Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe
Simon: Film Stories actually began life as a podcast last summer. So the infancy of this…I mean the infancy is actually fairly recent, that I was coming out of 10/11 years of Den of Geek that I’d founded and edited. I was also going through a bereavement, and I kind of wanted to just retreat into a room, talk into a microphone about films that I love, record it and just see what it was like putting something like that out. That struck me as, for me, quite a bold thing for me personally to do.
And I put the podcast out and to my surprise – it always sounds weird when people say this, but it is genuine – to my surprise people listened, and people seem to like it. It’s very helpful to me throughout a very tough period in my life that I came back week after week, and told stories about films, which is kind of what got me into Den of Geek in the first, that’s part of where that idea came from.
And it was just fun, and it was pure, and the story from that point on was just that I thought, ‘Well okay what what do I want to do next?’ I was at the proverbial career crossroads. I’ve always loved doing print magazines, and the half joke that I tell is, I came up with what would be career and commercial suicide all wrapped up into one package, doing something that’s apparently dying, and I was just like, well that sounds perfect. And there was a bit of that to it.
The germ of an idea for a magazine came more and more to the front of my head. I just thought well, this might be the moment, this might be the point where I’ll never get a chance to roll that dice again.
And so, long story short I rolled the dice. I got working with one or two people who just been brilliant. I put a kickstarter together, but at the point the Kickstarter was was running, I’d actually got half of the first issue of what I thought would be a mainstream film magazine I’d really love to read together. So that was one of the things to me, it’s just I back quite a few Kickstarters, I get very frustrated that you wait years and years for something that doesn’t…and I want to…
Chris: I’m nodding, I’ve lived through that. You know that’s the three year wait for something that may or may not turn.
And it’s hard isn’t it. I see both sides of it, it’s hard. But I wanted people to have some tangibly in their hand by the end of the year. I wanted to deliver on that very quickly. Also a bit of me I guess wanted to prove I could do it.
And we come to what, January now, and issue 2 of the magazine as we speak is just going into distribution, Issue 3 is on my screen in front of me. We’ve done a reader event. I think I’m up to something like 30/35 podcasts now, and there’s some pretty…well there’s plans for other things now. Some of them are Film Stories, some of them not Film Stories, but I kind of think I’m a bit back against the wall and I’m just gonna go for it.
You mentioned then that it was Kickstarted. How did you actually approach that in terms of selling it to people who might choose to crowdfund it?
I told the truth. Fundamentally at heart I told the truth, and I put a Kickstarter page up, and yeah we had some concept design work done, although bits of it changed bits of it didn’t, but I did a very strict ‘Here is what I’m going to do, what we’re going to do, here is when we’re going to do it, here is what it looks like at the moment, if you can support it that’s brilliant, if not spread the word. If it’s not for you, that’s fine.’ I just told the truth and used social media to promote it. But but that was it. If I was a highly paid consultant I probably would tell you that there’s a massively complicated way to do it.
Yeah there’s this algorithm to make a successful Kickstarter.
Yeah, and I’ll tell you what it is at two million pounds an hour if you want! Or fundamentally, just pour your heart and soul out onto a page and tell the truth. And that’s what I did. And it may have worked. It may not have worked.
Thankfully it got traction with people, it got traction with some high profile people as well. But I don’t necessarily want to cite them particularly, because the person who’s got two Twitter followers who backed it is just as important to me as the person who has directed a major movie, and that’s no slight on either of them. I just think we’re kind of all in it together.
Yeah. Particularly if you’re clustering around this niche, it doesn’t actually matter what side of the conversation you’re coming at it from.
And also what I will say is, if the Kickstarter hadn’t worked, I would have found a way to do it anyway. It’s just Kickstarter gave – the clues in the name isn’t it really – it just did give it that kick start, bluntly. And also the fact that it was in their hands, like it was in people’s hands only two weeks after the kickstarter ended. I was really proud of that. I thought that was something.
And I have plans to do more magazines in the future if I can make this independent publishing model work, some of which Kickstarters, some of which not.
But I just thought fundamentally, that is a principle to aim for. You promised something and you deliver it, and you deliver it as quickly as you can, to a standard obviously, but as quickly as you can.
Yeah. So other than the enthusiasm you have for the subject matter, what was it about this independent publishing model that made you think this is viable, that this could work as a sort of much smaller alternative to the great publishing houses?
I didn’t. Again I think I’m really undermining my consultancy career here! It was a risk. It was a big, fundamental, ‘I’m putting my heart on my sleeve’ risk. I think there’s something to it, don’t get me wrong, I’ve not waded into this naively. I was aware of the highs and lows, and what could go right, and what could go wrong. But it was still a massive step into the unknown.
