In conversation with: Melissa Beth

A founder, executive producer and the driving force behind Hostage Films. Meet Melissa Beth, a passionate producer with an unwavering commitment to impactful storytelling, shares her approach to producing in this captivating conversation led by our host, Rob Payton.

Rob Payton: First and foremost, what madness prompted you to get into the world of making television commercials? 

Melissa Beth: I graduated film school at NYU planning to work in features but got my start at MTV as an assistant to an account executive selling commercial airtime. It was a really interesting look at the commercial industry from the business side. From there, I was able to move into the MTV Networks production department, which I loved. 

I left to produce an indie feature film, which led to another feature, then TV pilots, short films, tons of music videos and finally, commercials. Eventually, I ended up as the Vice President of an international production company, launching a commercial specific division. It was a full circle moment. 

Since then, I’ve been the Executive Producer at a couple of other international production companies, ultimately deciding to open my own shop. With Hostage Films, I’ve been able to stay in both the film and commercial world, developing features, shooting passion projects, and creating campaigns with agencies and clients around the globe. It’s been a dream, and also, a lot of work. 

R: You rarely hear people say ‘I want to be a producer’. But you knew that from the outset, didn’t you?

M: At NYU, if you wanted to be a director, you had to fund your own projects. I was working my way through school with very limited financial support, so directing was less of an option. As a producer, I got to work on great projects with creative people who had their own funding. In a way, it was a very relevant life lesson. 

I always had a keen interest in budgeting, managing money and managing time. Because nobody wanted to do that, I had all the doors opened for me and a lot of opportunities to gain experience. Nobody I was meeting wanted to be a producer at all. 

If you find a space where you feel you’re respected and people appreciate your efforts, then it makes you feel good. At the end of the day, everybody wants to be appreciated.

During location scouting

R: I think it’s quite amusing, because producers get a harsh rep, you know? You’re the tough guy, you are the one telling people ‘no’. (Rob and Melissa laugh)

M: I say ‘no’ with a smile. 

R: You’ve obviously produced a huge body of work with Ruben Latre. Can you tell me how that came about? 

M: All those years ago, when I was launching that commercial division, I put an ad out in the trades: If you are a director not affiliated with a production company other than your own, send me a reel. I received over a thousand submissions, and I watched every single reel. 

We had an excel spreadsheet with a list of potential directors and we listed Ruben as ‘The Godfather’. At that point, he had never even directed a commercial. He was coming from documentary, music video and short film. His work was so emotionally moving, it brought tears to my eyes. 

I wrote him back and we’ve been working together ever since. I always say my work never looked as good as when I started producing for Ruben. And I feel really lucky because he’s always inspiring. He’s always pushing to get the most out of any creative project. There isn’t a day when I’m not thinking ‘this guy is a genius’. There’s a lot of respect there and it’s worked out really well. 

Ruben doesn’t walk around with an ego. He says that any project can be done well; so we’re not dismissive of small jobs or indies. We’re both very much of the opinion that what we do is the best of ourselves and we’re not judging what other people are doing. We’re always just trying as hard as we can to make the best possible projects, and to me, his modesty and humbleness resonates.

R: I wanted to have a T-shirt made with ‘Ego-free filmmaking’ at the front, but my producer wouldn’t let me – he said it was too provocative! Sounds like you’re so busy that you don’t need to find any other directors!

M: It takes so much to get a job, so if I’m going to say that I’m your representative out there in the world, I want to be able to back that up with work, and not just sign people. 

R: I know that Hostage has had a lot of experience with commercial food advertising. Within the roster, I mean within the company’s roster, do you think there’s space for two food directors or two tabletop directors? 

M: I don’t see a differentiation between tabletop or live action in terms of multiple directors on a single roster. Most production companies have many directors, with minimal conflicts or issues.

If a director is creating with a signature style, their work is recognizable and what they bring to the table, or tabletop, stands apart.

At Hostage, we’re working to develop and produce feature films. With that broad goal in mind, the paradigm of what growth or expansion looks like is shifted.   

R: Do you think that food directors have a different skillset to traditional commercials directors?

