Britain’s film industry has been enjoying a real moment in the spotlight of late. Thanks to generous tax relief on foreign-made films (including the latest instalments in the Star Wars saga), spending on film production rocketed by 13% last year to a record high of £1.6bn, according to the BFI.
That’s not just good news for megastars and the major studios and production companies. The eighty year-old lot at Pinewood studios is home to dozens of small companies specialising in everything from film PR to underwater filming and post-production services.
One such company that’s enjoying its own period of rampant growth is Rotolight, which designs and makes LED lighting kit for photographers and film makers. The company was set up by the Gammons family – chairman Rod, who has a background in music production, his wife Helen who is the finance director and their son, also Rod, the MD.
It has its origins in a previous business they set up distributing photo and video equipment. When digital SLRs became popular, allowing users to shoot high quality videos and take photographs with the same device, they spotted a gap in the lighting market.
A flash gun is unsuitable for filming videos. But traditional film lights with a tungsten bulb get extremely hot and eat up oodles of electricity, and are therefore inconvenient to use with an SLR. So the Gammons’ designed an LED light that could sit on top of an SLR and be used for either purpose.
‘We were tiny at that time,’ Rod the younger tells MT. ‘We literally designed and built the first products on my parents’ kitchen table.’ The product was a runaway hit and after selling tens of thousands of units they invested the profit they made into a much higher end light for use in studios.
Now nine years old, the company has 15 employees and its turnover has grown 100% year on year for the past seven years. It expects to turn over £7m this year. And it has acquired some high profile fans, including celebrity photographer Mark Mann (pictured above with Jack Black). ‘He’s shot over 40 A-list celebrities with our product – including Margot Robbie, Gillian Anderson and Danny DeVito,’ says Gammons. The lights have also been used on the sets of the James Bond film Skyfall and Captain Phillips.
Rotolight's products range from the lightweight RL-48B at £68.47 to the Anova Pro (pictured) at £1,139.99.
Growth hasn’t always come easily. ‘Financing was really brutal,’ says Gammons. With little in the way of tangible assets, high-tech companies can struggle to talk banks into giving them a loan, so Rotolight had to go looking for equity funding instead. With no experience of the world of angel investing, the family considered hiring expensive consultants to walk them through the process, but in the end decided the cash was better spent on an MBA for Rod so that he could just do it himself.
Taking on outside investors was a ‘complete step change for the business,’ he says. ‘We went from informal meetings around the dinner table to suddenly, formalised board meetings once a quarter or once a month. It was totally alien to us at the time but it has been very positive for us and has meant we were that much more organised in our thinking.’
The manufacturing is outsourced to keep costs down. Rotolight initially considered doing it cheaply in China but found the quality to be too poor. ‘By making it in the UK we have complete control of our own quality. We have a supply chain within the 10 mile radius of the office.’
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Most of Rotolight’s products are sold overseas. Some have said the post-referendum currency crash has been a boon for exporters, but Gammons says things aren’t so simple. ‘Although we make in the UK, the reality is that the vast majority of plastics and metal are bought in dollars. So what suddenly happened was the cost of many of our components went up by 20% in two months.’ He’s a little worried about the prospect of tariffs between the UK and the EU – ‘I’m sure that won’t happen but that would be a concern’ – and hopes the UK will remain part of the Unitary Patent Convention. Rotolight filed eight patent applications last year.
Another challenge has been competition. While Rotolight was an early player in the shift towards LEDs, the established light makers have moved into the same area too. ‘We realised the only way to protect ourselves in this market, aside from having IP, was to build a very loyal brand following,’ says Gammons. ‘What we did was feed product to up-and-coming filmmakers and photographers who were often in the early stages of their career and grew with us.’ With an established cadre of fans Rotolight has got access to a plethora of decent photography, which has helped it build a handsome social media following of around 80,000 people.
The plan now is grow, grow, grow - Rotolight will launch four new products this year. ‘I think there’s a lot more we can do,’ says Gammons. ‘We see that 100% year on year growth lasting many years into the future.’
Top image credit: Kelsey Fain