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Stephen Hole is the COO of Vertigo Releasing. Stephen qualified as a chartered accountant in 2005 and after stints at Ernst and Young, Ingenious, Vertigo Films and Entertainment One, returned to Vertigo Releasing as COO in 2017. He is responsible for overseeing legal and business affairs, finance and digital, and home entertainment. Launched in 2014, Vertigo Releasing is an all-rights UK film distribution company that specialises in maximising the profiles and audiences for independent film. Stephen, thank you so much for joining us.
Matthew: Good! So we’ve got a couple of warm-up questions, and as you know, you work, Stephen, in a pretty cool industry distributing some pretty cool titles – Bronson, Football Factory – so does that make you a cool person or would your family and friends say different?
Stephen: I mean I certainly wouldn’t call myself a cool person by any measure. But you know I’m a longstanding film geek, so I’m always excited to be involved in the film industry and over the years to have been involved in some really, kind of, cool films. I mean, like you say I was involved at a production level at you know, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson um, at the same time as Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, which I don’t know if you’ve seen but it’s, you know, some great films a few years ago now. But we’re always, in terms of distribution, we’re releasing, you know, we’re always releasing some very cool films. I mean we recently released Censor, which I don’t know if you kind of saw the campaign around, but you know Prano Bailey-Bond is an exciting kind of new director. Ah Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal, um, Jennifer Kent, The Nightingale which, you know, as a film fan, they’re really kind of cool films, and also well received by critics and fans alike. So it’s just, you know, it’s kind of really exciting to be involved with those and we just always have some really cool stuff coming up. Um, you know we’re doing something with Stephen Graham in a kind of a one-shot film about a chef over a course of an evening called Boiling Point we got that coming up in a few months, and you know as you could probably see, ah, I’m not cool but I am a bit of a film geek and I do love it. I mean, I’m a chartered accountant by training, so I’m doing my best to elevate the standard view of my profession but generally I think my friends would probably just say they’re bored of me rabbiting or about film to be honest.
Matthew: What’s your favourite film? It’s not one of the questions I was gonna ask you but now you’ve said you’re a film geek, is it one of your own titles?
Stephen: I have a huge kind of soft spot for Monsters, just being involved back in the day on the production of it and the distribution of it. Um, and the way that film was shot was it was just a tiny team. They were a tiny team, a small budget. A lot of it was kind of improvised with locals on the spot and then from there Gareth Edwards has gone on to be – it’s been great to watch his rise. You know he did Godzilla, he did Star Wars Rogue One, and you know the kind of trajectory from that you know that smaller passion project and um, brilliant film. So that is one of my favourite films, is it my favourite? It’s one of my favourite films to have been involved with. And it is a film I like and love as well.
“Over years I think I’ve come to realise there’s a real art to delegation and empowering people around you to make decisions or recommend courses of action, and you know, I think that’s about accepting there’s a limit on your own time and unless you get other people involved, you know, things will never get done.”
Matthew: So there’s a perception that successful people in business are ultra-organised and efficient but in real life, they often have something that they could do just a lot better. What one thing in your job could you do a lot better?
Stephen: Over years I think I’ve come to realise there’s a real art to delegation and empowering people around you to make decisions or recommend courses of action, and you know, I think that’s about accepting there’s a limit on your own time and unless you get other people involved, you know, things will never get done. So I think I’m always trying to be better at, you know, getting out of other people’s way. I mean of course you know that goes hand in hand with making sure those people are, you know they’ve got, the team’s got the knowledge and the training, the resources they need in order to do their jobs properly. And you know I think as a COO in a smaller company, it’s an ongoing challenge to kind of balance meeting the day-to-day commercial requirements of a business with making sure the company itself is kind of constantly working in the most efficient manner, whether that’s kind of improving systems, improvement in systems, people, resources, etc. So yeah, there’s always improvements to be made and I also think in the current climate, like right here right now, it’s a real challenge to filter out the noise and you know you’ve got communications coming in from every direction – email, Whatsapp, Slack, Zoom – and yeah, sometimes you just need to focus on what actually needs doing and then ignore the hundred different messages that you’re receiving each day.
Matthew: So technology we know is fundamental now even in your sort of role, in a more financial role, so what big changes are on the horizon in your industry and how do you anticipate that you’ll address the financial aspects of those changes with technology?
