SHOOT New Directors Showcase Event Features Insights From Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, Cross-section Of Industry Pros
SHOOT's Robert Goldrich (l) interviews Chelsea Pictures' director Amir Bar-Lev at the In The Director's Chair session on stage at the DGA Theatre in NYC.
Agency, client and production company execs offer perspectives on changing relationships, Free The Bid, inclusion, new opportunities
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SHOOT’s New Directors Showcase Event provided varied industry perspectives during two afternoon sessions, and substantive exposure that same evening for up-and-coming directors via a screening of their work and a Meet the Directors panel discussion, all held at the DGA Theatre in NYC on Thursday, May 24. The NDS Event After-party was hosted by event silver sponsor The Mill at their facility in Soho. 

Among the highlights was the annual In The Director’s Chair session, this time around featuring Amir Bar-Lev whose most recent film, Long Strange Trip, a four hour epic on The Grateful Dead, was described by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most engrossing rock documentaries ever made”; it also made the Oscar shortlist, earned a Best Director nomination from the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, and was nominated for a Best Music Film Grammy.

Also in the music space, Bar-Lev’s directorial credits include the film 12.12.12 about the concert for Hurricane Sandy relief--as well as the Re:Generation Music Project for Hyundai and the Grammy Awards which won a Cannes Bronze Lion. 

12.12.12 premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; the concert featured performances by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen, among notable others.

Meanwhile, Re:Generation Music Project made its festival debut at the South by Southwest Film Fest. This documentary found an ideal venue in South by Southwest in that it too married the worlds of film and music. Made in association with the Grammys and sponsored by Hyundai Veloster, Re:Generation followed five noted DJs--DJ Premier, electronic duo The Crystal Method, Pretty Lights of dub-step fame, Grammy winner Skrillex and producer Mark Ronson--as they remix, recreate and re-imagine five traditional styles of music. Ronson created his take on jazz, Skrillex on rock ‘n roll, Pretty Lights on country music, DJ Premier tackled classical, and The Crystal Method forayed into soul. Each artist collaborated with another artist or artists from each respective genre. For example, The Crystal Method teamed with soul singer Martha Reeves (of the Motown group Martha and the Vandellas). To this day, it’s considered a stellar piece of branded entertainment, celebrating the art of collaboration and what it can yield.

Bar-Lev’s reach, though, extends well beyond music. For example, consider his body of work that has premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over the years: 

My Kid Could Paint That debuted at Sundance in 2007, introducing us to the work and unexpected success of a four-year-old girl whose paintings brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, buoyed by comparisons to the likes of Picasso.

Then Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story premiered at Sundance in 2010 and went on to win an Emmy Award. It introduced us to Pat Tillman who left a multi-million dollar pro football contract on the table to serve in the nation’s military. The circumstances of his tragic death in the line of duty, though, were covered up by the military, which instead used his passing as a propaganda tool. The Tillman Story chronicled his family’s struggle to unearth the truth. 

And Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley premiered at Sundance in 2014, shedding light on the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. The documentary was called “mesmerizing” by The New Yorker.

Additionally Bar-Lev directs commercials-----as well as branded content----through Chelsea Pictures. His spot credits include Call of Duty Endowment’s “The Honest Truth,” and this year’s Super Bowl ad, Verizon’s “Answering The Call,” which won a pair of ANDY Awards. 

SHOOT editor Robert Goldrich interviewed Bar-Lev on stage at the DGA venue. The director shared that his documentary approach is not grounded in a conventional fly-on-the-wall perspective. Nor does he see himself as a traditional journalist, citing Happy Valley as an example. Bar-Lev noted that the documentary was criticized for not uncovering the “hard truth” about Jerry Sandusky, the assistant football coach at Penn State convicted of sexually abusing numerous youngsters. Bar-Lev explained that if you want that detailed story, go to a long-form journalist. Bar-Lev said he instead is “trying to do a piece of art” and that by “using the stuff of real life”--such as the reaction of the Penn State community, the dynamics within that culture--he looks to make a different kind of connection with an audience. Bar-Lev affirmed that “a little bit of art is useful” when trying to generate a real connection with viewers.