So between Film Stories, which as you said doesn’t necessarily just talk around superhero movies but around basically whichever film stories that people want to tell, and endeavors like Bowers Pilot TV and some of the stuff they’ve been doing around 80s TV magazines specifically… is the term niche even appropriate for these types of product?
Well Coronation Street viewing is a niche isn’t it. It’s just a huge niche, you know. I mean it’s just another term used to subdivide people’s interests In my mind, but I get where you’re coming from in terms of niche publishing. We’re talking about the below the mainstream, the very segmented interests. I don’t know. I mean the term is the term.
I also think you’ve got ways to get to small audiences with magazines, websites and books now that just didn’t exist 10/15 years ago, that an assortment of barriers with very big difficulties associated, have come down, or become easier to negotiate.
So in terms of the word niche, I don’t have massive feelings on it really, nor did I overthink that, I just believed in something and went for it again. I know it continues to be quite a boring answer, but it is genuinely the truth.
That’s nice, it’s a it’s a very optimistic way of looking at things.
There’s not a single PowerPoint presentation I’ve done for Film Stories. I guess if there’s one thing that I’ve done consistently throughout my career, it’s that I’ve got things done for better or worse.
I’ve made my mistakes, I’ve had things fail, I’ve had things work, and my mistakes have all been in plain sight. But I’ve got things done, and I because I’ve come through small companies, or small magazines, and the budget and the publishing, I’m conscious that a lot of the time it’s a street fight just to get noticed.
If you say you’re going to do something, you do it, is absolutely fundamental. I think that’s probably the thing that’s helped me the most, just making things exist for better or worse. I edited a magazine called Micro mart for ten / eleven years. One of the things I’m proudest of with that, is we must have given 30/40 people their first paid writing break over that period of time.
That’s got to feel great, having given that many people a leg up in the industry.
I don’t quite see it like that. I just see it as, if someone’s held the ladder for you, I think morally, it’s incumbent on you to hold the ladder for someone else. I wish I could say it was sat here with a ‘I wanted to swell my heart’ moment, of course I wanted to help people, but I was very respectful of the fact that people had given me a chance. I wanted to give that chance to other people.
The film and entertainment ecosystem is troubling in a few ways, that we’ve got some excellent magazines. I mean I love Empire magazine, and what Terri White’s doing at Empire magazine with a drive to support new writers is just great, but she’s very much an exception to the rule. I think it’s notable what she’s doing, because not that many people are as overtly doing it, and she bangs the drum really hard. And she’s not the only one doing it, there are others out there, but I just think it’s really important that she does it. I think that’s such a thing.
But I think with the entertainment website ecosystem as well, I mean it’s a little secret. And this isn’t related specifically to the job I came out of, but there’s a little secret that the budgets are squeezed and it’s tougher and tougher, and it’s SEO dominated, and there’s less wiggle room. And also as a consequence, less opportunities.
And we saw a growth in outlets over the last couple of years that just weren’t paying people. And I say this as a reformed sinner. I am clear on this. There’s a degree of double standards to what I’m saying. In the early days of a project I was on, it didn’t pay people. I think that’s fundamentally wrong and I learned from the lesson and I’ve tried to address that since.
And so over the last seven / eight years in particular, when I’ve been doing things, zero budget is not an option. My fundamental feeling is if you are publishing writing, and that is your business, you budget for writing. The whole ‘We’ve got no budget for that,’ you shouldn’t be publishing writing if you’ve not got a budget for writing.
And so I made it part and parcel of Film Stories that at least two people in every issue would be getting their first paid print work. And as it’s turned out in the first two issues, we’ve had five in each. I can’t promise to stay at that rate. And they’re paid quickly.
They’re not paid brilliantly, I mean I’m transparent about the fact that because it’s self-funded and Kickstarted, we’re paying £30 a page, and I’m telling people who are…I’m having some really strange conversations with writers, and God bless writers who are expressing gratitude for getting the work, and I’m just trying to have a chat with them just like, ‘No, you need to be a little bit wide open that I’m ripping you off a little bit. I am getting the best end of this deal and your words are worth more than that’.
And also I’ve been transparent with people that if we grow the sales, and money comes in, the rate will go up because I think again that’s fundamentally the right thing to do.
That’s really good. I think it chimes with the most successful smaller properties out there that you see, from everything from the indie games publishers, to certain web comics, you deliver on what you set out to and what you said you were going to do.
Yes very much so, and indie video game publishing has been groundbreaking. Utterly groundbreaking, some of the stuff that’s coming out on major platforms now is just incredible. And the ingenuity and the growing willingness of an audience who tends to need a lot of things curating, to try stuff, has been gratifying as well.