2024 Chair Medb Riordan talks ability, opportunity and maverick attitudes

Medb Riordan, AcademyFilms’ Joint MD and Partner, is the jury chairperson for this year’s Young Director Award. Here, she talks about the challenges involved in building a directing career, the skills needed, and why more trust needs to be put in creative risk-taking. 

Why did you accept the invitation to be this year’s YDA jury chair?

Academy has always developed young talent. This was Jonathan Glazer’s first home. And Seb Edwards’. Kim Gehrig’s… so many people who are now huge names in the advertising industry, and some in the film industry, started – and still are – here. There is always a generation of new talent coming through, and that’s in the title of the company; Academy. It’s in our DNA, so it’s in my DNA.

So, getting an opportunity to support the next generation, and also to understand what’s being made was really key. Not only is it exciting for us to be able to find that upcoming generation of talent, but for them to teach us about what’s happening next.

It’s my hope, with Francois’ [Chilot, YDA President] support, to find a jury that sits both within and also outside of the advertising industry. Financiers, film producers, directors… because it’s exciting for those people to see what’s coming through. The commercials industry has fed the film industry, and vice versa. I think it’s becoming increasingly more like that, and it’s exciting for us to share the talent, and to share ideas.

Do you think it’s harder now for new directors with real talent to gain attention?

There are so many opportunities, which is brilliant [but] it’s about finding those [directors] that cut through. [I would say] there’s definitely a lot more opportunity, I just don’t know if there’s as much opportunity to build and build [a career].

Fifteen years ago, for example, there was ‘the star’; the next three directors everyone was looking at. Now, though, there’s the next 25 or 50 directors. If you look at different lists whether it’s in Campaign or Variety or shots, or it’s the YDA, they’ll all have completely different lists. It’s really exciting, and great to see, but how do directors get that initial opportunity and then build on that to create longevity? I think that’s the hardest part.

Not only is it exciting for us to be able to find that upcoming generation of talent, but for them to teach us about what’s happening next.

How important is a director’s ability to convey their ideas well, talk about their process and work as part of a team?

The stories I’ve heard, from the 80s or 90s, where you just had a phone conversation and [a director] got the job based on the two spots they’ve done already for Guinness or whoever, and didn’t need to do a treatment… that’s no longer the case. [And] I think the toleration of ‘arseholes’ has definitely dwindled, which is great. Nobody wants that in their lives. It’s not necessary, and not accepted. But the days of being able to take risks on set just don’t really exist in the same way. I wish they did because I think that’s where the magic happens.

Riordan was a producer on Academy director Savanah Leaf’s debut feature, Earth Mama.

Doesn’t creativity need some sort of creative risk-taking?

Yes, but I’m in a production company, so of course I’m going to say that. Whoever’s the head of [the brand] might also say yes but, really, they just want to sell [product]. Also, the possibility of offending people is so much greater now. It’s hard for brands to take risks because there’s an unpredictability of what the reaction is going to be. So, it’s much easier to play it safe. I think [people need] trust and belief that a maverick director can bring maverick work and that is the thing that will go ‘viral’.

Do you think it’s important that a director has an understanding of different platforms and approaches; of how short form is different to long from work?

They are completely different mediums in many ways, though there’s a lot of crossover; finding a good cast, getting good performances, understanding the importance of music to tell a story. What I found interesting, speaking to film financiers over the last year or two [Riordan produced Savanah Leaf’s 2023 feature Earth Mama], is there’s great excitement in pulling [talent] from commercials and music videos because what you’re getting from that world is technique. The editing styles and camera transitions, a lot of that is borne out of taking risks in commercials and musical videos, and that’s really exciting [to them].

The skill in shooting short form commercials is in the editing, and that’s why I love a great 30-second ad. I remember Lizie [Gower, Academy founder and former MD] saying, “Anyone who can make a good 30-second ad, that’s a real commercial filmmaker.”

How do directors get that initial opportunity and then build on that to create longevity? I think that’s the hardest part.

And it’s true. Not every ad needs to be three-and-a-half-minutes long. A 90-second version works when it’s smart and clever. If it’s exciting and it’s pacey, like Nike’s Londoner or We’re the Superhumans, you’re on the journey and you’re excited to see what happens next. But very often it just feels like nobody wanted to lose a scene that isn’t necessary. That is a skill in direction and editing, knowing when to lose something, as well as when to extend it.

