MEDIA CFO — Episode 003 — Guirec van Slingelandt of Volterra Group talks to Tobias Jaeger about starting out as talent agent and building a group of media companies
We sat down with Volterra Group partner Guirec van Slingelandt to talk about getting started as a talent agent, making the shift to media entrepreneur and how to stay effective and efficient building 5 companies with two partners.
Guirec van Slingelandt is a partner in Amsterdam based Volterra Group. Guirec started his career as talent agent and over the years, together with his business partners Daniel Koefoed and Anne-Paul Houwen, built a group of media companies ranging from talent agency Montecatini, film packaging firm European Film Company, production company Pellicola, film finance company Global Film Partners, as well as musical financing and production company.
There was a time where I didn’t have a private life. I didn’t have a wife and kids, like I have now, so I had all the time in the world, and so I worked 24/7. The phone was on, I was in the theater, I was watching movies, I was doing negotiations with television studios, but I had a boss at that time who managed me and said, “Listen, you have to go and do exercise before you come to work. So you have to go to the gym before you come to work, because you have to stay healthy. I don’t want to lose you.”. That was really good.
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Tobias: Welcome to the program, Guirec. Fantastic to have you here.
Guirec van Slingelandt: Thank you very much.
TJ: In the intro, we heard a lot of Italian names from the company, so one might actually assume you’re Italian and not Dutch.
GvS: It’s not me, but it’s my partner, Daniel, who has an Italian background, and he started the first company, which was a talent agency in Montecatini, a place where his family owns a house. So that’s where the first Italian name of the company came from, and then we started working it out on different companies.
TJ: You were like, “Let’s continue the tradition.”
GvS: Exactly, exactly. Yeah.
TJ: “Let’s give them all Italian names.”
GvS: It’s good. It sounds a bit mafia-like.
TJ: It definitely sounds very suave, so I think you guys did a good job. So you were mentioning you started with the talent agency. What kind of came next? How did this become a group, basically?
GvS: Yeah, so 20 years ago, two partners of mine started Montecatini Talent Agency. It was an agency that represents actors, presenters, singers, directors, et cetera. And we also had a marketing company that helped out a little bit, Theatrical Productions. Then while we were representing the guys in the creative industry, there were a lot of ideas coming our way. Not only from the guys that we represented, but also we were in the business and we said to ourselves, “Listen, we need to broaden the spectrum a little bit and get into production, as well, so that we not only can help our own talent that we represent to new work,” but it was a creative challenge for us, as well.
TJ: I see, okay. So it was really demand-driven, in a sense that you had all this work and you’re like, “Why are we giving this away?”
TJ: “When we might as well do it ourselves?”
GvS: Yeah. Not from a point of view that we thought that we could do it better than the guys in the field already, but just from a point of view … Listen, this is a challenge. It is fun. It is creative, and that’s … Let’s say, the last 20 years, that’s what we do; we create stuff. We build from scratch something interesting.
TJ: Yeah, interesting. I mean, I want to talk a bit about your personal journey, because if I got this right, you studied law. You got a law degree.
The most important thing is, I think, besides, let’s say, having a great mentor in the early stages of your career, is to keep on listening to the people that you work with and that you encounter in the industry. They know it better than you. They have been there before. They have done it before. Keep your ears and eyes open, and then if you are a little bit smart, things will fall into place. But keep an open mind. Keep your eyes open. That’s the most important thing.
TJ: Now, I think you mentioned ‘creative’ six times, now, in the last minute. Usually, the idea of a lawyer is the opposite. How did you get from doing something like this to being, now, involved with something very creative? Do you feel your legal training is helping you there? Tell us more about your journey.
GvS: Well, the thing is, obviously the legal training and the university is a good background to have. I was always looking for, let’s say, things in the theater field, but as you know, the creative industry is not the biggest and easiest industry to be in.
TJ: For sure.
GvS: So I decided to study law, get my degree, and then see what I could do next. And in the meantime, I, personally, still wanted to become an actor.
TJ: Oh, okay. Interesting.
GvS: Which is really weird, but sometimes you get an insight.
TJ: Well, why not?
GvS: And I got admittance to one of the best theater schools in Holland, in Maastricht.
GvS: Where, I think you studied, as well.
TJ: Exactly, yeah. The Toneelacademie.
GvS: The Toneelacademie in Maastricht, which was really fun, but I was a little bit too old, and I think I lacked the real talent to become a real actor. But I had a fantastic year at the theater academy, and then I was bumped from the school.
TJ: And you’re like, “Okay. Glad I got that law degree.”
GvS: Yeah, and I went back to the business behind the screens.
TJ: And then what was your next step from that? I mean, you had all this training, you had these insights; how did you … And you just said this, so it’s also hard to break into this industry, I think. It’s not just challenging to be in it. What was the next step for you? How did you, then, pursue this? Because obviously you were hooked, and you wanted to be part of it.
GvS: I was, I was. And the thing is, it felt quite natural to help out, let’s say, talents in the industry, and I was lucky enough to start off my business with a woman who had a great talent agency, but also production company who did theater shows, and I could help her out doing these big theater shows. So when I switched companies to Montecatini Talent Agency, I knew that from that moment on, I was more business developer than a talent agent. I still had quite a lot of actors and actresses that I represented, but I wanted to have a free role within the company, and create stuff. So I became, let’s say, the business developer of Montecatini Talent Agency, and, let’s say, after we started a very successful theater play, I decided not to focus on talent agency anymore, but just focus on creating theater plays, international films, financing, that kind of stuff.
