Zooming in on budding talents

Media investment and management firm Aurora Media Holdings deviates from the traditional script with its deep commitment to grooming the industry’s next generation.

Before signing a project contract with Aurora Media Holdings, a film director was informed he would be working with not just industry veterans, but also newbies.

Young producers would be shadowing and learning from him, the company’s management team said.

In response, the director said proudly, “It’s not my job to teach people”. Aurora’s response was just as quick – the director was promptly booted from the project.

Justin Deimen, Managing Partner and Head of Investments at Aurora Media, whose recent projects include the 2016 faith-themed film 100 Yards, says the decision stemmed from the firm’s strong philosophy of grooming the industry’s next generation.

“The director’s reply showed that he wasn’t going to be collaborative and generous, and wouldn’t be interested in anyone but himself,” Deimen says.

The Singapore-based media investment and management company – which handles the production, financing, and distribution of films and animated series – looks for creative collaborators who will work with and respect their less experienced colleagues.

“Talent is one thing, but if your attitude stinks and you think you know better than others all the time, then it’s almost impossible for you to work within a system or hierarchy,” Deimen says.

Without fail, young novices will participate in every media project Aurora manages.

“Youths are not just eager but also bring new energy and help refocus those who are experienced,” Deimen says.

“Experienced people tend to be set in their ways, but when they have to explain something to a less knowledgeable person and say it out loud, they start rethinking their approaches.”

Grooming young talents

The media industry has traditionally hired young talent only for mundane tasks, such as coffee runs. Contrary to this, Aurora deliberately places its early career recruits in important roles, despite their lack of real-world experience.

They are also not called “interns”. Deimen dislikes the term because he says it carries negative connotations – particularly in the creative industry where interns are often unpaid and overworked.

Instead, short-term hires are given the designation of “Associate Producer”, and paid a salary commensurate to the role.

“As associate producers, they’re exposed to everyone and every part of the production, so they don’t feel shuffled to one side and only used when they’re needed,” he says.

“We give them responsibilities we would give to someone with 10 years’ experience.”

A case in point is media communications undergraduate Tiffany Lim, who worked with the company for 12 months as an associate producer for an animated telemovie.

Despite having very little production experience, the 21-year-old wrote the script for the telemovie, sourced for voice talent, helped liaise with the animation studio, and offered her opinion on the story’s creative aspects.

“Although many production companies employ interns, few provide them with development opportunities,” Lim says.

Aurora’s “nurturing” environment allowed her to learn more than most young talents would in the industry, she adds.

Pushing someone to take on more roles matures them quickly and fosters a sense of belonging to the team, Deimen says. That, in turn, motivates the budding talents to give more to the project.

“I tell them, ‘If you don’t show up tomorrow, the director can stay home because the production won’t happen.’ That shows them they are valued and important,” he says.

“If you handle young people with kid gloves and only assign tasks you think they won’t mess up, you’re reinforcing the idea that they are only good for unimportant roles.”

In the same vein, mentorship is a key element of Aurora’s talent management strategies.

Young staffers are urged to approach senior management for help or guidance in any area.

They are also mentored by the lead producers, and are involved “fundamentally” in the core business – learning about film production and financing, as well as networking with industry leaders and government representatives.

This mentorship does not end, even after they finish their stint with the company.

Aurora’s alumni continue to receive guidance from the management team on setting up their own companies and starting independent projects. Lim, for instance, has remained in contact with Deimen since finishing up her project in August this year. He offers her advice on how to launch and promote her creative works.

Decentralised, revolving workforce

Another characteristic that sets Aurora apart from the rest of the industry is its heavy use of contingent workers, who are spread across Southeast Asia.

Unlike typical production companies, which employ a large team of permanent staff and are housed in roomy offices, Aurora works primarily with freelancers on an ad-hoc basis, hired from not just Singapore but also the rest of the region.

For instance, Aurora has a 12-strong animation team in Malaysia it engages whenever a suitable project comes up. At present, Deimen is himself managing 60 employees based in different countries across several projects.

“There are many freelancers in Southeast Asia who need jobs and are very good at what they do,” he says.

Perhaps the only constant in Aurora’s revolving workforce is a Singapore-based core team of five people, three of whom are the co-founders including Deimen.

In managing the remote workforce from Singapore, Aurora’s senior managers have had to deal with issues such as poor time management.

Today, they hold frequent skype calls with their remote workers, who also send daily reports. For certain productions which are facing an approaching deadline, the company has also used cameras to check in to the workplace and ensure the overseas staff can contact them for urgent matters via video calls.

“We don’t micro-manage people in other countries. We use a lot of project management tools, and are always exploring new ways of remotely working with people,” Deimen says.

Pecking order

In any given year, Aurora manages around 10 media productions. Each project brings in a fresh batch of hires, and at least 50 to 100 people can be engaged in the making of a single film.

A clear and enforced hierarchy therefore comes in handy. Especially in Asian cultures, Deimen says.

In larger film sets, the corporate producer – usually Aurora’s role – stays away from the day-to-day operations so as to not step on the toes of the director, who manages the camera and sound departments and their crews.

 “Even if we are taking the creative lead, the set is still the director’s kingdom,” Deimen explains.

Putting ideas on paper

To ensure the right people are attached to the right projects, Aurora Media Holdings gets directors and writers to submit a “letter of intent” for each project.

The prospective team member breaks down the project from their point of view, describing where they think it is heading, what they hope it will achieve, and what they believe it needs.

This simple but effective practice helps align everyone with the project’s vision and direction, says Justin Deimen, Group Managing Partner and Head of Investments at the company.

Besides helping Aurora identify suitable talents, the letter also gives new joiners the chance to reflect upon their expectations and motivations.

“When speaking, people can tell you whatever you want to hear, but writing it down gets them to think about what they actually want out of this project,” Deimen says.

“The letter is submitted at the stage where we feel good about our chemistry and their idea of the project, before the director or writer signs.”

 

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