Making Immersive : Commercial Practice

Making Immersive : Commercial Practice

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We’re joined by Sheena Patel and Mark Sarfo-Kantanka to discuss the nuts and bolts of scaling into commercial work – from managing budgets and finances to developing pitches, finding investors, exploring the international market and Obtaining IP. 

Our Guests:

Sheena Patel is an Experience Designer and Creative Producer with over a decade’s experience across experiential campaigns and immersive productions.She co-created and produced Time Run (voted one of the best escape games in the world TERPECA 2018) and Sherlock: The Game is Now (Visit London’s ‘Best New Tourism Business’ 2020). As Director of YonderBeyond, she supports brands, independent companies and agencies such as Flavourology, Bearded Kitten, Bompas & Parr and Hotel Wonderland to consult on, devise or deliver new immersive experiences Other titles and brands she has worked on include Money Heist, Peaky Blinders and Disney.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka is Co-Founder of NEXUS, an incubator for creative, digital & tech innovative SME, helping them to scale. Mark is also Co-Founder of Cellar Door an audacious event management group that challenges people’s perceptions by implementing ground-breaking creative experiences unconstrained by venue capacity or location. Find Mark on Socials: @nexuscreativehq @cellardoorgroup.com LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-sarfo-kantanka/

Hosted by Dr Joanna Bucknall and produced by Natalie Scott for the Immersive Experience Network’s, Knowledge Bank. Funded by Arts Council England.

Podcast Transcript

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Welcome to the Immersive Experience Network’s Making Immersive podcast series, giving you the tools and insights into the making of all things immersive and interactive. I’m your host, Dr. Joanna Bucknall. Over the course of this knowledge bank series, I’ll be having conversations with extraordinary creatives, production specialists, and makers who shape this tantalizing sector and the worlds that draw us into this form. I’m joined by Sheena Patel who is a founding member of the Immersive Experience Network. She’s an experienced designer and creative producer and is the founder and director of YonderBeyond.

We’ll be spending the next hour or so discussing the challenges and rewards of working within the commercial end of the sphere of immersive experience-making. It’s really helpful for folk listening just to get a sense of your journey, your background, your training, and how you got to where you are. Sheena, could you tell us a little bit about how you ended up working in immersive?

Sheena Patel

Sure. I would say I’m quite a strong generalist, and like a lot of people in this industry as it’s emerged, self-taught along the way. I left a career in the city about 15 years ago and I’ve worked across every aspect of live experience creation and production. Everything from creative direction and strategy to marketing, producing, and operations. I started off working at live experience agencies on large-scale festivals and brand experiences, then spent about seven years or so co-creating and producing playable immersive experiences with both original and established IP.

The first one of those was called Time Run, which, at the time, elevated that traditional escape game format to bring in a strong through-line narrative, cinematic sets, and interactive touch points. That project actually was surprisingly successful. At the time, we obviously hadn’t seen anything like it. The prototype was the live show. That actually led to us being approached by the showrunners of the BBC show, Sherlock, who invited us to build a permanent brand-new playable episode of the show.

I think both of those projects were really instrumental in my development because we were a core team of three and even with relatively large budgets, you tend to wear a lot of hats. This project allowed me to get a lot of first-hand experience of sourcing large-scale commercial properties and leases, undertaking extensive construction work to get the venues ready to receive the projects, testing out different marketing strategies, how are we going to entice audiences who are unfamiliar with immersive and what that actually entailed, and we found quite early on that it was really difficult to describe what the proposition was in a very snappy strap line.

We also started working with suppliers to see how we could use traditional show operating systems to build out interactive touch points, and then explore how we could make the sets really robust so that they could handle hundreds of players a day. During those seven years, there was a really big flood of IP and brands into the immersive space, and a lot of the founders of those experiences were from different sectors or adjacent sectors, not really bedded into what it was to make immersive experiences. I realized there was really an opportunity to start supporting these ventures with all the learnings that we had accumulated along the way.

I started YonderBeyond, spectacular timing, pre-pandemic, to a few months before the pandemic, but essentially to act as a plug-in resource within agencies or new companies that want to take on immersive work. Since then, I’ve designed an LBE for Netflix, I’ve scoped touring production for Disney, and I work with a lot of startups that really want to move into this space and just try to either provide consultancy or resource across the creative or the marketing or the production where they’re a little light on the ground in terms of knowledge, which has led me to where I am today.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Excellent. You were right at the forefront then involved in that early wave, early establishing of that space. Would you say that that really was where you picked up all those skills in that early phase of the immersive wave?

Sheena Patel

I think so. That’s not to say that immersive hasn’t been prevalent before we came into the space, but certainly more commercial projects. What I noticed, obviously, we’d seen really successful endeavors like Secret Cinema, and what we realized was that there was an opportunity to elevate other forms of entertainment by bringing in immersive tools but, of course, the how and really interweaving very rich storytelling with those tools to help elevate and make those rich experiences that place you at the heart was something that we very much collaborated on with people we met along the way and figured out in a very iterative manner.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Like you said, the pandemic happened when it did and you were able actually with some of those projects to pivot online and into that digital space. How much has that informed the way that you’ve moved, obviously, we’re now back in-person and we’re able to do things but did that open up different opportunities having to pivot to being online?

Sheena Patel

To a degree. I actually didn’t do many digital commercial projects but it did allow me to go back to brand side because that market had evolved and there was an opportunity to come in as a creative and experienced designer to really try insofar as possible not to use immersive as a buzzword or as a genre but more really see how we could practically leverage the tools to create richer experiences. It also gave me the opportunity to join the creative XR accelerator program to start building out a prototype of a project that brought some of that magic of location-based immersive into the home. I created a physical Kirigami pop-up book, which had an AR overlay, which was very much like a point-and-click game. Fusing tactile touch points and immersive storytelling to create a really rich in-home product. That was a great opportunity to really start understanding more about a technology that I think is really going to help us break the back of scaling projects as well.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Sheena, you’ve been instrumental in the development of some of the most iconic immersive experiences across live and digital spectrums and a lot of your work has been in one way or another, commission-based but could you talk about some of the challenges and opportunities of working in that commission space that you have to deal with on a daily basis and you have to consider?

