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Monday 20 November 2017

Not Just Red Carpets & A-listers - Ask An Angel interviews Susan Simnett, Movie Producer & Founder, Over The Fence Films

Part One: Movies and Start-Ups: Departures & Parallels

Ask An Angel: Thanks very much for joining us today Susan, I want to start by giving readers an elevator pitch description of your film production company, called ‘Over the Fence’ and also try to define your role as a film producer.

I think a lot of people might think they know what ‘Film Producer’ means, but aren't necessarily aware of all that goes on behind film production and distribution. When we’ve spoken before, I personally found it fascinating to hear about all the layers and just what a sophisticated process it is. So I'd love to be able to share that if you can explain really more about how you can describe Over the Fence, and what you do as a film producer.

Susan: Sure, I mean it is a very complex and layered process, and different people take different positions on it, as to where their strengths lie. But Over the Fence films is, from where I stand, the marriage of a financial interest with creative ideas, ones that connect with a commercial audience. In terms of the nature of what I do, it's very much a world of freelancers and what's interesting to me is how you basically curate your own team for the perfect storm that becomes each production. Then onto the next production, where you create another team, often with different skill sets or different people, but  some of them are continuous throughout.

AAA:   Okay, so it sounds like there's quite an interesting segue and some comparisons, but also some important differences from your experience as an angel. I should point out to listeners as well, that we're both part of Angel Academe, which is a syndicate dedicated to bringing on more female investors and more female founders in business. So how did your journey into this film area start? Did you always have contacts here and you just moved into it from being an angel? How did you get into this?

Susan: Not at all, my background is in advertising, which I didn't realise at the time actually developed a very useful skill set for film production. But I've always had an eye on business opportunities and I find it very hard to resist something that's an attractive proposition. That's taken me through the world of investments, property, classic cars and finally, and irresistibly into the world of film.

AAA:   Well you sound like, I think the phrase that people use is, a serial entrepreneur really. I often tell people there's quite a lot of crossover between Angel Investing and  entrepreneurship . So you sound like you're a classic example, maybe more of an entrepreneur even than an investor, but certainly combining both of those roles.

Susan: I think also just having a foot in both worlds is that meeting other entrepreneurs who are ambitious, driven, positive, creates a really strong backdrop for doing your own thing as well. You know, whether you're on the investment side or on the entrepreneur side. It's a very healthy environment to be in.

AAA:    Yeah, I would echo that. I find the exposure to both investors and entrepreneurs absolutely fascinating; intellectually and creatively it's a really phenomenal package of things going on. I find it really fascinating as well, even beyond the financial payoffs and so on. The networking and the.. just the social fun of the groups is just tremendous, I think.

Susan: Well you know the film industry can be very, very slow on a project by project basis, and sometimes people who've been doing it for many, many years can get quite jaded or cynical. So having a foot in a few other camps helps keep it fresh.

AAA:   Yeah, that sounds very sensible. So could you give us; this might be a big ask, but could you give a sense of how any one film might be financed and packaged? I mean if there's any kind of template, one of the sort of slightly simpler models? I'm sure these can go as complex as one likes. Could you just give us an example of some of the layers that are involved?

 Susan: Sure, I mean no two film stories are the same, because each has a different backdrop. But in the UK there are some key elements that come into play in terms of finance. One is the film tax relief, then there's obviously an equity investment, there's soft money, which basically often comes from lottery funding and the BFI or other regional funds. Another source is pre-sales, where the film is actually sold in advance of it being made, and you can cash flow that. Then there's an element of gap finance too.

AAA: Okay.

Susan: What would happen is basically in its simplest form, a sales agent would be working with you and provide a guidance to the potential value in the market place of the project. Based on storyline, cast and director. Then, really it's a balancing act to create the optimum value across all the elements and generate the best return for investors.

AAA:    Okay, and I suppose one could draw at least some superficial analogies to other start ups really, although I suppose in a sense it's a wasting package because you're there to create a lasting thing, which is ultimately the actual production or the film. But in a sense up to that point it's a series of ideas in motion, and finance packages. Is the producer sort of the orchestra leader of all this? I mean how does a producer become attached to a production? How do these groups get built together?

