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“I quit banking to make films. You probably don’t want to do the same”

Quit banking

"Film is essentially an uneconomic industry."

If you’re thinking of leaving finance, throwing it all, in and doing something more interesting instead, then Bill Dale’s your man. Dale spent 10 years working in the City of London between 1990 and 2000, as a senior equity research analyst at SG Warburg (now part of UBS). He then left for 13 years and set up a film company, before coming back to help manage Nomura’s now-defunct equity research team in 2013.

We asked Dale what he’s learned from his eclectic career. This is what he said…

So, you’ve done a career in finance and you’ve done a career in the arts…Plenty of people working in banking might envy you. What would your advice be to bankers who’d like a more creative career?

“Firstly, and pretty obviously – these are two completely different worlds. It obviously depends slightly upon where in the arts you want to go and what you want to do there, but if you aspire to work in something like film or creative writing, you need to know that these are extremely difficult areas to make any kind of a living in. “

When Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk interviewed bankers for his series on finance professionals for the Guardian, he found that plenty of them wanted to leave and become fill directors and novelists. Do you think banking is full of frustrated creatives?

“In my time, banking was always full of people who’d rather be doing things but who had a ‘safety first’ mentality when they left university. Plenty of them then ended up staying on.

This might be why, when I left banking the first time to go into films, the number of people who said ‘Why are you leaving, this is a great career,’ was outnumbered by around 50:1 by the number of people who said, ‘That’s great – I wish I could do that too.’”

Why did you go into banking in the first place? And why did you then leave to become a film director?

“I’d always wanted to write and had always been interested in film, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I went to a few banking careers events while I was at university and the industry did a great job of selling itself as a career with early responsibilities and great opportunities.

I figured I’d go into the City for a couple of years and see how it went. After a couple of years, it was going well so I stayed another couple and then another couple. After my fourth or fifth couple I thought it might be time to try a few other things. I was fortunate that there were some pretty good bonus payments knocking around and that I’d been a top ranked analyst and was heading a team from an early age. Financially, I was in a position to contemplate other options.

I was also ready to do something else. – I wouldn’t say I was burned out, but I’d been doing a hell of a lot of travelling and working all hours and going out all the time and I’d begun to hanker for something different. I wanted to step off.”

So, how did you get into film?

“A lot of my friends were working outside banking – as well as bankers, accountants and lawyers I knew cartoonists, comedians and journalists. I was at a wedding and I spoke to a guy and mentioned I was thinking of making a film, and he said he had a cousin who wanted to make a low-budget film. The cousin knew a former pub landlord who also wanted to make a film and group of us got together.”

And it went from there…?

“Not exactly. We did some work for a few months and it kind of fell through. The cousin had different ideas to the rest of us. I ended up getting together with one of the other guys who had a horror/thriller script instead. We got a bit of lottery funding and raised some money from friends and threw ourselves into it.”

What was it about?

“It was about a monster on a North Sea oil rig. We sold it under the title Ghost Rig in the U.S. and the U.K. In fact, we only had half a day filming on an oil rig – the rest of the time, we filmed on a car ferry and a shipyard on the west coast of Scotland.”

Was the film, ‘a success’?

“Yes, to the extent that it was pretty popular in the U.S., where it was positioned as a B Movie horror title.  Blockbuster in the U.S. took around 40,000 units – double the number expected and we had sales in various formats in around 20 different countries.”

Did you make money from it?

“No. It took the best part of three years to produce, and we didn’t pay ourselves anything. Instead, we gave ourselves a chunk of equity each.”

And how much is that equity worth?

“A couple of tens of thousands of pounds.”

So, not a lucrative second career choice?

“Film is essentially an uneconomic industry. We managed to make a film which covered it cash costs, but not by a huge amount – and this was only by cutting corners at every opportunity.

You also have to remember that this was more than ten years ago. The whole British independent film industry has gradually dried up since then. There’s far less funding and most of the films that do get made now are backed by Hollywood – either directly or indirectly.”

And you went back to banking?

“Yes. A guy I knew had taken over as head of research at Nomura. He wanted someone he knew and trusted to help him build and run it. I came back into a management role in equity research more than a decade after I’d left. If anything this was easier than going in as an industry specialist – the industries would have changed, but the people hadn’t. If anything, the world I stepped back into was more similar to the early 1990s than the crazier late 1990s and early 2000s. It was very familiar.”

What are you planning now that Nomura’s cut its equity research business?

“I’m taking a summer out to mull things over. If another role in research management crops up, I wouldn’t rule it out. Otherwise, I still have a few film and writing projects on the back burner.”

And what advice would you give to other people who might want to leave banking and follow their ‘creative dreams’?

“I’d never discourage anyone from doing it. But I’d also say that this is an incredibly difficult area to make a living in, and that you need a big slice of luck along the way. I’m pretty pleased that I made a film, although I think that if we’d known how hard it was going to be we might never have tried it… So, sure – try it, but have a healthy skepticism about your ability to make money from it. And be prepared to work far, far harder than you ever have in banking.”

Photo credit: Lorne Sykora by Revere Eight Movie Camera is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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