The team at COMPULSORY tells LBB’s Alex Reeves how they’ve slowly home-grown their production company into a formidable force that the industry can trust
To many in the London production scene, COMPULSORY might look like new kids on the block. And compared to many of the other houses nominated for Best Production Company at the UKMVAs this week, they are. Partizan, also on that list, was founded the same year COMPULSORY’s head of music Kiran Mandla was born. But the company’s been putting down roots for longer than you might think. For more than five years Kiran and the other two founders, Kadri Mahmoud and Chris Toumazou, have had their heads down, quietly building the company that reflects their values.
None of the trio have any other experience in production companies, having founded COMPULSORY straight after graduation. But in 2019 they’ve reached a tipping point, allowing themselves to consider what they’ve achieved, despite their lack of prior experience. They didn’t feel qualified to stand up and show off what they’d created until now, but if they didn’t have something relevant, they couldn’t have made it this far. “We wouldn’t have survived,” says Kadri. “And we’ve never really had the opportunity to pause and spotlight why that is. Only now can we look back and reflect it.”
In recent months they’ve realised that they offer something different and that for clients and partners, they’ve proven themselves trustworthy. That UKMVA nomination was the final jolt. “Being nominated for this Best Production Company award was that awakening, someone kicking us under the table,” says Kadri.
When you look, there have been other hints that they’re doing something right leading to this. One of the videos that earned them that nomination - Madonna’s ‘Dark Ballet’ by Emmanuel Adjei - is a clear signpost that he’s a director worth paying attention to. In fact, it’s just one of two videos he made in collaboration with the Queen of Pop this year. And although COMPULSORY can’t reveal anything yet, he’s working with another pop queen of similar stature as we speak. Not bad for a filmmaker who was unsigned until the start-up London production house noticed his talent a few years back.
Emmanuel’s also made a convincing transition from music videos to commercials in recent years, working with the likes of Hugo Boss. Kadri can’t contain his pride when he points out that the director they helped to start his career is now signed with The Directors Bureau in the US. “His film is there on the site sitting next to Sofia Coppola. And it reminds you that the proof is in the pudding. If his first commercial is sitting next to the biggest directors on the planet, it shows you that it is about consistency and being able to distill your brand as a director.”
This year has seen COMPULSORY cement its advertising reputation as a company at the same time. Opening a commercial department 18 months ago was an organic development, says Kadri. “Our trust with commissioners was so set in stone that the reels looked commercial-worthy,” he says.
The commercial side really started, he explains, off the back a £1,200 music video that COMPULSORY director Taz Tron Delix had made (for the Declan McKenna track 'Brazil') getting a Vimeo staff pick. That inspired a call directly to Kadri, giving two adidas scripts to Taz. “He’d never done a commercial before and the only reason that trust was handed over was because the vision was so pure in his music videos that they said ‘I have to have that.’ If your music videos are consistently doing that, it’s really attractive for agencies and commercial people.” Since then, Taz has worked on films for Google and Topshop. “And because his vision stayed consistent, trust is developed,” says Kadri.
COMPULSORY laid its foundations down in music videos and under Kiran’s direction, that department is still delivering the goods. Bedroom, a pair of 19 year olds who Kiran met while they were running on a music video set, signed to the company and have made four videos in 10 months. Their video for Beabadoobee – ‘Disappear’ - is nominated in the Best Rock Newcomer category at the UKMVAs.
“They’re a young duo and they would never have been able to get the chance to do things in the way that they’re doing them now,” says Kiran. He’s proud of the way the company has supported their vision. “We’ve given them a platform to grow and build them the way they want to be.”
“That is symbolic of the entire operation as a company,” says Kadri, as he reveals that with the support of the company’s expertise, they’ve been pitching on commercials for one of the world’s social media giants. “Their age is welcomed. The music industry has always revelled in youth, taking advantage of young people and young directors. In commercials you need to wait till you’re 35 and do a TVC. That’s all changing. It’s an interesting point for us. The Bedrooms of the world are not going anywhere.”
In February, head of new business and development Stephanie Walton joined the team, leaving the much more established Somesuch for a company she believed was doing things differently. “They started the company straight out of university so they don’t have any bad habits,” she says. “A lot of other production companies are people who worked at other companiesfor 10 years and then started their own shop, so it becomes a little bit homogenised, whereas [COMPULSORY] started it fresh and have their own ideas about how it should be run.”
One fact that Stephanie found particularly enticing is that none of the COMPULSORY roster has ever been repped anywhere else. Everyone there is 100% homegrown.
“We will never sign an established director and do a Stella McCartney ad with them,” says Kadri. “That’s not the way directors need to be nurtured. Those kinds of directors don’t need help. They’re fine. We’re interested in developing careers.”
