Low-profile prizes can yield big dividends

As with most award shows this time of year, attention at the DGA ceremony will be focused on the feature film category and what its outcome might mean for Oscar. But the DGAs go deeper than features, with success in some of the lesser-known races providing the launching pad some directors need to take their careers to the next level.

Perhaps the most fertile category is the commercials arena, with two of the winners in the past four years going on to direct feature films: Noam Murro (“Smart People”) and Craig Gillespie, who helmed “Lars and the Real Girl” and “Mr. Woodcock” as well as four episodes of Showtime’s new series “The United States of Tara.”

Gillespie says winning a DGA Award greatly lifted his profile, especially because it’s one of the few crossover events between Hollywood and the commercials industry.

“It’s so much a part of the film community, just in terms of producers and executives being aware of it,” he says. “You get on their radar for up-and-coming directors.”

A native of Australia, Gillespie says the desire to make features came about slowly after years of working his way up from the agency side to directing commercials. He adds that feature films work completely different muscles and are in many ways a completely different world.

He still works in commercials, having recently shot a Super Bowl ad, and enjoys the opportunities they present.

“I just shot with (“The Dark Knight” cinematographer) Wally Pfister this weekend,” Gillespie notes, “and last week I shot with Emmanuel Lubezki (“Burn After Reading”).”

Gillespie also is finishing up work on “Tara,” for which he shot both the pilot and season finale, while considering his next feature project.

The DGA documentary category has of late been enamored of international directors, giving the award to a non-American each of the past four years. While 2005 winner Werner Herzog was already well-established, DGA wins boosted the careers of last year’s winner, Asger Leth, who has signed on to direct two feature films, and Arunas Matelis, who won for his first full-length documentary, “Before Flying Back to Earth.”

Matelis, whose film documented children being treated for leukemia in his home country of Lithuania, says winning the award turned him into a national celebrity.

Though the film received mostly local attention — Matelis says it was not screened in the United States — it became the most successful documentary in Lithuania’s history, outdrawing top Hollywood films during its domestic theatrical run.

“Local distribution companies refused to screen the film (at first), arguing that it’s not profitable, as the viewers are (averse to) the film’s theme — or so they thought,” he says. “DGA was one of the main reasons why the film became very popular, even in the places (and) towns where there are no cinemas.”

Matelis says he appreciates the DGA Award and has used the time and opportunities it has created for more than simple marketing or fund-raising. After a pause to consider where he wants to go next, he is working on “new ideas and scenarios” that he expects will result in announcements this summer of new projects both in Lithuania and the United States.

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