In Between Blockbusters, Commercials -- Big directors turn to advertising in their spare time

By Tricia Laine
Updated April 03, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

So you’ve just finished directing a $100 million blockbuster complete with state-of-the-art special effects. What do you do now? If you’re Michael Bay, director of Touchstone’s Armageddon, you say, ”I’m going to do a McDonald’s commercial!”

He’s not alone. Many of Hollywood’s top filmmakers are swarming to the plop, plop, fizz, fizz world of 30-second TV ads. Once snubbed by the feature elite, commercials are quickly becoming the bread and I-can’t-believe-it’s-not butter of directors between big-screen projects. Among those out there and pitching: John Woo (Face/Off) just wrapped a series of Nike ads featuring Brazil’s national soccer team (now airing on TV and in theaters); Joel and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski) helmed Olympus, Budweiser, and Honda campaigns; indie auteur Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy) filmed two series of Diet Coke spots that debuted during the Olympics; Brett Ratner (Money Talks) is helping to peddle Coke with spots starring LL Cool J and his daughter; and, since hitting pay dirt with Swingers in 1996, Doug Liman has made 16 commercials, including campaigns for Airwalk, Volkswagen, and Levi’s.

With the sheer number of filmmakers on the ad trail, it’s only natural that companies designed to nurture directors with a hankering for Huggies have sprouted up. In the past year, at least three film-production houses have introduced special divisions to bridge the gap between Hollywood and Madison Avenue. A Band Apart.35 mm has Woo as well as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) on its roster. Moxie Pictures developed The Industry to support such clients as Smith and Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) — who’s done spots for ESPN and Nintendo — as well as Wes Craven, Albert Brooks, Allison Anders (Grace of My Heart), and John Waters, who are all looking for the perfect product to pitch. There’s also Propaganda Independent, for which Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) will riff on Khrushchev’s famed United Nations shoe-pounding tantrum in an upcoming Sector Watches campaign.

Why the mad dash to the small screen? One reason is that the taste cycle has made commercials hip again. ”Advertising [has become] an art form for everyday society,” says Rob Siltanen, a creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day. ”More people see ads on TV than they see art in a museum.” And thanks to a recent wave of successful independent films, there’s more of an audience for arty ads than ever. ”The ’90s have been a great period in American film,” says producer Lawrence Bender (Good Will Hunting). ”The public wants to see a variety of different film styles [in commercials], and agencies are responding to that.” If nothing else, ads are a good way to scratch that filmmaking itch between big-screen jobs.

In Bay’s case, the motivation is simple corporate synergy. The McDonald’s gig is part of a national tie-in promotion deal between the fast-food giant and Armageddon‘s studio, Touchstone. Although it’s undecided if Bay will make all the Armageddon-related spots, at the very least he plans to, as he puts it, ”godfather” the project. ”It’s a representation of my movie,” says Bay. ”So I want to be involved.”