From Somali pirates in Seaham harbour to flooring adverts the eclectic world of video production has kept Matthew Newman entertained
There’s a short film script that has been sat inside Matthew Newman’s draw for three years now. He’s been threatening to make it a reality, but building one of the country’s most regarded video production agencies has, understandably, kept him pre-occupied.
“I get the occasional chance to scratch that itch,” says the YourFilm co-founder of his creative interests. But these days the mild-mannered, film mad entrepreneur spends more time directing his company than directing a shoot.
At school in the mid to late 90s, Matthew and his friend (and company co-founder) Kevin Owens were inspired by a particularly enthusiastic media studies teacher. Their school was one of few at the time to have a designated media department. It was perfect for film fans Matthew and Kevin to get their hands dirty with projects.
“After A levels Kevin went to university and I didn’t. I’d never fancied it, but at that time we’d made a start on some short films using local connections. We ended up making something in 2002 that went to the Edinburgh Short Film Festival and had some measure of success,” explains Matthew.
Two years later the ambitious lads found themselves hungry for more, and decided to split off from the group they’d been working with. It led to a world of networking, winning work and ultimately responsibility for other people’s livelihoods.
Matthew explains: “The people we were working with were happy to go to Northern Film and Media for money in order to make a film, but we weren’t comfortable with repeating that cycle. So, over a pint we got talking about it. We knew the mechanics of making videos, so we thought why don’t we go into business?”
The original plan had been to make a few commercial pieces of work in order to fund better kit which could be used to satisfy artistic urges through their short film activities.
At the time, Matthew had only the bare bones of business experience, having worked in his uncle’s business as a youngster. They sought advice from business support agency Entrust, and funding from the Prince’s Trust and Gateshead Council which helped to point the fledgling entrepreneurs in the right direction.
“We basically said that thing where we’d decreed the business open but with no real plan as to how to go about it. Fortunately Kevin had done a bit of work in putting links to our website in various places. Despite us having nothing to show on it someone got in touch with an enquiry. We quoted on the job and we were up and running. It was funny because we thought it would take a lot of smaller jobs to get the ball rolling, but that wasn’t the case at all,” says Matthew.
Small budgets did not bother the pair. They even convinced a client to mock up an attack on a cargo ship by Somali pirates in Seaham harbour with a bunch of North East actors.
YouTube was born within a few months of YourFilm starting, and the internet video giant’s progress is a neat parallel to Matthew and Kevin’s own successes, albeit on a different scale.
YourFilm’s early sales pitch urged businesses to think of the web as the basis for their own TV station.
Matthew says: “We were definitely on the right lines, but the market has taken some time to catch up. YouTube has made video more accessible to the man on the street. In the first year of business companies would want a 15 minute DVD to send off with a brochure, but now it’s similar content that’s delivered in much smaller segments across YouTube, social media and their website. It’s been handy to grow up alongside YouTube because now people understand the power of video.”
Giving the business structure was perhaps the school friends’ greatest learning curve, as Matthew explains.
“Back when we were in school we almost worked telepathically and in later years we brought in an advisor to help us look at the business and move to the next level. One of the things he mentioned was that we were too close. It sounded odd at the time but he told us to define our roles for each other.
“We probably put of the advice for a few months but there was a turning point. I’d been working on a project with a lot of late night editing. I remember thinking that if I didn’t edit anything ever again, I wouldn’t be upset. That started the conversation and Kevin became more in charge of the creative output and I handled the business development side. To give that advisor his due credit, it was the start of continuous growth for us.”
The pair started off with what was the first truly affordable camera for producing professional quality film. Technology has accelerated at such a rate that now an iPhone operated by a competent filmmaker could produce a similar standard.
“Video is not just the domain of large corporate that can lavish huge amounts of money on it, or the glossy TV commercials, it’s short, sharp content that is another way to connect with customers. We’re working with a few start-ups at the moment, and their thinking is that it’s almost pointless to launch without a good video behind them,” Matthew says.
Progress in the technology has brought with it demands on the business – particularly the need for animation specialists. 3D animator Ben Cameron recently picked up the ‘Rising Star’ title at the Royal Television Awards, and together with 2D graphics artist Lauren Shepherd, the pair literally add new dimensions to the business.
Matthew explains: “Animation is really just a style of video and sometimes people think they need to go to a specialist to get that. We had to do a little bit of educating people in that respect, but now it’s really off the ground and we’ve produced nearly 200 animations so far.”
The team’s handiwork can be seen on the most recent TV advert for North East brand Frank’s Factory Flooring. Viewers are led through a 3D home, being brought to life from paper plans to construction and decoration.
While YourFilm has landed significant work from bigger names, including the likes of Dulux, the NHS and PepsiCo, it’s clear that Matthew also enjoys working with smaller, entrepreneurial outfits – not unlike his own business. Even the most mundane or flavourless of products and services present an interesting challenge for the creative team.
Movie posters, games consoles and even a retro arcade machine adorn the YourFilm office – although Matthew insists it only gets played when the team are waiting for a piece of work to render, and the computer is out of action for 20 minutes.
The breezy atmosphere belies the hard work that goes on. YourFilm’s five staff are in the office before 9 and beyond 6 on most days. At any one time they might have six to seven projects to contend with.
“As long as we’ve got a team that can keep up – which we do – we can keep a number of plates spinning quite comfortably. It’s not the stereotypical view of creatives, but, it’s important to have a nice workspace that can keep you stimulated.”
Outside of the office is where Matthew’s strengths shine through. Business development is one of his fortes. He takes a long term strategy – and has built relationships with firms that he may not work with until much further in the future.
Matthew says: “We’ve never been the kind of firm to send out voucher codes or the like. Maybe we’ve been too low key for our own good, but I like to take the personal approach. I exhibited at an event the other day, and that was the first time I’ve done that in nearly 10 years. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.”
The video production industry is generally a young one. At its beginning, YourFilm was not untypical of the fresh out of university start-up that tends to characterise the sector. Many launch with low price points and struggle along for a year or two before disappearing. Growing accessibility of equipment tempts many into the industry, but lasting power is born out of reliability and finish. Both are goals for Matthew.
His laid-back style, (he admits to having no “hard and fast” financial targets each year), actually masks a methodical management approach. At the core is the desire to keep making films for a living. There’s no sense YourFilm is being built up for an exit pay-day, or franchised off to other parts of the UK.
“I know we’ve got a good reputation now, and part of it that is because we’re still here in the same guise that we were ten years ago, doing the same thing. People notice that and it tells them we must serve our clients well,” he explains.
“Kevin and I always had it in our heads that once we got to 40 we’d have to reassess things and determine whether this was really a young man’s game. That’s another 10 years off and things are very positive at the moment and if one or two piece of work line up in the near future, it’ll be another big step up for us.”
Talk of big steps brings us to the potential for YourFilm to cross the pond. Matthew has a strong affinity with the US. As a child he spent time at his family’s Florida timeshare, and his wife is American. He’s more than open to the idea of a Stateside office.
He says: “When I’ve been over there I have taken meetings with agencies, in a ‘get to know you’ type of way, and they like English creativity. Last time I was in the States I was talking with one of the in-laws about the strength of creative stuff produced in the North East. There happened to be a copy of Entertainment Weekly on the coffee table and I said, ‘I bet there’s some North East work in here’. Sure enough I flicked through and there were illustrations from a local firm.”
In typically understated manner for Matthew, it’s taken him until YourFilm’s 10th anniversary to be able to say the business has really “taken off”. Slow and steady wins the race, after all.