TJ: Yeah, interesting. So I think one of the questions that comes to mind, especially when you talk about these different activities is how do you split your time between them? How do you prioritize what you need to focus on, and how did you not run the risk of just putting out fires all the time, but actually kind of focus on doing something proactive? Because that’s the only way to grow it. How did you do this in the beginning when you joined the first talent agency, but it was also production? How did you manage to not have your clients constantly like, “You’re not making time for me. You’re just doing production”?
GvS: Yeah, there was a time where I didn’t have a private life. Let’s say, I didn’t have a wife and kids like I have now, so I had all the time in the world, and so I worked 24/7. It was-
TJ: Like all talent agencies.
GvS: Yeah, yeah. So it was literally 24/7. The phone was on, I was in the theater, I was watching movies, I was doing negotiations with television studios, but I had a boss at that time who managed me and managed me back. Said, “Listen, you have to go and do exercise before you come to work. So you have to go to the gym before you come to work, because you have to stay healthy. I don’t want to lose you.”. That was really good. And then afterwards, when I joined Montecatini Talent Agency, that was the moment where I took matters in my own hands, and the fun thing is that we are doing all of these things with three partners, now. And we divide and split the workload. So I have one partner who is very much into the film industry, and I do all of the film meetings, film markets, et cetera, with him. I have another guy who is more like the new business, online, et cetera. So we do the creative content online. I do it with him. So we help each other, and we have each other’s backs.
TJ: I see, I see. So divide and conquer.
GvS: Yeah, that’s it.
TJ: So from the first job, it sounded like your boss was also like a mentor for you.
GvS: She was, yeah.
TJ: Which must have been incredibly helpful to have someone senior saying, “Don’t do this.” First of all, great that she said to go to the gym rather than spend an hour more in the office.
TJ: Really looking out for you, by the sounds of it. How did you take that experience? Because obviously now you’re running this … And this is something I ask myself every once in a while; how do you maintain this mentorship that you get someone that’s at least sounding board, or someone that has done it, so you don’t have to come up with everything on the spot yourself?
GvS: Yeah, well that’s what I just said, is that the partners that we have in the company are a real help. We help each other out. When we have a question, we go back to the partner and say, “Listen, is this okay?” It’s not every mail that I write, every negotiation that I do, et cetera; that I check it, but it’s sometimes very nice to have someone near to check your facts; to check if you are doing okay. And the most important thing is, I think, besides, let’s say, having a great mentor in the early stages of your career, is to keep on listening to the people that you work with and that you encounter in the industry. They know it better than you. They have been there before. They have done it before. Keep your ears and eyes open, and then if you are a little bit smart, things will fall into place. But keep an open mind. Keep your eyes open. That’s the most important thing.
TJ: That’s very interesting, because I feel like a lot of people in this industry have unlearned that. And so when you work with the partners … I mean, you guys have what, five companies in the group? It feels like there’s probably more to come. How did you go, in the past, but also going forward, how do you approach this when you go … Is this just an activity that one of the companies pursues? Or is this another company all together and basically managing the growth? Because you said everything so far has been very organic. You didn’t go and buy three, four other companies and say, “Okay, we’re a big group, now,” it was all organic. How did you approach that? How did you make the decision?
GvS: Obviously we have those conversations, and we go into processes sometimes of going into a partnership or trying to acquire another company, if it’s a talent agency or a film company. So there are definitely talks of growing, but I think in the creative industry, it’s very difficult to merge or buy someone and tell them, “And now, this is how we are going to do it.” It’s too personal, the business. So that’s why we grow our company in a slow way, in a way that we can manage it, in a way that we feel that we still can control it. And that is very important, because you said, “Well, okay you have five companies, and how do you manage your time between the company?” It is very difficult to do it, certainly when you keep the overhead lean and mean. Because we only attract people when we have a production into production. We don’t go much further than the five companies that we have. It’s more than enough. We have three, four, five things in development per company, and that’s manageable. If you go further, then you need to have people on board that help you out. And we learned that for us, it’s not an ideal situation to have more people on board because you have to manage the people, and then you can’t focus on what you really want to do; is create something. You are a people manager.
TJ: Yeah, I mean especially on the film side, it’s very cyclical. You have something in production, and all of the sudden, you’re working with 50, 60 people. And at some point, the production is done, and it slows down again. And I’m always amazed with, especially on the production companies side, that people end up with 50 people on, not just the payroll, but it’s also, of course, from managing your own time and the people point of view. It’s quite demanding.
GvS: It is.
TJ: And then you, at some point, stop running the company.
GvS: I have the utmost respect for the guys who can do that and can manage that, but it’s not my business.
TJ: You didn’t sign up for it.