“The way to connect is by showing people how they are part of the story,” contended Bar-Lev. By focusing on the abhorrent, sociopathic behavior of Sandusky, you are distancing the audience from the story. People can’t relate to him. They may conclude, he conjectured, that “I’m glad I’m not living in that town.”

To properly connect, Bar-Lev opted to explore what was going on around Sandusky: the obsession with college football, “spectacle, distraction, celebrity worship--we are all part of that.” Making viewers participants in what they can personally relate to is more likely to have them coming away from the film thinking about their behavior, raising self-awareness about what they can do to better themselves and not be part of a culture that promotes denial or being outright oblivious to injustice. The art of a documentary can help evoke empathy, observed Bar-Lev.

Similarly, Long Strange Trip was not a linear, journalistic-style chronicling of The Grateful Dead. In terms of connecting with an audience, the documentary moves into the emotional, human areas of the band, their successes and foibles, the burdens of fame, their ambivalence about their celebrity. It’s these elements that have a universal resonance that enables viewers who aren’t Grateful Dead fans to relate to the band members and their stories. 

“Our job in nonfiction is not the same as a journalist who has to be exhaustive, encyclopedic,” said Bar-Lev who wanted Long Strange Trip to be musical and not just about music. “It shouldn’t be a bunch of people telling you what good music talking about the first time he heard ‘Dark Star.’” It’s like humor--you don’t explain the reason it’s funny. You have to make a funny piece, observed Bar-Lev. Thus for Long Strange Trip, Bar-Lev tried to invent a layered editing style that “felt musical,” working in tandem with several editors, including Keith Fraase who has cut for director Terrence Malick (To The Wonder, Knight Of Cups, Voyage Of Time: Life’s Journey). Bar-Lev noted that Fraase told him that Malick would lay out a timeline, and then smudge it as if to make a painting abstract, to create a sense of irrationality so it’s not so historical. Bar-Lev observed that the collapsing of time is musical as he shifts form a modern-day moment to the past, snippets from archives, the present-day discovery of those archives as artifacts, iconic photos as well as pictures taken just before and after those iconic moments.

Long Strange Trip found an audience on the festival circuit, in cinema (selling out 70 theaters for a one-night event) and on the Amazon platform.

In the spirit of such work as Happy Valley and Long Strange Trip, Bar-Lev noted that when trying to figure out what subject matter to tackle next, he’s “judging less on the topic and more on the opportunity to be inventive.” He added, “That’s what I love about commercial work” which has “real tolerance for formal inventiveness.”

Bar-Lev noted that he’s grateful to Chelsea Pictures for supporting his documentary sensibilities in the context of ad projects. “What they try to help me do is bring whatever my skillset make a safe place for unsafe, authentic reactions to happen.” He acknowledged that in a short timeframe of a commercial, the general norm is to “be very deliberate” in what you set out to do. But Chelsea helps collaborators take a leap of faith to realize authenticity and thus successfully engage an audience.

A prime example of that is this year’s Verizon Super Bowl spot “Answering the Call” which used still images to show moments of incredible rescues as we hear people thank on the phone the first responders who rescued them. Bar-Lev and Chelsea Pictures collaborated with creatives at McCann New York, ultimately taking the leap of faith to not film reunions of first responders and those they rescued but rather to stay with striking images from the rescues as we hear people express their heartfelt thanks. Bar-Lev said that his documentary filmmaking informed his commercial work in this case as he affirmed the need to stick with the idea of eavesdropping on these conversations and going low-fi. “It was scary for all of us--a Super Bowl ad with subpar sound,” said Bar-Lev. But he knew that the authenticity of these unscripted moments of thanks--for the first responders and those they rescued, such as Cedricka expressing her appreciation to a firefighter who helped her escape a fire in her apartment building four years ago--would resonate with viewers, bringing an entirely new dimension to and departure from the typically loud, visually splashy crop of Super Bowl commercials.