Sheena Patel

Sure. I think often, the opportunities can present challenges. They’re two sides of the same coin. Obviously, with a lot of commissioned work, what we have the benefit of is a commitment of relatively large sums of money from the outset as you’re working to a more defined set of objectives and you start off in alignment on your timeline and the level of execution that can be achieved for that. There is, with that, a little bit of comfort in knowing what you have to play with or a commitment to that. There’s also the opportunity to get a lot of value in kind provided through access to IP.

Potentially, you have access to their marketing channels that have captive audiences already. You could potentially get access to original props or set drawings, access to talent at nominal rates, or even consultancy from the showrunners, and all of that is really invaluable in maintaining the authenticity of the offering. I would say a key challenge, however, is managing the expectations of how far your budget can get you and also really trying to keep a tight hold on the scope that was originally agreed. Of course, we’re all guilty of getting very excited, and particularly if you’re not from the industry, that scope can really creep up.

I would say what I learned is it’s very important to be collaborative with your commissioners from the outset, and in so far as possible, really ensuring that all your stakeholders are clear on how their feedback can significantly impact the budget that they’ve committed to. I’ve also found that a key benchmark of commissioned work is the ability to scale or a requirement to scale, whether that’s through touring, having multiple sites, or quite large footfall. The opportunity with that is that there’s more willingness to take risks and prototype new tech or ways of using tech to help achieve the scale.

Though, on the flip side of that, there may be less creative license to take risk within the storytelling because you may not be able to move too far away from the canon or you’re ring-fenced in how much you can use it, or how the brand and the IP needs to be presented, whereas with publicly funded work, whilst there may be some uncertainty in the cash flow when you’re reliant on a lot of pots or you’re trying to seek match funding, or you’re hitting spend deadlines in a way that aligns with your production pipelines, you do need to acknowledge that a lot of the work that comes out of the UK is world-class. It’s immensely inspiring, it’s very innovative, and public funding has played a really big role in that because it allows our makers to take very big creative risks and whilst there are other hoops they may need to jump through, they are still largely beholden to their vision, and that is something that I think needs to still have space.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

That is, I think a really hot topic at the moment. This is not a new ecosystem. Let’s look at traditional theater, for example, is the fringe in experimental and publicly funded work has always been where innovation and risk-taking has happened that then feeds that ecosystem 10 years down the line into the West End where then they co-op to those things, and start to utilize those tools, but without that protected innovation art space and that public-funded space, I worry for our global position because we’re global leaders at the moment. Like you said, everyone looks to the UK for a benchmark of how these experiences can be put together, and that innovation space is very much at risk. I wonder rather than falling into that very traditional ecosystem if we have the moment and the space to find other ways of supporting that risk in innovation space.

Sheena Patel

Yes. I think we’d love to find that even within immersive. We’re still trying to find the optimum modeling. I think scale is still the buzzword and with that at the moment, I think most people are exploring how to leverage immersive tech in order to hit that scale but I personally would love to see larger brands or brand partners offering incubation spaces. For work that is still largely location-based, that maybe leverages tech but also maybe doesn’t because it’s always the happy accidents that then feed the scalable version of a show.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Well, tech is tech. I think there probably is going to be a large chunk of funding coming into the sector through the tech. The government seemed very keen to support immersive technologies in the development of those but like you said, they need to be in the hands of experience-makers as well but in a space where they can potentially take some risks and try them out and use them in different ways. I wonder if we can be smart when that money comes in for the technology if we can find ways of intersecting them. That’s not a question I expect you to have the answer to. I just think.

Sheena Patel

It’s the million-dollar question, and also, there’s just a lot to be said for embodied, playful, tactile human experiences. How can we ensure the two dovetail elegantly? It is an exciting question to try and answer.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Absolutely. Are there any obvious pitfalls to avoid when considering working within a commercial space and what have you learned to avoid in your own experiences?

Sheena Patel

I think for me, the biggest challenge is trying not to reverse engineer your modeling. It’s a trap that we’ve fallen into and a lot of people fall into, which is, wouldn’t it be cool if we really want to make this and that will cost X. All we need to do is get 600 people through it a day. However, it’s highly interactive and therefore, we can only get X amount of people through at a time, which means we need to run for 12 hours a day.

The reality is, that may work, and absolutely, if that’s what you want to do but I think it’s really about trying to stay honest, really understanding your market, that product-to-market fit. Do 600 people want to go through this experience a day? Are there enough people in your locale to do that, for example? Yes, if it is something that needs to run for an extensive period of time with small groups, can you factor group sales into your marketing strategy early doors but really start to consider what it would actually take to fulfill that?

Equally, I think there is still an appetite for the proof-of-concept show, the MVP, the small elegant production that really demonstrates the potential to start developing, iterating, and growing slowly. Yes, of course, I know that is still dependent on the appetite of your investors or where the money is coming from, but there’s a lot to be said for just excellent storytelling and execution that matches what it is that really resonates with people.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

We pick up on something you mentioned earlier. Often, you’re dealing with an IP or a canon or an existing universe or world. How much does that influence how you set up that strategy if, for example, Sherlock has broad appeal and it’s a household IP, so I guess that opens up different potential approaches because you do have significant audience, whereas maybe a smaller or lesser known or non-IP based piece of work might have more challenges in getting the audience.