TJ: So basically, if I got this right, when you got to the point where you thought, “Okay, should we start another company,” it almost sounds like the pain was so intense that you had no other choice than to start the new company and make it its own entity, vehicle, organization-
GvS: Yeah, and mostly with good partners. So each company that we have started out by finding the right partner to go with it either from our own company or someone from the outside that had an additional expertise that we lacked. So, let’s say, from a financing point of view, we have a film financing company called Global Film Partners. So we attracted someone from the outside who has a huge network and expertise in the finance business, which I don’t have. I studied law. I know how to do contracts. I know how to negotiate. I know how to sell things, but my financial background is not that great. So I need to attract a partner, if I want to start a company like that, I need to attract a partner who has those capabilities.
TJ: Makes sense. Okay so basically part of the growth was also from the team and who you started working with, and it seems like … And you just mentioned this; a lot of the activities are centered around film, but you also do other things. And you just mentioned the one company. Talk to us a little bit more about how the group is set up, and the activities you guys pursue.
GvS: Yeah, we have a holding company called Volterra, and we have two film production companies underneath the holding company. One is more genre and Dutch-based, and the other one is more international-based. Then we have a film financing company. We have a theater production company, and we have a special projects company, and we have the talent agency. That is-
TJ: So again, you don’t sleep anymore.
GvS: No. No, it’s true that sometimes it gives you a bit of a headache to run all those things, but luckily enough, I’m not alone. It’s not me doing all those companies. They’re good people, good partners who help me out. And the theater company started out 15 years ago when we went from marketing more into production, and one of our partners created a very successful show called Soldier of Orange, based on the movie. And it’s now running for eight years.
TJ: I mean, that was huge, yeah.
GvS: Still sold out every night.
GvS: 1,100 people every night so see that show.
TJ: Wow, fantastic.
GvS: It’s amazing. So that’s a big backbone to the theater company. Slowly but surely, you meet new people through that big show, and start to create new ideas. And if you want to have a success like that, it’s not from one day to another that you say, “Okay, we are going to create a new show that will run for eight years.” It will take you five, six, seven years in developing the right content so that you can have a big success like that. And it’s no guarantee that you will have success, but it’s building. And that’s what I like within all the companies that we have; it’s kind of playing LEGO. It’s putting the pieces together, and in the end, you have a result, or you have an annoying brother who kills it all. Crashes the LEGO.
TJ: Tells you then, “Ah, well you can rebuild it.” And that’s what it’s for.
TJ: It’s quite a fun analogy, because obviously with LEGO, you do have the opportunity to rebuild it, and you’re like, “No, you know what? I actually think it should be done this way.” And I think that goes to your point where you said, “Look, we’re trying to keep it manageable,” in the sense that … You know, you’re not … I mean, the bigger the ship is, the more difficult it is to say, “All right, let’s turn this around 90 degrees,” which isn’t even … I mean, it’s a good turn, but with a big ship, it takes, what, an hour for a ship to do that? So of course, if you’re nimble, you can do that. And I think it’s also quite interesting, you mentioned that a lot of the activities are driven by the success. And of course, the team, as well, that there’s activities, by the sounds of it, you wouldn’t have touched. You wouldn’t have done if you didn’t have the partners, and then the success. You know? So-
GvS: And the fact that we don’t have the urgency, because our base is quite stable; we have a steady income, et cetera. We don’t have the drive and urgency just to produce to produce. So obviously, you have to pay the people you work with, you have to pay your own bills. But it’s not … We don’t have the immediate drive to just make money which creates an environment at our companies that is really a good, basic environment to be creative to make mistakes, to learn from your mistakes, to do it again, to kill a project when you have the feeling it’s not working and start over again with something else. And we’re in Berlin right now at Berlinale with the film market where you see so incredibly too much content in the market. It’s painful to see that there is so much being made that will never, ever, ever see the light. And what’s the use of spitting out all those productions? Our philosophy is develop it right, develop it in a good way, take your time, and then it will come.
TJ: Yeah. So I think you’re right. A lot of times, obviously, there seems to be this great sense of urgency, that, “Oh, we got to get this our right now.” And of course, there’s something to it in a sense that eventually, you need to ship it, and there’s a window of time where your project might resonate, where it’s timely; but yeah, especially at a film market or a television market, as well, when you look at the slates, you sometimes think, “Ah, there’s a nice idea. I wish they had taken more time to develop it out,” but obviously, that costs a lot of money to spend development time on it.
TJ: So how do you approach this, especially in terms of develop and new projects, how do you decide what makes it into the group, or are the companies independent of each other that it isn’t really your priority of, for example, the production company is working with the financing company that gets the talent from the talent agency. How much overlap is there, actually?
GvS: Basically there is obviously a connection because we, with the partners, run all the companies; but it’s not a must that we use the talent in a production from the talent company in a production that we created. Totally not. And our talent agency is Holland-based, so it’s Dutch actors and-
TJ: Yeah. Restricts it a little bit.
GvS: Yeah. We try to create international projects that travel all over the world. So it doesn’t have to be that one company helps the other one. It sure helps that, let’s say, the financing company is able to pay for the development of a project of the film production company.
TJ: You don’t need to introduce yourself every single time.
GvS: True. True that, true that.
TJ: And they kind of know where you live, so-
GvS: Yeah. Well that’s the handy side of having more companies with different expertise. But also in development, with each and every project, we think that you need to find outside partners who have an expertise that you lack. For instance, we are working on an animation project. We have not done that before, so that’s a first off, and it’s very difficult to do animation.
