Building site – to building sights
A chance encounter with Courtney Cox and David Arquette led to a bit part in horror film Scream 2 and inspired Sam Morton to pursue his dream of a career in film-making. James Barton met the boss of Newcastle’s Twenty First Century Media.
SAM Morton is 31 years old and looks younger, but he doesn’t stand out among the team of young film-makers he has surrounded himself with.
His film company, Twenty First Century Media, employs 16 staff, most of whom are in their early 20s.
And this young business is growing fast. It is about to spend £250,000 building a television studio at Sandyford Road in its new Jesmond head office. It has also opened offices in Leeds, Glasgow and London and expects to add a further £250,000 to its sales next year, taking them beyond £1m.
Former Newcastle Royal Grammar School pupil Morton has always been fascinated with films and pop culture. So much so that he chose to do a degree in American studies so he could spend a year in Santa Cruz in California.
Morton says: “I was, and still am, fascinated by popular culture, but it was while I was working on a building site in Atlanta, Georgia, in United States that David Arquette and Courtney Cox pushed in front of me in a queue for the cashpoint in 1997. David apologised and mentioned he was shooting the horror spoof Scream 2 just down the road, and that there might be some work.
“Unbelievably, I was chosen to be an extra in the film and found the whole experience enthralling – I was hooked.”
Morton returned to the UK inspired and determined to find a job in the UK film industry.
“I applied for work experience to every film production company I could find,” he says, “which turned out to be about 400 and I got one response from a two-man-band in North Shields – RS Productions.
“I was so desperate to get into the industry I accepted 12 months unpaid work as a production assistant. It was tough working and claiming dole money but it allowed me to acquire the necessary skills to progress.
“I was even able to get myself on a number of BBC training courses, although I had to find the money to pay for them.”
With his new-found skills in camera, sound and production Morton graduated in 2000 to a paid role in script development and production management for Newcastle-based Pilgrim Films, a production and distribution company that – like a lot of small film businesses – made promotional works for industry to survive so it could make the occasional feature.
He says: “It is a common characteristic of the film industry outside London that there are a lot of one and two-man bands that survive by making promotional films for companies in the hope that they will at some stage be able to make something they are genuinely interested in.”
Then Morton met his future business partner, Casper Berry; an actor with credits in Byker Grove, but who had developed into an accomplished scriptwriter and filmmaker who had already notched up two Hollywood-backed but unsuccessful feature films called Killing Time and Down Time.
Morton says: “Casper and I worked together on a short promotional film for Taylors of Harrogate and we got on really well. We are both from Newcastle and even went to the same school, although we didn’t know each other then. We just worked well together.”
Fate then took a hand – after September 11, funding from the Northern Arts ended and company advertising budgets dried up. Pilgrim Films folded.
“This situation impressed on me just how important it was to set up a business that wasn’t just feast and famine. That the basic principles of business – a stable, constant and profitable work flow – should be adhered to in the film industry, as in any other business.”
Morton’s father, Bob Morton is a respected Newcastle businessman who became financial director of a £60m turnover Co-op business in the early 1980s when he was still in his early 30s and is now a business consultant who specialises in turning round failing companies.
Morton says: “After my experience at Pilgrim Films my father advised me that I should work for myself if I wanted to achieve something in the film industry.”
Initially though Morton needed to pay the bills so he launched and ran his own web design company for a year while he decided what to do.
“Following Pilgrim’s failure, Casper had gone to Las Vegas to become a professional poker player, and made a very good living, but he returned to the UK and looked me up.”
The pair decided that there was a gap in the market for a professional film company that specialised in training and promotional films.
“Instead of treating films for businesses as a means to an end, we would specifically target the business sector.”
Morton and Berry set up Twenty First Century Media in 2002 and won their first piece of work the day after opening for business.
“We had to make the launch film for Northern Film and Media, the body responsible for awarding grants to stimulate film-making in the North.
“We tried to capture people’s expectation of it and a sense of what it was going to achieve and build up a sense of excitement. We made what I would describe as a really funky promotional film, which was very well received.