Sheena Patel

I think when working with IP, and not necessarily speaking particularly around Sherlock, we’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve worked with really great partners who are very open to having earnest discussions. The first question you have to really ask is, what is the intention of your partner? Why are you making this show? Often, it is to extend the life of the brand or to provide a new dimension to stories people know and love. I think really that is the cornerstone of how you then build out what you want to do. With certain properties, there is a requirement to get a certain footfall because that ongoing awareness is really important to them. Of course, there are many levers here.

If you are saying high interaction, high footfall, does that mean that the storytelling lever or the richness of the interaction goes down slightly? How can you counter that? With each show, it’s quite bespoke. Yes, absolutely, having access to a captive audience means that it does make your life easier, but I have noticed a real appetite for original content. I believe that’s because audiences are beginning to understand the rules of engagement within immersive more and are able to now fill in the blanks that a known story would have signposted them to, are becoming increasingly discerning, and are open to more interesting or unexpected routes through an experience.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I think IP is for a lot of people because, let’s be quite honest, sometimes some of the experiences are quite expensive as well. Taking a risk on something you don’t know for the first time ever as an audience is quite a big proposition to ask for a family to come spend 300 pounds in total for the day, probably more. If it’s something they know and they love, that almost pushes the door open and like you said, sets a precedent. If they have a high-end, really satisfying experience through something they knew, then they might consider going to something that’s £30 that’s in a more unusual place because they’ve already had a great opening gambit, if that makes sense.

Sheena Patel

Yes. Absolutely. I am increasingly aware that if people have a ring-fence disposable income to spend on leisure and the market is flooded with live versions of their favorite shows, how do they choose which one? I think within that, there is a risk that we can start to become increasingly homogenous in form, taking us back to why the innovation and publicly funded work is quite important. I think that audiences will get to a point where there may be much for muchness in IP-led experiences and they will actively seek out something different, particularly if there is a lower price point.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I do hope we keep that innovation bubbling away and offering a different offer. I cannot with this discussion mention Glasgow’s chocolate fiasco as well because, like you said, not everything is high quality. Of course, if that was a family’s first encounter of an immersive experience, that’s troubling. It links back to what we were talking about earlier, which is actually raising the quality across the sector and sharing good and best practice benefits all of us because then it’s easier to recognize when something potentially doesn’t sit within that stratosphere or that community. Does that make sense?

Sheena Patel

Absolutely. That’s not to say in traditional arts and entertainment that there isn’t a range of quality. I think that the challenge here is how high the price point is largely across the board. For me, it really just comes down to managing expectations. I think a trend certainly when I started working in immersive was keeping the offering secret. Actually, I’m more convinced now that really providing clarity on what you will experience or what you will receive really helps to manage that expectation, and again, allow for ranges of price points, ranges of production values. Everything doesn’t need to be slick and shiny to be deeply compelling and resonant.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

No. Absolutely. I’ve been to some things that I’ve paid £5 for that have transformed my life and changed everything, and they happened in a phone box or in a toilet in a tiny venue. It doesn’t have to be huge. I think there is a lot of work that’s relying on that. I think for me, certainly one of the key things is, don’t over promise to an audience if you can’t deliver that expectation because as someone who goes a lot, for the £30 range, I wouldn’t have expected to step inside Wonka, that film, because that’s a higher price point to have those expectations. I’m not entirely sure we’re there yet with audiences knowing what their expectations are for that price point.

Sheena Patel

I think there is a real gap there, and understandably, people feel quite reluctant to spend 100 pounds on a show but as we all know working in the space, the capital expenditure is high, and often, when it’s a performer-intensive show, the operational costs are very high. I think there’s work to be done in bridging audience’s expectations for a price point, particularly the high ones as well. Actually, a lot of the money is spent behind the scenes, and I would say as a rule of thumb, actually, about on a lot of the projects I’ve worked for, only 30% of that budget really goes to the creative execution. There’s a lot to be done, particularly when you’re looking at large-scale venues, which are very difficult to source, and the work to make those ready to receive the project, there are a lot of hidden costs putting these shows on.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I think it’s interesting again, just because we’re so emerging and new in reality in relation to some of the other cultural sectors that have a longer history in the theater. Again, coming back to that traditional theater, I think there are quite clear expectations that are usually attached to a venue or attached to a location like West End. You know the quality you might expect when you’re paying that ticket price. I don’t think in immersive we’re there yet but I think we are definitely moving towards audiences understanding and knowing what they might expect, not necessarily from venues because, of course, venues, we find what we can for those venues but in terms of maybe companies or brands, people are starting to I think have an expectation of what might sit around that, I think.

Sheena Patel

Yes. It’s a really interesting one. I change my mind all the time on rating system or how to quantify the value of an immersive experience. For me, the ideal metric here is emotion and how this makes you feel, and that is so subjective, and each piece is so bespoke and subjective as well. How do we benchmark that?

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Well, often, again, reviews come into it, especially in the theater because there is an ecosystem of people go and review things, you can read reviews before you go, which is fine for immersive theater and things that can plug into some of those existing mechanisms for registering quality but, of course, a lot of these experiences like we talked about are interdisciplinary. A theater critic isn’t going to go potentially to an escape room as part of their job, which is a massive problem. I think maybe there’s a little part of the sector that can plug into some of those traditional routes of quality and I think for everyone else, it’s much more difficult to receive that visibility and the credibility that you’re able to if you’re already part of a cultural sector.

Sheena Patel

Though having said that, escape games do have a very active community that have their own reviewing systems. I guess the question is, do we need one system to rule them all or not?

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

No. I don’t know what the answers are to this but I think there are some useful things to think about. Sheena, you’ve worked on a huge variety of projects with a distinctive inflection actually, for playability. Can you talk a bit about the process of designing a commercial experience? Where do you begin? Then, how do you test it and how does it end up with audiences? What’s that process usually?