TJ: Very pricey, too.
GvS: Very pricey. And a very long development run, but you have to find the right partners who have done it before. Because otherwise, you will-
TJ: You will get lost.
If you want to have a success like that, it’s not from one day to another that you say, “Okay, we are going to create a new show that will run for eight years.” It will take you five, six, seven years in developing the right content so that you can have a big success like that. And it’s no guarantee that you will have success, but it’s building. And that’s what I like within all the companies that we have; it’s kind of playing LEGO. It’s putting the pieces together, and in the end, you have a result, or you have an annoying brother who kills it all.
TJ: Yeah. So how did you approach that, if you take the animation film as an example, how did you go about finding the partners? Because obviously, nowadays, one of the standards is to find a co-producer, use the advantages of different markets. How did you vet the partners and how did you manage and monitor the process? Because obviously you said you haven’t done it yet, so I think there’s this quote from … I think it was Donald Rumsfeld, he said, “I’m worried about the things I don’t know that I don’t know.” So how do you manage that, to stay on top of that?
GvS: Yeah, it’s a very lengthy process, and that’s why my partner, Daniel, and I, we travel a lot. We go a lot to the markets where we have discussions with people from the industry, and on an animation base, we go to the animation markets, and we listen to guys who have done it before. And if you take your time, you will find the right partners to attach to your project. The thing is, you have to be willing to share and not to keep everything close because otherwise, you won’t succeed. Like I said, we have never done animation before. We have two directors, two brothers, who will direct this project. They have never done animation before, so they need all the help from the outside. So we have a great head of animation here from Germany. We have a partner from the Nordic countries, we have a Belgian partner, we are looking for an English partner. We have to share because otherwise, you won’t get it made because it’s, what you say, it’s very expensive. But we need the expertise. We need to have people who have done it before.
TJ: Yeah. It’s quite interesting, because what you just said on the sharing, I’ve spent a lot of time in the startup world and investment banking, and obviously also on the film side, and I’m always surprised how people are so afraid to share ideas. And of course, there’s some reason for concern, and you got to be smart about it, but I think if you look at the people who are the most successful in either of these industries, it’s that they are willing to talk about what they’re doing, and are not afraid of having their ideas stolen. Which, of course, happens every once in a while, but there’s this one investor, he coined this phrase saying like, “Look, having an idea is like waking up. But then actually making it happen is like getting up. And actually doing it, following your morning routine and your commute and doing all of that.” So just having an idea is nice, but of course you need to make it happen. And that’s the other component, I think, to my question statement. You said you got to take the time. So I find it very interesting because obviously a lot of younger producers or younger companies, they feel exactly that’s not what they have. They’re looking for a quick win, because obviously there’s pressure on. How did you manage that in the beginning of your career, or the companies, when of course there was some pressure to perform? How did you balance that out by saying like, “Okay, now let’s take the time to do this right, but also let’s achieve something”?
GvS: Actually, the thing is, if you don’t have the priority drive of making a quick buck, and you have a base that is solid, but you don’t have a financial injection, then you will need to take the time. You will have to create something in a very slow and organic way, because you don’t have the time to rush. So it’s pretty much a necessity to take it slowly, which in the end, helps a lot. So if either you are doing development of a feature film or … We created, together with a photographer, a great photography project, but the guy who had the idea of the photography project had a crazy idea that he needed to travel to all the countries in the world. That takes time. You can’t rush that. It’s not like … Okay, well how many countries do you have? 190 something? You can’t do that in a year. So he took seven years-
GvS: … of traveling to make his project.
TJ: You can’t really do a Japanese-European holiday where you do 20 countries in 10 days.
GvS: Exactly, exactly.
TJ: That’s a rush to one place to the other.
GvS: No, that’s … And people in the beginning said to him, “Wow, you have the most amazing job in the world. You are on the longest vacation ever.” And he said, “Well, you are totally wrong, because it is work. It is a hardship. It is for five days in a city actually trying to get that perfect shot, and then get out of the country and go to the next one. So it’s work.”
TJ: And there’s countries that are really nice to be in, and there’s others where it’s a little bit dicey.
GvS: Where it’s terrible, yeah. Oh, the guy traveled to North Korea, he traveled in Africa to the most dangerous countries where he needed protection, et cetera. But we were lucky on that project to have a financier who supported him, was calm, didn’t have-
TJ: Patient capital.
GvS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think in the industry that we are in, you need patient capital.
TJ: Usually it’s not, so that’s wonderful when you can find it. Because obviously when you talk about the story with the photographer, one of the first things that comes to mind, in my mind, is risk management. You know?
TJ: You’re obviously making a, let’s say, substantial investment, even if he travels in a very light way, it still costs plenty of cash to do it. And then he goes to all these-
GvS: Yeah, and afterwards-
TJ: … exotic places and you might even worry, “Is he going to come back?” And so how did you approach, or how did you get involved and say, “We can be all right with this?” Is that kind of what you described, you’re approaching every project almost in a way like, “If this project fails or doesn’t work, it doesn’t break our neck?”
GvS: It doesn’t kill the company.
TJ: Okay. So that’s really where you take the strength and the calmness from when you approach that?
