Rachel Wang of Chocolate Films talks to us about social enterprise, her business and her inspiration
Chocolate Films is a successful business and this enables it to empower thousands of people every year, as we discover, talking to Rachel Wang.
On the face of it, a law qualification, brief corporate finance career and no film making experience, doesn’t make the perfect recipe for success in setting up a video production company.
But this didn’t deter Rachel Wang, who now heads up a successful company, Chocolate Films, which not only makes films for major corporate clients, charities, local authorities and other public bodies, but also helps thousands of young people and vulnerable adults. Clients of the business, which is based in Battersea South London, include: the National Portrait Gallery; Royal College of Physicians; Heritage Lottery Fund; Jeep; and Arup.
Rachel, who was named winner of the ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the Black British Business Awards in 2015, founded the business with her fellow director Mark Currie, 17 years ago.
She recalls: “I was always interested in photography, film and drama and I painted. I went to Wimbledon art school, so a passion for art and being creative was always part of my make-up. Mark was an actor and theatre director, but neither of us knew how to make a film.
“We set the business up on our kitchen table. We were very passionate about making films ourselves and also about engaging with the community. We originally learnt everything ourselves from scratch. I didn’t know how to make a film, I didn’t know how to edit and I didn’t know how to produce and neither did Mark.
“We also really wanted to make it accessible for other people. It was before digital, so it was quite hard. We didn’t have mobile phones, we didn’t have the ability to just pick up a camera and easily edit it on an app. So we spent a lot of time working through how to make a film ourselves and really took it from there.’’
Now the business has 25 employees and has opened another office in Glasgow. Originally a company limited by guarantee, it is now a social enterprise.
Its success in making films commercially pays for its extensive outreach programme which is about training young people and vulnerable adults in film making skills through a workshop programme.
“My motive is to engage and empower young people and adults to communicate and be creative,’’ explains Rachel. “Through film you can make a big difference and it enables people to have essential skills in teamwork and confidence. Supporting people to be creative is incredibly important, especially today with schools being limited in that. I think that everybody should be able to express themselves and have a creative outlay. We want to give back to the community to give them what we have and the skills that we have learnt.’’
They reach an average of more than 3,000 people a year through the programme, which was boosted to more than 5,000 last year through a residence programme at Kew.
Rachel adds: “We also like to evaluate our deep engagement and our light engagement. Light engagement might be coming to a talk that I do, or going to a screening where you see a completely different sort of film. Deep engagement might meet training people in the process of documentary animation or drama.’’
One mammoth outreach project which Chocolate Films has embarked upon is 1,000 Londoners, an award-winning documentary series profiling the lives of a thousand people in the capital. This anthology, which will be created over the next six years, will comprise a thousand short documentaries about Londoners, totalling some 50 hours of film, celebrating London through Londoners.
“With each documentary we collaborate with a Londoner and find out their story and then we work with them closely to make a short film about them,’’ says Rachel. “There’s a website and every week we publish a new Londoner and that web series has gone round to lots of different festivals and that has won a number of awards. According to the BBC, it’s the largest documentary series that has ever been made about a city – a thousand films of three minutes each. We’re going to have it as an exhibition and also we’re thinking about creating a feature film from the footage as well.’’
She adds: “It’s part of our outreach because we work with different community groups and schools. For example, Wimbledon Book Fest come back to us every year and we go to different schools and train people in documentary skills. We have also worked in Greenwich with people who are overcoming drugs and alcohol abuse. It’s a community cohesion project, the idea is to celebrate inclusion and diversity in the city and it’s for people to understand one another better.
“Sometimes we work in partnership with organisations such as London Sport who wanted to encourage people to be active, so we did a focus on different types of sport in the city and that was a great way to focus on a particular area of London.’’
Every three months 1000 Londoners has a different season, the screening of a different theme.
“For example, we have had 10 women in 10 decades called Century 10 Women x 10 Decades,’’ says Rachel. “For that we created 10 short films about women Londoners and for each decade there was a woman who is a Londoner, so we had a 96-year-old, an 83-year-old, all the way down to an eight-year-old. Last year we worked on a series called Windrush generation which was 16 short documentaries to celebrate Caribbean Londoners.’’
Chocolate Films ethical outlook also extends to its own people, all of whom are employed.
Rachel says: “We have 25 employees and they are all full timers. At Chocolate Films we don’t have freelancers. We created a business model in our own way and we’re really keen on developing talent and on training people in-house and supporting them so that they have a full-time and a secure job. The industry is such that for freelancers it’s quite tricky to make ends meet sometimes and we wanted to create a place where people can be creative, be professional and develop and develop their talents.’’
And it’s good for business.
“It makes everyone feel better and we find that people understand and production companies will come to chocolate films and say we really like your ethos,’’ says Rachel. “I think more and more people coming out of university have an understanding and desire to give back to other people.’’
Any ambitions for the business?
She laughs. “We always have lots of ambitions for the business!’’
She explains that in two years Chocolate Films is moving to Nine Elms in Battersea where it will have its own film studio and be able to run regular workshops, after school clubs and where people can come to learn animation and weekend clubs where people can come to make short dramas and documentaries.
“This space is going to be very exciting for us because we have always gone out to different organisations, schools and community groups, whereas now people will be able to come to us and we will have a base.’’
Unsurprisingly, Rachel is an enthusiastic advocate for social enterprise.
She says: “If you’re able to build a business and make profit, then with the some of that profit you can put that back into the community and help other people. Without that, how would you be able to help other people? If you’re very wealthy, then you don’t need to make any money and you can be a philanthropist, but I’m not in that position so I have to generate business, pay the staff pay the rent and then with any remainder give back to the community to do creative projects.’’
Her advice for anyone thinking of setting up a social enterprise?
“It depends what it is, but I would say persevere, be motivated, work really hard and just believe in yourself. Try something small, do it really well and showcase yourself. The main thing is to do it to the highest quality, to do it genuinely and to really believe in it and know it’s is something that you’re really committed to doing and eventually people will believe in you.’’