If you’ve thought there must be some secret to breaking into the high-end commercial film world, then the conversation we had with Über Content Founder Preston Lee is going to be a little bit disappointing. Because, as Preston told us — and as you’ve probably suspected deep down in your heart of hearts — the only real “secret” to breaking in is doing amazing work.
“That’s really it in a nutshell,” Preston told us. “I’m looking for really talented directors.”
And Preston would know. He represents the likes of Eliot Rausch and Fred Savage. After being in the business for 20 years, Preston has seen it all, and he’s incredibly generous with what he’s learned. So while you might be disappointed there are no secrets, we don’t think you’ll be disappointed with what Preston has to say. We found it very encouraging. Here’s our conversation with Preston Lee.
Can you explain what you do?
So what I do, and what other commercial production companies do, is we look for directors to represent in the world of advertising. We make national and international television commercials and music videos. I end up operating very similarly to an agent. However, my title is executive producer, so I’m a little bit more hands-on. I’m like an agent, a manager, and a producer all in one.
So, for example, I found Eliot [Rausch] maybe five years ago on a friend’s Facebook page. I watched Last Minutes with Oden and I was like, “What? Who’s that?” Then I just started Googling. I found his email or maybe his Facebook page. I sent him a note like, “Hey, bro, this is what I do. Would you be interested in directing commercials?”
A lot of filmmakers — especially early on in their careers — would love to get an email from you asking if they want to be represented by Über Content. Who do you look for? What stands out?
It’s somewhat hard to articulate because it’s really just talent. I get emails from filmmakers every day, and I see so much bad work. If there’s good work, I’m open to it; but I see so much bad work. I spend a lot of time with filmmakers I know I’m not going to sign. I have them come into the office, and I show them current work in their genre. I say, “Is your stuff that good? Is your stuff as good as Last Minutes with Oden? Because Eliot shot that in four hours, edited it in six hours, and maybe spent $100. So if you spent $3,000 or $4,000 on your piece, you’ve got a long way to grow.”
That’s really it in a nutshell: I’m looking for really talented directors. Ones who have an opinion. Ones who are making stuff that’s competitive with what’s out there.
The thing is, if you’re a filmmaker, you really have to be a student of what’s happening right now. You have to be out there and be familiar. I’m shocked by some of the conversations I have with young filmmakers who aren’t aware of what’s happening right now. It’s really competitive out here in L.A., and the ones who rise to the top are the ones who live and breathe this stuff every day. They have to make films. Eliot has to make films in order to stay emotionally healthy. He just has to. Filmmakers should constantly be studying what’s happening, watching work, watching work, watching work.
“If you’re a filmmaker, you really have to be a student of what’s happening right now. You have to be out there and be familiar.”
Do you think some filmmakers “have it” and some don’t?
It’s a brilliant question, and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot over the years, having worked with so many directors. Some have been successful and others haven’t. So I’ve wondered, What is the algorithm? What is the magical whatever-you-want-to-call-it? Is it just talent? Is it hard work? And I think the answer is yes to both. I think talent — just like musical talent — is innate. Some people unfairly have more. Eliot unfairly has really good creative vision and instinct. Others I’ve worked with have to work really, really hard to get there.
There’s this one guy I’ve worked with who works really, really hard; he went to film school; and he would love to get the jobs Eliot gets — but he’s just not there. He’s growing though. Each year he’s growing. I guess it’s like sports. Some people are naturally talented basketball players, and some have to work every single day just to compete. But both can be successful.
My challenge to all young filmmakers, no matter their talent level, is to stop talking about making films and actually make films. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had a lot of friends talk about making films, and a very small [number] of those friends have actually made films. Don’t talk about it. Stop talking about it. Make it. Most of the people who talk the most about making films have never made one. Just shut up and go make it.
Are there common mistakes you see filmmakers make?
Maybe ego. Try to keep your ego in check as you grow. I’ve found that the most talented directors have this certain character defect: They never think their work is that great. Eliot thinks his work is crap. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get why people ever email him. He just can’t see it because he’s constantly perfecting his craft. He’s constantly moving forward. [Films by] directors who are like, “Look at this thing I made — isn’t this great?” usually end up being not that great. So I always recommend to young filmmakers, “Keep your ego in check, man. You’re not that great. There’s always someone better. Keep looking for inspiration.”
Do you care if someone has been to film school or worked with major brands? Does any of that matter?
As long as somebody is talented, I don’t care. As long as the work is good. One of the biggest mistakes I see from directors who are trying to break in is they make something like a Nike spec commercial. As if that’s never been done. I can’t send that work to ad agencies because everyone knows Wieden+Kennedy does Nike.
“My challenge to all young filmmakers, no matter their talent level, is to stop talking about making films and actually make films. ”
I would prefer that someone not overthink it. Just make a great little short that’s 60 seconds long, 90 seconds long, just a little piece. I will say I’ve talked to a number of really talented young guys who I decided not to pursue just because of their attitude. For me, that’s a pretty big part of it. In my world, you have to be able to get on phone calls. The client needs to think, I could spend two weeks with that dude. If a director gets on the phone and they’re like, “Hey, dude. Yo, dude…” then I’m like, “No, man. This is a brand. Somebody is going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this.” You have to be an adult about it if you want to work in my world.
It wasn’t always that way though. In the late ’90s when I first got into this, directors basically ruled the world. They would throw Diet Cokes, walk off the set. But it’s not that way anymore. Those directors don’t work anymore. They call me up for work, but there’s just no way, man. There are too many directors now, and there’s no room for attitudes. I can find another director who doesn’t have one.
Attitude is a differentiator now.
Here’s an impossible question: When you talk about some work being “good” and some work being “bad,” is there any way to articulate the difference? What makes something “good”?
I’ve distilled it down to this. Here’s the secret to success: Make shit that doesn’t suck. I mean that. Go online and you’ll see shit that sucks. Don’t make that stuff. Make the other stuff that doesn’t suck.
That’s the secret?
That’s it. I’m not the arbiter of everything that’s great. You’ll know what’s great. People have heard of Eliot Rausch because he’s made great stuff. He’s made work that doesn’t suck. If no one knows your name, you’re making work that sucks. Figure that out for yourself. I can’t help you. You have to be a student of people who’ve made quality work. Figure out how they did it. Watch if frame by frame. Learn to use what you have. If you don’t have great talent, don’t make a performance piece. There are no excuses for bad work.
A director I work with named Lucia Aniello did a video for Dollar Shave Club. They did the thing in three days, the budget was like $4,500, and it doesn’t suck. It doesn’t suck at all. It’s great. That obviously wasn’t her first video. She got a degree from Columbia. She was 28 when she made the Dollar Shave Club video, and she’d been training at Upright Comedy Brigade and shooting videos for two or three years. Right now she’s writing and directing Broad City. And she’s just been named one of the top 15 comics to watch for 2015.
Is that the normal career path? People toiling away, making things, not getting a lot of attention, and then suddenly they make something great?
Yes, yes. Eliot would be an anomaly. Oftentimes overnight success is not really overnight success. They’ve been churning away for a while. They’ve starved and shared apartments and shot stuff with friends. And really, even Eliot. I met him when he was 27 or 28. He wasn’t some 21-year-old just out of college. He’d been editing for five years. And actually, Last Minutes with Oden wasn’t even his first piece. The truth is, you see very few 21-year-olds or 22-year-olds who are great.
I was just sharing this with Eliot a few weeks ago because he was complaining about how crappy his work was, that there was all this other good work out there. I was like, “Dude, those dudes are 46, 48, 52 years old. You’re 32, bro! You think all of a sudden you just get to be as good as them? They’ve been doing this for 25 years but — Pow! Magically overnight you [think you] should be doing work like that? It doesn’t work that way, man.”
“I think you’re expected to develop over time. If you’re doing this for 20 years, there’s no way you’re not going to get better.”
Everyone has this expectation that they should already be there. But the best directors right now in the ad space are in their mid to late 40s or 50s. I think it was helpful for Eliot to hear that. He was like, “Okay, wait. So it’s not expected that I should be that good yet?” And I’m like, “No. My god, give yourself another 10 years before you start beating yourself up.”
I think people quit too early. They’re not in it for the long haul. They think, I’m supposed to be good by the time I’m 25. And if I’m not, then maybe I’ll be an accountant. But if you’re just in it — if you just keep your mouth shut and keep making stuff…I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about whether some filmmakers have it or whether filmmakers develop over time. I think you’re expected to develop over time. If you’re doing this for 20 years, there’s no way you’re not going to get better.
That makes me feel a lot better. Thanks.
It’s a good reminder. It’s okay for all of us to just slow down a little bit and let ourselves grow. Focus on the only thing that matters: making great work. Not talking about making great work — actually making it. Big thanks to Preston Lee for taking the time to chat with us and share the things he’s learned.