The Making of a Film Company
In the middle of the recession, popular director-producer partnership, Mike Oldershaw and Johnny Blick, started up their own company Waitemata Films.
With an emphasis on right timing, quality of work and keeping it simple, they've had a record year. In the interest of 'how freelancers and freelance companies can succeed', Ande Schurr interviewed them in their Ponsonby office.
Why did you break away from a successful career at a widely respected New Zealand TVC [Television Commercial] company?
Mike: It was just time to do our own thing and we wanted our own company.
Johnny: I think we were growing as people on a personal level. I’d just turned 40 and Mike’s not too far off…
Johnny: …not too far off from 50…and I think that priorities change and you start to ask yourself questions. I asked myself “is this it for the next 15 years, am I sitting here working for someone else or am I going to achieve the goals and aspirations that I’ve always had” – and when is a good time to do that.
It’s like having a baby. There isn’t a good time; you just have to do it. There’s no good time to have a child, you’d always like to have a bigger house, more money, less debt, more stability, but if you waited till you had all of that you’d be too late.
The aspiration was always to own and run my own company the way I wanted it done – with the culture, headspace, style and type of people it attracted and kind of work it did. When you’re working under the umbrella of someone else’s gig, you’re part of that. It was time for something fresh.
Mike: It was time to take that risk.
What kind of risk did you take? Did you invest a lot of money?
Johnny: Not really, we put a bit of money in. The real risk is that people will forget about you. There are some big companies that have been established for a long time and the fear is, that when people have a job, they will go “we do three quotes – let’s go to Automatic, Film Construction and Curious “– or Robber’s Dog for example or whatever is an established company. If you’re on your own then they may forget that you exist. So that was the fear. We knew that if we were to go out on our own then everyone had to know and we’d have to remind them a lot that we’re still around, but just doing our own thing. That fear has never been realised fortunately.
What did you do so that you didn’t come out stillborn?
Johnny: We were quite conscious to begin with about press releases and making use of the internet and StopPress and Campaign Brief. We sent out t-shirts and hoodies to creative directors and executive creative directors and all the important people and the people we like really.
Mike: Not to say that if you didn’t get a t-shirt then we don’t like you. It was the senior creative teams and directors because if those guys wear a t-shirt with your name on it, it carries a little bit of weight I guess.
Johnny: It wasn’t like “OK, next week we’re going out on our own”. You have to wait, I think, until you know you enough contacts and networking and still bring in those scripts anyway
Mike: And a strong enough show-reel.
Johnny: Yes, and you have to be very clear about what you do – what your brand is, what your identity is, what your niche is in the market. You don’t want to be saying “we’ll do whatever” because then people go, “Will he be right for that? He does a bit of this and a bit of that” and I don’t think there’s any benefit being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. But what you do, do well and make sure people know what that is.
In your case, what do you do well?
Mike: It found us really. It is definitely talent-based, performance-based scripts; comedy with a quite 'New Zealandie' flavor. Kiwiana dry comedy seems to be what we get. That is not what I set out to be a director of, but it found us. We’d done a lot of work before, then we did L&P, and Fisher and Paykel and some Josh and Jamie stuff – they do great NZ comedy...
Johnny: …and the quality of the scripts they write are really strong so people see us doing that sort of work and they give you another script like that. So suddenly it snowballs – you get one, two, three and then that is what you do. They have defined you. We are both kiwi blokes and ex-actors so we both like working on performance-based stuff - it’s what we know, and we have a pretty decent sense of humour so I guess you go “that fits us because that’s what we are”.
How important is timing in leaving a company and starting your own business?
Johnny: It is very important. I think you need to have done some high-profile work that people are aware of and who you are. We’d done L&P about a year before we left and that got noticed by people and was quite different because it was web-based, then we did the Fisher & Paykel job that was spoken about quite nicely, then we did Josh and Jamie’s NZ Diary job which we flew around the world to do. So we had this quality of work and they were all quite well regarded jobs and noticed within the industry. At that point we kind of proved we could do decent sized jobs and we had a niche and style to what we did. I think that was probably as good a time as any to start fresh.
Mike: Josh and Jamie was a new agency and good at promoting themselves. The job turned out good. Then we came back and it was on-air and we announced that we were starting our own company. So it was a timing thing.
If we’d tried to do this a year earlier we wouldn’t be doing as well as we are. Because we wouldn’t have got some of the scripts we got.
So timing is crucial – not in the sense of “it’s a recession, don’t start a company” - but it was making sure your reel is strong enough and your profile is high enough so when you do start a new company people are interested in it. If you haven’t done a lot of work and you start a new company people don’t care.
