Prior to the pandemic, London and Los Angeles headquartered production house Pulse Films was experiencing something of a golden period. Founded by Thomas Benski and Marisa Clifford in 2005, the company had three divisions firing on all cylinders: non-fiction had seen success with Netflix docs The Disappearance Of Madeleine McCann and Bikram: Yogi, Guru Predator; scripted took its latest feature, the Riz Ahmed starring Mogul Mowgli, to the Berlinale, and announced pics including the Nicolas Cage-starring Pig and the Olivia Wilde-directed Perfect; and commercials had locked numerous big commissions including with Apple and the coveted Christmas campaign for UK supermarket Sainsbury’s.
When we chat back in February about the company’s future, Benski is understandably in a bullish mood. “I would argue that we’ve built the modern day studio,” he proclaims confidently. “We really feel like this is our time, I don’t mean it in an arrogant way. A modern studio is multi-disciplinary and multi-formatted, there isn’t another one like us. The industry is now catching up with our model. We’re excited to be in this place.”
Flash forward two months, and the world suddenly looks very different. The global COVID-19 pandemic has seen two million confirmed cases and 165,000 deaths, at the time of publication. The impact on the industry has also been devastating. Production is shutdown across the world, cinemas are closed, and jobs are being lost.
Despite that backdrop, there is still cause for celebration at Pulse, with this week seeing the launch of its biggest series project to date, the Gareth Evans-created Gangs Of London. The show, produced with Sister, debuts on Sky in the UK on April 23, with the U.S. broadcast to follow on HBO Cinemax later in the year.
We caught up with Benski again in mid-April to discuss how the company is operating during the lockdown, including filming commercials for clients such as McDonalds and Budweiser, delivering Gangs during the pandemic, and why it is stepping away from the “not profitable” film and TV management business.
The mood at the beginning of our second conversation is predictably a little more downbeat. “I never thought we would experience something like this in our lifetime, but here we are,” the exec muses. While he expresses sadness for the general state of the industry, Benski acknowledges that Pulse is in a comparably lucky position. The three pillars of the business support each other, and the commercials department is still locking new commissions, while the film and TV wings are delivering projects remotely. That means no staff cuts or furloughing, at least for the foreseeable.
Benski admits that Pulse has benefited from fortuitous timing. Gangs Of London, the ambitious 10-part show about warring crime families in the UK capital, wrapped prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the western world and has been able to be completed during the lockdown.
“It has been a bizarre thing to experience, delivering Gangs during COVID,” says Benski. Post-production, much of which Pulse handles in-house, was completed remotely, and the team have looked to find creative ways to celebrate the series, such as a cast and crew party on Zoom that welcomed 261 people to toast the show, including creator Evans, directors Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens, stars Joe Cole and Sope Dirisu, and HBO’s SVP Films Bob Conte (we wrote about the party here).
However, it’s the commercials wing where Pulse has managed to reboot most quickly. The world of advertising is much faster-paced than scripted and non-scripted, and it is already adapting to the COVID reality.
“We booked six jobs in the last few weeks, some of those are already getting on air,” says Benski. Clients include McDonalds, Budweiser, Halifax, and the BBC, all of which are continuing to commission new ads during the pandemic, most of which are coronavirus themed. “Lots of people want to speak to their customers at this time,” the exec notes.
I quiz Benski on how this is possible, considering almost all film and TV production has paused on a global level and only essential workers are allowed to continue travelling to their jobs in both the UK and U.S., Pulse’s main bases. He explains that the shoots are being conducted in a variety of entirely remote fashions: sterilized equipment is being delivered, directors and writers are working remotely, sourcing of footage, VFX work, editing can all be done at home. One example is seeing a director filming at home with an actor they live with. “We are obeying the strict guidelines and making sure everyone is operating in safe environments,” Benski notes. “What we’re seeing in the world right now is that humans always lean on creativity and storytelling to amuse themselves.”
And the other departments of Pulse’s business are also now operating in ways adapted to the lockdown. Writers rooms are running remotely via video link, such as on nuclear trafficking series Atomic Bazaar, while film edits are still progressing, including on Pig, starring Nicolas Cage as a reclusive truffle hunter.
That work means, for now at least, Pulse is in a safe position. “I wish I could tell you what the future looks like. We’re making the assumption that this is not a long term reality, hopefully by the summer we are seeing some semblance of normality, if that’s the case we won’t need to see drastic measures in the business,” says Benski.
From the outset, Pulse has tried to take a unique approach to building its business.
“15 years ago I looked around and I was uninspired by what I saw in the state of the business,” remembers Benski. “We were forced to set up on our own. The industry is very closed, I didn’t see entry points.”
“I wanted to build a company that was suited to today. It meant three things, which are the three key values of our business: I wanted to be a talent destination, to make talent want to be a part of what we did; I wanted to be multidisciplinary, for that to be the USP from the beginning; thirdly, I wanted to be a global business,” he adds.
Talent is the buzz word for Pulse. The company’s early success came in commercials and music videos, fast turnaround industries that kept money flowing in (adding to early investment from UK businessman Harry Solomon – later, in 2016, Vice purchased a majority stake in the company) while the longer-gestating scripted and non-scripted wings established themselves and developed projects.
From day one, Benski saw opportunity in bringing emerging talent into the Pulse fold, allowing them to cut their teeth on short form, such as adverts and music vids, and then graduating them to TV and features. Today, Pulse has a stable of directors who exclusively do their commercials work for the company, and are also able to dip their toes into the company’s other operations.
