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By DAN TURNER

Staff Reporter

Joe Pytka's Venice office is as stark, serene and sunny as a Zen garden.

Joe Pytka is not.

Pytka, one of the hottest and best-paid commercial directors in the business, has been known to rip new breathing holes for crew members who fail to live up to his expectations. He is at once disarmingly frank, self-deprecating, and as ego-driven as a star athlete.

Which might be why he gets along so well with the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley.

"I'm a prick," Pytka said, when asked about his tyrannical reputation on the set.

Pytka's clients, however, really don't mind. With 25,000 commercials to his credit, made for some of the biggest advertisers in the world such as PepsiCo., Nike, McDonald's Corp., DuPont, Apple Computer Inc. and General Electric Co. Pytka is not hurting for references. And after the success of his second feature film, "Space Jam," he is now in a position to pick and choose between movie projects.

At 58, Pytka is an advertising industry veteran who didn't achieve widespread recognition in Hollywood until last year, when Warner Bros.' "Space Jam" opened to $29 million at the box office and strong reviews from critics.

Pytka was frequently cited by reviewers for his success in getting strong performances out of his actors, both human and bunny ("Space Jam" is a combination live action/animated film in which basketball legend Jordan teams up with Warner's Looney Tunes characters).

Pytka had been working with Jordan for over a decade before "Space Jam" was conceived, directing award-winning spots for Nike starring the Chicago Bulls superstar. In fact, it was Pytka's work with Jordan and Bugs Bunny in the "Hare Jordan" commercial for Nike that led to the creation of "Space Jam," although it's not a good idea to mention that to Pytka. He still rankles over the often-heard criticism that "Space Jam" was just a 90-minute commercial.

"People are actually surprised that they enjoyed 'Space Jam,' like they went in expecting not to," Pytka said.

Coaxing a good acting performance out of a professional athlete isn't always easy, but Pytka who at 6 feet, 5 inches tall plays an extremely physical game of basketball himself seems to have a knack for it. Some of his best-known spots, including the "Bo Knows" commercial for Nike and the "Can you top this?" spot for McDonald's (in which Bird and Jordan engage in an outrageous shooting contest with a McDonald's burger as the stakes), have involved non-actors.

"I enjoy working with athletes to a degree," Pytka said. "The problem is, they're doing something they're not familiar with, and you've got to make sure you protect their reputations. They don't want to look dumb, and you don't want to make them look dumb."

Pytka is known for a range of directing skills that go way beyond working with non-actors. And he charges hefty fees for those talents.

A 1992 article in Forbes portrayed Pytka as the highest-paid director in the advertising business, a characterization Pytka claims was untrue then and still is. He charges $15,000 a day for his services, which he insists is not the highest rate around.

"My rate is expensive, but I'm not the highest-paid director. If I wanted to be, I could be, but it's academic," Pytka said.

Besides his daily fee, Pytka also collects a share of the revenues from his production company which is called, simply, Pytka. The Venice firm, which he started with his brother John in 1984, has annual revenues in the $25 million to $30 million range, Pytka said.

All that income has allowed Pytka a lavish lifestyle, with homes in Paris, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M. It also means he can afford to do pretty much whatever he wants with his time. Right now, he says, he's mulling over a few offers to direct feature films this summer.

The willingness of major advertisers to shell out big bucks for Pytka's services is a reflection of his ability to take an idea from an advertising agency and make the finished product better than originally conceived.

Ad agencies usually supply commercial directors with storyboards pictorial representations of what each frame should look like. Pytka uses storyboards to get a general idea of what the commercial is about, and then ignores them.

"I mean, why should some storyboard artist at an ad agency shape the way I make a commercial?" Pytka asks. "You don't know until you have the cast and the sets together how it's all going to work. Spontaneity is the key."

Advertising executives who work with Pytka appreciate the finished result, even if the process of getting there can be rough.

"You always have to be on your toes, because you never know when he's going to turn away from the camera and say, 'This isn't working.' I've had projects where we've had to stop in the middle of filming and go rewrite the script because Joe didn't like it," said Stacy Wahl, creative director in the New York office of ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, which handles the Nike account.

Nonetheless, Wall says Pytka is the best in the business.

"My favorite thing about Joe is, he can do everything," Wall said. "You just feel very secure that the job's going to be done the right way."

Pytka learned his spontaneous style as a documentary producer at a public TV station in Pittsburgh. He left in the late 1960s to form a feature film production company with a partner a company whose one claim to fame was that it turned down a then-unknown Robert De Niro for a starring role, Pytka said. It folded after only a few years.

"We pissed away all our money," Pytka said.

It was commercial work that ultimately proved Pytka's gold mine. Bouncing back and forth between Pittsburgh and New York, he built up a strong reel and had a long list of contacts by the time he moved to Los Angeles to start his existing commercial production firm.

In 1989 he took his first shot at directing a feature film. Although critics enjoyed the comedy "Let it Ride" starring Richard Dreyfuss, the film flopped at the box office.

"Space Jam," which grossed over $90 million and is expected to at least double that sum on home video, has boosted Pytka's reputation in the movie business. Meanwhile, his schedule remains jammed with commercial projects.

"I have no plans for the future," Pytka said, when asked whether he'll become a full-time movie director. "I go day to day."

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