By Rebecca Green
An Executive Producer at SMUGGLER, Sue Yeon Ahn has spent her career in the commercial and music video space working with heavy-hitting brands like Nike and Apple and bands such Arcade Fire and Jay Z.
Sue speaks with Dear Producer about the unique challenges to short-form storytelling, the struggle of keeping up with the ever-changing media landscape, and the different pathways into commercial filmmaking, if you’re looking to make the leap.
Okay, I’m probably going to learn a lot since I’m not as familiar with the commercial music video world. Let’s start with the basics. Tell me about SMUGGLER as a company, what do you guys do?
SMUGGLER is a commercial and music video production company. We’ve been around for nearly 20 years with an emphasis on commercials, but we work in loads of other mediums as well. For instance, we just produced a musical theater show called SING STREET that’s about to open on Broadway. We also did the musical ONCE based on the film by the same name. The owners are Patrick Milling-Smith and Brian Carmody. They are true renaissance men, having produced feature films, musicals, and even had a VR company at one point. Both are great supporters of innovation and art.
How long have you been at SMUGGLER? You were at The Directors Bureau before, right?
That’s right, I’ve been at SMUGGLER for two years this February. Before that, I was at The Directors Bureau, which is also a commercial and music video company. Roman Coppola, the owner, is another great supporter of art and creativity so we dabbled in a lot of other mediums there as well. I’ve been really lucky to have only worked with such inspiring leadership.
What does being an executive producer at SMUGGLER entail?
SMUGGLER has a roster of 35 directors, which we represent exclusively in North America and the UK and some territories are a la carte for different directors. In the simplest of terms we work with ad agencies and more often now, direct to client, and help elevate and produce their commercial scripts.
The bulk of my job takes place during the pitching phase. When we get boards, or commercial scripts in, I interface with the producer at the agency, and assist in communicating the director’s vision in elevating or developing the concept. It’s helming the process leading up to production, such as budgeting and coming up with a shoot approach. Once we go into production, we hire a freelance team to produce it on the ground.
Additionally, my job as an executive producer is in developing the talent as well. We’ve got some extremely established directors both in the feature and commercial world, but we also have younger directors that we’re nurturing and growing. We’ve just signed a couple of new directors that I’m very excited about.
What’s your take on the perception that commercial work isn’t creative and you’re just doing what people tell you to?
SMUGGLER’s is fortunate to have earned the trust of a lot of ad agencies and clients. For instance, one of our directors, Mark Molloy, has done a fair amount of work with Apple this year, and it has been one of the most creative processes that I’ve ever been a part of. He’s developing the story alongside the ad agency from the ground up. There’s a lot of opportunities to build in humanity, storytelling, and performance.
How did you get into this kind of work?
I started working as an assistant to Roman Coppola, who is an incredibly talented and generous man. He’s a director, writer, producer, businessman, inventor and magician. I would call working as his assistant being the producer of his life, and since he owns The Directors Bureau, it was a natural segue into this business. Eventually, I moved into being an executive producer at the company.
I went to Bard College and majored in film, I thought I was going to be a writer/director. I quickly realized once I started working that I’m a much better producer than I am a writer/director. [laughs] That’s how I got into it. I was very lucky.
You’ve worked with some fantastic filmmakers. Do you ever want to get into features, or is this a place where you feel you have the most creative influence and ability to create content?
I was an associate producer on Roman’s last feature, which was with Charlie Sheen. The truth of the matter is that I am a great lover of film; short-form, long-form, content in general. The benefit, for me, of music videos and commercials is that the timelines are much faster. For television or film, the development period can take years and years. Commercials are more compressed, running a few weeks to a couple of months.
It’s gratifying to see something go from soup to nuts in a matter of months because there is a lot more latitude for creativity than what is typically understood in the commercial world. Not to say that I wouldn’t want to try other mediums at some point, but commercials are very satisfying in that way.
You’re in a good place. I talk to producers all the time who are struggling and thinking about other avenues to still create. It’s hard to be in development on projects for so long without creating anything tangible. It starts to weigh on you and you really need that collaborative process again.
Yes. Then I’ve also been in a situation where you’ve worked so hard on a feature film, you’ve developed it, got it financed, put your blood, sweat, and tears into it, and it takes years, only to be blocked. [laughs]
Yes, no one sees it sometimes.
It’s so heart-breaking. No one sees it. It’s critically panned. I think that I, personally speaking, have a lower tolerance for that risk. There are a lot of risks involved in these kinds of long-term investments.
Now we’re in a space where even if the film is wonderful, it sometimes still doesn’t get seen. I think that’s really where a lot of filmmakers are grappling. You’re working with a lot feature filmmakers, are there challenges or benefits to long-form storytellers coming into your space?
