Creative Spotlight Series #7 — Michael Latif on adapting to thrive in the new world of production
Here’s where we shine the spotlight on the brilliant people behind-the-scenes who bring stories to life day in and day out.
We spoke with Michael Latif, Head of Finance at UK Production Company Two Brothers Pictures, established in early 2014 by writer/producers Harry and Jack Williams who are on a mission to produce quality comedy and drama television in the UK and internationally including recent hits such as Liar, Baptiste, The Missing, Fleabag.
Michael was new to the industry when he joined Two Brothers, which is quite rare in such a closely connected industry. Here we see our industry through those fresh eyes and discuss ideas for the change Michael hopes to see to help TV & film production keep going from strength to strength.
See Michael’s full career credits on LinkedIn >
POP: How did you get into the industry?
ML: I’d always been interested in the whole world of film & TV and met Harry & Jack years ago through College friends. I passed my accountancy exams through CIMA, working for various companies, but then I heard the Two Brothers were looking for a Head of Finance. I was also a massive fan of The Missing and loved the other shows they were doing. My best friend’s an Actor and a writer too, so I had those connections and had always been interested in following the development side of things. They always said I’d be a great fit for the industry, I must have the personality for it!
POP: Two Brothers is a relatively new Production Company on the scene, how did it start?
ML: Harry & Jack have been writing for a long time, initially it was a lot of comedy writing and then with The Missing they had a huge drama hit on their hands.
They formed Two Brothers and bootstrapped it by working out of one of their houses, which is pretty amazing, and ultimately it was their quality of output that led them to build this company and for it to continue going from strength to strength.
The company is only 7 years old and they already have a handful of new shows on TV screens this year alone — Fleabag 2, Cheat, Baptiste and The Widow.
POP: So how did you come to be working with them?
ML: I was actively looking for a job in the industry when I saw an advert for Head of Finance at a TV Production Company. I applied and sent it to Jack & Harry to see if it was for their company as it sounded so much like them. It wasn’t, but as it happens they were looking for a Head of Finance at the same time.
So, a bit of luck & good timing.
POP: What excites you about the challenges of TV production?
ML: The mechanics of it excites me — there’s just so many moving parts. I compare it to old style factories and factory output, this is the new industry, but it’s the same mechanics with everything dependent on all the other cogs.
When you think about it, it’s such a process from Harry & Jack’s brain to the screen. The time it takes can be years, it goes through so many different lifetimes.
What always amazes me seeing the way they work is that they have the confidence to let things go, they have to relinquish control. Each project is so personal and so creative, and yet for it to take that next leap to come to life, they have to hand it over to a whole new team of people who actually make it happen.
POP: Your role is managing the purse strings, how is this different to previous industries?
ML: It’s different in the fact that each project is its own financial entity and can vary dependent on the show. Sometimes we’ll fund the writing ourselves which provides more opportunity when it comes to selling the idea, and sometimes the broadcasters will pay for development in which case they have first dibs so to speak!
There’s always an innate understanding of what the budget will be based on who it’s for, the type of show, location of shoot etc and then it’s my job to build out the budget and to look at how that will be funded whether it’s a bank or broadcaster as well as what tax credits the production might qualify for. Tax credits for High-end TV in the UK have been brilliant in supporting the industry and allowing quality shows to get made.
From the finance side it’s about building the profile for how we’re going to fund the show, then you start to build the crew and once the team’s in place, we almost let it go. That is then their entire world every day, but for us we could have 5 different productions at different stages of the production line and different pressures, so they’re thinking of budget of show and we’re focused on budget of company.
The pressure is effectively managing all those different projects at once and making sure we’re an effective support function for them whilst staying on budget.
POP: As someone new to the industry — what’s been the biggest surprise?
ML: I’d worked a lot in previous roles bringing in software and technology to make improvements and find efficiencies.
What surprised me after speaking to people in Production Accounts and experiencing behind the scenes myself, was the lack of streamlining and that teams would still be chasing signed contracts and it would be the end of the show.
Under GDPR I’m the data controller too so I noticed all the paperwork and the processes around having all the payroll stuff locked away. It’s so manual for what you think is a technologically advanced industry.
For the size of information and how many people there are there’s such a high volume of people and turnover of information, you need people just to chase contracts.
POP: In the 8 months since you joined, have you noticed any changes in how the industry is operating?
ML: There’s definitely younger people coming in who are more adaptive to using technology, so that’s a bit of a generational shift but the real challenge is habit change, and that takes time.
POP: What action do you think we can take to drive change?