Conversely, commercialmaking and branded content have informed Bar-Lev as a documentarian. For example, Re:Generation Music Project had DJ Ronson creating a southern brew of New Orleans jazz, teaming with an all star cast of Erykah Badu, Trombone Shorty, Mos Def, Zigaboo Modeliste, and members of The Dap Kings. Bar-Lev recalled filming Ronson and Badu when a creative director asked him if he was okay with am ambulance being down the street at the time. In an ideal world, Bar-Lev would have preferred the ambulance not be in the scene. So it was moved. Bar-Lev said that he then fully realized that the “granular attention to detail in the commercial world” could yield benefits without necessarily compromising the truth of a scene.

Yet while you can control a visual element like an ambulance, Bar-Lev is not interested in controlling ambiguity but rather embracing it in his filmmaking. During the making of My Kid Could Paint That, the revelation emerged in a 60 Minutes story that some of the work by the child prodigy may have been painted by her father. This led to some soul searching by Bar-Lev as to how his documentary should proceed. “In a way we were lucky never to figure out exactly the answer,” said Bar-Lev who said the film was a lesson in how to deal with ambiguities by inviting the audience to be a participant. “The climactic scene has no interview, no narration,” noted Bar-Lev. Instead shown in full view is a painting by the child--one that is clearly hers since we had seen her paint it. “To my eye, it looks different than the $25,000 ones,” observed Bar-Lev. The painting is shown to the accompaniment of Nino Rota music.

The audience was pulled into the story, with Bar-Lev reporting that about one-third of viewers believed that the child was a genius, with two-thirds concluding that her prodigy status was fabricated. This participation on the part of viewers underscores that “good art,” said Bar-Lev, is not a one-way proposition.

When asked what advice he has for aspiring directors, Bar-Lev said he recently fielded the same query from a teacher on a Skype call with some high school students. He responded, “Ambiguity is an important thing, especially in this day and age.” He advised young filmmakers not to avoid ambiguity but to deal with it because it can afford them the opportunity to “create empathy.”

Embracing Change
The title of this second afternoon session--Embracing Change: Inclusion; Tapping Into The Freelance Talent Pool; Agency, Client and Production Company Relationships; New Opportunities--is a mouthful. Appropriately enough, providing a mouthful of relevant observations and info were panelists representing varied sectors of the industry: Nathy Aviram, chief production officer, McCann New York; Jeff Greenbaum, leading industry attorney and partner in Frankfurt Kurnit Klein + Selz; Lisa Mehling, owner/EP of Chelsea Pictures; Ben Haynes, head of broadcast production, sales & marketing procurement, FCA Fiat Chrysler Automotive; Emma Reeves, executive director, Free The Bid; and Molly Schaaf, founding partner, Always Be Holding.

SHOOT’s Goldrich moderated the conversation, which initially centered on Free The Bid, launched about a year and a half ago by director Alma Har’el, who back in January earned a DGA Award nomination in commercials. In its relatively brief existence, Free the Bid has positively impacted the industry. The non-profit initiative, which has picked up widespread industry momentum, asks ad agencies to include a female filmmaker on every triple-bid project, production companies to sign more woman directors, and marketers to seek one woman’s bid on each of their commercial productions. And now Free the Bid has expanded to other industry sectors to open up more opportunities for women DPs and editors. 

Reeves noted that gender parity is the goal of Free The Bid and while progress is being made, there’s considerable room for improvement as but seven percent of commercials are directed by women. Reeves explained that Free the Bid is not asking that women be hired but rather that they be afforded the opportunity to compete for business. She cited “a systematic bias against allowing them to compete” and the industry needs to wake up to “the systemic nature” of the problem.

The Free The Bid online global data base has a few hundred female directors--a mix of indie filmmakers and those affiliated with production houses. Similarly, extensive rosters of female editors and DPs have also been developed.