Johnny: Mike and I have watched a few people who left companies to start their own and die.
Mike: Then you watch others who have been a huge success - such as Adam and Chris and guys like that from Robbers Dog. I remember sitting there thinking, “man, those guys have nailed it”.
Johnny: Leave wherever you are while you’re on the way up.
Was it hard winning the trust of agencies in your new formation or easy because they were interested in you rather than the company you worked for?
Johnny: That’s the question that you have to ask yourself: do we get the work because of us or because of the film company we’re at. For us personally we asked ourselves “if we set up our own space, would we still get the work” and we decided we would still get it.
Mike: Most film companies, I’m sure, work the same way – when you start out you might get the hand-me-down jobs of a more senior director who doesn’t want to do it - but once you’ve done a few jobs…
The jobs we were getting when we were at Automatic were coming to us saying, “Can you guys come down for a meeting – we want you and Mike to look at this”.
Johnny: The same thing is happening with Paolo Rotondo who is doing his second job now and his third next month because they trust us. As a director on the way up, he has the support of Mike and me and the company and it’s important for him to have those people behind him so he will be entrusted with a script. That’s how a young director gets a start.
Was it more or less work than you thought setting up a production company?
Johnny: Less actually. I’m quite pessimistic, I think that no one’s going to ring us, we’re never going to get another job, setting it up is going to be this enormous momentous thing that will take forever but when you do it...
We’ve purposely set up the company to work for us so we can do what jobs we want to do and are not tied down by massive overheads and employees needing to be paid every week. I think those days of running a film company like that are nearly over. We purposely set up the company so it didn’t tie us down and leave us lying awake at night wondering how we were going to afford stuff.
Our business philosophy has always been 'we like what we do'. That’s important for us that we have a company that is enjoyable to be a part of whether you’re a crew member who comes in for a one day shoot or if it’s us coming day in day out.
Mike: Because we have low overheads we can put the money on screen and if we want to have this camera instead of that camera we’ll have that camera because we believe in the job and we want to put it on our show reel. We don’t have the millstone around our neck making us shoot on a cheaper camera because we have the pay the Director’s Assistant next week.
How do you deal with the financial side of the business?
Johnny: We ignore it completely and somehow there seems to be at least ten bucks in the bank.
Mike: We split everything 50/50. Johnny as the producer looks after the money job by job then we have an accounts person who comes on at the end of each job and works out what our profit was at the end, what’s left over, what did we spend, what’s going to come out in the month to come and what’s going to be left over in the end. So we go “let’s take some and leave some in the company”. It’s pretty basic.
Johnny: Like the company, we’ve tried to keep the finances as simple as possible too. If the client pays us on time then we pay out the crew as quickly as we can. It doesn’t always happen but we’ve been lucky somehow.
Mike: It would have been problematic in the first few jobs - that was quite worrying because you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars owing that we don’t personally have and we were kind of like “I hope they pay” and luckily we didn’t have problems and then we had cash flow if things were late.
Mike: The bottom line is we don’t pay ourselves until all the money has come in and all the money has gone out – and that could be two months after the job.
I know how quickly overtime can descend upon a shoot which is such a conundrum! How do you deal with that?
Johnny: It’s a real grey area. No agency wants to pay overtime. They don’t actually understand that a ten hour shooting day is minus 45 minutes for lunch, minus trucks door to door, minus setting up all the lights and camera gear so actual shooting time ends up being six hours maybe. And you’ve got to shoot one thirty second, two thirty second or four fifteen seconders in two different houses. If it’s our issue then it’s our cost and there’s nothing you can do about it. If the crew is a bit slow or that light takes ten minutes longer to put up or the actor is a bit slow out of his wardrobe, whatever it is, it’s nobody else’s cost except for ours.
Mike: The only time agency will help out is if it’s because of them…
Johnny: …if they decide to go back and re-shoot something that we’ve already moved on from. We may have shot the close up, said “happy with that?” and they’ve said “yes” and we’ve moved on and then they say, “We want to do the close up again”.
Overtime is an awkward conversation to have and often it’s not worth having because it’s just “let’s just put our head down and get through the day as quickly as we can and minimise the damage”.
What problems do you have as a business– or is it just keeping the money flowing in?
Mike: Starting in September last year, this is the busiest run of work we’ve ever had by a long shot so it’s not the money. The worry is more “will I get a chance to look at that or will I get a chance to pitch on that or quote on that” or “why aren’t I looking at that script - that’s right up my alley”. So I worry about the creative side and raising ourselves up.
