Shooting the message #6: Pukka Films

Our series on modern corporate filmmaking returns with a look at Pukka Films, a dynamic production company pledging to deliver the art of film to businesses.

Patrick Russell

A Manager's Guide to Industrial Action (2010)

A Manager's Guide to Industrial Action (2010)

Welcome back to the Shooting the message series, continuing coverage of… well… terminology is a problem. Corporate video? AV? Visual comms?

No label quite nails it. Paul Katis volunteers “applied filmmaking”, a nifty term I wish I’d coined. Pukka Films, headed by creative director Katis and producer Andrew de Lotbinière, has been ‘applying’ filmmaking since 2002. De Lotbinière’s background is post-production; Katis was an already-experienced freelance director (for many companies, including industry leader The Edge). Their website argues: “Making film work is more of an art form than a science. Our job is to deliver this art form to business.”

My first encounter with Pukka’s art was Making It Count in Court (2003): an adroitly edgy urban drama, worthwhile not least in comparison to staid ancestors. A few years later, I was truly taken aback by The Consular Mission (2008). Making hour-long multiple-storyline training films (in this case, for British consul staff worldwide) is not common government practice nowadays! Pukka apparently persuaded the Foreign Office and Central Office of Information (COI)  to double its budget from £40k to £80k: no small feat…

The Consular Mission (2008)

De Lotbinière notes subsequent seismic shifts. Then, the COI accounted for 50% of Pukka’s slate, other public-sector work for 20%, and private companies the remaining 30%. Today the COI is dead, state budgets have slumped and 70% of turnover is corporate. Clients include Italian power company Enel, BT, BP, Thomson Holidays, even…

‘Applied filmmaking’ typically relies on a stream of solid work studded with sporadic standout movies. My impression of Pukka is that they’ve largely sidestepped this model (bread-and-butter plus occasional jam sandwich), by concentrating on major productions. Certainly, with seven staff servicing 20 projects annually for 8-10 core clients, they undertake fewer than some competitors – but, perhaps, disproportionately many high-profile ones.

Paul Katis (left) on location

Paul Katis (left) on location

Some, like thought-provoking Met Police film Considerations for Safer Restraint (2006), fall into the documentary genre. But Pukka is best-known for drama, harnessing its capacity to wring universal human emotion from workplace particulars. Their films are marketed as mini-features, given dedicated presentation in training sessions (for which Pukka supply detailed facilitator notes) while trailers are streamed online.

The back-story of A Manager’s Guide to Industrial Action (2010) reveals much about economic change. Industrial relations begat many ‘industrial films’ (like this) in their postwar heyday. But today’s middle managers, blissfully ignorant of pre-Thatcherite working life, will inevitably struggle to cope with the unexpected recessionary re-emergence of organised disaffection.

Pukka’s Guide was ‘silently’ sponsored by a company fearing an imminent strike. I can’t reveal the firm’s name (as I don’t know and Pukka won’t tell me!), but gather they escaped industrial action. However, retaining the rights, Pukka now distributes the Guide (via to companies facing similar predicaments.

A Manager’s Guide to Industrial Action (2010)

If there’s a specialist Pukka Films theme, it’s human safety. Typifying cinematic synthesis of the universal and the specific, workplace and road safety films face an eternal test: to break viewers’ complacency without alienating them. Pukka’s work ranges from the powerful, cleverly structured Heart of the Matter, via teen-soapy In the Driving Seat to the short sharp shocks of Heavy Metal.

Pukka recently treated me to a preview-theatre screening of Choose Life (2012), for my money their best yet. Commissioning firm Saipem, a multinational energy company, screens it in two parts, during two-hour training sessions staged from Nigeria to Kazakhstan… At £170k, it’s no cheap production.

What makes it special is how well that budget was spent. Sound and vision are richly orchestrated: Katis took a Cannes award for direction (shared with fellow Brit, Pretzel Films’ Jake Dypka: Dypka’s Sammy, is another fine safety film, documentary- rather than drama-based). Its composer was likewise honoured. An intelligent script deftly shuffles psychological and practical themes, commanding subliminal and conscious responses alike. (Katis’s regular writer Tom Williams, best known for scripting 2011 feature Chalet Girl, fascinatingly dissects the disciplines of scriptwriting for clients on his blog.)

Choose Life (2012)

Saipem’s headquarters are in Italy, where Pukka works frequently (even co-producing independent political documentary Girlfriend in a Coma, 2012), epitomising the paradoxes beneath which British ‘industrial film’ has long laboured. Our world-leading AV industry is admired in cinephile cultures abroad but too often overlooked at home. Few UK corporates approach film as confidently as Saipem’s cinema-loving health and safety department have. Conversely, few production hubs are better placed than London’s to apply such confidence creatively.

Pukka has supplied preservation copies of all films mentioned above to the BFI National Archive. Asked about the future, they predict a growing divergence of ‘filmmaking’ from video ‘content production’. The second, an increasingly indispensable function of forward-looking organisations, will be delivered, fast and frill-free, by multimedia agencies. The first, dramas and documentaries compelling our absorption in their on-screen worlds, will be supplied at higher unit costs, for business-critical moments, by producers dedicated, like forebears, to applying ageless ‘art’ to ever-changing business needs. 

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