From Spec to Paid Work – How Shooting a Spec Commercial Landed Me a Gig

Written By: Stephen Szmed

About a year ago I was grabbing a burger and beer with one of my friends, talking shop and going over our game plan for an ultra-low budget music video we were shooting that weekend. It was a busy game night and I was drinking a brew from one of the many local craft breweries in Boston, nothing out of the ordinary, but our conversation was interrupted when this woman stormed up to our table and interrupted us with “YO! Why aren’t you drinking LORD HOBO?” Funny enough, that actually was the beer I was drinking and when I told her, she was elated and ran off to the bar to buy us another round. She came back with a few more beers, sat down with us, and we started talking. She introduced herself as the brand manager Lord Hobo and said the company was starting to roll out a brand new content production plan and is always on the lookout for up and coming artists to bring on and create work for the brewery. I think she might’ve caught a sense we were filmmakers from the moment she came up to us but we immediately put our networking hats on and exchanged info.

We sent follow up emails but never heard anything back. I was dismayed but not surprised, barstool networking rarely seems to pan out. But, as luck would have it, I ran into the brand manager again about two weeks later at a film festival. I got the chance to reconnect, but weeks later there were still no future plans laid out to produce anything.

Bummed that my dream of shooting for one of my favorite breweries wasn’t going to happen, I started to imagine what I would’ve produced if I had been hired to make a 30-second commercial. The idea hit me, and I had to act fast. I pitched it to a few friends and they dug it. I sketched up a script and storyboard, made a few phone calls, and that weekend we got to work.

The spec follows a sharp guy strolling down the street, enjoying the nice day, until he spots two guys hanging out on their front porch drinking beer. He yells at them “YO! Why aren’t you drinking LORD HOBO?” The guys aren’t sure what to say, until another guy sticks his head out a window from a house across the street and says “YO! Those guys aren’t drinking LORD HOBO? Why aren’t they drinking LORD HOBO!?” and throws a can of the beer to the man on the street. Mix in a few shots of slow-motion beer pouring and guys on the porch drinking the beer, the closing question to the audience of “Why aren’t you drinking Lord Hobo?”, followed by a product shot, and BOOM! I had a 30-second spot and shot it all within an afternoon.

I did the editing myself, had the talent come in to dub their lines, then added some sound effects I recorded myself to make it a really solid piece. It felt like a real commercial.

The first spec commercial

Once I had a final export, I put it online and typed up a nice email. Within the hour I got a reply: they LOVED it and wanted to use it on their social media (hook me up with some free beer of course). Later in the week, they premiered it on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and the traction it got was surprising: over 5000 views within the first 12 hours on Facebook alone. Nothing I had made up until that point had ever been seen by that many people so quickly. I was excited, and my friends and colleagues thought that I had actually been hired to shoot a real spot. I was admittedly disappointed as I explained it was spec and had done it for fun because I like their beer, and imposter syndrome quickly set in. While it felt good to make something and have people really like it, I still felt like I wasn’t “good enough” to be hired for the real thing.

Fast forward almost a year later, dozens more gigs shooting or editing this and that just to pay the bills, and I get an email saying that the brewery is rolling out a new content production schedule and they had me in mind to shoot one of their spots for Instagram. I couldn’t believe it! After a brief pitch meeting and a tour of the brewery, we exchanged notes on the script and shot list. I came back to the brewery a week later to shoot and BOOM, I made a real, actual “we’ll pay you to do it” spot for one of my favorite beer makers. I was even able to hire my actor friend that helped me make the first spot.

The company loved the spot and said they looked forward to more in the future. The satisfaction of a job well done is nice for a day or two, but the feeling is quickly fleeting, and I am already thinking about what I would have done differently or what I hope to accomplish on the next shoot, or trying to figure out how I can continue producing work for companies I admire and developing my business.

What uplifts me the most about all this is that shooting this spec worked. It helped that I had already met the brand manager, and they were a local company with production plan centered around hiring local filmmakers, but making it in the hopes of getting hired to do the real thing was honestly not my first intention. I just wanted to make something, and I really liked their beer.

At the end of the day, even if creating feels aimless, you’re going to feel much better having tried than having done nothing at all. If furthering your career is what you want to do, just make something with what you have and see where it goes.


About the author:

Stephen Szmed is a filmmaker based in New York. After picking up his family video camera at 13, Stephen started making films with his friends and never really stopped, always taking each film a step further in story and scope. Stephen completed his undergraduate degree at Emerson College in 2017. He now balances a busy schedule freelancing as a camera assistant and videographer. In his spare time he enjoys reading and writing

Find him on his website, watch his reel, or follow him on Instagram!

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