Sheena Patel

Well, thinking about it really from the commercial side, I think each project is really unique. For us, it always starts with the intention. Again, with a commercial project, the intention of those that are investing in it or commissioning it and what they are trying to achieve or if we, in fact, have sought the investment, what it is we’re trying to achieve. Why are we making this? Who are we making this for, first and foremost, and what exactly is going to resonate with those audiences? We need to think about whether we’re adapting an existing story or creating one that sits within or alongside a canon, or if it’s a completely new concept.

Ordinarily, we’d start out by building the first iteration of a compelling story, and ideally, we’d have a venue in mind to map it out against. I think there’s always a lot of ping pong between that because this work tends to be quite site-specific when you’re talking about large-scale productions and those venues are very difficult to find. For me, because the venue is such a variable, I would work with considering those costs first. Again, that has to be Working in very close consultation with your funding partners and really understanding their appetite for risk.

With certain projects, we’ve had to knock through existing units in a shopping center to create a space large enough, which means that we have to put the HVAC in or put the new plumbing in, put toilets in, and actually invest in taking that venue back to shell in order to be able to receive the project. That is a huge upfront capital expenditure. However, that means we can potentially negotiate a lower rent. If you have an intention to be there for many years, that may actually be a strategy that works better for you, whereas if you are looking to be more of a short-term project, you may be better off going to an existing event space which has a much higher monthly fee but you’re not doing all of the capital works to get it ready to go. That’s one of the first things I’d look at.

Then we’d look at that footfall that’s required to achieve the expected return. That return, again, depends on the strategy. Are you looking to break even after the forefront of the show? Are you looking to have the first workshop space? What are the other income streams that potentially can supplement that? Are you going to have an F&B offering and merch and so on? Really then looking at the footfall that’s required and then looking at the interactive or playable mechanisms that are going to drive this story forward in the best way possible for the number of people you need to get through. Often, that’s meant like pulsing models where we can actually design multiple environments that can host multiple groups at the same time. Then it’s really a case of iterating and optimizing all the way through to launch.

Actually, I’m working on a, well, have been working on a project at the moment that wants to leverage play very high production values and take an entertainment-first approach to purpose-driven storytelling. Been working with an incredible playable theater and impact theater maker who has really shone a light on the importance of playtesting early and often. That doesn’t necessarily mean full prototypes of set janky ads but you just learn so much along the way, and especially when it is a highly playable or interactive experience, I think that regular play testing is really invaluable.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I agree. It seems to me, from what you said, there’s a bit of a tension there as well between venue and potential footfall or needed footfall because if you’ve got a venue that’s not central or not easy to access, you’re not going to be able, I’m assuming, to get the high footfall often. How do you manage that tension?

Sheena Patel

It’s a balancing act and I think it’s always quite holistic. Again, if you’re working with a very popular IP, you balance that and say, if you’re a really established incredible company like Punchdrunk that has a huge fan base, they are probably able to take the risk to be a little bit further out. Again, this comes back to that product market fit and do you need to start smaller in order to really establish yourself and then grow or iterate as you do? There’s a lot of ping-ponging back between venue, footfall, modeling, and ultimately, at the heart of it all is really what is the compelling experience here and when are any of those other things really severely impacting? That is what we always need to go back to.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Would you say there’s more opportunity because we’re in quite an unusual situation with high streets and those kinds of spaces? Do you think there’s more opportunity at the moment because we’ve got empty Debenhams and John Lewis’s and these sites? Do you think that we have a bigger opportunity to start to get more things in central places where there’s a big footfall?

Sheena Patel

I think there really is an opportunity but it’s really now working very closely with the landlords to try and find packages that make that realistic for people. The spaces being available and charged out at the commercial rates just don’t make it viable for interesting work to go in there. If we are looking at it as more of a place-making opportunity and concessions can be made, then absolutely, I think it’s the best way to start regenerating these high streets.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I agree. I think we’re, as a sector, in a really strong position to be able to help with that place-making and regeneration as well. Hopefully, in London, there’s quite a lot of understanding about how that works, and I’m hoping we can start to see some of that replicated in the region. There’s so much there that we’ve talked about and I’m going to ask you for one final thing, which is just to offer the folk listening one really salient piece of advice that’s really helped you on your journey.

Sheena Patel

I think the one thing that I keep coming back to is being mindful of the reality of how much you can spend on the creative execution of the project and how many nuts-and-bolts costs are associated, particularly as the project gets larger and larger. I think trying to be mindful of designing an experience where the execution is about 30% of your overall budget is a really great starting point. That’s what creatives do. We’re not just people that have blue-sky ideas. We find creative solutions. I think really leaning into that from the outset means that you have a lot more flex to build on, embellish, and enhance a really robust creative concept, as opposed to trying to retrofit the other way with potentially unrealistic modeling or cutting corners on key bits of production that need to happen for the piece to be safe and salient.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. I know you’re super busy and it’s been brilliant. Thank you very much.

Sheena Patel

Thank you, Joe.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Now, I’m going to be talking with Mark Sarfo-Kantanka. Specifically within the immersive space, Mark leads on Cellar Door’s own brand Bollywood Fever, which, since 2015 has become the UK’s largest immersive Bollywood cinema experience, supported by both the British Film Institute and Arts Council. With an expansive contact list of developers and landowners, Cellar Door carries out meanwhile use consultancy and venue finding. As CEO at NEXUS, Mark has overseen NEXUS being awarded endorsing body status where his company assesses the viability of overseas founders wishing to launch new innovation-led companies in the UK. NEXUS also operates its own Angel Network helping ambitious companies raise investment funds to support innovative projects. Mark, hi.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Good morning.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

You have a background in economics. I wondered if you could talk about your journey and roots into working at Cellar Door and how you’ve connected and intersected with the immersive sector.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Sure. I’ve got a background in economics. That’s what I studied at university. It confuses a few people when they find out that I work in the creative industries. To be fair, it actually allows me to have a different approach and a different eye when it comes to the creative sector and how we engage with the corporate, but yes, whilst I studied economics, from day one, I was always into creativity stemming from music. Music’s in my DNA. Music’s in my blood. It went from DJing to organizing club nights to live music events in my late teens, taking that through university, and then spinning that out post-uni to just organizing more music events by actually partnering up with larger brands and organizations.

