“Everyone’s a potential filmmaker.” John Gubba gestures at the collection of video cameras, tape players, editing equipment and lights scattered around his studio. “The barriers to entry used to be huge as you needed a lot of money to buy the equipment. Now you can get a laptop and a decent HD camera for less than ten grand and work out of your bedroom. Even smartphones shoot decent quality video.”
John is the owner of UK-based video production company, VSI TV. Looking out over the beautiful English town of Marlow where he is based, he notes how the digital revolution has made his industry very competitive. He’s even seen journalists using iPads to record press conferences where once a professional camera crew would have been hired. But in a world increasingly hungry for video content, he believes quality will always win out.
“Anyone can press record,” he explains, “but you need skill to make a good film. People will still pay for quality. You just have to ensure people know that’s what you provide.”A nephew of British TV sports commentator, Tony Gubba, John accompanied his uncle to soccer games from a young age and got an early taste of broadcasting life. At the age of 18, he was already sports editor at a local paper in his hometown of Manchester. After a stint presenting a Sunday night radio show, he moved to London to write about sport for the Sunday Mirror newspaper. Later, while working as a reporter and producer for national TV broadcaster ITV, he decided to start his own company.
“We’d send 25 cameras around the country to cover the weekend’s sports events,” he recalls, “then supply this content to broadcasters. We also published our own sports compilations on VHS and, later, DVD, to sell in high street stores.” This lucrative market allowed John to leave ITV and focus solely on VSI in 1992. At its peak, the company had 10 fulltime employees and an annual turnover of one million pounds. John smiles wistfully, “Now the DVD sales wouldn’t pay my wages.”
Digital technology and the decline of the DVD retail market forced VSI to rethink its strategy. The company now works on a commission basis: filming events for broadcasters or corporate clients and creating online videos and TV commercials for small businesses. And though the competition for these jobs is fierce, John believes his multi-faceted experience gives him an advantage.
“I’m a lot of people rolled into one. Sometimes I’m the director of a shoot working with a crew but I can also just turn up on my own and be the director, producer, editor, cameraman, reporter, narrator, scriptwriter and publicist. People come to me because I’m a storyteller. Because I have all those skills, I see the overall picture.”
An eye for the bigger picture suits John’s entrepreneurial spirit. He once developed an entire TV series for Animal Planet on a whim. “In 1999, an animal handler named Trevor Smith was taking some cobras to Egypt for a movie shoot with Omar Sharif,” he recalls. “I thought it sounded like fun so went along and filmed him. I brought a seven-minute edit called Wild Thing to Animal Planet, which had just set up in Europe. Three minutes in, I had money for one show. But we made a full series with our own money because I believed in it and they ended up buying all 13 episodes.”John’s latest venture is also animal based. He’s filming the story of an unusually talented raccoon named Melanie. After failing an audition for TV show Britain’s Got Talent, the raccoon’s owner Kimberly Unger commissioned VSI to make a short film. “She was so blown away by the four-minute short, she wanted to expand it to a half-hour documentary,” he explains. “Her family is putting up half the money and I’m investing the other half. I’ll take the finished film to MIPDoc in Cannes in April and sell it to film buyers from around the world.”
During production, Melanie’s owner needed to share her archive of photographs with John, so he immediately directed her to his Hightail Uplink page. “A lot of my clients don’t use file sharing services, so Uplink is really great. I use it all the time. I made a promotional video for an interior designer who sent me time-lapse footage of a home makeover via Uplink. It’s very useful.”
Hightail first became an essential tool when VSI started working with MUTV, the official TV station of one of the world’s biggest soccer teams, Manchester United. Making 12 documentaries for the channel over the past five years meant John has had to make regular 350-mile round trips to Manchester. Rather than take portables drives with him each time, he started using Hightail.“Hightail is essential,” he says. “When news broke that David Moyes was replacing Alex Ferguson as manager of Manchester United, MUTV asked me to go to the Football Writer’s Awards that night in London and interview people about him. I filmed the likes of England manager Roy Hodgson, returned to my studio later that night and sent them the files via Hightail. MUTV was able to broadcast the footage the next morning. Being able to share videos quickly can be crucial in my business.”
Effective file sharing will become an even bigger issue over the coming year thanks to upcoming changes in broadcasting standards. Currently, the UK’s major networks still receive the final, high res version of a show on tape. But new digital file standards have now been agreed so that broadcasters will soon go fully digital.
“A 60-minute HD show will be 50GB,” adds John. “I think it’s great. I wish all my old footage was digitized. I have more than 5,000 tapes here but transferring all of them is a fulltime job. At the moment, we just digitize specific requests, but even that’s a lot of work to manually search our library for the right tape.”
Though VSI can no longer survive on DVD sales, the company also monetizes its archive by publishing clips on YouTube, Blinkx, Yamgo and SPB TV, receiving advertising-based royalty checks for each view. Last month John hosted a panel at the Broadcast Video Expo on the subject of digital monetization where guest speakers from successful viral video firms Endemol Beyond, Maker Studios and Barcroft TV discussed how valuable the right content is.
“I’ve always said that content is king,” says John, “but the real truth is that quality content is king.” With more than 25 years experience in telling stories and making high quality films, VSI TV remains perfectly placed to succeed in a video-hungry world.