Chelsea Pictures’ Mehling recalled a phone call she received form Diane McArter of Furlined welcoming her to an exclusive club--one of two sole female owners of a major commercial production company. “I found it sobering, not celebratory,” assessed Mehling. It made her increasingly aware of the importance of mentoring other women, yielding what she described as “empathy for others struggling to be in this business which is hyper-competitive.” Free The Big is helping to address this issue, with Chelsea being one of the first companies to commit to the initiative. It behooves the industry, said Mehling to affect positive change, to act to correct a systemic problem “that we didn’t create but inherited from previous generations.”

McCann too was among the very first shops to embrace Free The Bid. Rob Reilly, global creative chairman, McCann Worldgroup, sent an email to Aviram and other colleagues at McCann and within a few minutes the decision was made by all to be fully on board with Free The Bid. One of McCann’s first actions, said Aviram, was to develop a roster of qualified female directors--this was before Free The Bid assembled its online directory. Aviram said that McCann’s numbers have gone up relative to hiring women directors, though the agency had for some time prior to Free The Bid been using female filmmakers in single and double-bid situations. Still there can be availability problems. Even though McCann assembled a big database, after “the third or fourth ‘no,’ said Aviram, from women directors due to other commitments, the agency had to move on with certain projects.

Nonetheless, it’s important to make the effort, continuing to progress and move beyond the days “when we couldn’t find a female director in comedy,” recalled Aviram. “You aren’t going to find it on their reel if they don’t have the opportunity to do the work.”

On a separate front, Aviram addressed agency in-house production, noting that McCann is careful not to compromise its relationships with outside vendors. He said that his approach to in-house production is “always trying to protect against becoming a competitor with my best vendors.” Aviram stressed that in-house fare consists of cost-limited jobs that “we typically would ask for favors to pull off.” McCann was tired of asking favors of the production community--and companies were likely tired too of being asked.

Providing a client perspective was Fiat Chrysler’s Haynes who delved into changing relationships. Fiat Chrysler began direct sourcing production in late 2015, wanting “to understand production companies a little more” and to establish “closer relationships with directors.” He clarified that Fiat Chrysler manages production in-house but doesn’t do in-house production. Agencies, he continued, remain very much involved, putting together bid packages with creatives choosing from “a huge roster” of production companies. “They (agency creatives) choose from that roster who they think is appropriate for a project,” said Haynes.

Last year Fiat Chrysler extended its direct sourcing reach to postproduction purchasing and print photography, and that too has yielded positive results.

On the inclusiveness front, Fiat Chrysler has not adopted Free The Bid but rather, said Haynes, tracks female and minority ownership of supplier companies, looking to do business with those entities. At the same time, he noted that Fiat Chrysler is in favor of opening up opportunities for women directors and will push to see that they are considered for projects. 

Meanwhile Schaaf is looking to pursue and secure opportunities for freelance producers via Always Be Holding, a venture she launched in March, bringing to it some 20 years of extensive experience, including having led production for the GEICO account as VP/executive producer at The Martin Agency for seven years. There she oversaw production of 100-plus pieces of content annually and mentored all of her producers. Schaaf then spearheaded the integrated production department at Made for several years. Always Be Holding was founded to connect agencies, brands and creative visionaries to best-in-class producer talent.  From mentoring and coaching producers throughout her career, Schaaf has an arsenal of vetted producers at the ready in assorted production markets. She specializes in finding custom fits for jobs and collaborators, matching expertise and personality traits.

Greenbaum said that with changing relationships like those articulated by Haynes, legal obligations, responsibilities and liabilities too are evolving. “Hearing different ways in which clients are interested in costs, managing costs and being involved in the bidding process” underscores, related Greenbaum, that clients/advertisers are “taking an interest in the business of agencies and the business of production,” which requires agencies and production houses to be “buttoned up in a way” they might not have been earlier.  Add to that the Department of Justice investigation into bidding practices of ad agencies, the ANA’s investigation into whether agencies are acting in the best interest of clients, and it’s become evident that productive new ways of working together are being sought. 