Economics is my background but like I said, it has allowed me to navigate and probably bridge the gap between the creative sector, the creatives that I work with, and also the corporates on the other side who are looking for creative ideas to better connect themselves to their target audiences.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Do you find that background gives you the language to be able to represent and advocate sometimes for creatives who don’t necessarily have experience of working in that more corporate space?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Absolutely. It’s probably something that I find I stumbled into. In terms of being that conduit between the creative industries, those creatives who I and myself I’m one still, and also the professionals, the corporates, or the perceived professionals because actually, half time when you work with them, it’s a misnomer where they work and their setting that do they really know as much as the creative believes that they do? I think it’s important for creators to understand that corporates and brands need you. They need us as much as the other way around, and there’s equal value to be had. Where I sit, I like to be able to communicate that in a way that the brands, the corporates understand to make sure that they recognize that there’s value-add being brought by the creatives, not just a nice tick box that makes themselves look nice and pretty.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I think it’s intimidating I think sometimes for creatives, certainly in my experience going, well, how do I even start there? Will I have the language and the toolkit to be able to operate in that space? I think what you’re saying there is so interesting because it’s about recognizing the value actually as a creative that you bring and the value add that you have, and just being confident in that. Sometimes I think creatives feel like they need permission to be told that they can.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Yes. It’s something that we see, it’s something that I saw, and it’s important to know one’s worth. I don’t want to go off topic here but half the issue with the creative industries is not having a value that it recognizes. When we’re looking at business models and how a creative approaches an opportunity, it’s the vision, it’s the end product, it’s celebrating the craft and having people enjoy it. That’s the magic at the end of the project, whereas if I go back to my days in banking, yes, I also spent some time in banking for my sins but it was interesting to work in that space whereby working within the credit risk department, if a deal came in, the end goal was, oh, is this profitable? It doesn’t matter how exciting the project is. It doesn’t matter who the partner is, or the brand or the company.

If this is not making money, then it’s not a deal to be done. The approaches are very different. One recognizes value numerically from the get-go whereas the other will worry about asking if I even get paid for this project later, it’s us on the creative who make something amazing. It’s only when you recognize your value from a numerical point of view is that equal standing. Definitely when it comes to negotiating contracts. Even talking about contracts can be intimidating. There’s a lot to be discussed around the creative industries in general where immersive sits within that. Immersive having its value within the creative industries, it being recognized by government. I think we saw a lot of fallout from COVID. I don’t want to go a piece too much.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

No. I agree. There’s so much in there to unpack and that leads nicely to saying it is fairly intimidating. Lots of people listening will already be working in that commercial space but for anyone who’s thinking, what’s the value for me as a creative of moving into that space? Let’s assume that they’re going to recognize their value, recognize their worth. What do you think are the opportunities for creatives in moving into that commercial space?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Interesting question. Moving into the space. This is just my opinion. I think the first approach is recognizing that is one big space rather than you have to move into because I think in moving into, you almost feel as if you need permission to be in that space, which isn’t necessarily the mentality that I think will reward the creative at the end. Recognize that you deserve and you belong in that space as well. It’s one big space, first and foremost. Again, it goes back to my thought process of corporates, the commercial world needs creativity as much as that way around.

I think by having that mindset then allows you to, one, you’ll know your worth, and then be able to understand, okay, in operating in this bigger space, how do other suppliers carry out their activities? How do they earn? What do they do? If they have to have accountants, then maybe I need an accountant. If they have lawyers, then maybe I need a lawyer. There are these professional partners out there to help navigate the space. As creators, we can still do our creativity. We don’t have to do it all, notwithstanding that at the beginning, it’s tough, so you do. You always wear so many hats. When we’ve done events ourselves, you’ll find us mopping floors and scrubbing the toilets. We’ve all worked in that world where you’ve got to do everything.

It comes a point to if you’re really about this life and you want to be rewarded financially for the efforts you’re putting in, then take a step back and look at your business arrangements. There are companies out there that are there to support the sector. What Immersive Experience Network is doing, for example, as being a beacon for people to at least have a conversation and speak to just allows people to be signposted to, okay, this is what you’re about, but this is the wider support that you can tap into so that you can feel a sense of belonging in this bigger space. Any creatives or individuals, SMEs working in this space definitely reach out and leverage the benefits of knowledge exchange by tapping into the likes of IEN.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Actually, quite a few creatives who started in that more publicly funded space have stumbled, probably quite by accident, in a lot of the cases into working commercially. What we’ve seen from some of the conversations we’ve already had is that actually, at the moment, we have this really interesting situation where commercial and corporate opportunities actually are underwriting a lot of work that goes to the public. The costs that it takes for them to produce that work for the public and produce a ticket price that people would be happy to pay doesn’t cover the costs of the work but then some of the corporate and IP and brand activation work that they’re doing is supporting then their other parts of their creativity. Is that a model that you’ve come across or that you’ve utilized yourself using almost corporate work to subsidize more public-facing avenues?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Yes. Absolutely. I think it maybe sends back to what I mentioned about leveraging partnerships and you don’t have to do it all yourself. Typically, if you’re looking at producing a show, producing an event, the first mindset quite understandably is, what’s my ticket price? Am I going to make enough money at the door to put on the show? Whereas actually, if you look at your wider ecosystem and the business side of it, actually, can I tap into a corporate partner who needs to speak to this audience? Can I tap into the requirements of the local authority or the local land developer who’s putting money into the space, who’s trying to change or enhance the reputation of an area, and actually, this will probably fit into their marketing spend? There’s money out there to help create a model where financially, it’s feasible for all parties, and ultimately, the creative is being rewarded for the activity as well. The challenge is making sure that the vision and the creativity isn’t destroyed by other people.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Other agendas.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Yes. My tongue there.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Well, I think it’s interesting as well because a lot of companies who’ve been able to keep going and been resilient through the pandemic and in the difficult arts culture that we’re in at the moment have those, what I would call diffused revenue streams. Instead of just having one model or approach of making revenue, they’ve got multiple tracks. It’s an ecosystem that weaves in. Would you encourage creatives to think much more laterally about what opportunities might sit around? What might be their core practice? How do they start to think about where there might be opportunities that they wouldn’t normally consider in their creative practice?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