Stephen: You know there’s so much going on with technology in every aspect of the world that there’s a number of different angles on this. But I mean I think in our marketplace, film in particular, has seen significant changes in the way the market itself operates through a kind of fundamental and ongoing digital transformation which has been happening over the last decade or so, you know moving away from a very linear process of releasing a film which is, you know it goes into the cinema and then ultimately ended up on Sky or BBC or you know the pay for free TV broadcasters, whereas now we’re living in a world where there’s this much more diverse ecosystem, where there’s just this multitude of digital platforms where you can rent or buy content from and you can buy them on the internet or on your tv or on your phone, basically wherever you choose. And you know that’s all alongside the growth of, obviously the streaming services which you know we will see plenty about and then the studios moving into that streaming world as well directly you know with their own platforms. And that’s all before the ongoing evolution of the technology, there’s the emergence and new media coming along. You know there’s the AVOD, which is the advertising video on demand, which is something that’s pretty big in the US and is starting to kind of come over to the UK and other territories around the world and that’ll move on the market again and yeah, and then the next way to consume content which we don’t even know about yet. So you know that’s all then combined with, in the age of covid, where you know consumers’ viewing habits have been upended again and shifting to accommodate working from home and then really forcing them to embrace that digital environment.
“So that’s all then combined with, in the age of covid, where consumers’ viewing habits have been upended again and shifting to accommodate working from home and then really forcing them to embrace that digital environment.”
So you know I think over the last year or so everyone’s become much more comfortable with the idea of streaming your content from a subscription service or buying it online. You know for us that’s great, I mean as a consumer you’re overwhelmed with choice about where you can go so you’ve got to make some decisions but as a distributor you’ve got, you know, a myriad of different routes to market to consider so when you’re releasing a film. It’s a huge opportunity about, you know, what’s the best way, best place to release your film and how does that work from a financial point of view.
You know the challenge is passing all of that data that comes with that, whether it’s data about the audience and where they’re going to find their content, to the data coming out from the platforms, the digital platforms, about what’s working, what’s not, what’s a good price point, what’s the best way of releasing. Ah and for us in terms of a technology approach as a company, you know what we need there it’s about getting access to as much good quality data as possible, about how titles, and not just our own, but how titles in the marketplace are performing whether that’s in the cinemas or on digital. Ah, you know that technology exists, that’s you know, kind of subscriptions to databases that, you know provide charts and track performance on the different mediums, and then another is kind of crunching all that financial data you get directly from the platforms when they report to you and crunching it into a manageable form and a centralised location for further analysis as well as the basic, you know, invoicing and reporting requirements.
Um, so I mean our aim is always to kind of improve and expand our understanding of the marketplace and where the opportunities lie and then maximise the value for not only the company but the stakeholders, you know the filmmakers and the people involved with the film. So um yeah, so fundamentally our market is shifting a lot. There’s been huge amount of change, obviously alongside that not necessarily industry-specific. There’s you know tons of technology movement and I’m excited about anything that can remove manual time-consuming processes, whether that’s a company expense processing app or modules that you can add on to finance systems like such as Just-ROYALTIES which can unlock more of the potential of your system, of those systems, and you know automate reporting processes and so on, you know and the list is endless really is it.
Matthew: That raises a really good point because I remember we used to come into the office and we’d say, “Did you see that programme last night?” and it was always a good conversation starter, wasn’t it. I don’t think now, if you went into an office of 30 people, you will find any more than 2 people possibly that will have watched the same programme or content last night. I don’t think it happens, I think people, like you said, people are consuming content in so many different ways. I don’t know if you’ve found this especially over the last eighteen months, but have you seen that some of your older titles that you possibly had written off from the perspective of people consuming that content, have now delivered something new now because people – everyone’s been going looking over old content and over the last eighteen months, people have been sat there on their own in an evening wanting to watch an old film, wanting to watch something that I haven’t seen you know for a few years have you seen that have you sort of seen that in your numbers?
Stephen: Yeah I mean obviously we would never write off a film, there’s always kind of like some sort of life to it, but certainly there seems to be – people are rediscovering old content and there are, you know, we’ve been involved with some kind of re-releases of older titles, you know we did, ah there was a 4K rerelease of Dog Soldiers, and you know we re-released that and it kind of had a whole new life recently and everyone was kind of rushed to embrace it and there is certainly – and there’s a lot of films out there that are kind of resurfacing and either through direct re-releases, people are seeing opportunity to bring great films and breathe some more life into them, or things that have been kind of, you know, organically discovered on platforms and are surfacing, and I think, you know, good films will always resurface and have further opportunities, no matter how old they are. I mean some of, you know, you mentioned I say Football Factory and Bronson, and they’re titles that they’re really, they’re great films and they um, they kind of have an ongoing audience people who go back to them or rediscover them. That aside, there is an overwhelming level of content and the audience is pretty fractured, probably. I mean everyone’s got their own platforms they subscribe to and their place they go to for the content.
Matthew: When was the last time you guys were in the office and someone said, “Did you watch that on the telly last night?” People don’t have that conversation anymore, they don’t and used to!
Stephen: There’s the odd one that cuts through isn’t there, They um, well not only one but there are the big ones that are the must-see, you know I’m thinking, say, Line of Duty or something like that. You know probably, you know there’s probably a few of you that have watched that.
