Tuesday 25 July 2017

Special effects firm out to find growth in Asian market

Dubliner William Sargent's Oscar-winning CGI firm, Framestore, backed by Jackie Chan, is eyeing acquisitions, writes John Reynolds

Colin Farrell in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which featured Framestore’s work, having previously created CGI for Gravity and Avatar
Colin Farrell in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which featured Framestore’s work, having previously created CGI for Gravity and Avatar

The Irish founder and ceo of Oscar-winning movie digital effects company Framestore plans to grow the revenue of his firm to €460m in the next few years.

At the moment Dublin-born businessman William Sargent is growing his London-based company organically to a turnover of about €250m by next year.

But he's also already looking at potential acquisitions for the company, which he co-founded in 1986, in the US, Europe and China.

Framestore - which is backed by Chinese martial arts movie star Jackie Chan - has created computer-generated imagery (CGI) effects for some of the most successful movies in recent years, including Gravity, Avatar and Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts.

It has offices in LA, New York and Montreal as well as its London HQ, employing 1,350 people, with turnover having reached €125m by the end of last year. It has also just opened a new office in Chicago to help boost sales in the US, where a recent key project in the field of animation was helping the ad agency Leo Burnett revamp the Kellogg's brand icon Tony the Tiger.

The firm is also looking to new clients outside of Hollywood, broadcasters and advertising agencies, and is already working with a Formula One team, the London Stock Exchange and Morgan Stanley investment bank on data visualisation to make the masses of information they gather and process easier to understand.

"I want to position the company for the next 20 years, and Asia will be key to that," said Sargent. "There's a potential audience there of about four billion people, compared to one billion in Europe and the US. We'll be enabling people to tell stories in a multi-layered, multi-platform way using CGI."

"After we get to about £200m (€230m) revenue, we'll aim to double that again to about £400m (€460m) in due course through acquisitions. I'm already looking at potential ones in Europe, the US and China. At the moment we have 1,350 employees, but I expect that to grow to around 1,800 people with the acquisitions," said Sargent. The firm has 140 vacancies across its five offices.

Asia will play a greater role in the future of the business after Chinese consortium Cultural Investment Holdings bought a 75pc stake in the firm, valuing it at about €175m, last November. Jackie Chan was part of it, and is now a director of the company. Chan is a successful entrepreneur too, owning film production and distribution companies and cinema, restaurant and gym chains. In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated he was worth about €300m.

Having starred in martial arts movies in the 80s and 90s and later the Rush Hour trilogy, he joins Pierce Brosnan in action thriller The Foreigner due for release in September. "In China, Jackie Chan is a huge star; bigger than Elvis," said Sargent, who was due to meet him for the first time at a board meeting in Beijing.

Leinster Rugby fan Sargent's own back story is also an interesting one. The 60-year-old was raised in Brazil, where his father ran a shipyard, once worked as a barman in a Galway pub and studied business and law at Trinity College. More recently he spent five years as a civil servant in Britain's Treasury, employed by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to find ways to cut red tape for businesses, for which he was awarded a knighthood in 2008.

Think tank the OECD predicted that the foundations put in place to reduce the £20bn-plus burden of paperwork and form-filling for British businesses would see it fall by about £4bn a year from 2010. With such a varied career, if he hadn't gone into animation, he would have liked to have been an architect or a racing driver competing in Formula One, he has said previously.

Having helped the UK economy claw back billions from bureaucracy and navigated all kinds of legions of civil servants and minor officialdom to do so, his target for growing Framestore must seem easier in comparison.

Though movies due out this year featuring Framestore's traditional work include Paddington 2, Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, one area of growth for the company is virtual reality (VR). The firm recently created a Game of Thrones experience that immersed the user in the TV series' world, giving them a bow and arrow. Another was in the Fantastic Beasts world.

How big a hit VR itself will be remains to be seen, but Samsung, Google, Facebook and HTC have all developed VR headsets, and big brands are increasingly using it for experiential marketing.

Sargent's colleague Mike McGee added that some early VR experiences he's seen - not created by Framestore - were less enjoyable, with people screaming or crying, ending up ripping off their headsets, but shared VR is the next big thing that the company finds exciting.

"Last year we created a unique one for a group of schoolchildren in the US," said Sargent. "We turned a school bus into a giant shared VR viewer, so all the windows were actually screens, showing what they'd see as if the bus was actually driving on the surface of Mars. It's an exciting way to tell stories and use a narrative to lead people through an environment, using it as an immersive, unique first-time experience from which they create emotional memories.

"Being from Ireland, which is a land of storytellers after all, I thoroughly enjoy working in a business that is all about telling stories and look forward to the journey ahead for myself and my growing staff."

Sunday Indo Business

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