How to Make a Viral Commercial on a Budget
Marketing Tips from a Hollywood Screenwriter
For the past 25 years, I’ve been a sitcom writer, working on shows like Just Shoot Me, King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Out of Practice, Rules of Engagement, Lopez and Tacoma FD. I’ve also served as Executive Producer and Showrunner of Glenn Martin DDS, Maron, and Rhett & Link’s Buddy System. So I know how to write and produce comedy.
I can tell you from professional experience that having a large budget is the least important factor if you want to make something great. I learned this when I was Executive Producer on Maron. Our budget was tiny compared to most shows. One my first day, the production manager from the studio confided to me. “Everyone in accounting is laughing about this show, because we don’t think you can make it with so little money.”
“But we get computers, right?” I asked tentatively. The way she talked, it sounded like we’d be using crayons and writing our scripts on the wall.
“We’ve got storage rooms full of them. Take as many as you want! But that’s pretty much all you get.”
I sighed in relief. As long as I had something to write with, I knew we wouldn’t have a problem.
Most small businesses don’t even attempt to make commercials because they think they’ll need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on production expenses. The truth is, the most important investment is the script. Not the lighting, not the location, and not a fancy camera. The script.
Take a look at this commercial I wrote and produced for my wife’s clothing brand, TwirlyGirl. It cost me $1400 to make.
Here’s how I did it:
Make it Entertaining. I wrote the copy myself. In order for something to go viral, there has to be a reason why someone would want to share it. That means the focus has to be on entertaining, and not selling. Don’t give your audience a reason to tune out by saving the best for last. Open with the best part. The jokes need to come quickly and come often. That means a quick setup stating a fact about our business, then a punchline about that fact. Here’s an example of that structure from the above video.
All of our clothing is Made in America. Do you know how rare that is? Even this flag wasn’t Made in America.
Make it Visual. When I write, I always ask myself, “What are we watching?” In other words, what’s visual about this scene. Watching someone talk is boring, so make sure something fun is going on in the foreground or background. For example, in one scene, we stage a going-away party for a dress. In another, we see a soap bubble on its way to pick up a fairy.
Hire Students. I saved a fortune by not hiring a professional crew. At the time, my daughter was attending the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts. (If you remember the movie “Fame” from the 1980s, this is LA’s version of it.) I reached out to the head of the Cinematic Arts department and told him I wanted to hire a film crew. Providing real life experience reflects well on the school, and they were excited to arrange an introduction with one of their more talented directors — a kid in 11th grade. Obviously, he lacked experience, but he knew how to light and work the camera. He jumped at the chance to work with me, and he assembled a skeleton crew of other students.
Control the Environment. The key was controlling the shoot as much as possible, so we shot entirely in our office. That meant we didn’t have to deal with crowds, permits, changing sunlight, background noise, etc.
Safety. When working with kids, safety is paramount. Teenagers have a tendency not to think things through. Trust me, I’ve got two of my own. I began the day with a brief safety meeting, encouraging everyone to take their time and be aware of their surroundings. Equipment can be heavy and cords are easy to trip on. I made it clear that no one should do anything they felt was unsafe or made them uncomfortable. If they had any doubts, they should come to me knowing that I would support them fully. Don’t skip this part.
Safe Lighting. Lighting can be particularly dangerous, because ordinary set lights run extremely hot. I made sure that we used only LED panels, which emit almost no heat and draw very little electricity. I rented sandbags to weigh the stands down so that if anyone bumped into them, they wouldn’t fall over and hurt them.
Easy Camera Shots. Every scene was a “oner.” That means, one angle. This made the scenes super easy to light and mic. It’s just one character talking into the camera. The movie 1917 is a perfect example of a oner. There were no close-ups, no over-the-shoulder shots, no reverse shots, no insert shots, etc. We had just one camera pointing straight at the actor, as if she were on a theatrical stage. Directors will complain that this is visually boring, and to some degree, they’re right. But it’s easier to shoot, and the script and acting were strong enough so that no one complained. A gratuitous, unmotivated camera shot wouldn’t have made the video any more compelling, and I made sure none of the jokes required special “reveals.”
Shoot Alternate Takes. The downside of shooting oner’s is that are no cutting points. You can’t pace things up in editing, so be sure you’re happy with the performances and dialogue on the day. If you have any doubts, record multiple versions of the performance, even if you’re convinced you’ve already got it on tape. Even with all my experience, I’m often surprised how much I like a take that wasn’t exactly how I envisioned it. So give yourself options.
Only One Speaking Part. We only had one person speak. This made it a lot easier for our boom operator because she didn’t have to swing the mic back and forth between actors.