I think first and foremost, the key point of what you’ve just said there is just at the top of the agenda when it comes to sitting alongside the vision piece or the creativity. How do I make this happen? I don’t think or don’t believe that creative SMEs have to work that hard at it because there are networks like IEN and others that should be tapped into. I’m going to keep saying that because there’s definitely been a behavior of working in isolation or forming clicks, and then there’s knowledge exchange. Sometimes you see someone coming up with a new immersive idea where actually it’s not new. It’s probably a variation of something that’s been done before, and rather from learning from the best practices, it’s difficult to learn if people aren’t talking about it.

Say on this podcast and the fact that people can hear this allows people to understand and hear different voices and maybe reach out to different speakers, and that knowledge exchange is really important, and it’s something that’s been lacking. Having the joined-up approach again became even more transparent, as you said, because of the impact of COVID. COVID really exposed the fragility of the creative industries in general. It showed that there’s a total disconnect from the government to those working within the space. The approach for every other business was, here’s a bounce-back loan. For the creative industries, it was, we don’t know what to do. Arts Council, here’s some money. Deal with it.

The Arts Council, that’s not what they do. Their approach to dealing with funds, they did as best as they can, even though I might have some criticisms. I’ve got the opportunity to sit back and maybe point fingers but the approach was a panicked approach. Again, the fragility was really exposed but, in that time, we had some really great conversations with Tom Lionetti-Maguire from Little Lion Entertainment and Andy Barnes from Entourage. You find different people looking to approach the challenge of the fragility of the sector and financial planning in the same way. To just bring in different voices together and having different networks that are speaking to one another allows the sector to be better represented.

I think it’s that representation, which has been lacking for a long time, alongside having and relying on models that are probably outdated. Having reliance on grant funding. It’s great when the grants are there but we’ve just seen that Burman has been devastated by the cutting grants, alongside most various town cities in the UK. Even relying on grants, you’ve not been able to develop a commercial model, so you’ve not been able to, as I said before, look at your wider ecosystem and say, how can I come up with a better commercial model to fulfill my practice or my ambitions, my projects?

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

You’ve no value working in that public-funded sector. Most of the creatives I know have different rates for working in that space than they would if they were working in a slightly different space, and that’s because everything is so tightly squeezed and when it’s public money, there’s a responsibility to show value for money. I think that’s generated a culture of us undervaluing ourselves and our work, and I think there’s a lot of work to do in shifting that mindset.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

100%.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I think within a year, unfortunately, most large-scale funding that’s come from any councils or cities or public funds is going to diminish even more than it currently is. I think you’re right. I think it’s the moment where we need to go, okay, we are in a precarious situation but there are definitely opportunities for us to start to think differently and fund the work differently. That’s why I think it’s being connected in every conversation we’ve had at every level from every discipline is the fact that everyone is reliant on networks and on each other. Make sure you’re connected to those resources and to those people I think is really important.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

100%.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I wanted to just shift gears slightly and talk a little bit about because, especially with things that have been in the news recently, and talk a bit about IP and your experience and your insights of, how do you work with IP in that way, for creatives that are listening. I know it’s a huge question.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

IP is fantastic. First and foremost, if you’re able to work with IP, then you’re working with something that has done the legwork already in creating identity, creating an audience, and that’s gold dust. Now, actually working in the IP or with the rights holders can be a challenge. One example. At Cellar Coor, we conceptualized an immersive experience in 2015 called Bollywood Fever. Bollywood Fever takes the Bollywood film genre and it celebrates it in a larger format. We bring together the different elements of food, music, dance, and ultimately film, and we celebrate on the big canvas. It’s something that we conceptualized independently. We saw that Bollywood is one of the biggest film genres in the world volume.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

It’s so huge.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Massively followed. Massively admired, celebrated, but when it came to how it’s digested, how it’s viewed, and absorbed, definitely in the West, if you want to watch a film out of Bollywood, then you might see in your local Ode8on and it’s been shown at ten o’clock in the evening and there just wasn’t that much done to really celebrate it. We thought, let’s take this space and own it. It was hard work because getting hold of the IP in the first instance from studios on the continent in India was a challenge. It’s not like trying to get back to the future from [inaudible 00:53:07]. It’s very different. Our approach was to take your Star Wars equivalent but Bollywood titles.

When you’re looking at films made in the 70s and the 80s, the rights might be held by one person in a family and there’s a family dispute. You’re navigating beyond the studio. You’re navigating family dynamics sometimes. Someone might have the rights and needs of the rights to score. For us, the first day that we did it, we kept it quite vanilla, quite simple, and we took films that would help our film bank to allow us to start. We did a first iteration at Bargehouse in South Bank across four days and it was self-financed. It wasn’t run at a profit. It was run just to start the proposition and to create a brand identity.

The biggest show we did was in 2017 or 2018 where you obtained the rights to a huge, huge film called Sholay. It literally is the Star Wars of Bollywood. Obtaining the rights to that film was probably one of my proudest achievements because of the different phone calls I had to make. The rights holder of the film ended up being the grandson of the original producer. He held the rights up in the company he’d set up in Dubai. It was a funny time because he was between London and Dubai. A really, really nice gentleman, Sascha Sippy, who I consider to be a friend now, and there were different connections I had to make, and the different text messages going.