“This is a contract-heavy business,” said Greenbaum, citing contracts between client and agency, agency and production company, production company and director. “Wherever you are in the food chain, understanding what your obligations are, what the contract says...who these clients are and what their expectations are” becomes essential.

With the emergence of intellectual property opportunities, the value being provided by vendors can potentially evolve. Production companies could be providing more than executing ideas under a work-for-hire model. Perhaps there are instances where production houses can be IP stakeholders, for example. In the big picture, observed Greenbaum, “In order for business to evolve, you have to open a conversation between all those involved.”

Chelsea’s Mehling observed, “We are in phase of great disruption.” She added that this disruption can translate into opportunities for a production company as both brands and agencies want to work with production companies, or a director like Bar-Lev who brings his experiences and sensibilities to the creative process. It’s all part of what Mehling called “a fight against sameness,” breaking through to better connect with an audience.

New Directors Showcase
The evening proceedings began with a welcome from the DGA and SHOOT followed by the screening of the 2018 SHOOT New Directors Showcase reel (click here for reel & info on the NDS directors).

After the screening, SHOOT publisher and editorial director Roberta Griefer asked the NDS directors in the audience to stand while mentioning their work. She then moderated the Meet The New Directors panel discussion which included four of the showcase directors, all as of yet unaffiliated with a production company: Erica Eng, Shaya Mulcahy, Brad Raider and Brett Warkentien. Rounding out the panel were a pair of industry professionals who offered advice to aspiring directors--Loretta Jeneski, partner/executive producer of Nonfiction Unlimited, and James McPherson, EVP, director of integrated production at Townhouse, a WPP/Grey unit.

Most of the Showcase directors were in attendance at the DGA Theatre. Beyond the four panelists, the other directors in the 2018 Showcase are: Meghann Artes of Tessa Films; Cameron Busby who is unaffiliated; Erin Collett who’s unaffiliated; Andy Dulman of ArtClass; Lissette Feliciano who’s unaffiliated; Maja Fernqvist of goodstory films; Matt Fisher who’s unaffiliated; Tiffany Frances who’s unaffiliated; Lan Freedman of charlieuniformtango; Ben Giroux of Superlounge; Caitlyn Greene of Voyager; Greg & Jacob of Unit9; David Kobzantsev who’s unaffiliated; Jared Knecht of m ss ng p eces; Anais La Roca who’s unaffiliated; Jenna Laurenzo who’s unaffiliated; Justin Lebya who’s unaffiliated; Danielle Levitt from Tool; Bing Liu of Nonfiction Unlimited; Stewart Maclennan of CoMPANY Films; Sallyanne Massimini of Principato Young Entertainment; Nina Meredith who is unaffiliated; Matteo J. Mosterts who’s unaffiliated; Christian Schilling who’s unaffiliated; Duncan Sullivan of Cause+Effect Productions; Casey Stein who’s unaffiliated;  Bartley Taylor who’s unaffiliated; Celine Tricart of The Cavalry Productions and SPECTACLE; and Emma Zakes Green who’s unaffiliated.

  • Click here for the article on The SHOOT 2018 New Directors Showcase reel screening and Meet The New Directors panel.
  • Click here to view the SHOOT 2018 New Directors Showcase reel.
  • Click here for profiles/contact info on all of the directors in the SHOOT 2018 New Directors Showcase.
  • Click here for photos from the SHOOT 2018 16th Annual New Directors Showcase Event at the DGA and After-party at the Mill.
  • Click here for the videos in this artcle from the SHOOT 2018 16th Annual New Directors Showcase Event at the DGA.

Sponsor support
Lead sponsors of the 2018 SHOOT New Directors Showcase Event were the DGA and MySHOOT. Silver sponsors were advertising and entertainment law firm FKKS, The Mill and McCann Worldgroup. Bronze sponsors were charlieuniformtango, Superlounge and the Commercial Directing Boot Camp.  A great time was held by all at the after-party at The Mill's facility in Soho.


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