,
if they see an interesting board, they'd rather be working than not working. Remember,
a director has a grip that he's tight with, a DP that he uses all the time. He wants to
keep his guys working. Because if they aren't working with him now, the next time, when
he needs them, they won't be there.
The budgets have come way down. At the high end, they're still there. But that pool is
only open to the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me: the Joe Pytka, the Daniel Kleinman, the Noam Murro.
Is that because the budgets are moving to the Internet?
A lot of the budgets are moving to the Internet. And the technology has gotten so
inexpensive that people can shoot cheaper. So what happens is a company says, "I'm not
going to spend a million dollars on a commercial. I'll spend $200,000 on a commercial,
and I'll have webisodes done, and I'll do this, and this. Because what's happening is
people don't believe in television the way they used to.
In terms of submitting your reel to a production company, should it be on DVD, or
can you just link to a web site?
From what I'm hearing, go with a web site more than a DVD. There are some old-school
production companies that would prefer DVDs so they can look at it when they look at it.
But I just know from my own usage, you're seeing less and less DVDs and more and more web sites.
Is there a specific person at a production company who does the hiring?
But be careful: make sure that web site loads right up, because people get frustrated
within two seconds. I just recently sent my link out for a freelance job and they emailed
me back and said, "Can you send us a DVD? We don't have time to load this." I was like,
you're kidding me! So I emailed my spots via Wiredrive and they looked at it in the window,
which is faster than downloading, and they loved it. Bottom line – they want to see it fast.
Somebody emailed me the same question yesterday. "Should I show it to reps, should I show
it to producers, who should I show it to?" The answer is, you show your reel to anyone who
will look at it. That's it. That's my answer.
So, just send it to everyone at a production company?
When I was starting as a copywriter, I can very clearly remember sitting on the subway
in NY, and the guy next to me was reading Adweek. I looked over and said, "Oh, you're
in advertising?" We started chatting, he said he was a Creative Director, and I said,
"Can I show you my work?" And I whipped out my portfolio right in the middle of the
subway. You show it to anyone who will look.
A lot of people start with reps, because then the reps go to their production companies.
Some people start with the production companies and then down to the reps. I'm a believer
in the shotgun approach. You go with anybody who will look at it.
Through Group 101/SpotLab, you've helped launch the careers of dozens of directors.
What did those directors do right?
The snooty companies aren't going to hire you anyway. They identify ahead of time who
they're going after. What I tell everybody is do your research. There are something like
five or six thousand signed directors in the U.S. Look at the reels. Go on the production
company web sites and look at the kinds of stuff they have.
If you see a reel that makes you go, "That's the kind of work I want to do, I love
Daniel Kleinman's work, I want to shoot like Daniel Kleinman, we have the same ethos,
that's what I want," then you pick your scripts in that direction, and you shoot in
that direction, and then you go to his production company and you say, "I'm Daniel
Kleinman light. I'm the guy that can shoot his spots when instead of $2 million,
they have $30,000." When a client says, "We want Daniel Kleinman," your production
company says, "You can't have Daniel Kleinman, you can get Frank." And oftentimes
that happens. You get the throwaways. We've all had the good-looking friend – we
wanted his throwaways (Laughs). Nothing wrong with that.
You can also talk to reps who seem to be losing jobs to a specific type of director, i.e.,
"I wish production company X had a Daniel Kleinman type."
If a production company turns you down, say, "Any other suggestions? Know anybody at other
production companies you can steer me to?" Ain't too proud to beg...
I'm the first to admit that the reason one director gets signed over another director...
talent seems to be a small part of the equation. It's the price of entry to be sure,
but I swear, it's the stars aligning. Because we've had incredibly talented directors not
get signed, and we've had not-as-talented directors get signed. Sometimes it's the guy
who wears his hat sideways, he's younger, he's better-looking, he's got a better shtick.
That's part of the game. It sucks, but that's reality.
So there's no secret to success.
I personally judge success on whether someone successfully built their reel, because
that's what SpotLab does. Getting signed, we can't control that. You may go to five
production companies and they're all looking for a dialogue guy, and you just built a
fabulous effects reel. But we helped you build that great effects reel.
Not really. It's knowing what kind of reel you want to build. Picking great concepts to shoot.
Working with creatives; not working in a vacuum. And then bringing it to a high level of finish.
However you get there. Whether it is shooting with a great DP, editing with a great editor,
doing great color, sound. But bringing it to a high level of finish so that when somebody
sees that spot, they're surprised when you tell them it's spec. But for me, number one is
concepts. It'll always come back to that. It's unfair that directors are judged by their
scripts, but they will always be judged that way. It's just the way it is.
Can you give me an idea of what it takes to get into SpotLab?
Obviously we attract a decent number of people every year. I remember the first year, nobody
even knew us, and we got 100 applications. Now that we're in our sixth round, we get around
70 people that apply. Usually we start by picking 20 and interviewing them. We then pick
anywhere between 10 and 15. Actually, the first year we didn't interview, but then we
started realizing it's just as important that we get a sense of their personalities,
because we're spending a lot of time with them. We put a lot into the program and don't
really make any money on it, so if we're going to help people...well, you want to make
sure they're not assholes, to put it bluntly.
Any parting words?
There's an application on the web site. Put some time into the application. Some of these
people whip through it like it's a job application. Generally speaking, every year we let
in one or two wild cards, people who have never shot anything but impress us anyway.
We prefer to see spec spots. People who are already beginning to build their reels and need help.
Don't go off half-cocked! If you're passionate about doing something, do it right.
You only have one shot at this in terms of money, in terms of time, in terms of
showing that reel around. I can't tell you how many times we've seen reels where people
spent real money – like, for three or four spots they spent $40,000 – and there's
not one good concept on there. They have to replace this whole reel. Because they
did it half-assed. They started with shitty concepts, and then they put more time
into what lens they were going to use instead making sure they had a big idea in front of it.
Measure twice, cut once.
Exactly. It's like building a house. You don't just run to the lumberyard and start
throwing a house together. I've seen guys do half-assed jobs at things and I feel so
terrible because I can see how much time and money they put into it and it's just
not good. Because they started with a shitty idea.
Thank you very much for your time.
ou're welcome. Hopefully, between you, me, Dina & Steve [Jeff's partners in SpotLab],
we're saving a lot of people from shooting really bad spots. And hey, that's gotta be
worth some good karma, right?