Marc Almon, a 34-year-old film producer, caught the entrepreneurial bug early on.
“I started a landscaping business in Halifax when I was 15,” he says, adding, “I taught myself about saving and money management. I read a lot.”
At 22, he left his landscaping days behind after using the earnings to pay to attend the University of King’s College in Halifax. While there, he took a film minor.
That’s because filmmaking is his passion. He’s made movies since high school and counts One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as an influence.
“I want to highlight Canada in my films, particularly the East Coast, but I also want to attract global audiences,” he says.
Although Almon joined a few movie crews after post-secondary graduation and worked with other producers, he knew that wasn’t enough.
So in 2006, he completed the producers’ lab at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto and founded Story Engine Pictures, a production company that’s currently worth $200,000. “The value of film companies is based primarily on the media and the projects developed—equipment and savings account for only a small portion,” says Almon.
He founded Story Engine with the help of a self-employment benefits program and, in the early years, focused on funding projects.
He notes the nature of his business means cash and work-flow are inconsistent—beginning filmmakers’ salaries can jump from $30,000 one year to $150,000 the next. That’s exacerbated by the fact that significant production grants are reserved for established filmmakers.
“New producers [aren’t] trusted with large budgets,” says Almon. “This is why I directed most of my money toward creating short films and series to build up my reputation.” His first full-length feature, Blackbird, is about a troubled teen who is falsely accused of planning a school shooting.
It premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival alongside Brandon Cronenberg’s much-anticipated Anti-Viral.
Despite the tough competition, his $1.25-million movie co-won the $15,000 TIFF award for best Canadian debut feature.
It also scooped up several regional awards shortly after, and has been screened in Rome and distributed across North America. It will be released in France this month.
Almon’s now working on his second feature, Good Girl, with a $2.5-million budget. He says his business grew 1,000% last year due to Blackbird’s release.
On growing his business
I made Blackbird with the help of public funds. A $1-million budget is considered small, but the film was an ambitious project for a first feature due to the number of actors and locations we used.
In the end, it went over budget and I had to spend corporate overhead and give up some producer’s fees to complete it. So I put my personal growth and investment plans on hold. It was a good decision because I made sure my first feature was good, but it also taught me to budget more effectively.
I’ve partnered with Anita Sharma, a fellow producer and entertainment lawyer. Together, we’re creating a separate production company called Story Engine Studios.
To help us manage our finances and marketing, we’ve established a volunteer advisory board that will meet six times a year. It includes a bank executive, entertainment accountant and international sales representative. We’re also offering private shares to investors.
Most filmmakers depend on public funds and then go to the marketplace for additional funding, but I don’t want to rely on grants.
If things go well, my salary could go grow from its current $50,000 to more than $80,000, and I could be paid a flat, annual rate plus bonuses. Since I also prefer dividends, I could possibly switch over and save more within the business.
I want to develop four to five films per year, and then produce one or two of those during that time. They’ll be mostly original projects but could also be films brought to Anita and me by outside directors and writers. I also want to work with budgets between $10 million and $15 million, which allows for more time on set and more shooting days.
And casting is so crucial; when you go out to raise money for films, the first question asked is who’s starring in them. The second is who’s directing your movie.
On saving and investing
I want to retire in 25 to 30 years and I want a family. And since it’s hard to put away money, I started prioritizing my personal goals a few years ago.
I credit my advisor, Edwin [Pavey of Investors Group in Toronto], for helping me gain perspective.
We both come from Nova Scotia. We knew one another because he also started in the film industry, but we actually met up again on a Toronto streetcar in 2009. That’s when I found out he’d since become an advisor for creative arts clients.
Edwin knows a lot about the ups and downs inherent in the film industry. He convinced me to take the long view on my personal investments.
This was crucial since I’d stopped investing in my 20s. I’d taken an aggressive approach at the time and my holdings were volatile. I was working with another advisor I found through my parents and he’d helped me set up an RRSP without first setting my expectations.
It was invested in large chains like McDonalds and I ended up losing 50% of my savings over the course of six months during the dot-com market crash. Years later, my parents also left that advisor. The experience soured me on investing. I had loans and operating costs, so I wondered why I was saving. This is why I wouldn’t have sought out someone like Edwin on my own.
Advisors can’t tell people to take more risks simply because they’re younger and have longer time horizons. If clients have never invested before, they’ll be protective of their money and initial savings at first.
Later on, when they see the benefits of investing, advisors can shift to riskier products and strategies.
For now, Edwin’s helped me construct a conservative portfolio. It’s focused on fixed income and I also invest in blue-chip stocks. On the side, I’ve put money into a mining company my father suggested and researched. We went in on it together.
My average portfolio returns are 3%-to-5%. And next year, I may up the risk. I plan to look into media and technology companies in the future, and will focus more on ethical investing.
When I do that, I’ll have to depend on Edwin’s expertise and advice.
I also contribute monthly to an RRSP I started about three years ago. I know I’m consistently putting away funds even if my income stream is inconsistent. Right now, it’s worth between $35,000 and $40,000.
Together, my wife Alisha and I rent a house, own cars and have life insurance.
Regular saving is especially crucial because Alisha is also an entrepreneur. She designs and sells jewelry, as well as home accessories.
Though her business is growing, it isn’t incorporated and we have to cover all costs and liabilities. Our goal is to set aside substantial emergency funds for future years.
I also plan to invest in disability insurance to ensure I’m not a burden on my family. This really worries me. If I were in an accident and couldn’t continue travelling and doing my work, I would want to provide for my wife and future kids.
How to entice entrepreneurs
Business owners often prioritize their businesses over themselves. So don’t expect us to come knocking. Advisors need to educate us on how markets and different sectors work early on.
Also, take an interest in clients’ lives and hobbies to build loyalty. Edwin makes a point to reach out to me formally every six months, and we connect more often via email. Our conversations don’t always focus on investment issues.
I’m far from one of Edwin’s wealthiest clients, but he sees the potential I have and that means something to me.
He stressed I needed to have a safety net, and that I had to realistically consider failure as well as success. There are always going to be projects that fall through and I have to be able to pay myself a sustainable wage over time.
Impressed his now-wife with his early work in 2006. “We met at a political rally of all places, and she was skeptical when I said I was a filmmaker. I showed her one of my short films and, thankfully, she liked it.”
First short film: $65,000
First feature: $1.25 million
Second feature: $2.5 million
Met Blackbird’s director, Jason Buxton, while visiting the film section at a bookstore 15 years ago. He says nobody was supporting Buxton and it’s crucial to help develop Canadian talent.
His advisor should know
Likes analyzing financial statements and enjoys project management. Taught himself money management.
Katie Keir is the assistant editor of Advisor Group.