"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Documentarian Alma Har’el is Making Super Bowl Ads and Breaking the Cycle That Kept Women Out

Alma Har'el on the set of P&G's "Thank You, Mom" Winter Olympics ad

The Super Bowl is the biggest advertising event of the year, as brands spend over $5 million for 30 seconds of air time, and even more to produce the year’s biggest commercials. It’s a world that, until recently, was closed to director Alma Har’el, whose new Coke ad will premiere during the Super Bowl this Sunday and whose “Thank You, Mom” campaign for Proctor & Gamble — which will air throughout the upcoming Winter Olympics — made her only the third woman to be a solo nominee for a DGA award.

There are few film artists who better represent the freedom and possibilities of the digital era than Har’el, the self-taught, one-person filmmaking crew behind unorthodox, cinematic nonfiction films like “Bombay Beach” and “LoveTrue.” Over the last few years Har’el discovered, like most independent filmmakers do, that critical acclaim and festival accolades didn’t pay the bills and, unlike her male counterparts, she didn’t see offers to direct bigger movies and television.

“I started to look at a lot of the filmmakers, the ones making independent films that I appreciate over a decade or more, and I saw they either were from rich families, or supporting themselves by directing commercials,” said Har’el. “That ability to sustain yourself while making something you really love, or doing rewrites on a script until it finds its way, or developing a TV show, those things take time. It doesn’t happen overnight and you need to pay rent. The financial element more than anything is why women filmmakers have to make compromises in their career paths as a directors.”

Har’el, who was born and raised in Israel, was working by age of 11 and never had family financial resources to lean on. She quickly discovered the commercial world — where women directed less than 7 percent of commercials and made up less than 3 percent of the creative directors at ad agencies — was in many ways even more closed than Hollywood. In looking at the advertising world, Har’el saw the same cultural problems that in exist in film and TV, politics, and the corporate world. The key difference being the way those problems manifested themselves in the ad world were far easier to both pinpoint and target.

On every commercial made, from the smaller ones to the multi-million dollar Super Bowl ads, all are legally required to go through a “triple bid” process of hiring their production teams. The ad agency hired by the brands to come up with the campaign goes out to three directors who interpret the outline of the campaign and pitch their approaches, while their production companies put together a budget. The agency recommends one bid to the brand (which is legally required to look at all three) and pick who will make the ad.

“Because of years of bias, and the fact that when women do get offered jobs in advertising it’s usually for hygiene, beauty, or laundry products — women never get to direct car commercials or things that have action in it — so the male directors’ reels were always much more impressive, more rich, and they had more experience,” said Har’el. “As a result, they end up with three men bidding against each other, and of course that 90 percent of the time they were three white men — so the advertising world was stuck in a loop that kept reinforcing itself with the proof of these reels.”

Har’el started Free the Bid with the idea that if she could get agencies and brands to pledge that one of every three bids come from a women director, there was a chance of eventually breaking the cycle. “They aren’t pledging to hire anybody; all they are doing is pledging that one of three bids come from a women, which I think is a really good offer because we are half of the population,” said Har’el. “It’s always a lot easier to reach out to the three directors you’ve worked with and trust and love their production company, and that’s understandable. But I always believed if producers of these commercials became acquainted with women directors — which we built an expensive and searchable database of over 400 directing reels to help them find — they would see their passion and vision and want to work with us.”

What Har’el wasn’t expecting was how many women in positions of power at agencies and brands were anxious to break free of the disturbing and embarrassing numbers in regards to diversity, especially when publications like the Harvard Business Review estimate that women make 85 percent of the product purchase decisions for a household. In just a year, 12 major brands — including Visa, HP, Levi’s and Coca-Cola — and over 50 major ad agencies signed the pledge. Of the close to 70 companies that signed the pledge, there was a 400 percent increase in the number of women directors they hired.

While Har’el first went into commercials for financial stability, then as an advocate for women directors, what she soon learned is how vital commercial work can be to a filmmaker’s growth. “You can’t take away the huge value of what you learn on a commercial set,” said Har’el. “Being trusted with millions of dollars to produce a one-minute spot and have the time constraints that you have, the confidence you gain, the equipment you get to play with, and the filmmakers you get to work with – even though what you are making is not art, still you are using so many of the same tools and you are developing so much. In many cases, working with brands is the equivalent of negotiating your ideas with a studio.”

Har’el is used to being enraged when male directors more easily transition to commercial films, but what she didn’t understand until this past year was how vital the technical training gained on a commercial set would be to her being able to take the next step in her own career. Har’el — whose breakout was winning the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival with “Bombay Beach,” which she shot on a $800 camera from Best Buy — got to shot “Thank You, Mom” on 35mm, the first time she ever shot on film.

“It’s unmeasurable, you can’t even start to quantify that amount of experience that men get on commercial sets,” said Har’el. “Good luck knowing how to shoot a chase scene on a freeway when you never even been on a moving truck with a Russian arm. But if you’ve done it even once on a commercial, and you saw the footage you created and you heard the technical limitations you are going to face and dealt with them creatively, you are going to be a better filmmaker for life.”

As for her own film and TV projects, Har’el is deep in rehearsals on a yet to be announced scripted narrative feature that will start shooting in a couple months. She also sold a pilot script she’s developing with a production company, which she hopes to start pitching to studios this year.

Reflecting on how radically her career had changed as a result of Free the Bid and her commercial work, Har’el said, “I’m telling you, man, the dirty little secret male directors keep is how they build filmmaking skills and financially sustain themselves making commercials. That’s what women filmmakers need to know more than anything.”

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