Words and interview by Simon Bland
When starting a creative business there’s plenty of things to consider and rarely enough time to consider them. From understanding the trends rippling through your chosen sector, to navigating the various funding opportunities required to help you achieve lasting success – creatives are often required to wear multiple hats, keep numerous plates spinning and somehow find time for sleep, all while pouring every last drop of time and creative energy to an uncertain endeavor. Needless to say, it’s not for the faint hearted.
However what if there were a few key points that could help streamline the process and boost your chances of making it? It’s this type of cheat-sheet advice that educator, producer and film finance expert Angus Finney was invited to share during a recent digital Screen Growth seminar as part of Creative England’s ongoing programme to help creative businesses level-up.
Throughout his decades-long career, Finney has authored books on film business, acted as Director of Renaissance Films and worked as Project Manager for the Film London Production Finance Market. What’s more, his experience as a film producer and practical knowledge of film cash-flow has equipped him with integral insight on how those starting out in the film industry can better prepare themselves for success. While the advice Finney shared during his workshop can be applied to a range of sectors, it’s particularly valuable for those looking to start a film-based career and even boils down to a few key take-away points.
For people looking to start their own business, Finney first suggests a quick sense-check to discover what you already know and more importantly, what you need to find out. “The crucial thing for anyone embarking on setting up their own company is to ask themselves how much do I know about the industry, what do I need to learn and who do I need to work with that can teach me what I don’t know?” he tells us. “None of us know everything and setting up a company is really demanding. It’s something I ask myself whenever I go to a new business as an Executive Producer,” he reveals. “How much do I know? Can I help?’ It’s really asking people to stand back instead of rushing forward.”
After taking stock of your knowledge-base, Finney then suggests asking yourself whether starting a company is even the right path for you. As a producer or someone looking to sell projects to big-name distributors, the hefty process of getting a business off the ground can be exhausting – and one that’s not always necessary. “There’s a difference between being genuinely entrepreneurial, business orientated and wanting to grow a company, and simply dabbling with a small or medium-sized enterprise where you might just as easily do that as a self-employed writer, director or producer,” reasons Finney. “Unless you’re really dedicated and committed to being a producer, then a company probably isn’t the right route for you.”
If you’ve completed these first two tasks and decided a business is indeed what you need, then Finney says your next step should involve assessing your assets and identifying your niche. After all, with competition in the film industry (and many other screen-based sectors) continuing to rise in the wake of the pandemic, this element could be the very thing that makes or breaks your chances of breaking through. “Who’s your talent pool and how are you going to grow it?” he asks, highlighting the importance of having something that sets you apart. “We live in a time where a lot of streamers and major funders are stealing some of the established talent, so you’ve got to be really clear about where your talent is coming from.”
An awareness of trends and what type of content is selling – and why – is also crucial: “What genre or formats are you going to focus on? For example, low budget films are a nightmare market at the moment. That’s not a business, it’s a lifestyle,” admits Finney, detailing one avenue that’s currently particularly tricky to succeed in. “Having a firm understanding of the mix of content you plan on creating – but also what your key funding and financing opportunities are in order to reach distribution – are key.”
This last point is particularly worth bearing in mind, especially when popular outlets like the BBC, Film4 or the BFI are over subscribed and unable to offer support to everyone. To combat this issue, a bit of financial forecasting never fails to go amiss – particularly when navigating the staggered payment models offered by streamers and emerging outlets. According to Finney, when it comes to projects that are co-owned, outlets like Netflix are “saying to producers, ‘we’ll pay you X on delivery, then pay you Y six months later, then Z in tranches for another two years’. That’s a great example of a contract where, as a producer, you suddenly have to go out and cash-flow the contract yourself – and that’s expensive.”
Finney continues, explaining that “you have to be aware of the different pricing and payment terms in the market. To me, it’s a really important challenge for all producers trying to find the best route to production finance.” Of course, this is just one example – but with different distributors having different ways of paying for the projects they commission, having the foresight to understand your company’s cash-flow could be your saving grace. “You really need to keep your eyes wide open when it comes to dealing with Netflix, Amazon, Apple and all these types of companies,” suggests Finney. “It’s not one-size-fits-all – but it’s important for producers to be prepared for the challenge that’s coming their way when it comes to cash-flowing content.”
As for what creators can do to ensure their content is as marketable as possible? Finney has some top tips on that too, despite its often ephemeral nature. “The irony is that no one knows whether or not something’s going to be successful until it’s successful – and in a way, the audience mirrors that by not necessarily knowing what it wants to see until it sees it,” he smiles. “That puts algorithms firmly in their place when it comes to their effectiveness.” Still, there are a few active steps entrepreneurs can take: “Make sure you’re as professional as possible; look carefully at different genres and understand where the most optimum eyes and ears might be in terms of commissioning editors,” he advises.
Also, try not to be too swayed by what’s popular at any given moment – invest in the original instead: “It’s important to recognise writers and content makers who have a voice and something to say,” adds Finney. “It may be more important than trying to second guess what you think is hip. Often people are looking for something fresh, challenging and authentic rather than more of the same.”
As for what producers should be keeping an eye on in a post-pandemic world, Finney points readers towards the evolving advertising video-on-demand market – an area that has seen catalytic growth in the wake of numerous lockdowns. “Think about the generations that are changing and how much access to cash they’ve got – not a lot,” he points out. “They don’t love being tied to subscriptions but if they can find something for free that has quality and is meaningful, they’ll take it. The advertising VOD model and social media fit quite well together,” he suggests. “15 to 25 year olds are incredibly digitally savvy and social-media orientated and you can see a link between VOD and where the market might be heading in the next two to three years,” says Finney. “Keeping an eye on that market is probably a very good strategy.”
You can view Angus’ workshop on Starting a Creative Business here: