Ever seen Son of Rambow? You know, that film where two boys decide to film an action movie over the summer holidays? Well Donna and Dan set up Sparks to get your children doing the very same: they hold workshops for children, teaching them filmmaking skills. And once they've turned your children into the next Scorsese, they're looking to get you into the director's chair too.
Initially friends - and freelancing individually - Donna and Dan recognised their complementary skills and set up a business together in 2010 to provide filmmaking workshops for children. Donna trained as a LAMDA teacher, while Dan was holding film workshops in Pupil Referral Units (for children taken out of mainstream schooling).
Their first session took place in a community hall with six children. It was a success; parents and schools were anxious to help the children in their care build up soft skills. Whether you like acting or editing or directing, filmmaking allows, Dan says, “everyone to become an artist.”
The business developed gradually as they organised regular weekend sessions and hundreds of classes for schools and birthday classes. They hired freelancers to help with sessions. But apart from the accounting, the two friends were responsible for everything: from teaching and planning the curriculum, to building the website and posting fliers through countless postboxes.
It was in 2013 that they realised that demand had outgrown the operation and they would need to take a step back from teaching to expand the business.
In 2013 they secured a £25,000 loan off their bank. They needed financial security to step away from their freelancer commitments, hire freelancers, focus on marketing and move into dedicated office space. Looking back, accessing finance was a relatively easy process. “We came out thinking how relaxed they were,” Dan remembers. “I don't think they realised what an impact they made.”
Before then they were working from each other’s homes. They suffered from the practical difficulties of working between two houses - from the conundrum of where to host a meeting, to the intricacies of splitting the grocery shop bill. When they were looking for office space, they “shopped around a lot,” Dan says.
The Pill Box appealed to them because “it looked like we'd have the flexibility to play with our space,” Donna explains. “Most places in our price range were shared or offices designed for non-creative businesses… we couldn't imagine having a chat in the corridors.”
Since being at Pill Box, they've had quite a few chats. Not only did they find their new accountant in the building, this Christmas, they collaborated with another Workspace customer in an unexpected way. They had been tasked with a project that involved shoes. “Lots of them,” Donna laughs. They enlisted the help of fellow Pill Box resident I Can Make Shoes to help them find a large collection. “There's a culture of people doing each other favours.”
2015 marked another transformative year for the film agency. They rebranded; and they refinanced and concentrated on their strategy and cash flow, helped by a mentor discovered as part of the Growth Accelerator programme.
They now have a full-time member of staff and 20 freelancers as well as a part-time teacher. Some of their pupils have gone on to study and work in film and win awards. Sparks have classes in Balham, Highgate and Hampstead; are opening two more workshops at Easter; and have a children's book for aspiring filmmakers in the pipeline.
It's now that they've also decided to focus on an older demographic - business clients – as part of the new venture, Sparks Media Training. The move was driven by demand: a friend who worked in publishing asked them to train four staff members in how to interview and film authors. “Social media and live video are becoming more important,” Dan says. “Short, digestible video” is ever more in demand.
To tailor the course to the publishers' needs, Dan asked them “what equipment they had and the type of videos they made.” Their grown-up pupils have gone on to film authors for Profile Books and Serpent's Tail. While they've trained staff at the Citizen's Advice Bureau.
Video is certainly something all businesses - big and small - will have to contend with. By 2019, 80% of all global consumer Internet traffic is predicted to come from video. Yes, you read it right. And the same report stated that more than half (52%) of marketing professionals worldwide already think video is the content with the best ROI.
An unexpected switch for Sparks perhaps, but it makes sense. It means that you know you're in the best hands. If they can train a bunch of unruly kids to someday produce epic blockbusters, then they can certainly get your business making professional-looking videos at a fraction of the cost.
Sparks Media Training are holding a video production training session for business at Pill Box in Bethnal Green on January 24. It’s designed to make participants feel confident and capable to produce videos in their workplace. For more information click here.