GvS: Yeah, and obviously it’s also kind of spreading the risk. If you find partners, you share the risk. That obviously helps. If you do everything yourself, well, you will get burned if a project fails. So not only does it help to share in a way that it builds creativeness, and it builds expertise, et cetera, but it also helps to spread a little bit of the financial risk of a project. So in the case of the photographer, we had a financier who, luckily enough, is patient enough, believes in the project, and financed his seven-year trip, and now is financing the rollouts of the project. Because now, it needs to be marketed, people need to hear about it, to buy the books, to buy the pictures, we need to find partners to do exhibitions. We just opened the largest photo exhibition in Dubai.Huge success. That was amazing, and it’s standing there until April, and then we go to London, and there will be a three-year exhibition in Amsterdam. So now it’s coming to life, the project.
TJ: Yeah, fantastic. We’ll be sure to put a link in the description underneath this podcast.
GvS: Yeah, that’s cool.
TJ: And please be sure to introduce me to the investor.
GvS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure.
TJ: So you were just talking about collaborating, co-financing. How do you approach this with? Especially film projects, obviously it’s quite common to do that. How do you figure out who you want to work with or can work with? What drives that process?
GvS: Well, it’s a bit of learning by doing. In the movie business, we came across a US producer that was seasoned, that won Academy Awards, and we had a great project from the Netherlands that we developed with them together, and then once you start to get to know the business, get to know the partners, it spreads out, and you meet more people. So it grows while you are doing it. And to find the right partners in this industry, is very difficult. It’s not … You can have a very nice, long conversation, creative talks, you feel a connection with a partner, and still, it isn’t the right partner for me. So again, you need to be patient. You need to have time to work out a relationship. It’s like a marriage that you start. A partnership in the movie business is like a marriage.
TJ: I think pretty much any business partnership … And I see this all the time, that people feel underestimated; that it is … I mean, like a marriage, it doesn’t have to be for life, but it’s good if it is. Because divorce usually is quite pricey.
But also, the big companies like Disney, et cetera, they are going straight to consumer, and that’s their focus. Because that’s the way that people consume their content nowadays. They want it directly, and on whatever screen that they have their hands on. So it is changing. I think that the big screen will stay forever. The thing is, that the balance between studio and non-studio movies; we are losing it a little bit there. The gap is too big. There is no middle way of producing.
TJ: So you want to do your due diligence. And one thing in co-financing films and projects, what I always found very interesting is that for the other party that you’re approaching, but equally for when you get approached, it’s an outside project. You know? Because usually, I mean, somebody had to create it, develop it, and then take it to the market. When you’re sitting on the other side of the table and someone comes to you, and maybe you’ve even worked with them and that was good, you still think, of course, every project is different and you wanna be careful. How do you consider, let’s say, outside projects to introduce to the group?
GvS: Yeah. Obviously the base of getting involved in an outside project is trust. Trust of the other party that brings it to you. If they have delivered before, and are not bullshitting; which, there’s a lot of that going on in the industry. Yeah, it’s-
TJ: I think the entertainment industry holds the word bullshit to reserve before.
GvS: Yeah, yeah.
TJ: For when we run out.
GvS: Exactly, exactly. But if you can surpass that blah, blah and the bullshit, and you find the trustworthy person who actually is delivering, and obviously the project that they bring to the table, the IP, the idea must be good or something that you can relate to; because sometimes it is a commercial decision, but it brings something to the table … We did a lot of horror movies. I am not particularly fond of horror.
TJ: You don’t watch it?
GvS: Do not watch it. But there is a market for it.
TJ: Yeah, of course.
GvS: And I understand the market. So if someone comes to me with a proposal of a very scary and gory horror movie in which I see commercial possibilities, I will not turn them down because I don’t like the horror movie.
TJ: Because you personally don’t like it. Okay, so it sounds like your standard, almost, for any other outside project is, it needs to fulfill the same criteria as if you had done it yourself.
TJ: Okay, so it’s … And of course, question of taste, whether you like the genre or not is the same internally for you, if-
GvS: The thing is, you are working so long and hard on a project to get it made that you have to treat it as your own.
GvS: Even if someone comes to you and says, “Listen, I have an almost fully financed movie, end costed movie,” then you still will have to do another year or two before you actually make it, if you put in the last money, then it will take some time, but you have to be invested. So it needs to feel like your own.
TJ: Yeah, it feels like a lot of disappointment in this industry, historically, has been crated by people saying like, “We’re almost there, we just need $600,000. We just need $200,000,” and then finished, and then of course, it didn’t work out. And when I hear these stories, I always feel like it’s because people didn’t dive into the project enough, and did exactly what you said, make it their own and see if it all checks out. So it’s …
GvS: And even then, it is not a guarantee because you don’t know the industry changes.
TJ: Yeah, yeah, for sure.
GvS: Let’s say, by the year. Certainly now that the movie industry is, the last 10 years, it’s been turned around completely. And where will it be next year or the year after that? You don’t know. you can create something that people in the industry say, “Well, this is what we are looking for right now, this is what distributors buy, this is what the market is ready for,” and when you’re doing creating it and you bring it on the market, it might have changed 180 degrees.
TJ: Yeah. And again, if you’re that big ship, it’s difficult.