I will say that just because you’re an acclaimed feature filmmaker does not make it easy to break into commercial films. I really do think they are two different mediums. It’s not like you are automatically going to get a huge Apple or Google campaign just because you won the Oscar for best picture. There’s more latitude now for longer form commercials, so you can see two to three-minute commercials, but you’re still stuck in the 30-60 second ad space. Knowing how to tell a story in 20 seconds is incredibly essential.
I see that with the younger generation on Snapchat and Instagram, knowing how to tell those bite-sized stories is beneficial because it’s not that easily translatable sometimes. There needs to be efficiency in the way that you tell the story, and that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to feature filmmakers.
Yes, definitely not.
There’s a lot of that. Also, working with a client means knowing what their needs are because they’re paying for the advertisement. At some point, you do need to show the product and integrate that into your piece both naturally and effectively, but everybody wants to have artistic integrity. It’s about finding that balance.
I was reading an article today about how movies are getting longer but not better.
I got into the Academy this year, so I have all these screeners. Whenever I pull one out, I’m like, “Oh my God, every movie is two and a half hours now.” It’s insane, and they’re not necessarily better.
I know. I think I saw something about ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD where Tarantino was showing an uncut, extended version, and I was thinking, “How much longer is long enough?”
Yes, I watched THE IRISHMAN, and I was like, “Jesus Christ, it’s so long.”
Oh my God. It was too much.
I took a 24-hour intermission halfway through it.
I did too. When I talk to people about Quibi, most of the industry is betting against it, but when I talk about it with people outside of the industry, there’s a lot of interest. Most people don’t stop for three hours to watch a movie. The idea that you can watch high-quality entertainment in small pieces is very compelling to a lot of people.
It’s funny because there’s a bit of a paradox going on. On the one hand, people will sit down and watch six hours of a television show in one sitting on Netflix or Amazon, but when your mom sends you a 15-second YouTube clip, you can’t be bothered to watch it. What’s the in-between? There’s an interesting dichotomy there.
You’ve made some fantastic, award-winning music videos. Is there a career in that space, or is that something most people are doing just for fun and accolades? For producers, is that a career path at all?
It can be. I would say it’s very hard. The work that I’ve had some of my fondest memories of are the music content and videos that I’ve produced, but I can’t say that we’ve ever made any money on it. It’s more about the creative flex you have. Music videos are still inherently commercials; the band is both the product and the client. Yet while you have more space creatively to build an idea from the ground up, it’s a lot less money. If you’re a music fan, then it makes it more worthwhile, but at the same time, the economics aren’t there for it to be a lucrative living.
There are certainly people that do it, but it’s really about the context in which you live. I know plenty of music video producers that only do music videos because they’re such fans of the music. Still, I would be hard-pressed to know a music video producer that can have a luxurious quality of life solely producing these videos, but they can be extremely gratifying if you’re a fan.
When you’re a producer in the indie space, people will say, “Oh, just go do commercials.” As if it’s an easy thing to do. If there’s someone reading this who’s interested in that work, what are the steps you take to get into that world?
It’s interesting because there are producers that straddle both worlds and do both commercials and features. I feel like it’s almost easier psychologically to move from commercials to features than it is from features to commercials. In features, you have so much more autonomy, although perhaps I’m overstating it a bit, but in commercial work, there is a lot more hand-holding between the agency and the client that we have to do. It’s a dance when you’re presenting information, budget, and overages. You’re a representative of the company as well as the director, but you’re also trying to partner with the agency so that everybody feels like they’re working together. It’s very tricky.
If you’re a feature producer wanting to get into commercials, essentially, you just need a strong production company that can tell you what the procedures are. The actual nuts and bolts of producing it aren’t going to be different, but it is moving on a faster timeline, and there is that hand-holding of the client.
Within Smuggler, are there in-house coordinators or in-house producers? What does your team look like?
I have a bidding producer that does research and puts the bid packages together for our budgets. We also have a coordinator. We have to do a treatment on nearly every commercial and make incredibly robust decks that show the agency and client how we intend to produce this piece of content. Those decks can often cost thousands of dollars to make. We spend that money as a cost of business regardless of whether or not we win the job. Every pitch that we’re a part of requires an investment in creating these decks.
So the Smuggler in-house team has three executive producers. We’ve each got our own bidding producer, and then we’ve got a coordinator. Then we have our head of production that deals with all union, crew-facing things. Then we have our COO who deals with the agency and business affairs side of things.
In terms of people wanting to get in the commercial world, what paths are there to move into it?
If I’m looking to hire a new bidding producer, I could look to the freelance world. I might search for coordinators that want to bump up to production supervisors or production supervisors that want a more stable and consistent job. In terms of production, it’s pretty similar. There are producers that have worked their way up and there are producers that just produce. To work on the staff of a commercial production company, there are two avenues. The first is where you grow future bidding producers from the ground up by starting them as an intern, PA, or receptionist. Then they’ll begin coordinating, move into doing some research, and eventually move into bidding. Second, we can look outside and find people that are more familiar with the bidding and budgeting process already such as freelance coordinators or production supervisors.
