Should Doritos ban professional directors from entering the Crash the Super Bowl contest?

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Just a few hours after the big game ended, FritoLay revealed that “Middle Seat” was the grand prize winner of the 2015 installment of the Crash the Super Bowl contest.  The news wasn’t supposed to be released until Monday but FritoLay had to make a quick announcement after actress (and Crash the Super Bowl Judge) Elizabeth Banks tweeted out the above photo late Sunday night.



As the winner of the Crash the Super Bowl contest, the director of the “Middle Seat”, Scott Zabielski, will receive $1,000,000 and and a “Dream Job” at Universal Studios.  Right now it’s unclear what Zabielski’s job at Universal will be (it might be related to Development) or even if he’ll accept the offer.  Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned the gig down.  Mr. Zabielski doesn’t really need to “break into” the film industry because he’s already got a pretty impressive career going.  Currently he’s the producer and director of the highest rated show on Comedy Central, Tosh.0.  His track record has already gotten him a lot of attention in Hollywood and in 2012 he was hired to direct the new Police Academy reboot.  That version of the reboot eventually fell apart but Tosh.0 is a money-making Juggernaut so eventually someone is going to hire Zabielski to direct a big-budget commercial or a major motion picture.

This year marks the first time that a legitimate, successful, professional director has won this competition.  Nine years ago Doritos created the Crash the Super Bowl contest because they wanted to launch the careers of aspiring filmmakers.  The whole premise behind the promotion was that “Average Joes” would be able to “crash” the biggest advertising event of the year.  So personally, I think it’s unethical for a professional filmmaker to enter a contest that’s meant for amateurs and semi-pros.  Don’t get me wrong, I think “Middle Seat” was a very funny ad and it was easily the best entry in the Doritos’ Top 10.  But just because a professional director CAN call in tens of thousands of dollars worth of favors and shoot a high-quality commercial that would probably beat out all the real zero-budget, “fan-made” entries doesn’t mean he SHOULD.

But hey, who can resist a million dollars right?  At least 90% of Crash the Super Bowl ads are shot by amateurs and consequently more than 90% of the entries aren’t good enough to air on TV.  So FritoLay’s million dollar grand prize must look like easy pickins to a professional director.  But you can’t just throw your professional ethics out the window because there’s a bunch of cash at stake.  It is simply inappropriate for a successful director to punch below his weight so he can win a cash prize that was intended to be a “follow your dreams” windfall for some aspiring filmmaker in Indiana or Vancouver or Osaka.

I’ve watched and read a lot of the interviews Zabielski has given and I think he knew that he was doing something kind of skeezy here.  For the last few weeks he’s been bending over backwards in an effort to paint himself as just another “average joe.”  Here’s a promo video he shot for FritoLay.  Skip ahead to the 33 second mark to hear his thoughts about how great it is that Doritos gives “average people” the chance to have their work seen by millions of people.



Just for the record, Tosh.0 gets about two million viewers per episode (not counting re-runs).  So Scott Zabielski is definitely no Average Joe and his work is already being seen by millions of people every week.

Even the alleged budget for “Middle Seat” seems like a fabrication.  Zabielski claims that he only spent $2,000 to produce his entry.  Despite what I just said about zero-budget filmmakers, a lot of well-funded semi-pros have managed to make the CTSB finals over the years.  (Some filmmakers gamble everything they have for a shot at the Top 10)  So when you compare it to past CTSB budgets, Middle Seat’s $2,000 price tag seems reasonable.  But any producer will tell you that there’s no way in the world Middle Seat cost only $2,000 to create.  As one reader pointed out, the entry was shot on a set at the “Air Hollywood” Studios.  Here’s what one of Air Hollywood’s plane sets looks like:

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Major TV shows like Lost and movies like Bridesmaids are shot on those sets. Here’s a sample price guide from the Air Hollywood website:

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So a pre-lit, Narrow-Body Jet interior plus a location fee and an air conditioning fee would come to $11,000.  So why would a director lie about how much he spent on his Crash the Super Bowl entry?  Well, because no one is going to root for the guy who already has ten or twenty grand to blow on a video contest entry.

The rules of the Crash the Super Bowl contest don’t explicitly say that professional filmmakers are prohibited from entering.  But they should.  Doritos could keep out the pros simply by adding a rule that bars members of the Directors Guild of America from participating.  Getting into the DGA is pretty tough so I think it’s a pretty fair way to measure who is a pro and who isn’t.

But unfortunately, Doritos will never institute a rule change like this.  That’s because they LOVE IT when professional filmmakers borrow a $20,000 camera rig and rent a fake airplane set to shoot a “low budget” CTSB entry.  The contest judges do seem to prefer great, authentic, low-budget ads.  But every year a few pros splurge and and shoot entries like Middle Seat.  And these high-quality professional entries are like an insurance policy for FritoLay.  They ensure that there will always be a few TV-quality ads in the mix.  So if the Average Joes blow it one year and submit a bunch of junk, the judges can run one of these slick ads and then just do a little spin to downplay the director’s true background.

