David Brashear knew his career was in the toilet when Dustin Diamond, best known for playing Screech on Saved By the Bell, started throwing the contents of his bedroom at him on the set of Celebrity Fit Club. It was 2007, and two years out of film school at USC, Brashear was still working as a measly production assistant.
"It's the most depressing thing," he says. "You go to college and have this education, and your job is to bring water bottles to actors."
Like many aspiring directors in L.A., Brashear decided he needed to start making his own content. But instead of looking for wannabes with scripts for web series, he searched online for contests soliciting homemade commercials.
The year before, Doritos had grabbed headlines by announcing its now-signature Crash the Super Bowl competition, crowd-sourcing 30-second spots for the most expensive night in U.S. advertising.
A spate of copycat campaigns followed. Most marketers scoffed at the stunts, assuring whoever would listen that "the crowd" could never replicate the quality of their work, but Brashear wondered whether he could use a contest to help him break into directing.
Turns out, he could. In the past few years, Brashear has turned winning advertising competitions into a full-time job. With a little help from Santa Monica - based crowdsourcing platform Tongal, he's won $175,875 in prizes, directing ads for Pringles, Sears, Axe and Radio Shack, among others. In 2011, Wired fawned over his Tron-themed commercial for Duck Tape, which featured viral sensation Tron Guy in his homemade light-up suit along with colorful wheels of tape careening around a black-and-white grid, leaving behind trails of tape to approximate the lethal lightcycles in the game.While nearly all of Brashear's videos ran only on the web, last year his Speed Stick commercial aired during Super Bowl XLVII, which netted him a $10,000 bonus from Tongal. [Editor's note: See correction at story's end.]
But he's still barely breaking even.
Tongal was founded five years ago with the idea of leveling the playing field for guys like Brashear, but it's not yet clear whether the start-up can serve as a more efficient talent pipeline for L.A.'s many production companies.
Making commercials for Tongal is certainly a better strategy for up-and-coming directors and producers than falling into the dead-end cycle of Hollywood internships, but Brashear says the money "is usually like a joke." And the doors have yet to open to bigger directing gigs.
Tongal, though, is thriving. The platform picked up $15 million in venture capital in 2012, and revenues tripled the following year. It works with major corporate clients including Lego, Mattel and Procter & Gamble, the world's biggest advertiser, and now has offices in L.A., San Francisco and London, with another on its way in Chicago.
These days, companies can save big by crowdsourcing logos on sites such as 99 designs, software on sites like TopCoder or ads on Tongal, Poptent or Zooppa. But the conversation about crowdsourcing tends to start with praise for the start-up that created the platform and end with concern for the dinosaurs whose industry is about to be disrupted. The amateurs and freelancers who generate content and ideas are simply seen as lucky to be getting any cash at all.
Of course, ad agencies have not been rendered obsolete by sites like Tongal; marketers still throw millions of dollars at cinematic commercials. However, according to David Berkowitz, chief marketing officer at top agency MRY, brands now demand a steady flow of new content to fill space online. It has become smart business to use young, viral-minded freelancers contracted through sites such as Tongal to produce snappy digital ads at 10 to 20 percent of what an agency would charge. (Seventy percent of Tongal's winning ads air online only.)
Tongal, like most crowdsourcing ventures, cloaks this corporation-friendly system in the idealistic language of creative meritocracy. "Brilliant people are everywhere," its quirky, colorful promotional videos coo. It has users in 107 countries, only 10 percent of whom live in California.
But in reality, L.A. - and its pool of film industry job-seekers - dominates. Seven of the top 10 users on Tongal's all-time production leaderboard (and 51 of the top 100) are based in Los Angeles. For every 16-year-old kid in the middle of nowhere making thousands of dollars off his stop-motion Lego animation videos, there's a handful of local production companies finding work via contests.
The Tongal system is smarter than that of other popular crowdsourcing ad sites, which ask directors to invest their own money in spec spots in the hopes of a big payoff at the end. Instead of encouraging content creators to slave over a horrible idea that a brand would never buy, Tongal splits its process into multiple rounds.
First, during the "ideation" phase, anyone can submit a 140-character concept for a commercial. Seventy-five percent of Tongal's 50,000 users participate only in this round. Because no special equipment or expertise is needed, this group is more geographically diverse, although about a third of the top 100 ideators are in Los Angeles.
Ultimately the brand chooses five ideas, and the winners each get a few hundred dollars - more if the video inspired by their idea ends up winning in the final round.
Next, filmmakers submit up to five pitches for how they would execute a concept, including a storyboard, script or persuasive video. If your pitch is selected, you get perhaps $1,500 to make the video. You're also guaranteed additional prize money once the brand chooses the winners - even if you come in last, you get another $1,000 or so, while first place might earn $10,000.
"If you put your head down and work, you can make a lot of money at this," Tongal CEO and co-founder Rob Salvatore says.
But filmmakers still need to provide and pay for their own equipment, cast, crew and location. So while Tongal touts Brashear's success story and the six-figure sum he's made, Brashear sees six figures' worth of production expenses.
Still, Tongal says it's doing its best to appreciate striving filmmakers; the firm will host an in-house awards show called the Tongies on April 2 at the El Rey.
And giving directors an opportunity to build their reels on someone else's dime might matter more in the long run than a big paycheck.
"Good work is good work," says Jeff Baron, a senior executive producer for top L.A.-based development/production company Anonymous Content. "And for a young filmmaker, sometimes there's no better opportunity than an opportunity with a ticking clock and a structure."
At the same time, inexperienced directors now have so many opportunities to get funding and showcase their work, Baron says, that it is harder than ever to break into the industry.
Meanwhile, now that Tongal has established itself with advertisers, the company is experimenting with more artistic content, partnering on contests with the Sundance Institute and Spitfire Productions, which produced an Oscar-nominated documentary about football and has worked with Martin Scorsese on films about Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
In fact, Tongal founders Salvatore, James DeJulio and Mark Burrell, who became friends back at Boston College in the '90s, initially wanted to establish a company that would help develop screenwriting and directing talent more efficiently outside of the studio system, but Hollywood proved too impenetrable. So, like many Angelenos with big-screen dreams, they turned to commercials first.
Because apparently even on Silicon Beach, that old truism holds up: Everyone in L.A. secretly wants to be doing something else.
Editor's note: This story originally misstated David Brashear's total earnings on Tongal. We regret the error.
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