GvS: Yeah, it’s very difficult.
TJ: Let’s talk about this real quick, because I’m very keen to get your opinion on this, especially film, obviously has changed tremendously. And there seems to be these two groups of people; one says like, “Ah, film is dead.” Others are like, “Oh, no, of course. It’s going to be reborn,” and it feels like that happens every other year. But obviously, with new companies like Netflix and Amazon coming into the market, changing the rules quite a little bit in television, but also in film, how do you see kind of the future of film and maybe also film distribution, because obviously that has changed quite a bit.
GvS: Yeah, well you see the big companies already shifting. The big studios, they have their push; they have their marketing budgets. So they can do their big franchises, they can push it into the world. That will not disappear.
TJ: Yeah, that will never change, I think.
GvS: But also, the big companies like Disney, et cetera, they are going straight to consumer, and that’s their focus. Because that’s the way that people consume their content nowadays. They want it directly, and on whatever screen that they have their hands on. So it is changing. I think that the big screen will stay forever. The thing is, that the balance between studio and non-studio movies; we are losing it a little bit there. The gap is too big. There is no middle way of producing. So the art house, the independent producers have to create the same content as 10 years ago, but for a quarter of the price. Because otherwise, they won’t see a dime back, or their investors won’t see a dime back. That’s a very hard thing because also, of the changing industry. You can go to … Let’s say, you can sell your project to Netflix. They pay you one amount, and that’s it, you have to do it with that.
TJ: Yeah. And you don’t own it anymore.
GvS: You don’t own it.
TJ: There’s no further upside in the future. Yeah, sometimes it seems like it’s a bit what happened in the music industry, that of course the sales number for physical record sales went down, but obviously now there’s this new thing called streaming revenues, and of course, it took a while to find a new equilibrium, or a new business model, for lack of a better word. And now, the music industry has grown quite tremendously over the last three, four years, and it looks like it’s going to continue that way.
TJ: Do you feel in film or filmed content, the same is happening? Obviously you have people like YouTube who have produced an enormous amount of YouTube creators, where maybe not on a company basis, but certainly on an individual level, have achieved enormous fame, and also fortune, that that’s just changing, that the new rich movie stars aren’t coming out of movie and television anymore, but they’re actually self-published, in a sense? Do you feel that’s something that’s going to continue, or do you feel it’s going to be just that film, there’s new pressure on being very efficient in production? And I agree with you, because the tent-poles I think they’re never going to go away. Because A, people love them; I mean, there’s commercial case for it. But for other content that they just find different routes of being made and monetized.
GvS: Yeah. Well, and I think you will have kind of a wave structure in the next years where the movie or content industry will reinvent themselves. So obviously, it has to change because the old model is not viable anymore. And well, it’s already changing. But Netflix, I don’t think Netflix is the endgame. There will be-
TJ: There’ll always be something new.
GvS: Something new. And I don’t know where that is going, and until that moment, you have to do it with what we have right now. So you have to develop for a short term market. Which is in a way, bigger than ever. The only thing is, that for independent producers, it’s harder to get to that bigger market in a way where you actually make money out of something that you create. So it’s pretty difficult to be in this market at this point.
TJ: Yeah. Staying on that point, I’m wondering, what are some of the trends you’re watching, or developments in the market that you’re watching? Because obviously, as you said, it’s a very fluid situation. What are the things you are looking out for?
GvS: Well, I think international television series, big shows; that’s what people want nowadays. They want to consume. They want to binge watch. They want to get really into a story that is longer than one hour and a half show. So that is something that we are looking into in creating our own content, but also partnering with other people who have great ideas that we can help them roll out; let’s say, international projects, European bake series, et cetera, for either Netflix or the big streamers.
TJ: Yeah. And you just mentioned kind of working with these projects, how would you say is the share of kind of the projects you guys developed and worked on versus what you take on from the outside?
GvS: I think that 60% of what we do is from ourselves, and 40% is from the outside.
TJ: Okay. How do you actually do this? This is something that came to mind when … Obviously you mentioned you have a bunch of partners in the different companies. What do you guys do when one of you disagrees and says, “No, I don’t want to do this.” Is that then … Does everyone have a veto right that is then the last word?
GvS: That’s a good question. We seldom come into a situation like that. But in the end, we are such a small company that yes, we have a veto right. If someone totally disagrees, he obviously has to have great arguments for vetoing a project, but it affects us all if we do something that someone doesn’t want to do, so there is a veto; but that-
TJ: That’s where your training as a lawyer comes in.
GvS: Yeah. No, obviously you have to be self assured to push a project further, even if the partners are hesitant. And usually, when they are against a project, they are for good reasons. So also what I said in the beginning, you have to be open minded, you have to listen to your partners, you have to listen to people who have different opinions, because well, something that you create yourself … You will feel very strongly about that, but sometimes you will lose the oversight.
TJ: Yeah. I mean, it happens. You fall in love with a project and you … With the marriage again; you fall in love and you overlook certain things that are worth watching. I find it’s always an opportunity, also, to make things better. You know? If someone identified a weakness and says, “No, I don’t like it because of this,” it’s a chance to say, “Okay, how do we solve this before it actually happens?” I feel like that’s a big part of managing something in media and entertainment successfully, is anticipating what the problems could be, and then just eliminating that from the beginning, kind of by design.
