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From Puppet Shows to Piracy

by Gena Ashwell

Wraysbury, a small village about an hour west of London is where I was born and raised. The writing was on the wall when I started to put on puppet shows in the garage at home aged ten. I was addicted. I knew I wanted to be in showbusiness. I roped in all the kids down our street to help, we would make the sets and I would write and produce the show.

The moral of this story is that the locals came and watched and paid fifty pence for entry. Even though we were just kids, untrained and unprofessional, our audience understood and valued the productions and acknowledged the many hours of our time and resources while also getting some entertainment value (I hope).

Not once did anyone object or not pay. So, when work experience week came at school, my teachers either laughed or fobbed me off when I told them I was going to be a film producer. Determined to show them I could, I took the train up to London and walked around Soho putting covering letters and my (very light) CV into every production company I could find (this was before Google). I also posted a letter to Pinewood Studios.

A few weeks later, much to my disbelief, Pinewood rang asking if I was interested in being an usher who guides and waits with the studio audience in the freezing English winter. I jumped at the chance and I was in! After doing three shifts a week after school, I was asked to join the team as a full-time runner, so I left school at 17, much to my teachers' horror. Pinewood was such a wonderful training ground for me and I worked on many shows such as My Family, Only Fools and Horses and many more working my way up through production, I even did a term as Ann Robinson's PA on The Weakest Link.

After four years at Pinewood my sights were set on the big smoke: London here I come! I moved up to the city and worked on commercials, music videos and feature films. While on one feature I was promoted to working as an assistant to the producers, I was so close now! The film's director was so impressed with my work, he asked me to produce his next feature, Bad Day. I was only 24 and the single producer apart from the director and this was going to be my biggest learning curve to date.

The film was a huge challenge, I wish I had a more experienced producer to guide me but we got it financed and the film was made, it was super low budget and has its faults but it sold worldwide. Also despite its low-budget indie pedigree it has received consistently favourable reviews.

Now brimming with confidence, I started on another feature. As filmmaking at that level is not exactly self-sustaining, I did project management for companies such as Barclays Bank, Accenture and British Gas, which paid the bills. After meeting my Australian husband and relocating to South Australia, I was incredibly fortunate to team up with Helen Leake and we created Dancing Road Productions. Over the last four years we have focused on development; scripts take years to develop and there is no quick fix unfortunately.

So now with all that training and personal investment, I find some people object to paying for a product and experience that's far more complex and costlier to produce than the little puppet shows in my garage.

Piracy directly impacts our business (that's the 'business' in showbusiness). If a business cannot make a profit or even break even on a product it produces, we cannot invest in training and development, i.e. someone like me. I have regular, heated discussions about piracy and the impact it has on our business and the response is either "you won't miss the money, you all get paid millions" or "It's too expensive'.

Well, first of all my day-to-day life is not like an episode of Entourage, quite the opposite (sorry if I have blown away any smoke here or shattered a mirror). A recent study also highlights that with the range of skills required, a producer could work in any other industry and earn on average four times more. So no, we don't earn millions I'm afraid. There are some in the top 1% of the business that do, but that's the same in any other business and we don't use that as an excuse to steal from them. I think you just need to sit at the end of a film and watch the credits and that might help clarify the price point of a film.

All that said, we love what we do, it's a passion. Our primary goal is to entertain, bring escapism and joy to people's lives and tell a great story.

I fear for the little girl or boy now, who may not be putting puppet shows on in their garage, but learning how to create content on her iPhone and screening it for friends and family, that in 24 years' time, they won't have the opportunity to fulfil their dreams and make a living if piracy continues.


Gena Ashwell is a director of Dancing Road Productions with Helen Leake, whose work includes Wolf Creek 2, Swerve, Black and White with Robert Carlyle and Heaven’s Burning starring Russell Crowe. Gena was selected for the inaugural SAFC Gender Agenda program and spent six weeks in Los Angeles with producer Cassian Elwes (Dallas Buyers Club, The Butler, Lawless). Also she was chosen for the Natalie Miller Brilliant Careers program which included a mentorship with Angus Clunies-Ross, national sales manager at Sony Pictures Releasing Australia). Dancing Road produces commercial Australian feature films for domestic and international markets. It has eight feature films in development, including a joint venture with Hopscotch Features, plus two television series.

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