Susan: I like the idea of being a conductor in an orchestra. Yes, I mean there are ... I hear the cry from many writer/directors saying, "I'm a writer director and a reluctant producer." Because at the end of the day a producer tends to be the person that brings it all together, that does literally orchestrate all the elements and has a vision of where and what they want to produce at the end of the day.

 AAA: So it sounds a bit like a classic marriage that one sees in many areas, between the idea generators or 'creatives'; I don't really like that term, because I think finance and marketing, well not just marketing, can be just as creative as the so called ‘creative’ process. As someone who used to be on the other side as it were. But it's in a sense it's a classic marriage between the kind of 'creative' and the 'commercial', so you could perhaps use that as a segue to compare the two. Do you see a lot of comparison between that UK model and the US? I think we see crossovers in terms of actors working in the US and working in Hollywood, and US celebrities and so on in the UK. Or are the models a little bit different? Or is it a sense of scale?

Susan: It's a very global business in the sense that you talk about, but there are one of the key differences is In the US you don't get the kind of soft money that you get here with the sort of BFI involvement. It's much, much harder on equity, and also obviously they don't have the EIS scheme that drives a lot of business here in the UK.

AAA:    So does that mean that there's some parallels if you like between ... In the US I tend to think of sort of a lot of the money around start ups as being VC's and that's not necessarily private money. Although there are Angel Investors in the US as well, but it's kind of pooled 'other peoples money' in the US quite frequently. Whereas the UK has this, does have, this culture of Angel Investing and it sounds a little bit like that might be the way that at least a proportion of film funding comes from. You have this soft money, this grant money, and what sounds like kind of angel money as well in the UK, and in the US it's a little bit more corporate. A little bit more analogical to kind of VC's, is that fair? Or have I kind of got that wrong?

Susan: No, I think that is fair, the Angel Investment avenues in the UK are hard for film, but they are there.

AAA: Yeah, I mean like I said that brings to mind two things really. I think do you find as a producer your sort of seeing a lot of pitches from writer producers? Or are you ending up doing loads and loads of pitches yourself for the films that you're involved in?

Susan: As a producer you're always pitching, and you're always being pitched to because any writer is consistently hoping for people to option their script, or bring it to life. Whether that's by attaching a director or finding a producer who can raise the money.

AAA: Yeah, and I guess those pitches are as pivotal as they can be for many start ups. If you get good at that, and if you're successful it can be literally the difference between success and failure,  good pitches to someone significant can completely change the whole trajectory of a production I guess.

Susan: Oh totally, but it's like most things, it's pitching the right people at the right time.
If you go in too early, particularly because raising finance for a film is just one big series of plate spinning. If you don't have enough plates spinning when you're pitching to certain people then they're not interested. So you kind of have to have some key elements in place to talk to certain levels.

AAA: Yeah, okay, that's very, very interesting. So in terms of your role in US based or UK based production, are productions getting cheaper? Or is the range of costs around any individual production kind of extending downwards as well as presumably in theory upwards? Is there a kind of base price of a production with technology changing much at the moment?

Susan: You can make a film for 20,000 pounds; you can make a film for 200 million. I think the biggest change obviously is the availability of digital. In 35 mm, the initial investment cost was huge, whereas now you can make a film on your iPhone, there's Sean Baker who's just released 'The Florida Project'. He shot an earlier film called 'Tangerine' on his iPhone, and that became a break out film from Sundance.

AAA: Yeah, it's extraordinary, I guess with the newer phones the technical quality of them is growing, improving all the time. Even the sound quality with certain plug-ins begins to approach the lower levels of professional equipment, which is extraordinary for a phone that can be sub 500 dollars, sub 1000 dollars really. There can be a pay off for that kind of immediacy of an iPhone, we've seen that in other media as well. In stills photography where there was a trend towards reportage, and it's almost the slight imperfections that can be attractive in a world where everything is kind of CGI'd and hugely produced I suppose, in a creative sense.

Susan: Yes and at the end of the day it all comes down to the story, and if the story you're telling is relevant and you're doing it in an innovative and creative way that engages with your audience, then it doesn't matter so much whether it cost 100 million or one million. I think though in terms of cost, the big issue now is making sure that what you spend on the film allows it to be saleable and recoupable.

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