ML: We need to open up to people outside of the industry and broaden our recruitment reach. We work with Skillset and are very pro opening up to new people, from all different backgrounds and I love that about our company.
I’m not from the standard background of someone in the industry either and we need different people coming in to challenge things.
POP: Why do you think this is so important to the future health of the industry?
If you have one group of people you’ll miss out on a wealth of influences and talents and it would be so sad if we all missed out on something, on these other amazing stories just because we didn’t have different people working in the industry.
I’m so happy that Two Brothers massively encourage it and All3 have a great placement scheme too.
It’s where the industry needs to go but we like people who are like us because they make us feel comfortable.
POP: We couldn’t agree more, Kate, our founder recently wrote about this and how we all need to challenge our unconscious bias, especially if we’re in a hiring role.
POP: If we take another step back to look at the really big picture, the industry is experiencing unprecedented change driven by technology with the rise of the streaming services like Netflix & Amazon — what impact have you noticed from this?
ML: There’s been a definite shift in output. The introduction of the High-end TV tax credit has allowed lots of shows to be made in the UK and brought a lot of investment our way — which is showing on our screens.
Another thing I’m noticing when building budgets is that rates are being pushed up due to all these shows being made. That combined with people being so booked out all the time with so much shooting, it’s really difficult being squeezed on budget.
Comedy in particular is very difficult as the rates aren’t the same as drama rates so I hope we can encourage a bit more comedy and increase output there, because that will struggle otherwise, especially with the tax credits on High-end TV drama.
If competition is strong you have to become stronger otherwise you don’t survive — I hope smaller Indies aren’t pushed out and that we strengthen output across the board in different segments.
POP: Dare we say it — something else that will impact the competitiveness and financing of the industry is Brexit. Nobody knows the answers, but what are your thoughts?
ML: Yeah. It’s extremely scary. From a labour perspective, I can’t see there being a massive impact but with funds coming in different currencies that will be harder to keep track of. Hopefully we can have enough structure in place to still have the opportunity to film abroad and in amazing UK and foreign locations.
POP: Let’s look to the future, if we were sat here in 2 years having this chat, what would you want to be saying?
ML: I hope it’s not all lip service, and I hope there’s genuine change for the better. I’d be 3 years into the industry so I would hope there’s a real change day to day.
I hope we’re seeing radical tech change so that those things that should be easy, are easy and we can be focused on making the shows rather than investing so much time and worry into processing paperwork.
POP: And what about from a sustainability perspective?
ML: The actual environmental impact of a production must be massive. The industry gives a lot back with employing people and money into the economy, but it has to be aware of the impact we have and how we can alleviate in any way. We’ve been looking at our carbon footprint and Emma (Pike, Head of Production) was looking at a company where we could replace trees and working as well as trying to minimise paper print out and working with albert.
I think people see the minimum as enough, but it isn’t. It’s a rich industry, there’s money there, so there are things that can be done to give back but it’s an afterthought at the minute. We need to start from first principles, what can we do to minimise from the beginning.
POP: Who in the industry do you admire?
ML: As I’m new I don’t have any heroes apart from who I work with, so even though they’re my bosses, it has to be Harry & Jack! I really look up to them, and the whole Two Brothers team to produce such great content at such a great volume.
POP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out or trying to break into the industry?
ML: The people who do well are really, really hard workers. You need thick skin and to be prepared for knockbacks, but it struck me that everyone works bloody hard and I hadn’t perhaps seen quite that level of dedication before in other industries. People work very long hours, are very dedicated to what they’re doing, and are 100% dedicated to their role and the role they play in the bigger picture. Everyone is just so invested in it, everybody knows so much about the industry and is so plugged into it. So you’ve got to put the hours in and do the homework.
Plus a bit of luck. It does still help if you know somebody but hopefully that’s not the only way to get in, and will become less important over time.
Don’t have big headedness, be a nice person. People can sense that. These relationships are so intense, that your reputation will follow you all the way through and so having a good character will stand you in great stead.
I live and breathe my work and I expect that from people. Every production is like a start up and everyone is learning as we go. I’ve only ever worked for smaller businesses which is a very different dynamic from a big corporate workplace and culture. It’s hard work, a real struggle at times but so rewarding, you really feel like you’re building something.
POP: What have your standout shows been recently?
ML: I thought both the Bros documentary and Fyre documentary were brilliant.
And in the drama space, Line of Duty and Baptiste. I’m also really excited for Fleabag 2.
POP: Who would play you in a film of your life?
ML: Ooh! Tough one, but I’d have to say Remi Malek.