Ali A. Rizvi, Founder, What’s Next Entertainment, on running a start-up production house.
Not so long ago, I think it was an afternoon in October 2015, I was working for one of the largest media groups in Pakistan. And the two-year itch happened. This itch had happened before, but this time, it felt different and it had to be cured for good.
So I decided to branch out, not knowing what to do and in a state of mind of “what’s next?” I briefly flirted with the idea of going to the client side or doing consultancy, but I finally zeroed in on the low hanging fruit (or so it seemed sitting in an agency) – Content Production. I still remember a former colleague saying, “yaar, aaj kal tu aik pathar uthao, char producer nikaltay hain” when I was discussing my plans with him. Which was true. Because at about the same time, four individuals from agency backgrounds also started their own production houses.
It would be wrong to say that I knew what I was getting myself into, but pulling out was not an option. The production business is viewed as the underbelly of advertising and the prevailing perception is that people associated with this business are minting money. Although this may have been true a while ago, now, with so many of us in the business, the well has dried up or to put it in economical terms, the market has taken a corrective course compared to what production costs used to be when directors were providing this service. Producers are not much liked by directors since we have eaten into their pie.
My biggest challenge was to create a distinctive positioning against competing production houses and bringing more value to the table, which was not hard to do, as coming from an agency background, this part was covered. Unlike other production houses, we did not limit ourselves to providing production services; we helped translate the creative brief into the final outcome. Furthermore, having worn agency shoes, I could relate to the pressures when it comes to delivering an effective product. With a solid game plan in place, it was time to go to the market and create history in the world of production.
We were received with open arms and a lot of promises and we thought for the next couple of months, we would not even have time to scratch our heads. However, after four months, we realised promises cannot be billed. Yet one day, the unthinkable happened and a storyboard found its way to us but it came with a lacuna.
The budget was low and nobody was willing to do it at that price. Since we were desperate, we agreed. Although the project was rich in experience, it had zero effect on our bank statement. This began a phase of our working on projects with low or zero margins but ones that were potential portfolio builders. In the first year, we paid out of our own pockets for some projects, but it taught us a valuable lesson: No matter how low the budget, the client and agency will require you to deliver the stars and the moon.
Once a project is assigned, no one remembers the budget and that is when the daggers are drawn and no matter how tough the budget situation is, do not compromise on the screen quality, because a production house is only as good as it looks on the TV screen.
Once a project is assigned, no one remembers the budget and that is when the daggers are drawn and no matter how tough the budget situation is, do not compromise on the screen quality because a production house is only as good as it looks on the TV screen. Unfortunately, this is normal practice in the business and all production houses have to pay their dues by working on low-budget jobs and proving their worth. Those that pass the test of time, live to work on projects with bigger budgets; the others die the natural death that comes in trying to make a living out of nothing.
Our dreams of minting money came crashing down and to make matters worse, the DVC phenomenon caught on like fire. DVC is a poor man’s TVC; shashkay puray magar qeemat main kam. It’s like a Karan Johar’s storyboard with Syed Noor’s budget. This is why the mushroom growth in terms of small size production houses has occurred and why anyone with a DSLR camera and a degree in media sciences can land a project at 25% of the cost a large production house would quote. Although this is good for the business, it leaves much to be desired in terms of the overall production quality.
The filter that is applied to the production of digital content is completely off – and yet, just because the medium is digital, it doesn’t mean it has to be cheap. It is the concept that dictates the production cost; labels don’t. Every brand carries a certain value that should remain consistent throughout mediums; but if a brand wants to compromise on its value to save cost, so be it. Every day, we receive concepts with DVC marked on them, but which require a large-scale production. Changing the camera can save a couple of thousands; the rest stays the same. The conversation needs to move to the scale of the production required, not the title of the airing medium.
My normal work day ranges from calm to chaotic. Not very different from agency life, except that with production, the impatience level is at its peak. “Bus jaldi dey dain. On-air karna hai fori.” There is nothing wrong with fori, but the burning question is why? If it is for a March 23rd TVC, does the wakeup call happen on March 10th? It’s like being calm and careful throughout a pregnancy and then rushing the doctor to deliver. The litmus test for a production house is to deliver in crunch timelines, which does happen, but at the expense of certain calls being taken. But why do that? In my experience, the best commercials are those that are executed with timely prep and proper planning (the decisive factor in creating a well-made and impactful TVC).
The local production crew, in terms of capable directors, DOPs, lighting, makeup and styling, has made significant progress, but there is still a vast difference between veterans and freshmen and it will take time and exposure to build a wider pool of equal talent all round. Only then will there be lesser dependency on shooting in Thailand, Turkey, Poland or other exotic locations. I don’t know why people think we travel to these countries because we want a client-paid vacation. No. We go there purely to work and because of the lack of the right technical equipment here (dobara mat poochna).
I enjoy this creative space because it gives me the freedom to think and speak my mind. Surprisingly, clients are more open to the input of a production house than they are of their creative agency – but that is a separate debate.
Now, what’s next?
Ali A. Rizvi is CEO & Founder, What’s Next Entertainment. firstname.lastname@example.org