Eight months spent with the business, Stephanie understands more broadly how this set of values feels. “We don’t have the competitive streak a lot of companies have,” she says. “We’re not looking to outbid anybody or outdo each other or sign the most sought after young names. We’re not up against each other trying to sign the same people. A lot of other companies do it that way. We see ourselves outside of the rat race a bit.”
There's no secret to what COMPULSORY’s built. “We don’t have the cheat codes to having a happy roster,” says Kadri. “It’s a much longer phase of development, it’s a stronger relationship with the directors. We’re very close with the talent and the responsibilities we have with them. These are serious relationships that need a lot of trust. And the strategy behind developing careers comes from a place of management rather than a place of winning and losing jobs.”
The success of directors like Emmanuel, Taz or Bedroom doesn’t happen by accident. COMPULSORY have been listening to and supporting the talent it represents more deeply, helping people define their voices, financing productions if that’s what’s needed. Kiran describes the process as “giving them that chance at first to be able to say what they want to say and do what they want to do.”
“Rather than wait for a big client or commissioner to give Kiran a ring, our approach is to spend five months financing and developing a short film,” says Kadri. Obviously all great directors have a project in the back of their head. When the COMPULSORY team sees promise i a director, they do what they can to make that project cappen. “It’s important and we’re proud of being able to fund those opportunities ourselves,” he adds. “It sounds a bit cheesy but we put our money where our mouth is. If we think there’s someone who has value, we will spend.”
Short films have formed the core of this strategy over the years. From Eduardo Casona’s ‘Eat My Shit’, which premiered at SXSW in 2014, to ELO Films’ ‘Lockdown’, winner of the Vimeo Staff Pick Award at the 2019 New Orleans Festival, COMPULSORY revels in how it helps its directors grow as artists as well as saleable commercial talent. “We decided many years ago to have an active Film development department, run by Chris and I (and now Stephanie) to always be championing and pushing new scripts,” says Kadri. “These films need support and so regardless of the size of the company we will always make sure film is developed. We have always and will always be creating our own funds per year to allocate to these opportunities.”
To the trio’s delight a few years in, they noticed that their peers in commercial production weren’t taking the interest in film festivals and they decided to dive deeply into that world. SXSW has become a key annual ritual for the team, with some sort of COMPULSORY-supported film premiering there each year since 2016. “It turns out that’s the kind of festival that’s friendly to our work, which is cinematic, pushing boundaries, weird narrative shorts and weird music videos,” says Kadri. “They align with us well because of taste.”
When it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, COMPULSORY is happy to fork out even when it seems like a client should be footing the bill. Emmanuel wouldn’t have had the chance to shoot a Hugo Boss film if it weren’t for his work with Dutch streetwear brand Patta - a project that COMPULSORY supported with its own cash. “We saw it as a great opportunity to work with him in that context, to have a commercial that is very much him,” says Kiran. “He could have got a bigger brief from a bigger brand but they’d be telling him exactly what to be doing. It was quite a difficult project but we made it happen and it looked a certain way. It landed him Hugo Boss, which we still shot on 35mm and it was very much still him as a director, so it translated his ideas and his vision.”
When it comes to commissioned work more broadly, the past five years has been about knowing when to say no and when to push extra hard. “We can’t waste time,” says Kiran. “Everything has to be done with purpose and for a reason. Everything that comes out is representative of the brand and the image and what we’re trying to set up. Every job has been really important and is a step up.” That’s been hard. “There were times when there was an opportunity to make some money on a video to get by but we decided we don’t need it because it’s going to look quite bad on us,” he says.
Those factors added up to a set of reels that reflect the unique vision of each director on the COMPULSORY roster. “Once a director had had a few years to develop a reel, their reel was strong. It wasn’t filled with shitty pop videos, the freebie and the mates’ rate,” says Kadri.
“We just want to be different,” says Stephanie. “We’re not interested in being just another production company. “A lot of it is down to who we are and the culture we’re building. That’s a part of my job that I take really seriously. We have big dreams for the company. Mine is that in five years we have the staff of however many people and all of them think that coming to work is the best thing ever. We make great films, sure, but I want people to love it as much as I do. Because working for those guys, I’ve never felt happier or more supported. And it makes me so much better at what I do because my job is talking about how great COMPULSORY is and I feel it every day. We’re putting a lot of that energy out into the landscape at the minute. It comes back to us too. Every job we work on, there’s a happiness and joy around it.”
There’s no secret formula or hidden knowledge at COMPULSORY. "This is it. We went from uni to this,” says Kadri. Taking a moment to look up for a minute, he’s convinced that the UKMVA nomination, the new blood joining the team, shooting with artists like Madonna and brands like Selfridges are indicators that the quiet graft the company’s put in is paying off. “This has come a long way. We’ve been around, we’re not going anywhere and you may need to act accordingly.”