I had to ring a number and this person had to validate me and then they partnered with someone else, and if someone else would text me and say, we heard you’re interested, text this number. Let’s go in the houses and eventually, I got hold of this guy, and he said, “I’m going be in London today. Can you be in I think it was Mayfair. I’m there.” I got on the train, got to Mayfair, and he messages, “I’m not in Mayfair anymore. I’m at Bayswater.” I was sitting at a table just with him and his right-hand person and negotiating literally around the table. That’s how we got the IP to that film. Very dramatic. He ended up coming down to open a show for us. We did it at the ICC in Birmingham. It was a beautiful activation.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

How long did that take, that process, would you say roughly?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

About a year. A lot of chasing.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Sometimes it’s hard even to figure out who actually owns the rights of older properties. How did you find that out in the first place?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Searching through Google, IMDb, you got original membership for IMDb and that will say one thing, and then you ring Sony in America and they say, “We don’t own the rights. We used to have the rights.” It was an absolute minefield. I guess a different example was when we did our 2019 activation based on a film called Lagaan, which is probably one of, again, the biggest sports films ever made across any genre, whether it’s Bollywood, Hollywood. It’s, again, very iconic. We chose to film because it tied in with the UK hosting the Cricket World Cup.

There were many pools that we wanted to leverage when it came to opening up the audience beyond the Bollywood audience. It was a fascinating film to host and put on. That one was held by the studio in India and that was a lot of again, going back and forth to establish credibility because they don’t know who we are and also, the idea of what’s immersive. Why would you want to do this? It doesn’t make any sense. You don’t want to put a screen on you and do all these other facets around it. That was a challenge when it comes to educating the piece around the why. Then this is [crosstalk 00:57:32].

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I think I only know of two companies in India and they’re both theater who make what would loosely be called immersive work but they definitely don’t call it that either. Is that a challenge as well then working in different cultural contexts?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Absolutely. We had to respect the different cultural differences. There’s a lot of patience. It came down to obtaining the DPD literally the day before the show and having the unlock codes the day before. It was always the case of, don’t worry, it’ll be fine. The energy is really relaxed. You sold tickets and they’ve uni assets to market the proposition. Everything should be fine, but you still haven’t got the unlock codes. You’ve signed a contract but you’re still just waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. That was a bit nerve-wracking but it was great to get that.

The interesting thing with the Lagaan film was after we hosted that, [inaudible 00:58:38] got in touch because they’d been trying to get the rights for the past three years to Lagaan, and they hadn’t been able to, so they came out to our offices in Croydon. Who comes to Croydon? They came to Croydon and said, “Look, if you guys could get it, can we perhaps do something together on the film?” That’s still work in progress. We were hoping to do it during COVID or prior to COVID, then COVID hit.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I would say, where does a project start, how do you begin, but I’m starting to get the sense that it’s probably bespoke for every proposition. Would you say that was the case?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

I think definitely within immersive. I think there has to be a degree of flexibility because there are so many different, probably four or five key pillars and you have to get lined up. The IP now, definitely, when we’re speaking to venues now, venues right now are hot where they have a lot of ambitious producers trying to sell division and they’ve now learned that half the time or 9 to 10 of the time is a waste of time because they came to these conversations and nothing happens because actually, a producer doesn’t have the IP. Now, the question is, have you got the IP? If you haven’t got the IP, go and get the IP and then come back. You need to get the IP now. If you don’t have the IP and you’re speaking to the IP holder, the rights holder, they’re saying, where’s it going to be?

Then if you haven’t got the venue, then they say, “Okay, well, get the venue first and then come back and let us know.” Part of it is a degree of trust. They have to trust in your brand that you can deliver based on the past. If you haven’t done it before, then, unfortunately, that’s just legwork that you have to do. It’s part of what that one has to do. You’ve got the IP, you’ve got the venue, you’ve got the funding, or the funder, quite often, you’ve got maybe the local authority or the developer so you can start leveraging the marketing in the bigger capacity to make more noise, and then probably yourself as a producer/project manager are trying to bring together a roadmap so you know how this is going to play out. I think ultimately, there has to be the vision of this is what we’re building. Sometimes you have to roll the dice and say this is happening in 18 months’ time to start to build awareness, to start to build some energy, but what you don’t want to do is roll the dice too many times and create a brand reputation of not delivering.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Would you say 18 months is a good time for a project to be initiated to it being delivered?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Definitely. I know that when we speak with potential producers who maybe approach us for helping maybe fundraising, if they’re looking to put in a show in six months’ time, then for us, we know that that they’re not really about this life, or they don’t know this world well enough to think that they can achieve it in six months, particularly if it’s a first-second show, and what they’ve got is the vision without the IP. It allows us to make decisions quicker as to what we’re participating in and what we’re not, but yes, 18 months is a good lead time.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I think that’s really, really useful to know. These things also take time, especially if you’re doing something theatrical, then you’ve got even more build time, I’m assuming, needs to be factored into that happening. Just for some of the folks listening who might not have worked in this space before, can you talk a bit about the role of investment in realizing a project? You said that it’s one of those pillars. What does that look like? What are the different opportunities for getting investment for a project? It’s probably loads.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Investments is a big one. I say it’s important not to chase the money. There could be an opportunity where someone has an affiliation with the IP that you’ve got. An emotional connection from their childhood in terms of a film and they want to throw money at it. That’s the starting point. Then actually, as you get into your project, they want to direct, and that’s not what they do. Then you’re at the behest of the fund holder. That’s from an emotional standpoint.

If you’re looking at it from a, let’s say, a commercial sponsorship arrangement that you manage to factor in, then quite often, the brand is, when are you going to start the marketing? For them, it’s about eyes. When are people seeing our brand and our affiliation with this project? If that’s not, again, your world too much, then that’s another business issue you’ve got to deal with. What we started to look at more is funding from overseas and how we can leverage individuals or corporations who are looking to deliver inward investment into the UK. That as a route can be quite lucrative and/or even speaking with overseas locations. I was in Qatar in January speaking with an organization regarding Bollywood Fever.

