Is this success…?

NZTECHO  Autumn 2015 Issue 64 Point of View

Cinematographer Waka Attewell had financial insight early on in the TV and film industry. He built a studio, ran a production company making TVCs and brought property, he even invested in trees. So why then is paying the mortgage still a struggle?

Waka Dave Benge ACC TVC (2).jpg
Cinematographer Waka Attewell has been around long enough to know the turns and roundabouts of the TV and film industry. Waka assisted by Dave Benge c 1983.

Am I the right guy to be giving advice around having financial security in the TV and film industry?  Well, I’ve traded out of the two dark holes the financial industry blessed us with, so perhaps I am. You see, for me, coping financially hasn’t been so much as putting money aside for a rainy day but, rather, investing in a few concerns outside the film industry.

However, while a bit of forward thinking can see you through the rough patches, it’s actually about first finding that balance between work and life. There’s an old saying that goes ‘find the thing you really love and you’ll never have to work another day’. In other words, find that delicate balance between a career and having a life in this thing called ‘the film and TV biz’ (which I still believe is about the highest end of the creative spectrum that you can get.)  So sure, there are high rewards, but the downside can also be very low. Mental health issues in people in the TV and film industry can be way beyond normal levels if compared to other industries. In no small part is this due to increasingly stressful work and economic conditions. It helps to be a little mad to contemplate a life in the ‘film and TV biz’!

Around 1987 (and after five years as a commercial production house) I rocked up to my accountant, feeling complacent, with that glow of ‘successful businessman’ written all over me. Straight off, he proclaimed we weren’t making enough money and that we’d have to get ourselves to the next level or we’d sink. Eh?

Here began my disillusionment with this thing called ‘the economy’, and my relationship with the dollar and the workings of the banking industry. It was like trying to understand a foreign culture, being judged as if on the verge of poverty when I was already making what I thought was enough to provide for staff and compliance. Having the concept of my worth being redefined by the lawyers, accountants and bank managers who wanted to be my future. Measuring wealth by the number of blips on the computer was even more foreign to me, it felt like being groomed for a slightly grubby business deal. A ‘Sophie’s Choice’ dilemma, make money off TV commercials, or flag all that and make the documentaries or feature films that spoke to my heart.

Their advice encouraged my company to chase the money and put aside the ‘worthy pursuits.’ What followed were endless days of standing around a studio, making food and cars look sexy, while trying to answer ad-agency questions like “can you make it softer and harder in a natural sort of way?” Or, as you lined up the chocolate bar, the account director wanting reassurance that it had ‘appetite appeal’ (as a pouting-made-up-mouth simulated a sex act).

In the beginning I had a great relationship with my bank, which came about after I happened to sell a documentary to a lot of international territories, and my account was soon awash with US dollars. But this occurred before I was even aware that I was in a film ‘business’. Suffice to say there was no plan. And, because of the sudden arrival of money (in all honesty a wonderful fluke), I stumbled into that strange world of finance, involving talk of shares, mortgages and investment opportunities. But, much to the horror of the bank, I wanted nothing to do with this, for their expectations and formulas required that we do it again, and again, and again. I went against advice and put the money in a 3% savings account and told the bank to leave it alone! I built a studio instead.

I made it up as I went along, the proverbial cork in the tide, and I thought by running a business I would discover the ‘how to’ along the way. But I didn’t know it was going to challenge my moral compass so intensely, in fact, I didn’t know I had a moral compass until I tried to discuss the merits of a sugar product with artificial flavouring (and some spurious claims about nutrition in the fine print) versus the health of the nation’s teeth. It seemed that being in business meant compromises and the ability to look the other way, while pocketing the commercial/corporate money without a backward glance.

I thought being in business involved a profound form of honesty. I believed that there was something ‘hallowed’ about forming a company, that everyone had the same inherent good and this would be a natural extension of all business dealings. I’ve been proved mostly right and mostly wrong, getting it mixed up for the last 40 years, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It seemed that over the ensuing years, every time we caught up with the bank(s) needs-wants-demands, the rules changed. Sly? Nah. It’s just the way business is done in the West. Cunning? Definitely. I now finally realise that it must be scheming about one’s money is what a bank does, although unfortunately it never seems to be for the good of the community, only ever for the good of the bank. True, they’ll do it with a smile. I know this because I worked on the first banking TVC that put ‘a smile into banking’!

The notion of having a company making TV commercials that could subsidise the work of the documentary makers (and in the process support a dedicated group of people) seemed like a logical step. The idea that you could fail at such a pursuit never occurred to me. Blind ambition, along with the inability to imagine pain before it’s actually being inflicted, is a good thing. I was doing the work I felt I’d been put on the planet to fulfil, while also ‘working for the man’ (i.e. selling to consumers who didn’t know they needed to consume.) Call me an opportunist – but a career of documentary and social comment, and feature films, as well as TVCs and corporate work just about covers the lot. Is that success?

Owning my own studio created the need for constant cashflow, because of the ‘smiling’ bank involved. In time I got the feeling the bank thought I worked for them – and perhaps they were correct in this notion – but, most importantly, we were still having fun and pushing the edges of discovery. Yet the company does become an entity, with its own needs and hungers, and it has to be fed like a furnace. It can become a monster, so be careful what you feed into the flames. Your life is more important than the fuel required to keep that fire burning for just another week, day, year. Be careful in the details with banks too, this can be another complete drain too. And, by the way, the choice of a business partner is critical.

Out of the frenzy of continuous TVC production the 1988 crash made me think for a moment outside the film TV business and I put together a forestry investment. I also threw some money into property, and later a building and a farm. Spreading the risk seemed like a good idea when the industry collapsed again in the mid 1990’s. The wheel turns again and we end up in the same old place, just a bit wiser. After the second, third financial collapse (and a trending fourth) you start to notice a worldly pattern.

In the 1980s running a small business with no skills in management, accounting or marketing, was a blessing – ‘good advice’ would have got in the way – but in those days a small business was doable, and ‘compliance’ was manageable (once you discovered what it was!)

Things haven’t changed that much, actually, though the language is a bit different – start-ups, internet, crowd sourcing – yet the need to read one’s moral compass is still the same. Do you chase the money or have a life? Finding a way to do both and be able to live with your decisions is still the tough one. Following the orthodox route can leave you empty and feeling abused, while being unorthodox will leave you open to ridicule. I have no answer for this, but ‘unorthodox’ is where all revolution and change for the better begins. Maybe it’s worth taking the risk.