TJ: One other thing I was wondering about, is you’re obviously based in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and all of you are Dutch, so Amsterdam is kind of the natural choice; but do you feel like the Netherlands, especially what’s going on in Europe, Netherlands now is kind of a competitive advantage for you guys in some respect that you say, “Oh, it’s actually really great that we’re here instead of Italy.” Or elsewhere.
GvS: Well, we thought about expanding, moving, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you … Let’s say, talking about film production; if you say, “I am going to start a film production company in LA,” you will be one of the hundred thousand film productions in LA. Why would you do that? Do it from Amsterdam. It is essential you find your partners. I have partners in Australia, I have partners in the US. Find your partners there, but work from your home territory. It will bring you advantages. And the world is actually so small and achievable nowadays, you can reach to everywhere either by traveling really fast or by phone, mail, Skype, et cetera. So I don’t think that we have a disadvantage of being in Holland. I think we have quite an advantage of having a Dutch company solidly based in Amsterdam. I think it really helps to stay centered where you originated.
TJ: Yeah, yeah. No, for sure. Because I mean obviously what happens a lot, as you just mentioned, is people have success in some area, in some country, wherever they’re based out of, and then the next step always seems to be, “Oh, we need to open an office in LA, or London,” in some cases. But obviously, Los Angeles is kind of the entertainment capital, still, of the world. And then they go there, coming with a lot of tailwind from their success in their home country, and then they’re surprised that nobody’s waiting for them at the airport in Los Angeles saying like, “This way, please.” So it’s quite interesting that you guys considered it and then said, “You know what?” You can go there, from Europe in, I don’t know, 10, 12 hours quite comfortably, and you can do that trip multiple times. There is no need for us to now open an office there. If you need to be there, you can be.
TJ: Is that the same mentality when you approach new initiatives that are outside of the scope you’re currently doing that you say, “How much do we actually need to do of that ourselves,” versus being involved in participating?
GvS: Yeah. Well, obviously it is a big factor when something comes to us that we look at, let’s say, the partner that brings it versus the expertise that we have in house. And sometimes there is a project that comes on our path that we don’t know anything about, but where we feel that there’s something.
It’s such a cool industry to be in, but it’s a very hard industry. It’s not easy. The guys who have the lucky break because they found something that immediately worked, they’re one in a million. It’s a long process in this industry to get where you need to be, to have the success, to create real stuff. Every movie, theater show, photography project, dance project that we’re working on; it takes three, four, five, six, seven years before you actually are at a starting point where you can actually produce and make it. You have to be very, very patient. You have to have stamina.
TJ: There’s something, yeah. It tingles in your fingers.
GvS: Yeah. But then you have to make a good assessment: Is this going to fly? Is this actually something that will be an extra to what we already are doing? And is this something that we financially can support? It’s difficult. And coming back to the place where you’re based, in the beginning of Montecatini, when I joined the company, I had one big wish; was to create more talent agencies over Europe, starting out with Belgium, because I had a lot of Belgian actors as clients, as well. So I wanted a company in Belgium. We started that, and it didn’t work. It just didn’t work because of the complete different culture between the Netherlands and Belgium. And we’re so close together. We even speak the same language. And it didn’t work. So stick to your plan, do it from the safe environment where you’re based in.
TJ: You just mentioned culture. And obviously, talking about the two different countries; but it sounds like also what you’ve done with the group is not just built these companies, but build a culture internally. Do you feel that that’s an asset that should be on the balance sheet that is actually helping you? It sounds like you, all of you, all the partners, made that a huge priority in the beginning. Was that just because it fit nicely together anyways, or was it a very conscious decision saying like, “No. Whether we are big or small, there is a philosophy,” almost, “Of how we do things”? Take us through that process. What did that entail?
GvS: Well, I think that my partner Daniel is a big factor in the way we approach business. It is not the basic idea of the company, and the companies and creating content or companies, or is not finance-driven. It’s human-driven. It is your inner self-driven. And that is something that we always have pursued; to stay close to yourself, to help other people out, not to screw other people, not to be the hardest one to make the fastest money; but think of long term. Think of where you want to be in 10 years, whether it’s a project, it’s a company, or it’s your people that you’re working with. Just think of the longterm, and that works.
TJ: That’s a very interesting point, because one … And of course, you’ve been doing this for a while. If you could go back in time and talk to your 20-year-old self, what would be a recommendation that you would have? So especially, you just mentioned think longterm. That’s obviously a very fantastic aspiration to have. But knowing what you now know, what would you have done differently maybe, or what would you say, “No, this was actually a great decision,” or, “This is what I would have loved to tell my 20-year-old self”?
GvS: It’s a difficult question. I think patience and the broad mindset that I would have loved to have that 20 years ago. I was rushing things out of enthusiasm. And a lot of projects that I initiated then did not make it to the finish line because of me wanting to go too quickly, not partnering up with the right people, not opening my senses. So that would be something that if I could do it over again, that I definitely would try to stick to that plan; the way I do it now with my partners and it seems to work. At least it feels like it’s working.
