With the new Candle & Bell website newly launched and I realised that it’s been an awful long time since I posted about the personal journey of running Candle & Bell.
I wanted to take a moment to talk about the last six years in an honest and frank way. If you scroll down the blog you’ll see lots of posts about awards, film festivals and new productions. What you won’t see are posts about the many times we haven’t received funding, or the times when a project was developed but just didn’t come off the ground. No one likes to talk about or read about rejection or failure, in this industry you’re meant to not take things personally, shrug it off and keep going. Good advice, but difficult advice to follow. In the spirit of honesty, here are a few pieces of wisdom I have acquired over the years.
The reason I started up Candle & Bell was because I had nowhere to go – nowhere was employing producers, nowhere was making the cinema I wanted to produce and if they’re being honest, no one really saw much potential in me. I know this because some people actually told me that I could never be a producer. The most important part of the last six years has always been a daily renewal of my commitment to be a producer, and hopefully one day, a great producer. In a career that has somehow lasted 17 years, I have learned that the only person who is invested in your career is yourself. There are people who can mentor you, but no one else is going to live with your career, you have to want it, and put the time and energy into it, and that is really the only way to ensure you achieve the things you want to. Finding the courage to start up my own business and surviving for 6 years has given me a huge amount of confidence in myself and a sense of agency, but a lot of time it still feels like I’ve jumped off a cliff and I’m assembling the parachute on the way down.
Running a business is about good habits and good networks
A lot of my energy goes into running the business – not doing creative things. Being your own boss is great, but a lot of the time it means you have to deal with clients, accountants, lawyers, VAT returns and financial forecasts. It’s important to get into good habits and formulate a schedule, otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed by admin tasks and neglect your creative development. I keep certain days of the week allocated to doing admin tasks and others are purely about developing creative skills, meeting people and researching ideas.
Recently I went through a long period of just making things – videos, films – and not being part of the industry. This past year I have pushed myself to attend more festivals and networking events, and although they are tiring, they have motivated me to keep developing ideas and working to get films and videos off the ground. It took me a while to figure out which networks of people I would fit into, but it’s worth trying all sorts – from festivals to more formal business gatherings – as they provide a sort of sustenance and keep you engaged with the wider industry.
People are great
The only reason I’ve been able to make all the things I have in the last six years, is because I have worked with some incredibly talented people who inspired me and brought out the best in me. I haven’t got every decision right, and I have at times worked with people I would rather have not. Going back to my earlier paragraph about investing in yourself, remember that in this industry, you are only going to be successful if you work well with people, and that means investing in and surrounding yourself with people who share your ambition and values. I honestly believe that people who are team players are the ones who succeed. I will also end with the caveat that some relationships don’t work out and you should never be afraid to walk away from a collaboration with whatever dignity you can muster.
Develop a style
When I first started the business, I was convinced I had to take every bit of work that came my way. Nowadays I am far more selective, I won’t work for anything below my stipulated rates and I am very focused on developing a style of service and video rather than churning out a high volume of work. I am working with a pool of clients whose work I find genuinely interesting and inspiring to film, which means I do better work. Running a business is all about adapting to changing markets, clients and your own life; so creating an approach that can work within those parameters is, in my opinion, the best way to find success. I find I am my biggest critic when it comes to any of my work – video or film production. I have learned not to let the disappointments get me down, but rather look for the opportunity in them – opportunity to learn, opportunity to figure out another approach or tactic and more importantly an opportunity not to make the same mistakes in the future. Developing a video production style has also helped me develop as a film producer and helped me figure out what filmmakers I want to work with and what cinema I want to make. The scattergun approach is well and truly gone and I find the work I do is now more meaningful and fruitful.
When I first founded Candle & Bell I spent an awful lot of energy reading success stories about people who were the future of the business world. I remember feeling totally inadequate after reading an article about Elizabeth Holmes (who later turned out to be a massive fraud). Six years on I don’t believe a single ‘over-night’ success story, and I don’t care if I don’t rank number 1 on google and I don’t do competition research. I think it’s important to stay focused on your own journey – why YOU decided to start your own company, why you do what you do. I try my best to help new filmmaking talent develop rather than shut them out, the way I was shut out. There are a lot of cynical business owners out there but I am too wrapped up in my own vision for Candle & Bell and what I want to achieve to give them much thought. I think a nurturing, welcoming business / creative community is a far better thing to be a part of, and that is what I hope to offer people.
Repeat and repeat again
I think a lot of new producers don’t talk about how daunting it can be to have ten thousand or forty thousand pounds is sitting in your bank account for the first time, knowing it has been entrusted to you to deliver a short film. I have seen people crumble under the pressure of having to deliver a short film to a film fund and it’s always a shame to see. I was lucky that the first few films I produced were privately funded or had monies raised through crowdfunding. The budgets were so low I never felt the pressure of being responsible for the money, I was able to make decisions with a clear head and learn about producing, not worrying about a film fund. I think too much pressure is put on filmmakers to be an instant success, that we forget we are allowed to learn along the way and make mistakes. The fact that I have produced 11 short films with budgets ranging from £800 to £42,000 is the reason I am able to produce feature films. Similarly, with making videos for clients, I have made lots and lots of videos that I now feel very comfortable stepping into video production no matter what the budget. I have learned that there is tremendous value in taking the time to become good at something, to being so committed to it that every day is about feeding your love for it and improving yourself. There is only one way to become a master of something and that is to practice and practice and practice some more.
If there was one thing I wish people taught on business courses and at film school, then resilience would be it. Running a business means you can’t really call in sick or have an off day. Employees look to you for guidance and you have to have the solutions, even when something in your personal life is hurting you, or if the day just isn’t going your way. Taking mental health seriously, knowing when you need help and knowing how to manage difficult situations is only something you learn over time but you will also find people who can help you and share the load with you - find these people and support each other.
I am now in my seventh year as a business owner and while I will sometimes indulge myself and congratulate myself with what I have achieved, I know that I am very far away from my ultimate goals and what I want my career to be. I have at times gotten side tracked and I’ve had to grin through big disappointments, but I don’t feel that I am in anyway less in love with cinema, and less committed to having a career as a creative producer. I suppose that is what the entrepreneurial journey is about – finding ways to do what you love with people who inspire you. Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the personal struggles I have experienced in the last couple of years. I can honestly say that as big as my disillusionment about the world has been, the darkness has been exceeded by the friendships I have made through filmmaking and the work that continues to inspire me. We live in a complicated and angry world at the moment, but in it all cinema and art continue to give the marginalised, disenfranchised and invisible a chance to be visible and have their stories heard; and I am more and more convinced that dedicating my life to telling those stories is the best thing I can do with it.