A frequent flier, Scott Zabielski faces a common dilemma. He’s 6 feet 3 inches tall, which means that squeezing his lanky frame into economy airline seats, crammed against other passengers, can be a challenge.
So he came up with a scheme particularly for budget carriers that let you pick your own seat. It involves claiming a spot on the aisle and committing to any means necessary to keep the middle seat empty. “There’s never any leg room on the plane,” said Zabielski, 35. “My idea is what would you do if you had no shame and were totally obnoxious. What would that look like?”
Trimming your toe nails and letting the clippings fall to the airplane floor, for instance. Flossing your teeth.
Pretending you have a quarantine-worthy infectious disease, complete with fake sneezes spewing droplets onto nearby passengers.
As it turns out, it’s a winning strategy worthy of a million bucks. Zabielski, who spent much of his high school years at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, Va., and is now a California-based television director and producer, took the grand prize in the 2015 Doritos Super Bowl advertisement contest for his 30-second comical sketch, “Middle Seat.”
It aired during the Super Bowl last Sunday, one of the coveted breaks that some people watch more closely than the game. The main character in the skit employs a slew of ruses to keep the precious real estate next to him vacant, such as blowing spasmodically into a recorder to emit shrieking whistles.
The plan works flawlessly until he glimpses a doe-eyed blonde in the crowded aisle on the prowl for a seatmate. His conniving expression reads: Jackpot!
He hints that the middle seat is available and uses a bag of Doritos as enticement. She smiles appreciatively in return. Then reality hits: a passenger ahead of her moves away to reveal she’s got a squirmy, whimpering infant in her arms.
The ad was a home-grown idea with a home-grown budget: It cost $2,000 to produce and took just four hours to shoot. It topped 4,900 other entries, and the return on investment was, well, sky high.
Zabielski credits his success to the years he attended the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet program in Fairfax County that is considered one of the top-ranked schools in the country. A Chicago native, Zabielski spent his teen years in Oakton, Va.
“I was a science and tech kid,” Zabielski said. “But I always knew I wanted to make television shows and movies for a living.”
His mentor at TJ, as the school is known, was Ed Montgomery, a 24-year Fairfax veteran who oversaw the school’s video technology and media lab. “You know it’s fun when you have a good teacher along the way and you do something that makes them proud,” Zabielski said.
Montgomery calls his one-time protege “the guy who pulled down a million dollars in one night.” “He had an eye for creating things that people would watch,” said Montgomery, who retired in 2011.
He helped Zabielski learn the basics of digital video editing on what in the mid-1990s was cutting-edge software known as Video Toaster. In Zabielski’s winning commercial, Montgomery noticed his former student’s signature handiwork, such as the use of lighting to make the lead female character appear to glow on screen and the story’s twist ending.
“When he sees the girl and when he sees the baby, that disappointing, quirky facial expression, that kind of sells it right there,” Montgomery said. “I think a lot of guys can relate to that at one point or another.”
Zabielski later graduated from the University of Southern California’s school of cinematic arts and got his start in Hollywood as an editor, using the skills he learned in Montgomery’s class.
Early on, he landed a gig editing a pilot for a television series starring the comedian Daniel Tosh. There, Zabielski has risen to become the director and executive producer of Tosh’s popular Comedy Central show, Tosh.0. “I’m not a stand-up or sketch comedy guy,” Zabielski said. “My experience is behind the camera. My editing background helps when you’re directing because you already know what shots I’d need and what shots I don’t.”
Recently seeking a new outlet for his creativity, Zabielski began expressing interest in commercials, speaking to colleagues about the possibilities.
“Their answer was, ‘We love what you do in television, but we can’t hire you until you know how to tell a story in 30 seconds,’” Zabielski said. So he decided to make his first commercial on his own budget, calling in favors to get bargain rates on equipment and the airplane set.
Zabielski said he learned about the Doritos competition days before the final deadline and submitted the ad on a lark. He now plans to pursue a career in feature films. “I thought I might as well enter it,” said Zabielski, who also secured a year-long contract with Universal Pictures as part of the grand prize. “So it worked out okay.”
Ram Krishnan, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Frito-Lay North America, said the video was a natural match for the Doritos product. “‘Middle Seat” is such a great ad — not only does it fit perfectly with what Doritos is all about, it’s relatable, brings a smile to our consumers and clearly resonates on a global scale — exactly what you look for in a Super Bowl spot,” Krishnan said.
Zabielski said he lucked out with the cast. The main actors — David Hoffman, a Groundlings improv troupe member, and Michelle LaRue, also a USC alum who was on the school’s “Song Girls” cheerleading squad — were friends of friends in the business and worked for free.
At the last minute, Zabielski said he realized he was missing one critical role: the baby. Securing an actor to play the part, Zabielski said, required negotiating with a tough agent — his wife — as he sought her permission to enlist the help of their 13-month-old son, Jack.
“My wife and I agreed that he wasn’t going to be one of those Hollywood kids that someday ends up having a reality show, so we were never going to put him on TV,” Zabielski said. “Once I realized I needed a baby on short notice, I convinced her to give me a one-time exception. She said okay, but only because this is only for a contest and no one will actually ever see it. And of course, now it’s been seen by 150 million people around the world.”
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.