TJ: Interesting. Because obviously, that’s kind of a beautiful thing about youth; you’re very enthusiastic. You know? You have a lot of energy. You haven’t fallen down so often, yet, and had to get up again. So it’s … I was just thinking of how that conversation would have gone; a Guirec and older Guirec, and it’s just like, “Calm down!” And it’s like, “Okay, grandpa.” You know?
GvS: Yeah. And you have to sometimes make mistakes and learn from it. You’re not born an expert on A, B, or C. You have to learn by doing. You have to learn by failure. But it would be nice if you could have the helicopter view from the start of your career. That would have been cool to have.
TJ: Yeah, for sure. But then the question is always: Would you have seen it the same way? You know?
GvS: Perhaps not, correct.
TJ: Because you might have just looked down. You know? You’re sitting in a helicopter, you’re just looking down like, “Oh, look at that. I can see my street my street from here,” instead of the big picture. But yeah, so having said that, what is in store for you next? What are you working on now? What is on the agenda for you now?
GvS: We’re working on several big projects. So we’re doing an international television series that we’re developing right now. In the early stages, but hoping to have that ready in November to pitch it to the big guys, so Netflix, to Amazon, et cetera. So that’s a really large one. We are creating a new theater show, which is very cool and never had been done before, so it’s something that we are starting out in Amsterdam as a pilot theater show. Want to have it running for a year and then we can roll it out all over the world. Very interesting. Obviously, the photography project that we are working on needs to spread out, so that’s a big thing that I’m working on. We have that animation project, and I think we have six or seven international movies in development. So we’re quite busy at this moment. And still running the talent agency, which luckily for us, we have good people who are managing that, and we don’t have to do it ourselves, but there’s a lot going on. A lot going on.
TJ: If you … And I want to get your thoughts on this. If you were starting today, what would be your number one advice for someone starting today of trying to break into the industry?
GvS: Don’t do it. Yeah. No, that’s not completely right, because it is such a cool industry to be in, but it’s a very hard industry. It’s not easy. The guys who have the lucky break because they found something that immediately worked, they’re one in a million. It’s a long process in this industry to get where you need to be, to have the success, to create real stuff. Every movie, theater show, photography project, dance project that we’re working on; it takes three, four, five, six, seven years before you actually are at a starting point where you can actually produce and make it. You have to be very, very patient. You have to have … How do you say it? Stamina, you have to have.
TJ: Yeah, yeah.
TJ: Don’t be in it for the lifestyle.
GvS: No, no. Sometimes it can be fun and sexy. Listen, we’re at the Berlinale here, I’m having great evenings, great parties, great meetings with people. There is a fun component in it. But it’s work. It’s not all glamor and sexy; it’s work. So, yeah. Well, I think it’s the best business to be in, because I love to create. But that’s me. It’s not for everyone.
TJ: I think that’s a perfect note to end it on, so we can both get back to work. Thank you so much for being here.
GvS: Thank you for having me.
TJ: Thank you for your time. Looking forward to seeing what’s next, and have a wonderful day.
GvS: Thank you very much.
THANK YOU to this episode’s sponsor AXIOM Venture Capital!
Guirec’s company Volterra Group can be found at http://www.volterragroup.eu.
The photo project and exhibit “Streets of the World” by Jeroen Swolfs mentioned in the conversation can be found here: https://www.streetsoftheworld.com/en and you can read about Jeroen’s journey here: https://www.streetsoftheworld.com/dubai/en/dubai-about-streets-of-the-world
The musical “Soldaat van Oranje” can be found here: https://www.soldaatvanoranje.nl/. The musical recently announced that it will come to the Royal Docks of London, England in 2020 as “Soldier of Orange”: https://www.soldieroforange.com
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Music — ‘Kickshot’ by Gyom (https://twitter.com/gyomamphoux)
Special thanks to everyone at Volterra Group, especially Daniel Koefoed and Anne-Paul Houwen, for helping to make this conversation happen.
Special thanks for their creative review go to Anouk van Ghemen and Frederik Jaeger.
Special thanks also to the team of Berlin‘s OffX Co-Working space, namely: Annika Wydany, Laura Schwarzer, and Isabella Schelder. If you are interested in a co-working or meeting space in Berlin you can find them at: https://www.offx.net/start
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ABOUT MEDIA CFO
Media CFO focuses on the finance, strategy, business affairs, and legal side of the global media & entertainment industry. The guests on the podcast range from veteran studio executives to new, disruptive market entrants. MEDIA CFO takes a look under the hood of the global entertainment industry and talks to the unsung heroes: dealmakers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, financiers, service providers, bankers, investors, and agents. The podcast offers unique insights into the daily work and life of those, who run and build this industry by visiting them on location and having in-depth, in-person conversations.
ABOUT TOBIAS JAEGER
Tobias started his first own firm during his studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and has lived, worked, visited, and studied in over 43 countries on 4 continents. Tobias loves to connect people from around the World to make great things happen. Previously, he has done so at Business Associates Europe, SAP AG, StrategosPoker, Aramark, and entrepreneur academy. Today he is a Managing Partner of AXIOM Venture Capital, a family office focussed on the media & entertainment industry and Tobias serves as the Chief Financial Officer of London-based television and content studio Colibri Studios.
The conversation was originally recorded in Berlin in February 2019.
© 2019, Colibri Studios of London