Are there a lot of commercial production companies?
Yes, there are a ton. I would say only a few are as big as Smuggler, you can probably count the companies our size on one hand, but the middle has widened out. There are so many production companies now. I’m constantly hearing of new companies, and I wonder, “Who’s that?”
Why do you think that’s the case when old school commercials don’t exist in the same way?
Now there are actually more commercials than ever. You see ads on Instagram, you see ads as pre-roll on YouTube. There are more commercials than there were just on the television ad space, but because there’s so much more content to be produced, the budgets haven’t necessarily increased. Now, there’s 100 times more deliverables.
At SMUGGLER, we still work on major campaigns, but it can still run the gamut. You need to think about production in a different way to be able to generate income on such a fast, small scale. There’s a ton of companies popping up that can make a $5,000 shoot day work. Not to say that the caliber and the quality of work won’t suffer as a result, but it’s a different metric. I like to say you can make anything for anything – it’s just about managing expectations.
Compromise, for sure.
Yes, it’s a different caliber, but there’s so much more to be made, and every job has social content and photo elements. You used to just concentrate on your 30 or 60 second spot. Remember when we first starting shooting HD and you had to protect for 4:3? Now, we’re shooting HD, but you have to protect it for 9:16, which is this really skinny aspect ratio that’s just made for phones. It’s actually impossible. [laughs]
Then they want the square Instagram from the same footage, right? [laughs]
Exactly. Media is changing the way that we watch and the way that we make. It’s the wild, wild west again.
That’s absolutely how producers are feeling, that it’s the wild, wild, west, I don’t think anyone has a grasp of anything at the moment.
I know, it’s so interesting because one of my directors is doing a feature film with Quibi. There was a period of time where we were wondering, “Is it going to happen? Is it not going to happen? We don’t know. He needs to start shooting in two months.” If it were a major studio, I would have said, “There’s no way. There’s no way they’re going to greenlight this before the holidays. It’s just not going to happen if they don’t move fast enough,” but with these new spaces like Quibi or Netflix, they start greenlighting and moving forward quickly. It’s definitely the wild, wild west.
Do you have any particular career highlight or story, something you’ve made that you want to share?
I did a 22-minute television special with Arcade Fire after SNL in 2015. I think that was probably one of the most fun projects I’ve ever been a part of. We went up to Montreal for ten days, not knowing what we were going to shoot at all. We just knew that they had taken out a Latin discotheque, that they were doing a residency at to practice for the tour. We knew that we had three shows to film, but we had no idea what we were going to do in between them.
Between the band and the director, they came up with a variety show in the span of a few days. We got all these celebrities on board that came up out of nowhere: James Franco, Michael Cera, Bono, Zach Galifianakis, Bill Hader, Aziz Ansari, Eric Wareheim. It was just the wildest coming together of all this talent and creativity, and it happened so fast and furiously. I feel a little bad, though, because I feel like I should talk about something about Smuggler now that I’m here. [laughs]
No, you’ve only been there for two years. It’s fine. I think most people would say Arcade Fire. [laughter]
I know, and I was at The Directors Bureau for 10 years, so by virtue of just time alone, it’s quadruple.
So, doing the Arcade Fire special, it goes back to what you were saying earlier. You’re working with such high caliber clients and can call anybody because you’re working in a short timeframe. It’s easier to say, “Hey, can you come up here for a couple of days,” versus, “Can you come out for a couple of months and shoot this thing?” There’s just a different energy and pace because you’re working on a short-form.
Yes, totally. Even in my world, two months is too long. For instance, I’m bidding a job right now where we’re trying to get the job in early January, but the agency’s not sure that the client will be able to fast-track it because they lose the director for February. They’re asking, “What about after February?” and that’s too far away. I can’t guarantee that time. It’s either you get them now, or you might lose them. That pressure of time does help us.
On casting, I find right now it’s become so challenging because everyone’s doing TV. So, they’re either fully available, but for short windows, or not for an extended period of time, and it’s really changed scheduling.
Any tips on dealing with clients, because even though it’s different than financiers, there’s probably a lot of similarities as well. Is there anything in particular that you’ve learned over the years?
Every executive producer does it differently. I find that you catch more flies with honey. It’s fallen out of Vogue to be that aggressive producer. There’s still a lot of them, but it’s fewer and fewer. Do you want to work with people that you can’t partner with? You want to be able to be smart, and you want to be truthful. It’s really about making them feel like we’re partners and that it’s not us against them. That can quickly happen, where you feel like it’s us against the agency or it’s us against clients. If there’s a way that we can partner with them or at least make them feel like they’re partners. [laughter]
Sometimes you have to humor people. [laughs] It’s about everyone feeling a part of the process. It is what everyone’s looking for. They want to know that they’ve contributed, are involved, and have a voice. It’s important that everybody feels that way.