- Friday, Jul. 26, 2002
HOLLYWOOD—Directors John Bonito and Nicolas Hill have signed with Level 7, a Hollywood-based commercial production and creative services company under the aegis of executive producers Chris Van Howten and Larry Serraino. The deals mark both directors' first formal representation as commercial helmers. Bonito hails from the promotions department at NBC. Hill is a recent graduate of Art Center College of Design, Pasadena.
Van Howten noted that Bonito and Hill fit the Level 7 director mold in that both have proven creative as well as directorial skills. "The directors we look for are storyboard creators and collaborators, as opposed to storyboard executors," the executive producer said.
Bonito is set to direct his first project through Level 7: a spot for Activision's Kelly Slater surfing game via DMB&B, Los Angeles. As director of special projects at the NBC Agency, the network's in-house promo department, he has also helmed humorous action spots promoting CNBC, Snap.com and the launch of the XFL.
Most recently, Bonito directed a Caddyshack inspired campaign for CNBC's Squawk Box. The promos feature CNBC anchors reenacting scenes reminiscent of the classic film. In one, a CNBC anchor behaves much like Bill Murray's fanatic greens keeper when he breaks into a storage room and takes a golf club to the make-up mirrors inside. "It's a silly, fun campaign meant to flesh out the personalities of the anchors," Bonito explained.
Meanwhile, "Snowboarding," Bonito's :90 trailer for the 2002 Winter Olympic Organizing Committee, ran in cinema theaters. The James Bond-style spot features U.S. Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug fleeing from the authorities after he's clocked for "speeding" down the slopes. With police cars, snowmobiles and a helicopter in hot pursuit, Klug crashes through the glass wall of a hockey rink, where it just so happens that U.S. Olympic Women's Hockey player Cammi Granato is practicing. Granato comes to Klug's aid by body checking a cop car. Back on the slopes, Klug enjoys a brief flirtation with a beautiful admirer. Before being airlifted to safety by a helicopter, he gives her an Olympic hockey puck and tells her to meet him in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Bonito joined the promo department at NBC as a producer/ editor in '95. In'98, he was given the opportunity to write and direct a promo for Saturday Night Live's 25th Anniversary special. From that point on, he continued to direct for the network. "Making people say, 'Wow,' and laugh at the same time—that's where my strengths are and where I have the most fun," Bonito said.
At this juncture, he is still under contract at NBC, but he has a friendly arrangement with his employers. "NBC knows John's ready to leave the nest, and they want him to succeed," said Van Howten. "While he makes the transition [from staff director to independent contractor] they've agreed" to let him pursue outside assignments. "Ultimately, we want him to work [for Level 7] 365 days a year."
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Bonito was raised in Las Vegas, where he took some editing classes as a teenager and soon found work cutting industrials and low-budget commercials. He moved to Los Angeles in '95, at which time he joined NBC.
Bonito also has a feature project in the works. Now in the script polishing stage, Searching For Jordan will go out to studios in the next month or two. Bonito will direct and Ed Pressman (Hoffa) will produce the film about two Chicago Bulls scouts faced with an ultimatum: 30 days to find the next Michael Jordan, or they're fired. Rather than waste their time on obvious venues such as inner-city basketball courts, the inventive scouts pin their hopes of finding a superstar on the untapped American prison system.
Hill graduated from Art Center last summer. He spent the next several months posting his student spec ads, including a three-spot campaign for Playboy.com, which won a student Clio Award in May.
The Playboy.com campaign is set in an office environment where standard work codes and etiquette policies have been turned upside down. In this imaginary company, sex is good, doing work is bad, and a heavy-handed boss enforces the rules. So, in "Porn Surfer," an employee is filling out a purchase order but quickly switches his computer screen to a porn site when he sees the boss coming. Another spot, "Couple," finds a man and a woman in an office. They're reviewing some accounting figures, but suddenly contort themselves into a passionate embrace when the boss happens by.
"You can really see that the spots on Nick's reel have a purpose, and that there's an advertising background behind them," said Van Howten. "He understands how to tell a story about a product."
In the coming weeks, Hill plans to direct his first music video for Detroit garage rock band The Sights' "Be Like Normal," which Level 7 will produce. It remains to be seen what Hill will do for clips representation. "I'm just starting to delve into music videos," said the Detroit native, who has some ties to the local music scene there. "But for now, I have no great aspirations beyond that." Van Howten said Hill can rely on Level 7 as needed for clips jobs.
Hill was raised in the advertising business. His father, Chato Hill, is a creative director at Detroit agency Solomon Friedman. From the age of 15, the younger Hill spent his summers working at the agency, writing ad copy and producing radio spots for regional clients such as Franklin Bank and Quality Farm and Fleet.
He earned an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich., and after college spent another two years as a copywriter/broadcast producer at Solomon Friedman. During that time he made his directing debut on a humorous four-spot TV campaign for the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit (SMART) bus system. The ads feature people who really love the SMART buses, such as a guy who camps out at a bus stop just so he can watch the vehicles.
Three and a half years ago, Hill left the agency to attend Art Center. In addition to the SMART and Playboy.com spots, his reel features spec ads for Nike golf and Tide. The director said his passion lies in creating memorable characters. "Going beyond the cookie-cutter mold of comedy-dialogue, I'm a student of character," he noted. "I'm always studying nuances in film, literature, whatever the art form. For me the comedy comes out of casting, directing and writing. It's more than just putting a goofy guy on the screen and having him do something goofy. I search for unusual, unique characters that allow me to use individual eccentricities in a dark, yet humorous manner."
Bonito and Hill join a Level 7 director roster also comprising Sandy Collora, Bryan Hokom, C.J. Jacobsen, David Wynn-Jones, Andy Tennant, and Alexander Witt. David Van Eyssen serves as creative director at the production house, which is a part of the Hollywood-based Aspect group of companies that also includes Aspect Ratio, Aspect Television, The Picture Mill, VOX.ADV and Digital Aspect.
Kelley Class of Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based Class Represents markets Level 7 on the West Coast and in the Midwest. New York-based Portnoy/Sitzer handles the company's East Coast sales.