Breaking the Roster: Beak Street Bugle
Article by Alex Reeves in the beak Street Bugle featuring Tangerine.
For decades, the British commercial production company has remained a two-headed beast, serving both as a group of specialists with film production skills and as a corral for the creative talents that bring magic to these films – their jealously coveted directors.
But as things change at a blinding pace in this creative, tech-driven industry, people have begun to question this system. Companies have started bringing directors out of the production companies’ dominion and dedicating their entire business to selling these talents. Reps have been turning independent.
Various business models are knocking about. Some offer a roster of completely independent directors, leaving the choice of who produces a film up to the client. Other independent directors representatives sell the talents of directors from several small production companies, building a sizeable roster out of smaller ones. Others are more about breaking down boundaries between commercials, TV, film and online.
Breaking away from the rigid yet tried-and-tested model of directors tied to their production company, this approach seems to be gaining momentum, with companies like Las Bandas, Soho Pantry, Enid, McQ, Tangerine and Talent Hungry coming onto the scene. So what has driven this change? We spoke to a cross-section of the industry and broke it down to seven factors:
1. Everyone’s a Director Now
Now we’ve all got sci-fi technology in our pockets, any idiot with the audacity to call themselves a film director can use the filmmaking processes that used to take years of training to master. And in a culture where we’re encouraged to believe that we’re unique creative individuals, just like everyone else, there are quite a lot of those. “Everyone in the world thinks they’re a director now,” says Jen Herrera, who reps directors independently for Las Bandas. She’s only half-joking.
Inevitably, some of these are genuinely talented and, with production companies fighting over jobs, they can’t sign them all. Some independent reps pick up this slack, meaning production companies can borrow these directors. As Lise McQuillin, Managing Partner of McQ, says, “some struggle to understand why a director would ever want to be represented by anything other than a production company. Some see it as a great creative and cost-effective resource, as they can have an extension to their existing roster and need never turn a project down.”
2. The Rise of the Boutique Production Company
We’re living in an entrepreneurial age, where it’s become perfectly acceptable for twenty-somethings with wild ideas to become their own bosses and, sometimes, build something impressive out of nothing. So it’s not surprising that London’s production community has burgeoned in the past decade. The Advertising Producers Association (APA) now has over 150 member production companies, but the vast majority of these are cosy boutique operations, with just a handful of directors and only a couple of permanent staff.
“There are lots more smaller production companies,” says Colette Crespin, who runs Tangerine. “The amount of money a full-time rep might want isn’t necessarily within the budgetary constraints of what a smaller production company might have. This [model of representation] is just being savvy and cost-efficient.”
Even if they could afford it, employing a dedicated directors’ rep would probably be overkill for these companies – talking about three directors over and over could be extremely tedious. It makes sense for several rosters to unite under one banner, saving the small companies money and giving them more clout when it comes to fighting past agencies’ fortified gates.
The one problem with this is that these companies are effectively competitors, so they need to be wary of clashes between similar directors. John Doris, Managing Director of Mustard would worry about this if he ran a smaller company. “They’re going to push the directors that are going to get them a script,” he says. “There’s got to be a pecking order within that amalgamated roster.” This sort of repping comes with delicate politics that can be difficult to balance, but for many companies it’s still a compelling option.
3. There’s No Money
In the production industry’s eyes, budgets have never been big enough. A bit more money could always be put to use somewhere. But since the economy took a nose-dive these challenges are more threatening than ever. And with cost controllers scrutinising every expense, clients wonder exactly how much they should be spending on a director.
While it’s no longer the jet setting 80s, there are still big jobs, but these are thinner on the ground, meaning even the top directors are less busy. “I don’t think there’s as much trickle down as there used to be,” considers Bradley Woodus, a producer at Dare, “because the busy directors aren’t as busy as they once were, when jobs might have been passed down to someone younger.”
Without this serendipity to rely on, newer directors need as much exposure to agencies as they can get, and since independent reps started taking on small production company’s rosters, being a small fish in a small pond can often be better than getting lost in a big shoal.
