John Volmink: Producing a film career

"I started my career as an investment banker but I’ve always had a passion for film...I had to have the guts to put my passion to the test. "

Where are you currently located on the planet: Johannesburg, South Africa

What is your business called and what does it do? Diprente Films: We like to think of ourselves, perhaps a little ambitiously, as a ‘boutique’ film studio. We develop, finance and distribute feature films. In 2011, we will be releasing The Adventures of Bhamuza (a kung-fu movie set in Johannesburg), Blitz Patrollie (a buddy cop action movie starring Dave Kau and Joey Rasdien) and will start production on a mockumentary horror set in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal. We also dabble in television production and are the producers of the show ‘Late Night News with Loyiso Gola’ on ETV in South Africa. We are always developing and looking out for interesting, fresh and edgy film scripts and concepts.

How long have you been operating for? 1 year

Why did you decide to start your own business? I started my career as an investment banker but I’ve always had a passion for film. I always used to see it as a far fetched dream to actually be involved in film. However after a while in the corporate world I realised that if I wanted to be involved in film, I had to have the guts to put my passion to the test. Armed with savings in my bank account, I embarked on a career in the film industry. (FirstStep.me says cool stuff!)

Name the toughest challenge of starting your own business? My nature is to be highly strategic. It is my gift and curse. However, in a start-up, the most important immediate activity you need to engage in is to find out very quickly what makes you money and to start doing that thing. You need to get money coming in to your bank account at a faster rate than it is leaving. Quite often, this profit generating activity is not very strategic and generally requires doing ‘mundane’ tasks in a ‘down-and-dirty’ way. While it seems a very silly thing for a businessman to say, I now understand that in business, first you make the money, then you can strategise about the future. (FirstStep.me notes: good thinking!)

Do you see your business going the distance? Yes I do. I feel that we have a unique combination of creative and commercial talent which sets us apart from most producers who engage in ‘passion projects’ which, while sometimes being artistic triumphs, often are not based on a sustainable commercial model. We are focussed as much on the bottom line as we are about what is seen on screen. For this reason we are well positioned amongst the film finance community while maintaining creative ‘street-cred’. We are also continuously understanding and refining our film making business model, finding out ways to extract profit from the entire film making value chain.

What ambitions both short term and long term do you envision for your business? In the short term I want to focus on making sure we knock our current projects out of the park because that will mean repeat business from our funders and the audience. This will also attract the best creative talent to our business. In the medium-long term we need to make sure that we have a pipeline of productions for the next two years. Our long terms strategy is to establish strong international relationships and grow the budget and market size of our films. We also will look to bring critical and profitable elements of the production process in-house. We may also look to becoming the local production partner for large international film productions.

What has been the most insane moment of running your own business? In the movie business every day is insane. But one of our crazier moments was selling a movie at a religious festival in Durban. We printed a whole bunch of DVDs and T-shirts (most of which are still in our cupboards) and drove down to Durban to sell these at church rallies (it was a Christian movie shot in Zulu). Everything was so badly organised, it was sweat drenching Durban humidity and we were constantly fighting with the event organisers who didn’t deliver on what they promised. After much pain we drove back to Johannesburg the same night exhausted and largely broke. (FirstStep.me feels the pain!)

Do you believe that business is kick-started on a cup of coffee in the morning? A cup of coffee followed by a proper gym session with ‘butt-kicking’ music playing from my I-Pod.

In terms of business which country do you feel is setting trends that people should take note of? While a bit clichéd, I think that the USA is on the cutting edge of harnessing the power of social networking to drive business strategy. This will be become more and more important for consumer and media focussed businesses.

Do you have any business mentors and what are they like? No, and this is a cause of major frustration for me. I am often charting new territory and making do-or-die decisions. Many times, the help and guidance of a mentor would have saved me from costly mistakes. Finding a mentor (or mentors) is one of my stated objectives for the year.

Any business inspirations that make you want to keep your business going? Ultimately, what keeps me going is the thought of sitting in the cinema with a box of popcorn watching one of our movies and listening to the audience’s response.

Finally if you weren’t in business what would you be doing and two if you could name your own planet what would it be called? If I wasn’t in business I’d like to see myself as a writer/academic (just so long as I can still pay the rent…). My planet’s name would be Fantasia (it would largely be a film inspired theme park in which we could all be children again). (FirstStep.me raises an eyebrow...)