Interview with Jeff Nicosia of SpotLab

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 (, 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.

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 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?
Jeff Nicosia:

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 Chinese restaurant.

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 choose directors.

And when you send a director's reel to a client for approval, they're going to want to see it exactly...

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.

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.

Should a spot fit into a client's current advertising –

Yes, absolutely.

– 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.

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' think you did because it's so polished, and it feels like other things they've done.

Is your budget something you need to figure out in advance? Do you need to spend a lot to make a good reel?

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.

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.

How important are the concepts versus the directing style?

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.

So, Craigslist?

Craigslist,, 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.

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.

Should you have other stuff on your reel? Like music videos?

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."

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?

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?

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.

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.

When you say the industry has changed, what do you mean?

The budgets have come way down. At the high end, they're still there. But that pool is only open to the crème de la crème: 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.

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.

Is there a specific person at a production company who does the hiring?

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.

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.

So, just send it to everyone at a production company?

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.

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...

Through Group 101/SpotLab, you've helped launch the careers of dozens of directors. What did those directors do right?

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.

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.

So there's no secret to success.

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.

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.

Any parting words?

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?