Johnny: It’s not just me that handles the money but it’s Mike as well because he owns half the company. If he decides to shoot ten hours of overtime then it’s coming out of our pockets. Decisions are made jointly erring with more on screen than in our pocket. You can hire a crewmember who might be $500 a day but the top person in that field might be $600 per day. To me, that extra $10 per hour for the day, I’d get the best person. There’s a false economy in getting people who aren’t necessarily the best in what they do but they’ll cost you more in the long run.
Hiring really good people, giving them as much as you can afford to goes a long way because the next job, when you desperately need a favour, you can call on the best people to help you out. Mike and I are quite loyal to a lot of our crew members, we like the team that we work with regularly because they’re really good at what they do and they make us look good.
Mike: Because we get asked by agencies, who’ve been loyal to us, “we have this charity job, we don’t have enough money to make it but we’d love you guys to do it” and we are like “we have to look after these people because they’ve been good to us” and so we ask the same of the crew, “we’ve given you lots of work and so can you come and help us out on this one”.
Let’s say you have no work. What do you do?
Johnny: Go home.
Mike: I’d go home too. We’ve just been through a lot of work. But if we hadn’t had work for a while we’d be on the phone hustling and spending money actually. You have to take people out for lunch, try to get some relationships going. - the people you’ve worked with before especially, “what are you guys doing” etc. You need to get back into their headspace. Or emailing people, “Hey did you just see this job I’ve done” and sending that off. It’s not cold calling because it’s usually with people you know quite well. Thankfully that list has grown. We don’t say, “Give me a job” but it’s more like “why don’t we take you guys out for lunch on Friday and have a beer and a chat” and who knows, hopefully a script comes in when they think of you again.
It was a quiet start to the year, January-February and even into March. We were working our arses off trying to get work so it was “what are you going to do – I’m going to do this”, “you get in touch with so and so, I’ll talk to so and so”, “on Friday, let’s take so and so to lunch”. So we were spending money for sure and you have to do that.
I like how you guys are on exactly the same page. That must be a relief?
Mike: I think we’re on the same page personally too – we find the same things funny, and we find the same actors good. If I do my casting and cut them down to the top 3 and play it to Johnny he’ll go “he’s the guy” and it will always be the same person I think. So I’m not doing something that Johnny is questioning.
Johnny: we put care into how we go about creating our brand. We thought long and hard about our company name and logo. Was it going to be named after us or after something random or a location-based name. Waitemata came about because we’d had a string of kiwi based comedy commercials and it was such an iconic name particular for the Auckland area – you’ve got the ale, the harbour out our window and it’s one of those names that is synonymous with this part of the country.
Mike: It wasn’t one of those names I’d ever have thought I’d go for but it was our focus puller, Grubby, on the around the world Dairy job. We had been flying about all over the place and thinking about names and trying to come up with something and as we were flying into Auckland we just looked out the window and he said to Johnny “what about Waitemata” and Johnny told me and I went “yeah, brilliant”.
In one year and five years from now where do you see Waitemata Films?
Johnny: We want to grow a little bit more, not a lot more. We’d like to have another director-producer team before the year is up. That’s as big as we want to be.
Mike: Yes, three teams would be good. We’ve got us working, we’ve got Paolo and Caroline up and coming and another established team would be something we’d like.
Johnny: We are growing in a shrinking market. Budgets are not what they used to be. We don’t have aspirations to be a Silver Screen.
Mike: In five years we want to be one of those companies that everyone thinks about. It would be nice to having someone in Australia representing and touting us and in other countries. The boutique ness of the company and the smallness and good quality is the way to go. If we grew too big then the philosophy of trying to keep the money on screen would have to change as well because we’d have a beast to feed.
Johnny: It would be nice to maintain the simplicity of what we are but looking at international work.
Do you mean you’d like to do line production?
Johnny: I don’t want to do line production, we just want someone in New York to send us a script and say ‘come to Manhattan next week!”
Mike: I think forming relationships with other companies is a good way to go. We are still Waitemata Films but me as a director might still be on the books for this company in this country and that company in that country. Yet I think the local thing is really important.
Johnny: if we started to do line production then our local work would suffer. We’re busy enough as it is. By the time we run the company, think about the next marketing or press release or whatever that will be, quoting the jobs, doing the jobs, editing the jobs, and get home and be a dad, a husband and have a weekend off - that’s all there’s time in my life for. A big commercial shoot is all encompassing. You can’t be doing two at the same time. Sometimes you can do two smaller jobs at once. Casting, meetings, locations take all the hours of the day.
Mike: I'd prefer to do one job really well than two jobs half-arsed.
Further info: Waitemata Films