The YDA has always embraced the power of advertising to be a force for good. Do you think that advertising does enough in that space, or is it not advertising’s job?

I think to say it is advertisings one true job; well, no. I think it’s everyone’s job, everywhere. Whatever job you do, whether it’s the small differences you make in your day-to-day routine, whether it’s environmental, or it’s just kindness, or respect, we all have a responsibility to be good to the world.

In terms of purpose-led advertising, [Academy] has always made work for charities that we believe in. Whether it’s the Alzheimer’s Society or knife crime, they’re things that we care about. Where I suppose it comes unstuck is when you feel that brands are piggybacking on this purpose. I guess that’s a discussion. Are they helping by paying money to get a cause out there? By attaching their brand to it, what’s the motivation? I think the general public [can] get annoyed by it.

| SPLIT SECOND  Sinan Sevinç – Joint Special Jury Prize Winner 2023

During your time in the industry has it become more diverse, and do you think we’re heading in the right direction?

I think it’s hard for me, as a white CIS woman, to say ‘yeah, everything is better now’. People from different communities can give their own truths on what’s happening. [Academy has] tried to make an effort to tell stories that feel important, whether that’s through the writing, or through the direction, or production. For me, it’s really important for it to not be a badge to wear. It needs to be a real truth.

“Without these types of competitions, where do you go? How do you get your work seen?”

If I’m being honest, what I’ve noticed, just in the past couple of years being in the film industry as well as the advertising industry, [diversity is] much better in the film industry than it is in advertising. They are way ahead when it comes to underrepresented talent and underrepresented stories, and the push and the drive to tell those stories. If you just look at the BIFA’s this year there’s Molly Manning Walker [How to Have Sex], Charlotte Regan [Scrapper], Nida Manzoor [Polite Society], Savanah Leaf [Earth Mama], Andrew Haigh [All of Us Strangers]. That’s five who are all from underrepresented communities. 

In advertising you try to have the conversation; ‘who is on your list?’. But what I have often been told is creatives get to make one ad a year. So, if they’re making that one ad, they want that top director who has the built reel. The place I find it the most difficult to break in is comedy. People might trust you to tell an emotional story, people might trust you to even shoot a car [commercial] because you can get a car [specialist] DP, or food because you can get a food DP, and that’s where you can assuage people’s fears. But when it comes to comedy it’s just, ‘no, you just can’t do it.’

| Call Me Mommy Tara O’Callaghan – Joint Special Jury Prize Winner 2023

When you’re watching all the YDA entries, what will you be looking for?

Just good work, I think. I’m really excited because all the juries I’ve sat on before had entries that are submitted by big ad agencies with big, shiny films costing lots of money. So, going through hundreds of films that might not [be like that], but looking for the potential, will be exciting?

[The film industry is] way ahead when it comes to underrepresented talent and underrepresented stories, and the push and the drive to tell those stories.

There are going to be some incredible people that are going to really shine through, but maybe people who haven’t had the budget or haven’t had the opportunities so far. It’s going to be a challenge but that’s what’s great about it. And that’s why I’m also keen on bringing in people from outside of advertising, who mine for that obscure short film that was made by some kid in, I don’t know, Hull. But, equally, what’s going to be hard for them is knowing if something is a really good 30-second ad. What’s going to be exciting is to hear people’s opinions and how we can challenge each other to find what’s great about that piece of work.

How important are competitions like the YDA to the industry at large and to the future of the business?

Huge. I mean, selfishly I’m hoping to find some new directors. I’ve got to be really careful what other production companies are sitting on this jury because we’ll all be fighting over the same people. The people who have come out of the YDA already, like Charlotte Regan, are making a splash, and not just for the advertising world but for filmmaking in general. It’s so essential to have these types of spaces as a way to show your work to such a wide variety of people.

It’s an incredible exhibition, and hugely respected. But, also, sitting amongst your own peers and seeing what other people are making is really exciting. Without these types of competitions, where do you go? How do you get your work seen? Any major film festival has the same thing. It’s like, this is how people will know me, otherwise I remain that kid in Hull that’s just shown his film to his granny.

Interview by Danny Edwards shots

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