If you work in video production, you probably know someone who has spent time money, and social currency making a spec commercial.
A spec commercial is a video made to demonstrate the skill and creativity of the filmmakers, and not as paid work for the company advertised.
Why make a spec commercial? Usually the goal is to earn paid work by adding high quality work to your reel. If you’re in a major market, you might need a spec to gain representation. Whatever stage you’re at in your career, a great spec commercial can help you gain some much-needed momentum. Here’s a great example from German filmmakers Dorian Lebherz and Daniel Titz, a Johnnie Walker spec commercial titled “Dear Brother.”
Dorian and Daniel made “Dear Brother” while they were students at the Film Academy of Baden-Württemberg in Germany. In the two weeks since release, the filmmakers have racked up more than three million views on YouTube, a flattering write-up at Forbes.com, and an interview in Adweek.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes “Dear Brother” such a success. Here are 5 tips to take your spec commercial to the next level.
1. Go Big
Paradoxically, making a video with your own money can open doors to higher production value. As a rule of thumb, people are more comfortable trading favors if no one else is getting paid, as is common on student films like “Dear Brother.” This gives you the opportunity to broaden the scope of your work, creating an experience that feels big. Beautiful and interesting locations can provide a huge boost, as seen in the Scottish countryside and ancient cabin in “Dear Brother.”
“Dear Brother” feels like a commercial from a major production company, but was produced for a reported $9,000. If you can turn a small budget into a video that feels like a million bucks, you’re demonstrating worth to potential clients.
2. Play to Your Strengths
We all want to be well rounded, but it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you create amazing action sequences, but aren’t the best with emotional scenes. Or you write razor-sharp dialogue, but aren’t the most innovative with the camera.
This might seem obvious, but you should show off your strengths in a spec commercial. Work on your weaknesses in your own time, when your reputation isn’t on the line.
3. Focus on Tone
When writing, planning, and producing your spec commercial, it’s wise to begin by defining the tone, or feel, of your piece. Clear, consistent tone tells the audience how to watch your film, and makes a viewer feel like they are in good hands.
“Dear Brother” establishes its elegant, nostalgic tone in seconds, even before the poem begins.
4. Take Risks
Working for yourself gives you a chance to try something new, even redefine your style. Maybe you’re paying your bills shooting wedding videos but you’d like to branch out into branded content. Or you’ve been working on your After Effects skills and want to show them off. A spec commercial should strive to do something you’ve never done before—otherwise, why make it?
The best spec commercial concepts will push you to take risks, even as you emphasize your strengths.
5. Follow Through
It’s important to get your work out there, and services like YouTube and Vimeo make it easier than ever. Many film festivals now have a “new media” component, as well. Be sure to share a high quality copy with your collaborators, as well. Actors, cinematographers, and production designers are always in need of beautiful, compelling footage for their reel.
Work hard to leverage your spec commercial into paid work. And as you land larger and larger projects, remember the folks who showed up for you when you needed them.
Have you ever made a spec commercial? What was the experience like for you? Share your stories in the comments.