The Young Director Award is a leading fixture on the fringe of the Cannes festival and has picked out some of today’s leading lights at the very start of their careers. Tim Cumming talks to founder, Francois Chilot, and meets victors past and present, who reflect on the impact that winning has hadon their work and career

The award is unique in promoting newcomers and its purpose has been the same since its inception. “We have to find directors and if we don’t, we don’t survive,” says CFP-E president Francois Chilot. “The core of our business is to discover, promote and nurture young directors. We need to develop them.”

Chilot is an industry veteran, a former head of production at TBWA who founded Les Producers in 1984, which by 2000 was listed among the top ten production companies in the world. In 1999, he became President of the CFP-E and in the same year, established the Young Directors Award.

The CFP-E comprises the associations of advertising film producers from 17 European countries, representing more than 600 production companies. As president, Chilot’s purpose was, he says, “to find a common goal which would bring us together”. And that goal? “To ensure that we could give a chance to everybody. An art director may want to become a director – you don’t have to be young to enter the award, but you have to be new. And we wanted to give everybody who has started in this career a better chance. That was the idea at the beginning, and it still is today.”

Branding feelings and Ringan in the changes

Officially, it’s on the fringe of the Cannes Festival of Creativity, but it’s central to the raison d’etre of that humungous clan gathering. On the Tuesday of festival week, its jurors, drawn from each of the member countries of the CFP-E with shots’ Danny Edwards, Lyndy Stout of 1.4 online magazine, and Chilot view a shortlist of around forty films and on the Thursday, at the Marriott Theatre, the finalists in each of the eight categories are shown to the festival-going public and the winners announced. And, dear reader, being among them can change your life.

The awards are divided into European and non-European sections and the categories include broadcast, test commercial, film school, branded short film, and web film. Recent additions include animation and music video. “We are going back to a great time for music videos,” notes Chilot. “It went out of fashion for agencies and producers, but we are going back to that and getting great work, often done on absolutely no money.”

Another recent category is video art. “It lets your imagination go totally anywhere,” he says. “Agencies and producers can be very attracted to something that has nothing to do with commercials but is visually extremely strong. It’s branding a feeling, even if not a product.” Among the first award winners was Ringan Ledwidge, now one of the most successful and in-demand directors in the business. “I guess I was not so aware of how much exposure it would give me because it was so new,” he says. “I didn’t realise how much it would open me up to all the other markets around the world. With the internet then not being the huge thing it is now, it was a fantastic way to get your work out there.”

He recalls submitting a body of work – four pieces, including a Happy Bits spot for Boots – and that he was away on a job at the time and sent a mate over to Cannes to collect the award. “The first time I went was three years ago,” he says, “to do a talk at the YDA, and it was then I realised, holy fuck, Cannes is quite a big affair…”

He emphasises the significance the award had in promoting his work. “It was one of those funny things that you see, now, the legacy that it has, and what it does for young directors. It’s a fantastic thing to be a part of, even to just get your work selected and onto the shortlist.”

A 20th Century Fox call and a winning urban deer

For Chilot, promoting new talent is the whole point. “I get a lot of personal as well as professional satisfaction at seeing a YDA winner like Ringan doing so well. That’s what I dedicate my time to. To remind everyone – agencies, advertisers, producers – that if we do not discover, nurture and promote directors, then we will die.” Danny Edwards, editor at shots, which has been media partner to the awards since the beginning, agrees. “We both recognise the importance of new talent in the industry, and one of shots’ USPs is its championing of quality, and that’s exactly what the YDA does. Its track record in recognising talent at an early stage is astonishing – Ringan Ledwidge, Aleksander Bach, Hanna Maria Heidrich, and so many more.”

Rising directorial star Aleksander Bach – repped by Wigwam in the UK – submitted to the YDA while studying as a postgraduate at the Badem-Württemberg Film Academy. “It’s one of the very few schools that has a department dedicated to commercials,” says Chilot. “Every year it sends us winners.” During his time there, Bach won two Young Director Awards, for Orange in 2008, and for a stunning Red Cross spot in 2009, featuring a ballet dancer amid a carnage of guerrilla warfare and gunfire, which also won the coveted Special Jury prize. “When I was younger I dreamt about this award, because you get so much attention,” he says, but winning the Special Jury prize was unexpected. “The show was already over, and they said, we have a Special Jury award,” he remembers, “and I was about to leave the cinema, because I didn’t even think about it, so it was completely crazy.” The Wigwam director has just signed up for his first feature – to direct the new Hitman movie for 20th Century Fox. The Red Cross film – and the award – played a big part in bagging the job. “The President of 20th Century Fox said that was the reason he wanted me for the feature film. It’s a cool connection. This film got the award and it helped me to direct my first feature.”