Maybe taking the brand overseas to develop proof of concepts where there is more money overseas. Being a bit risky and ambitious in that regard. Definitely where you’re seeing in the UK, a lot of definitely private funders are keeping hands in their pockets. Last year, the venture capital market literally closed their books. They weren’t really funding certain organizations. The likes of Secret Cinema. They haven’t sold the day tickets, but before, when they were funded by VCs, they do put money into this space. Entertainment has been on their radar but if they’re closing their books, you’ve then got to look at the sponsorship side of things. A lot of sponsors, a lot of brands, have been riding out the wave of their after’s of COVID, inflation, inflationary interest rates as well. The commitment to spend hasn’t really been there, which has again affected timelines.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Do the British Council support? Are they useful for support in taking work internationally or moving into an international market?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

I say yes. We haven’t engaged with them directly in that regard. We tend to do stuff independently. I think again, most things is about relationships. If you’ve got someone that’s really good in organization that can be your stakeholder internally, they’re fantastic. They can help do the hard work internally for you. When we did Bollywood Fever in 2018, we had a partnership with the BFI. Struck up a really good relationship with key individuals within the organization, but that was built up before the event. It wasn’t when delivered this event, can you help us? We built those relationships. Even during slow time, just work on building those relationships with key stakeholders. Still, even where grants are struggling in the UK, start building those relationships. It could be a change of government, maybe possibly. Who’s the shadow secretary for culture? Build those relationships now.

If you’ve got overseas locations that are spending money, pick up the phone. You can have video calls now with anyone around the world. Just tell them about what you’re doing and see what the energy is like. Again, we had a positive conversation with a company called Miral Investments who are based in Abu Dhabi. They saw what we did in the outdoor cinema space and they said, “Look, we’re spending a lot of money in Abu Dhabi. We manage the tourist attractions. We’re very keen to receive a proposal for you to run a large outdoor family-friendly cinema for us in Abu Dhabi.” This was back in 2019. That’s the first time it was on our radar to actually overseas territories, they will spend money. Build relationships. Keep building relationships.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

If you have been working in that public funding space and that’s where you’ve built your reputation, I guess that’s useful too in terms of because, like you said, if no one knows who you are, even if you haven’t been working more commercially but you are known for quality and for what you do, would you recommend really starting to engage as well with people who can help you do some of that work and people who have much more experience of doing that kind of work?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Yes. Again, you don’t need to repeat activity that’s already been done. Leverage your network. Speak to your friend’s friend. Really engage in knowledge exchange. Speak to organizations and networks where they can share the how-to and the connections. Don’t necessarily look at a connection as I need you to help me do this. Again, look at the value-add. Why should they work with you? Because the relationship’s been built up over time and it’s not just a case of them holding out their hand and saying, “Here’s my black book.” You’ve got to bring your A-game to any conversation. If it’s a case of working in yourself and how you engage with third parties, then do that. Invest in yourself before you’re asking others to invest in your proposition.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Just to bring everything to a close, you’ve already given loads of actionable takeaway advice but do you have a really solid piece of advice that you would give folk listening who haven’t worked in this space? Anything to avoid and anything they absolutely should do?

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

I would avoid acting in a singular mindset. Look at collaboration. Look who has done what you’ve proposed before and build on that relationship as much as you can. Secondly, I’d look at your funding journey, your funding story, not just what can you bring to the table based on your proposition as a producer or as a creative, but what value-add you’ll bring to someone else, and maybe open their eyes as to how they can maneuver their finances or their ability as a commercial corporate to invest in your proposition. Again, I referenced before, landowners. Landowners, for the longest time, you had a really interesting talk with Andy Barnes and Will Marwan, meanwhile use, there’s a great meanwhile use paper that was done in November 2020, commissioned by the GLA.

If you read such articles, listen to such podcasts, you can see the way that you can work better with developers where actually it’s maybe in the developer’s interest to invest in your proposition if you’re particularly able to signpost success stories of this is where it’s worked well before, and this is how you can be part of that conversation. This is how you can be part of your journey and in speaking to a developer rather than, again, just send your proposition, just start with, what problem can I help you solve? What do you get paid for within your nine-to-five what your objective? If your objective is to create sticky footfall amongst local audience, well, I can help you do that by driving audiences. All of a sudden, I’m not a disruption to your day-to-day when I’m ringing you. I’m a solution. Really understand what solutions you can provide to other people and let that be the sale rather than, do you want to apply into my proposition or my project?

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

It’s going as a solution with them, and like you said, with minimum space, it was really interesting that actually, even just sometimes having you in the building is a huge solution for a company.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, it’s very cliquey as well.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Yes, it is.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

It’s very cliquey and that’s a detriment to the sector. The sector in itself, stepping away from the creators or producers, particularly when you’re in the space, the sector’s got to be more open to welcoming new voices and new identities. That’s a challenge that we’ve definitely seen, particularly if you’re not coming from an agency. If you’re coming with your idea and your own creativity and you’re building from bottom up, if you haven’t worked with XYZ or been on this show or not been a producer for Secret Cinema, then people don’t really want to get in a conversation. The sector’s got work itself to do.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

I agree. There’s a lot of precarity and there is a lot of cliqueyness, and that’s one of the things I think we’re trying to open out by bringing all those cliques together and persuading them to disrupt some of that.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

Good luck with that. Take my hat off to you guys.

Dr. Joanna Bucknall

Well, lovely. Thank you so much for joining me. It’s been a real pleasure.

Mark Sarfo-Kantanka

No, thank you.

Date of article - April 25, 2024
Updated - May 2, 2024

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