“What we are always trying to avoid is the boring and bleak training films that seemed at the time to be the norm.
“By actively looking for business work as the core business we have been able to add a degree of professionalism to the process. We want our work to be cool, different and creative.
“We realised early on that effective communication for business is making sure at the outset that we really understand what the business is trying to achieve. We want the viewer to remember our work, be entertained by it and therefore watch it all the way through and understand all the key messages.”
After two-and-half years and producing about 200 films, Berry began getting offers from the poker world and now presents a poker programme on Sky TV and lectures businesses on gaming strategy.
Morton says: “In 2005 I took over as managing director of the business as Casper pursued other interests and at the same time I grew the team from four to 14, including marketing manager Nick Imrie.”
The company has moved away from using large numbers of freelance workers, keeping all the assets of the business including camera equipment in house.
“We brought Nick in so we could make best use of the company’s assets winning bigger and longer term contracts so that we could become more profitable and increase stability,” says Morton.
The company now lists Nike, Nestle, Lego, Sage and the Prince’s Trust among its clients.
After his experiences of how little opportunity there is for young filmmakers to break into the industry Morton has established a two-week work experience programme which has been responsible for bringing in 10 new recruits.
“Not only are we allowing people to get an insight into film making, we are also getting the opportunity to look at new talent before our competitors.” Morton’s approach to his staff is to constantly challenge the creative process. “We are looking for our editors, directors and production staff to develop, even if that means they decide their heart lies elsewhere and they leave us.”
Staff are sent on a three-day motivational course. “I have done the course myself and the first day involves you walking across hot coals, it encourages you to face the things you fear. I had one member of staff who was frightened of public speaking, so we had him lecture on filmmaking at Newcastle University. After initially being fearful he said it was one of the best things he had ever done. I had another staff member phone me up after the course delighted with what it had done for him, but he realised he wanted to go into the music business and resigned. I would rather people were happy at work, that is how you get the best from them even, if that means some people leave.
“I have no doubt that some of our directors, editors and script writers will end up moving on and perhaps one day will be involved in making Hollywood movies. What we are doing here is developing talent.”
Because of converging digital technologies, the company regularly works on company websites, in the computer games industry, and has even produced music videos.
Morton says: “Casper and I realised early on that we needed to standardise the production quality of our films if we were going to expand, so over a period of four years we spent £80,000 making a production workflow system which enabled us to double our output of movies to 110 a year. It also means that our production quality standards are the same where ever we are in the country.”
Morton married in 2003 and has two children, but although he is settled at his home in Bamburgh in Northumberland he still nurtures ambitions far beyond the company he founded.
“I always wanted to create a business that was not dependent on any one individual being there and that is exactly what I have done. I want to spend more time developing the business than running it so it can fulfil its potential, but I also want to move into property development and I have an idea for a book. When I worked on the building site in Atlanta I met a Vietnam veteran with an incredible life story.”
But for the time being Morton is content building his business – and at 31 he has plenty of time to start a second and even third career.
What car do you drive?
Golf Sport TDI.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Bays Bistro, Whitley Bay.
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
At the moment, it’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven, by Mitch Albom.
What’s your favourite film?
What was the last album you bought?
Best of the Pixies.
What’s your ideal job?
Property developer or novelist.
If you had a talking parrot, what is the first thing you would teach it to say?
“Can I interest you in a film?”
What is your greatest fear?
The safety of my daughters Isla and Meg.
What is the best business advice you have been given?
If you can’t, you must.
And the worst?
Don’t run before you can walk.
What’s your poison?
Lager or gin and tonic.
Which newspaper do you read (apart from The Journal)?
The Financial Times.
What was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£2.49 an hour stuffing beanbags and cushions.
How do you keep fit?
By having two children (used to be squash).
What is your most irritating habit?
Not putting things back in the right place.
What is your biggest extravagance?
Living in Bamburgh.
Who do you most admire, living or dead?
Which four people would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Muhammad Ali, Martin Scorsese, Piers Morgan and George Best.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a great father and friend – but just to be remembered would be nice.