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Why the Lack of Established Rules Makes Film the Ultimate Canvas for Creative Advertising

The film jury president on how breaking free of the restrictions of cinema is a gift for commercial filmmaking

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Stéphane Xiberras is President of BETC France. Under his tenure, BETC has become the largest agency in France and Europe, one of the most awarded in the world, mostly due to the endless stream of campaigns created by Stephane for CANAL+. These campaigns include The Bear spot, which is the most awarded advertising film in history and also The Closet and March of the Emperor. Here, Xiberras gives a rousing argument for commercial film creatrives to free themselves from the constraints of cinematic devices in order to create their most imaginative work yet.

It all starts with a piece of paper – the script. Here is where you first begin to assess if you’ve got a good idea on your hands. Let’s imagine that the script is good – very good. This is where it starts, because, at the beginning, it is possible for you to control everything. At this point, it’s all just characters on a Word document. But soon lots of people will have this paper, each bringing their own sensitivity to the mix, their own understanding of the script, their own feeling of what makes a good ad. Every one of the key people — the director, the producer, the actors, the stylist, the editor, the set decorator — will reimagine the script and transform it into an audiovisual object of their making. 

Then, the film will be shaped by hundreds of tiny little decisions made during its development, whether it’s during pre-production, on set during shooting, or during post-production. The outcome of your film depends on the budget, on the client, on the weather during filming, on the behaviour of everybody involved, on their attention regarding the project, their sheer will, their work ethic, their health or their stress level – and obviously, their talent.

"Your unique goal is to make the most of your short amount of time"

Some creatives get most of their references from movies and TV series, which is fine, but can sometimes be at odds with our work in the commercial space, because in these mediums, everything on screen needs to be coherent to the audience. It’s the writing, the narrative structure, that makes it a great film or a bad one. A movie, or a TV series, with mediocre writing albeit with a nice form would not be a great piece of cinema.

Advertising is quite the opposite because the framework remains mostly the same and the purpose is quite common, the writing doesn’t have to follow any rules. Your unique goal is to make the most of your short amount of time and to surprise, in every second of it. Contrary to cinema, a decent advertising script can turn into a good, or even great, film just with its form.

"everything is possible and that’s what makes it exhilarating, but also very difficult to explain"

Even though film advertising relies on professionals from the movie industry, and on their techniques and skills, their skills are applied in a totally different way in commercials. And that’s the source of many misunderstandings between directors, editors or clients, that all believe that they are making a film when they are in fact making an advertising film – It’s a huge difference.

Because in advertising, every single aspect can be used to become more memorable and perform even better –  total exaggeration, an assumed lack of taste, a surprise twist ending, the use of celebrities, a contrasting choice of music, talking animals, the mix and match of superimposing fonts, or voice overs, or visual gags – everything is possible and that’s what makes it exhilarating, but also very difficult to explain.

“They should embrace the freedom of advertising and not restrict themselves with components from the cinema industry that don’t have to apply to this medium”

I can’t count the number of times I have heard someone say, “No, we can’t pick this actor. He’s not right for the part” – So what? Or “I like the actress’s dress, it’s understated.” Who cares? Tell me how it helps our script. It seems that everybody thinks that they are making feature films when they are in fact making advertising. And that’s the wrong mindset. They should embrace the freedom of advertising and not restrict themselves with components from the cinema industry that don’t have to apply to this medium.

They need to stop obsessing over details that don’t serve the idea. No one will remember the costume of the actors if the film is mediocre. Unfortunately, you don’t get three episodes to set the tone or long shots to please your director of photography. Sometimes, thinking of the idea and the craft of a film as separate aspects can seem ridiculous and ill-conceived.

Obviously, they are many counterexamples to what I am saying, but my point is: I believe that we will never stop experimenting how far we can take film advertising, whatever the screen or the media format. It remains a fascinating category as the lack of established rules makes it the ultimate canvas for creative advertising.

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