I know that Doritos will never explicitly ban professionals from entering the Crash the Super Bowl contest, so I would like to propose an alternate solution to this problem.  FritoLay has been giving away these studio “Dream Jobs” for a few years now.  The rules should state that the “Dream Job” isn’t optional.  If a filmmaker wins the grand prize, he or she must accept the ENTIRE prize package.  The winner can’t just take the million bucks and then turn down the studio job.  You can either accept the prize package or decline it.  If the winner declines the prize, it would automatically be offered to the 2nd place winner.

Last year the Grand Prize in the Crash the Super Bowl contest was a million dollars plus the a chance to work on the set of the new Avengers movie.  Do you think the director of one of the most popular TV shows on cable would quit his job so that he could spend four months making photocopies for Joss Whedon?  That actually sounds like a pretty kick-ass gig to me and I bet most of the people reading this would agree.  But for those filmmakers out there that think a job like that isn’t worth their time, maybe they shouldn’t be entering this particular contest.  As I said, it’s not clear yet if Mr. Zabielski will accept the 2nd pat of his prize package.  But I hope he does.  It would be a real shame if an opportunity like this just went to waste.

8 thoughts on “Should Doritos ban professional directors from entering the Crash the Super Bowl contest?

  1. Nice post. Would be awesome it it got back to it’s origins and some new company decided to do the exact opposite – instead of looking for a super slick piece of filmmaking, look for something weird as hell, user generated, and with no business being aired on TV.

  2. you know, actually the more I think about it, the more I think it’s okay that he entered, it’s okay that he made something with that budget and called in favors – the only part that’s a real bummer is that Doritos keeps picking the same ad every year, and that now every other company is just making the same ad, too. It all feels like what could be unique about this isn’t that the CREATORS are coming from unusual places, but it should be that the CREATIONS are themselves unusual.

    If this guy decided to call in his favors and use an Arri Alexa and professional lights and locations, but what he filmed was someone getting punched in the stomach for 30 seconds and then the word “Doritos” flashed on the screen, I would love the hell out of that.

  3. The budget for “Middle Seat” was a total fabrication. A professional director/producer is going to lie about how much they spent on this contest to seem more “amateur.” This guy most likely had some crew/equipment favors. I imagine he or another investor shelled out the cash to rent the set and pay all the actors.

    I disagree and I think that the pro’s should have a chance to enter just like the amateur filmmakers. A great idea and execution is hard to get even on a professional level. The stars have to align many times for you to make something really quality. It gets easier the more you have at your disposal, but that does not guarantee you a great ad. This guy could have cast someone else in the spot and it might have fell totally flat. If you wan’t to drop 10k-20k making an add for a contest were you can win a million bucks, then you risk loosing that money. Everyone should have a shot though. It’s been proven that you can win on a simple, low budget project. The guy who spends 300 bucks as opposed to 10k is taking less of a risk.

    Dan, I think you would be quite surprised at the number of professional filmmakers that have entered over the years and lost. I know for a fact this guy has entered the contest more than once and never made the finals. At the end of the day it’s a million dollars. That’s a lot of money for anyone.

    http://hungryman.com/directors/usa/bryan-buckley/commercials/

  4. Well, the winners of the Crash the Super Bowl contest have always been more on the professional end of the spectrum than the amateur one. It’ a myth that participants are by and large “amateurs.” I wrote on this a few years ago for FlowTV (http://flowtv.org/2011/01/the-myth-of-amateur-crowds/) and later for the peer-reviewed academic journal ‘Information, Communication & Society’ (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1369118X.2011.641991). But I agree that this year it’s more hypocritical than ever…

  5. I think this is exactly what Frito Lay was always hoping for from the beginning, to get momentum every year until top pros in the business started entering because of the buzz, ego and a big paycheck.

    It kinda reminds me of what Poptent has become, they eliminate all the people they deem to be too amateur and only invite the top pros they seem worthy enough to shoot their ads.

    As I’ve said before, I think the votes are probably all fake and made up, who would be able to verify them? At least I wont ever have to rack my brain for this contest again, I will save my funny good spot ideas for other spec work contests.

    Great detailed detective work on the article Dan!

  6. Completely agree, Daren. Nice articles by the way.

    Lets just be totally honest and say that 99.5% of the submissions would never have a chance to air during the Super Bowl. That might even be a bit generous. 25/5000 is is a fair calculation.

    The problem with holding a contest for amateurs is that most people who have never taken a filmmaking class or have done it on a professional level, don’t understand how to tell a tightly nit story in 30 seconds and don’t understand the importance of quality sound, acting, editing, lighting, set decoration and so on. I think last years winner, “Time Machine” was a good example of a quality, amateur submission, but even that guy had some experience and other competent people around him.

    So most of the amateurs never even stand a chance from the beginning. I think that Danny Winn makes a good point that this is what Doritos wants, and the company knows that it will get professional filmmakers to enter the contest.

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