An alumni of the same film academy, Hannah Maria Heidrich also won the award twice, in 2011 for We Miss You, a strikingly original film featuring an ecological message, a cop in a traffic jam, and a beautiful young deer alert – but not quite alert enough – in the heart of the urban jungle. Its message is that we, in turn, should be alert to nature, not perpetually caught in the glare of the headlights and taillights. It, too, won a Special Jury prize, and Heidrich followed that last year with a prize for Life is Calling, a clever spec spot with a backwards plot and a moon-landing theme for Levi’s.

Winning a second time cemented her reputation with agencies and producers worldwide. “People remembered me from the previous year, so I received a lot more interest from a wider range of people.” She’s now signed with in Germany and Gorgeous in Britain and the US.

Working in the market, instead of the film academy with its creative freedoms, was a new challenge that, post-YDA, demanded new skills. “In reality there are a lot of people who have different interests in the project,” she says, “and most of them are not good for the creative result. So I am learning that the work is more like a strategic game. You have to find a way to communicate like a Trojan horse in order to get what you want and what makes the film stand out.”

Gaining mass and harnessing wind power

Each year, the YDA commissions a spot to promote the awards, usually featuring parents, children and calamity. Last year, Karen Cunningham helmed the brilliant The Light Is Your Friend, the first film out of her own company, Pop-Up, in which a Woody Allen-like kid interrupts his parent’s lovemaking with terse directorial instructions. It’s racked up almost a half million hits on the YDA’s YouTube channel, while previous spots, such as 2009’s Drama Queen, developed at TBWAHelsinki by art director Minna Lavola and copywriter Mira Olsson, have reached a cool four million.

Chilot points to Cunningham as a great example of the award going to someone not new to the industry, but new to directing. After training as an actor, she became an account handler, and ran her own production company for a decade. “But I always wanted to direct myself, so I thought, that’s it, I’ll write a film and direct it, and I did.” It was for the Half Moon Theatre, a charity that brings theatre to disadvantaged children in London. It won her several awards prior to picking up a YDA prize for her BBH viral, When I Grow Up. “It really made a difference,” she says of winning, “and the longer the YDA continues the more weighty it is. Longevity gives things credibility. Like the Baftas. Everything requires that mass and time to tell people that this is an interesting thing.”

The effect, she remembers, was immediate. She’s now signed to Slim, but Caviar signed her up to a job right there from the YDA audience. “I had unbelievable responses from all sorts of strange places after the YDA, because it got picked up virally. China, India… It took you to a broader place.”

One of last year’s winners, Corydon Wagner, started out, like Cunningham, as an actor, and like her, was impressed by the impact of his YDA for Capture the Wind. He’s now signed to ESA Inspire worldwide, and to New York’s Chapter Media in the US. “I knew it was the showcase for the international advertising community,” he says, “and I knew that would be one step in the right direction. It’s widened my contacts across the globe. I’m getting boards from Russia that are just gorgeous. I knew I wanted to go into the international community but you don’t quite know until you’re there how rich and vibrant that world is.”

Capture the Wind – filmed between jobs with friends returning favours – is a beautifully shot piece of visual poetry, a girl raising the sails of a makeshift boat in the American prairies, her craft rushing her through the grasses to a field of wind farms turning weather systems into sustainable energy. “That’s where I got the chance to play with the things I love to play with,” he says. “It’s a symbiosis. You’re out there in nature and you’re trying to emotionalise wind power as the future and the solution to some of our greatest problems.”

Multiplying directors and expanding horizons

The media landscape, of course, has changed enormously since Ringan Ledwidge won his award. As Danny Edwards points out: “The democratisation of the industry and of technology has allowed so many more directors to show what they are able to do. It’s a great thing, of course, but what that also means is so much more work.” So how does the YDA respond to the growth and globalisation of the industry? “It’s about developing Asia Pacific and Latin America, together with the development of social media,” says Chilot. The idea is to have two regional events, with Asia Pacific in March, and Latin America in November. “We hope to start in November with Latin America, and to talk about it on our social media, on our website [recently rebooted courtesy of BETC], and then Asia Pacific comes in March. From there we move on to Cannes. The idea is to have a live YDA throughout the year. Not just at Cannes.” Add to that a plan to bring YDA workshops to major European cities and you have a full 360-degee view of how Chilot aims to expand its horizons in the coming years.

Given that it’s run on a non-profit status – “we didn’t want people to think we were making money from young talent,” – finance comes via sponsorship. “We have Canon as a main sponsor, and it is a great sponsor,” says Chilot, “because today most productions use it.” Given that sponsorship enables the YDA to expand its operations, its greater visibility in turn will promote its sponsors’ businesses. “I’d say to our sponsors and to our prospective sponsors: ‘Come with us, we will develop your brand’,” says Chilot. “There is a great opportunity for expansion; there is a great potential and a great future ahead. We want to develop as fast and as well as the world is developing.”

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