M: I know that for Ruben, he is wonderfully specific about everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s an epic car shot in nature, a delicate emotional moment in a pharma ad, if there’s live-action, sports, or if it’s a product shot. He has such a high level of attention to detail. It could be something at the edge of the frame, that nobody else is seeing… he sees it. That precision and visual craftsmanship, owning every last millimeter of an image, has translated very well to what we call ‘work done adjacent to a table’. 

There are a lot of technical aspects to shooting tabletop, food and beverage. How much the lettuce is sweating, the thickness of the ice cream, the level of bubbles in the beer… It’s endless. How do you light this high speed, 1000 frames per second shot, at a macro level and make something that looks appetizing? Ruben calls it lighting for the invisible. Lighting the space before the object exists in it. Accounting for all of the variables. Throw food. Clean up. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Try not to lose your mind. You really have to know what you’re doing. Ultimately, I do think it is a distinct and technical skillset.

R: You’re probably in a very good position to kind of see the difference between Europe and US markets. Is there a difference?

M: The main difference is in who the ads target. European versus US sensibilities. It’s actually really fun to get to see the best of both worlds and to continue to be so involved in international production. There are incredible agencies and clients doing wonderful work all over the world. It’s another great aspect of working with Ruben. He’s been in the US for over a decade and is able to think in a blockbuster Hollywood mindset. But since he was born and raised in Spain, he’s equally comfortable with European creatives and knowing what they are after. 

Our favorite projects involve clients, agencies and creatives that want to push boundaries, or work on a completely new concept that’s never been filmed before. Ruben shoots all his effects in-camera. He loves to discover how an idea can be pulled off practically, in a technical way, created just for that shot. There has to be a lot of trust to embark on some of these projects together.

R: Yeah, in my mind, it’s all about trust. You’ve obviously been doing commercials for a lot of years, what do you think – are budgets and expectations these days realistically aligned? 

M: People always want more than they can afford. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a sweater, a car, a house, or a commercial. It’s a very expensive industry, to do things professionally. 

So, no. The budgets often do not align with expectations, but that’s a big part of my job. In this changed financial landscape, we always try to protect the creative first. Often, we are pushed to do more for less. The hard line for us is where crew health and safety are concerned. If a project requires more days, we fight for it, because 20-hour days are dangerous for everyone. 

R: Do you think then that it’s part of your role to protect the director? And should it be necessary for a producer to protect the director?

M: Maybe it shouldn’t be necessary, but yes, it’s definitely part of my role. If you care about the creative, and you care about the director’s vision, then what you are actually protecting is the integrity of the project. If we need another camera, or another shoot day, or more prep, our priority is always to make the best project that we can. Everyone has a role in this intricate commercial production system, and that’s a big one for me.

R: Are sustainability and green, eco filmmaking rearing their heads more and more for you? And do the agencies actually appreciate it when you go down that route? It might be more expensive, there’s a cost involved in green production and some clients are now going to the agencies and literally saying ‘this has to be a sustainable production’. Are you seeing more and more of that?

M: Green the Bid has been pushing hard for change. We have not seen that directive from our clients. From my perspective, clients will go green when it’s a cost savings on the production line. It’s hard to make a new normal. For example, client and agency are used to being on set. If sustainability were a major priority, companies would limit who gets sent to set, or shoot remotely as much as possible to reduce their carbon footprint. We were able to that during the pandemic, when there was no choice. Lately, it’s gone back to business as usual. That’s why you can’t blame the lack of initiative on cost, because there might be other places where they are willing to spend the money. As an industry we must commit to make sustainable production the new status quo.

R: So where would you say the biggest challenges are going forward? 

M: I see big shifts in production and consumption of ads. The whole generation coming up is consuming media completely differently.

I think a lot of people are afraid of the changing formats, the fact that there aren’t as many impressions on any screen at any given time and you really have to fight to make noise. 

It presents a great opportunity to make creative projects that stand out. Advertisements that consumers will seek out, because they’re just that incredible. I also see the streaming giants changing their revenue models – because as it turned out, network and cable had a successful business structure that was creating revenue and sustaining the networks. Everything old is new again. Advertising has a long healthy life ahead.

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