Ninian Doff is one of the best examples of the system in practice. His work at Pulse includes music videos such as the Chemical Brothers’ Sometimes I Feel So Deserted and Miike Snow’s Genghis Khan, as well as commercials including O2’s Be More Dog campaign and Cadbury’s Marvellous Creations. Those projects led to Pulse part-financing and executive producing Doff’s debut feature, Boyz In The Wood, which premiered at SXSW last year and was bought by Amazon.
Now, Pulse has a roster of 25 in-house commercials directors across its various offices, with that side of the business headed up day-to-day by Davud Karbassioun (Global President of Commercials and Branded in the U.S.) and James Sorton (Managing Director of Commercials in the UK). The success has led to a form of reverse-engineering in the model, with the company now taking on directors already established in film and TV and pitching them for commercials, with names including The Theory Of Everything filmmaker James Marsh, and Belle filmmaker Amma Asante. “It’s a golden age of content creation. Talent has the luxury to choose where it wants to go, therefore you have to create justification for the talent to choose you,” comments Benski.
The TV and film arms of the business took longer to build, but eventually reached a position where they had financial and creative muscle. The first major endeavor was fully-financing 2012 LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up And Play the Hits. “We wrote the whole cheque, it was a mad risk,” recalls Benski. Pulse’s music docs have also included Spike Jonze’s Beastie Boys Story, which sold to Apple TV. Its narrative features include Skate Kitchen and American Honey, and Bassam Tariq’s recent Mogul Mowgli, which stars Riz Ahmed as a British Pakistani rapper. The upcoming Olivia Wilde project Perfect, about American gymnast Kerri Strugs, which Searchlight swooped on, as well as the Nicolas Cage-starring Pig, are set to see that side of the company ramp up in the near future (at least, once the world returns close to normal).
Gangs Of London was a major investment for Pulse, which bankrolled the show’s early stages. “We financed the whole development, I was in for a lot of money before we sold it,” says Benski. “We have the opportunity to take bigger swings, and hopefully we will continue to deliver.”
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing at Pulse. A foray into film distribution was short-lived (“not for us,” says Benski), and the company also tried its hand at setting up a separate management wing for film and TV directors, bringing Brian Levy onboard to head up those operations in L.A., managing all work for those clients, rather than just commercials. Former ICM lit agent Levy was previously the founder of his own banner, New School Media, and has clients including Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau.
At a time when expanding into management seems to be in vogue across the industry, we can reveal Pulse is taking an inverse approach by moving out of that field, with Levy having departed to join Management 360 as a manager and producer, taking his clients with him.
“It’s not a business we want to stay in [management], it’s not profitable,” admits Benski. “A manager didn’t exist in the UK when we started. Really, the producing partner did the job of a manager. Nowadays management is a different thing on its own and we’ll look to be more producing partners and business partners rather than talent partners [going forward].”
Benski says the management operation didn’t operate in cohesion with the company’s film and TV production biz, “If you are a manager, the talent is a client of yours, suddenly that dynamic creates a set of rules that are in conflict with your core relationship. What we want to be is producers, we’re not sure we want to take on the accountability of managing someone’s career from a business standpoint.”
I ask Benski why, when others in the business seem to see management as an opportunity, he doesn’t want to continue with it? “I’d be curious to fast forward five years and see if all the companies expanding into management have better, more successful relationships with the talent that they manage,” he replies. “My opinion is no. That’s why we’re not betting on this. I’m not sure it best serves the talent, and I’m not sure it best serves us.”
“In the U.S., those big management companies feel like agencies to me now. I don’t want the fight,” he adds.
Is there a danger, then, that Pulse will not be able to stop the talent it nourishes from going elsewhere, signing major deals with streamers or studios for film and TV work? “You can’t stop that, and I don’t think you should,” responds Benski. “Though I would always caution it for the talent. I’m not sure being in a closed ecosystem necessarily creates the best content. I’m a believer that a lot of talent understands that, and we will be able to survive because of it.”
“Even though people are trying to minimize it, the producer is becoming more and more important. You don’t see a lot of conversation about the value of producers,” adds Benski. “Our job is to create the right environment for talent to excel, and in those other environments I’m not sure that’s the first agenda – it’s my only agenda.”
Pulse is also working regularly with the streamers, which Benski hopes will mean the company never gets circumnavigated by the deep-pocketed content creators. “There is more and more understanding of the value that we bring, and I hope that will continue. We’re not threatened, we’re less controversial than a traditional studio but we also have the understanding and scale to be able to assure those buyers. They need safety in production models.”
Scale has been another buzz word for Pulse. The company has grown to 130 employees, a number that swells when it takes on a large project. Its in-house operations include marketing, editing, legal, and finance. It now has offices in London, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Sao Paulo (the latter focused on commercials). Asked if he is plotting more international growth, Benski says the company did have France in mind. “I have tried in France many times and become disillusioned with that marketplace, the infrastructure of the business there is exhausting,” he explains.
He adds that the company will be unveiling a new tie-up soon, and is also eyeing Asia and Latin America. “One of the most exciting directors we have right now [Paco Raterta] is from the Philippines, he’s doing things that feel very global but have a real specificity that could only come from there – Hollywood came for him in two seconds. Southeast Asia is more interesting than China, you can add value there,” says Benski.
There’s a lot going on at Pulse, as is evidenced by the company’s three divisions all still working during the pandemic. Does Benski ever worry that the growth could overcomplicate the business that the team set out to create?
“People think we have a very mixed model but our model is actually very specific. We’re not going to do distribution, we’re not doing sales. We are a studio in the traditional sense – we develop, produce, sometimes finance, and that’s it,” he responds. “It’s important to me to try and move the needle. We don’t give a f*ck if something fits the market, we put our weight behind talent.”