4. Video is Conquering the Internet
While budgets shrink, the quantity of video content being commissioned is rampantly growing. This is another boon for the less-experienced directors out there. The top-level directors pick up the few big-money TV ads still floating about, while the rest have a vast gamut of online content to direct.
“About two years ago digital became a serious thing,” says Jen, “which meant that budgets were going to be less. But there’s more content, constantly needing more people. Everything I shoot now, there always needs to be a making-of video.”
Independent reps are well suited to servicing this low-budget, online-only sort of work – jobs the big production companies might not see as worthwhile, if a production company is involved at all.
5. Everyone is Having a Go at Production
Production companies no longer have a monopoly on production. In an age where any kid with an iPhone can make passable video content, everyone’s having a pop. Brands and agencies are trying to bring some production in-house, and even a few post production houses have started dabbling in the physical world.
If brands are doing things differently, then Lise thinks the production industry, including independent representation, needs to step up too. “We should at least match them,” she says, “if not lead the change in the way we create and deliver productions. Using independent directors is just one small step forward.”
Understandably, production companies are a bit miffed by this, so they’re unlikely to let their directors swan off and direct films in these new arrangements. Independently represented directors are much more flexible though, and their reps are much happier to speak to the new types of client this shift in the industry has created.
6. Agency Time is Precious
Nobody likes being sold to, particularly in Britain. So it’s understandable that agencies often resent the endless stream of reps banging at their portcullis to show reels.
The problem is that it’s important for producers and creatives to know what talent is available to them. They know this, but it’s never quite as urgent as the other stuff they have to get on with, so it often doesn’t get the time it deserves.
The big production companies will get past the gatekeepers relatively easily – agencies know they need to keep up with the work they’re doing. But independent directors or those on newer rosters don’t have a strong brand to lubricate this process. A good rep can provide this lubrication.
“The role of the rep has had to change,” says Colette. “Agencies don’t have time to see every rep from every company coming in and showing them 20 pieces of work, so an independent rep with a few companies on their roster is more of a resource.”
With the right address book and enough kudos in the industry, an independent rep can get their directors quality airtime in front of the right producers and creatives. “As an agency, there’s no difference between an independent representative coming in or a representative who looks after one company, as far as I’m concerned,” says Bradley. “It’s talent, it’s directors and it’s just trying to keep abreast of what’s going on in the business.”
7. The Internet is Big
The APA website links to the websites of the vast majority of production companies in the UK. Through portals like this an agency looking for a director has access to hundreds of directors reels.
With such a big catalogue at their fingertips, why would they want something as anachronistic as a person physically coming to their office to show them films? Surely the directors’ rep has gone the way of the switchboard operator and the typesetter.
Actually, no. Reps are as relevant as ever, but for different reasons. Sifting through hundreds of director’s reels searching for the one? To quote internet sensation Sweet Brown, “ain’t nobody got time for that!” What this ultimately means is that agency producers searching for the perfect director will check the companies they know and not much further.
It’s all too easy to click away from a website after watching one less-than-perfect video, points out Bradley. “If someone comes in to show you some work it might not be until spot three or four that you see something relevant, whereas online, if you watch one spot and it’s not ticking the box, there’s every chance that you’ll click away.” What a rep can do is make sure the right producer sees the right work, picking the perfect pearl from the vast sea of unfamiliar directors.
Independent repping is a sign of the times. If these seven factors continue to influence the industry then we could be seeing a lot more of it.
But it shouldn’t be seen as a paradigm shift. The traditional model of dedicated reps will continue as long as the big companies have regular work and, as fickle as some directors may be, if a company lets them direct Nike and Guinness ads then they’ll be safe and sound.
The independent model may continue to grow but it shouldn’t have too much trouble fitting alongside its predecessor. “I’ve got no qualms bidding against independent representation,” says John. “If an independent rep is personable, professional and knows their business, there’s no reason they can’t go on a board like a production company.”