'20/20': Joe Pytka Profile

Jan. 26, 2001 -- Forty million people will be watching the Super Bowl on TV Sunday, and many will be keeping a close eye on the game that has nothing to do with football.

It's the ad game being waged by the heavy-hitter agencies, and director Joe Pytka may be their most powerful weapon. Since his 1990 Nike commercial which featured superstar athletes like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretsky, he has directed some 30 Super Bowl ads. He's responsible for countless star-studded ads for clients like Pepsi, Nike and McDonald's as well as the stirring This-Is-You-Brain-on-Drugs PSA.

AdvertisingAge Magazine's Bob Garfield thinks Pytka is a genius. "He is to my mind the greatest director of television commercials who has ever lived," says Garfield, who also hosts of NPR's On the Media.

But Pytka himself demurs, saying, "I think I get more respect than I deserve because I've been around longer than I should have been."

His modesty may be in part due to the fact that his feature films have received less than stellar reviews. Pytka's first movie, Let It Ride, starring Richard Dreyfuss, was a flop. His second movie, Space Jam, starred basketball superstar Michael Jordan and was mostly animated. It fared better in the box office than Let it Ride but did not turn Pytka in a major Hollywood player.

For Pytka, directing commercials is more challenging and more satisfying than movies because there is more room to experiment. He says he equates feature films to novels and commercials to poetry. "Great poetry is something that exists for itself. Beauty is its own reward. The best commercials can be pure little pieces along these lines," Pytka explains.

He got his start in the '60s as a documentary producer and the verisimilitude of documentary film is present in his commercials. In a business reliant on technology and special effects, Pytka's skill is expressing a sense of humanity and authenticity. Garfield says, "Going back 20 years, you will scarcely find a wooden moment or a gesture that doesn't ring true."

On Sunday night , Pepsi unveils the latest addition to Pytka's oeuvre. Titled "Man vs. Machine," the spot features chess champion Gary Kasparov defeating a supercomputer at chess. Afterward, the machines in Kasperov's life conspire and take revenge. Pepsi will cough up more than $83,000 per second for it to air during the Super Bowl.

On the set, Pytka is demanding and short-tempered. He admits he can be hard on his crew and gets frustrated conveying his ideas. "Maybe sometime you can't be as polite as you would like to be under certain circumstances and especially when you have an overall vision that no one else understands or shares," he says.

When he is not yelling at people on the set he is beating them on the basketball court. He says the game "gets the blood flowing," and he brings a portable hoop on every shoot. Even at 62 he is as difficult to play against as he is to work for. He knows people say he is rough on the court and is not the cleanest player, but Pytka argues, "Elbows are a fact of life."

The elbows and nasty temper notwithstanding, Pytka's actors and crew say they would not want to work for anyone else. They talk less about his loyalty and devotion than they do about his temper. "Most of the professional relationships I've had I've had for years," he says. This goes for his clients too. He says he would not even work for Coke for $1 million per day.