Matthew: So what frustrates you about technology in the industry at the moment, Stephen, and how much of that is the fault of the tech companies not delivering the tech or the users not embracing the tech?
Stephen: I think to be honest, any frustration I’ve got is probably, it’s more of a result of where we are in the process of the development. You know as we said, there’s fundamentally, there’s a lot of great tech out there, you know, but I suppose the extent to which they integrate or can be integrated I find can be limited at our end of the market, can be prohibitively expensive. But I think, you know, inevitably those things change over time because as the different offerings get tried and tested and start to get more widely adopted then prices come down, systems start to be linked up and more efficiencies will come in.
Matthew: Is there an element, though, of people saying, “Well we’ve always done it that way, so we just want to continue,” because I come across that quite often.
“We’re keen to embrace anything that can give the business an extra edge, more efficient use of resources.”
Stephen: Certainly from my experience, I don’t necessarily see that, I mean on the whole I’d say, you know my experiences as users, we’re kind of keen to embrace – as users here, and here at Vertigo – we’re keen to embrace anything that can give the business an extra edge, more efficient use of resources you know, but as a smaller company (that’s kind of part of the beauty of being a smaller company) is you can move quickly and you can change quickly and you can, you know, whereas making that change in a massive multinational is a huge undertaking, we can move quite quickly to try things out and change how we operate and we’re keen to do that. My message to suppliers would be, you know I think it’s important to recognise that an independent company is different to a multinational in terms of what they require, what they can pay and you know, yeah, pricing things accordingly or working in a more collaborative manner could be more useful. You know as a smaller company, you can bring a different perspective onto how the tech is used and developed. Realistically these things, they start with the bigger companies who have the need and can pay for it, and the development on that ultimately validates the project and allows for it to be a wider rollout and for wider adoption. So I suppose the frustration is just more where we are in the chain which is, you know, we need to wait for these things to become slightly more mainstream to make sense for us.
Matthew: So your organisation is embracing digital transformation, but when introducing technology within your organisation, how much of that has involved a sort of genuine change management process?
Stephen: In a smaller firm, it’s hard to dedicate the same resource that, you know, you would expect to be able to deploy on implementation in a large organisation. So you have to get team buy-in to changes because they also need to be the ones implementing. So I mean, I think we were very much led by the team if we’re looking at technology changes, you know, and we’re always keen to hear from them, what services can they see or are being shown to them by the market and do they see genuine value in those services, and if it’s something that’s a must-have and not simply a nice-to-have, i.e. you know it’s a fundamental requirement and we need to kind of execute what we need to do properly, we need this, then you know between us we’ll assess the offering the cost and workout whether we can or should take it on. Just-ROYALTIES is an example of that, and it’s a collaboration between, you know me and my finance lead to look at how it works, what it would enable us to do by having it, and the best way to implement it, and you know ultimately the team are the ones using it so we need to ensure it will do what it needs to do and gives rise to the benefits to the business because, there’s no point forcing something onto people that they have no intention of using or that they don’t see the benefit of.
Matthew: More and more now, Stephen, I’m saying to people that are looking at a project like this, I am sort of saying have you know, have you engaged the team right from the beginning? So it might be a really big desire of you to, you know the CEO or the COO or the FD or the Managing Director to implement something, but the sooner you start getting your people on board right from the beginning and say, right I’m interested in this, what’s everyone’s thoughts on it, I think the sooner you can do that these days with with any technology, not just what we do, the better, because I think then not only are they going to utilise it better in the long term and buy into the whole project but actually they may well just come up with some good ideas and good thoughts, and like you said Stephen they might have actually seen something before or worked with something similar somewhere else. And actually just by you asking a question there they’re going to come up with something that makes you think, hold on I haven’t thought of that and etc etc. So, I always think that, it’s something I’m telling people all the time now.
So what one insight of your finance technology journey would you share with your peers?
Stephen: I mean it’s probably the most obvious thing and everyone knows it, but my experience is always taking the time to properly plan your technology roadmap, whether that’s kind of the specific implementation of a discrete piece of software or technology, or the longer term view of the company’s objectives and the requirements to get there, so for a one-off kind of discrete implementation, you know by spending the time to plan, you’re gaining cost savings by making sure you’ve got everything covered in scope rather than implementing after go live, as well as time savings, you know, making sure everything gets implemented properly upfront rather than when you’re trying to use it day-to-day which can be quite a, you know, a drag on time. And then for the longer term roadmap, it’s just, you know, it’s making sure you have an understanding of what you might need in place as the business develops, kind of anticipating those needs and then, you know, for us, we knew that some sort of upgraded royalty reporting solution was going to be a requirement down the line and you know it wasn’t an immediate need – because there’s always this balance between putting the resource in before it’s needed so it’s ready, and the cost of doing that before it’s needed – but you know you can use the time to understand what the options are, the products are, kind of being ready to move when the need crystallised. I mean I think we talked to you for a while about…