Special Effects can be learned on YouTube. I was fortunate that my director/editor already had a licensed version of Premiere, which is the industry standard in editing software. However, we easily could have edited it on Final Cut Pro, which came with my Mac. I made sure that the special effects I wrote in the script were extremely simple to shoot: a fairy in front of a green screen, a soap bubble, and an odometer. All the required effects were learned by watching free videos on YouTube. (The hardest part was explaining to a 17 year old what an odometer was.) Creating a special effect for the counter he used was above his skillset, so we sub-contracted that part out to a 9th grader. If you’re ever in doubt about how to create a special effect, find a high school freshman.
Camera. We shot on a Red Digital Camera, which is often used on professional shoots. But that was overkill. The video we made was intended to be viewed on Facebook, which most people access on their smart phone. That means the viewing screen was only a few inches big, so the quality of the picture doesn’t have to be nearly as high as if it were intended to be seen on a large screen TV. We could’ve shot this with a relatively new iPhone and the quality would’ve been fine.
Limit Setups. We had 7 or so scenes. Keep this in mind during the writing process. Count how many set-ups you’re going to need. Every time you have to move the camera is a set-up. Even if you have an experienced crew, one set-up can easily take 15 minutes — even if you’re moving the camera only a few feet.
Color Correction. Limiting the scenes also means it’s easy to color correct in post-production. Color correction is a process by which you boost the colors after the editing stage, to bring more life and vibrancy into every scene. Most editing software comes with it, and it doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Is the lighting perfect in our video? Absolutely not, but no one cares. This video has been seen by over 10 million people, and no one has ever commented on the lighting.
Microphones. We used a boom mic (those furry microphones attached to poles.) Unfortunately, you can’t skimp on audio quality. If your audience can’t hear the dialogue, what’s the point? A few times, the mic missed her dialogue so we looped it. After the shoot, we simply recorded her dialogue on my iPhone, and dubbed it in. You wouldn’t want to do all the dialogue this way, but a line or two is fine.
Pay them. I did have to supervise these high school kids quite a bit. But their inexperience was surpassed by their enthusiasm. All of them said they would’ve worked for free, just for the experience, but I insisted on paying them. When you pay someone, you can demand an extra level of professionalism, and these kids rose to the challenge.
License Music. Music is crucial to bringing comic energy to this piece, but it should never overpower the piece. That means no lyrics. We license most music for around $50 from Pond5. Don’t even consider using a piece of pop music. Copyright infringement will get you sued.
A skeleton crew must have the following:
Director. I shared this responsibility with the kid I first hired. Together, we spent several days (way more than necessary) mapping out the shots we would use for every scene. On the day, we added tape “marks” to the floor, so the actor would know where to land before delivering each line. This helped ensure the camera was always in focus.
Director of Photography/Camera Operator. Ideally this person will have good working knowledge of how to light a scene so it’s not washed out or underexposed. In the video above, the first scene was shot against a window, which can be very tricky. We had to blast a lot of light from the front so that the subject wouldn’t be appear backlit and underexposed.
Boom Operator. Ours was also the sound mixer, and she ensured that all the dialogue was captured at the right levels, so that it wouldn’t be distorted. In the editing process, we discovered a few lines weren’t recorded well, so we had the actor re-record them into an iPhone as a wav file, which was very easy to import and place into her mouth. No one noticed.
Hair & Make-up. It has be someone’s job to make sure the talent looks good at all times. It can be hot and sweaty on set, so someone needs to help with that.
Production Assistant. There are a million things that need to be moved or fetched. I’m hands on, and no job is beneath me. But realistically, I couldn’t set up lunch while we were shooting, or help with little problems that popped up, so I paid a student to do that.
The Final Bill
In the end, this commercial cost us $1400 to make, and that includes $40 I spent on the cake. Most of the money went to pay the kids who shot it, as well as renting various pieces of equipment from the production house. I also donated some money to the school to cover the gear we borrowed. Lunch and snacks also set us back a few bucks, but that’s important to keep everyone’s energy up. Don’t expect anyone to bring their own food.
The school didn’t have an external monitor that I could hook up to the camera, and I should’ve rented one out of my own pocket. In subsequent shoots, I did, and it allowed me to make sure I was happy with the framing and performances. Sometimes your eyes lie to you if you’re watching a performance live, so it’s money well spend.
Ultimately this little commercial generated over $1 million in sales for TwirlyGirl, and was so successful that it spawned 4 sequels, and two more are in the works. If you’d like to watch the others, you can find them here.
Because so many of my commercials have gone viral, I’ve been approached by other small businesses to share the secret sauce. I don’t have a background in sales or marketing. I think what makes my work so unique is that I approach marketing from the point of view of a screenwriter. It’s surprising how much of my screenwriting knowledge can be applied to marketing. If you’d like to learn more about my unique take on story branding, you can do so here.