The head of the NFTS producing department looks at the lessons learned in the new cross-sector creative entrepreneurship course.
Last week’s $1bn gross for the launch of the new Grand Theft Auto made front-page news, and marked another triumph for the game’s NY-based British creators, Sam and Dan Houser. (It also led to some characteristically misleading commentary — suggesting that this marked the card for ‘old’ industries like the movie business!).
But you’d have been hard pressed to find any mainstream commentary at all back in 2012, when a fresh-faced English developer by the name of James Vaughan hit the ball right out of the park with his wildly successful Plague Inc. He developed and commercialised this non-console game pretty much on his own, and it went on to make many millions; won a slew of awards; moved rapidly into non-English language markets; stayed near the top of the US games download charts for the whole of that year; and led to James speaking at medical conferences on epidemiology!
It’s a classic British story of solitary endeavour and unsung business success, delivered by a natural leader and his small and tight-knit team.
He is just one of several dozen remarkable entrepreneurs who have been visiting tutors at the NFTS this year — part of a brand new 11-month course in creative industries business training, which we set up with the support of Richard Branson, and with backing from Patrick McKenna at Ingenious. At heart, it’s a cross-media incubator for business people across the arts, where we treat all of the seven industries we cover (from film and games across to theatre, music, publishing, television and online entertainment) as absolutely equal cousins. We think it may be the first truly cross-media business course for entrepreneurs in the world.
A week ago, in front of a very lively audience at Encounters at Bristol Watershed, I had the chance to look back and share what we had learned so far, and to suggest just how much opportunity there is in this ever-more convergent world.
To kick off the discussion we looked at some of the paradoxes in each sector.
The growth of Amazon and its Kindle has had a tsunami-like impact on mainstream publishing (with titles even being sold at a loss in the price wars). But players like Canongate, Osprey, Nosy Crow and David Roche are using the web (and social media, and the smart-phone market) to build very successful direct-to-customer access – where the line between book, app, and social media is very hard to draw. And the mould-breaking autonomy of Pottermore, the online venture led by Charles Redmayne on behalf of JK Rowling, proves that even Amazon’s power has its limits.
In film, the spectacular growth of Netflix is the talk of the year. But alongside this thousand-pound gorilla sits an elegantly coiffed nymph called MUBI, offering curated streaming and social networking around movies. It’s a terrific – if less visible – independent model for the future. Michael Comish’s move with BlinkBox to Tesco (the original kingdom of customer data-mining) suggests that the digital market for film is becoming more, not less, competitive. Meantime, two established producers (Aardman and Working Title) have finally achieved household brand status – quite a neat trick.
In television, despite the triple challenge of online viewing, economic recession, and flat or falling spend from commissioners, we see viewing hours, ad revenue, and international sales all rising. Young turks like Big Talk (and Channel Flip, with its web TV model) are successfully selling themselves to big players for very serious money and greater market access..
In the world of live performance, after the crash in 2008, the Metropolitan Opera in New York lost vital sponsorship from the hedge fund industry. The drive to replace that with streamed performances to cinemas world-wide is now earning the Met tens of millions of dollars a year, and has opened up a whole new market. In fact Robert Delamere’s fast-growing British-based Digital Theatre Group now aims to become ‘the Netflix of the performing arts’, and has raised serious venture capital.
The recorded music industry may have suffered a ‘lost decade’ and dropped 60% of its revenues but Martin Mills’ Beggars Banquet (to which Adele is signed) is now the largest privately owned recorded music business in the world. Meanwhile, the re-focus on ‘live’, and the boom in music festivals, has sucked in completely new and savvy external investment (some of it from Ingenious).
And artistically, immersive theatre groups (think Shunt and Punchdrunk); new-generation street-game groups (like Slingshot or Hide and Seek); and film immersion events (the Secret Cinema franchise) are all transforming the way we think about the boundaries between live entertainment genres, between games, and theatre and cinema.
In a way, what the new EPCRI training course does is to join up these dots, harness talent and curiosity, and introduce ambitious young people to those at the cutting edge. But we also train them to plan their businesses, and we introduce them to the investment community. Out of the first year’s student group some will become business owners; others will become well-trained executives with a 360-degree view of the creative industries.
But what I did not realise when we started out, was that we were launching the initiative in the one place where such a thing really made sense – simply because at the moment the UK occupies a hub-like position in all seven of those industries. One simply cannot say the same of anywhere else in the world at the moment. As a result, when we asked entrepreneurs from each sector to contribute to the course, we were overwhelmed by the width of the response from world-class players.
Even more importantly (and this is a very promising marker for the future): most of those we approached in each industry were absolutely eager to meet their counterparts from the other disciplines -– most of whom they did not know. It was as if the silos were joining up; or as if a long hibernation was coming to an end and the arts business movers and shakers were about to start celebrating the rites of spring. Together.
Chris Auty is Head of Producing at the National Film and Television School.
Applications for the second year intake of the EPCRI entrepreneurship course close on Oct 7. More information here.