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game changer

Mark Campbell, left, Nick Haffie-Emslie and Reid Campbell formed VMG Cinematic after university rather than endure a long apprenticeship with an established production company.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Three friends from the London, Ont., area learned that you can't be a game changer by following the existing path.

Nick Haffie-Emslie and brothers Reid and Mark Campbell were studying filmmaking in university but none of them were looking forward to their immediate future. "There's a tradition in the industry that you have to spend your first 10 years getting coffee and hauling around equipment before doing anything fun and, maybe years down the line, have [your] own production company," Mr. Haffie-Emslie says. "We didn't want to do that."

So they didn't. Setting up shop in a friend's basement in 2008, the three young men formed VMG Cinematic, their own production company, and got to work immediately.

To raise capital for their venture, the partners worked in the field and saved what they could. "Some of us were doing freelance camera work, and we were all living cheaply," Mr. Haffie-Emslie says. "It's amazing what you can do when you're used to the student lifestyle."

Then they started cold-calling companies. "The early meetings were weird," Mr. Haffie-Emslie says. "It's hard for a 22-year-old to be taken seriously." But they had an ace up their sleeve. Unlike more traditional production companies, VMG's partners also sold themselves as experts in social media – an area in which their generation not only belonged, but led.

One of VMG's first clients was Jamie MacLean, marketing director for Ivanhoé Cambridge's Vaughan Mills shopping mall just north of Toronto. She originally hired the team to film a golf tournament, and was so impressed at a highlight reel they produced that she turned to them again later for bigger tasks. It wasn't a hard sell. "I began to get into social media heavily into 2007, and Ivanhoé Cambridge has always been far-forward of our competitors," Ms. MacLean says. "And social media was already well implanted in our corporate culture."

Employing VMG has paid off. "With them, we have developed an award-winning social media fashion Web series called Style Agents," she says. "They are on YouTube, and they are getting a great response."

The guys at VMG are so confident in their social media prowess that they can guarantee a minimum number of hits for their clients. And, as Mr. Haffie-Emslie points out, the hits are genuine. "We can prove it's their desired demographic and not some room full of people in India or Iraq clicking away."

In another advantage over larger rivals, VMG's low overhead allows it to offer services at lower prices. "We are really passionate about technology and staying on top of trends in technology; the digital SLR [single-lens reflex camera] revolution happened early in our business and technology has become more and more accessible to us," Mr. Haffie-Emslie says. "Most of the incumbent, more established production companies are not as agile and are stuck with more expensive equipment and production methods."

For VMG, which stands for Viral Media Group, its original name, keeping overhead low means using off-the-shelf technology, such as Canon Inc.'s digital SLRs. For jobs that require cinematic quality, VMG rents high-end gear from Red Digital Cinema Camera Co. (director Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit on them). For editing, the company uses apps from the Adobe Creative Cloud – such as Premiere and After Effects – on Apple Mac Pro desktop computers. Mr. Haffie-Emslie says VMG used Apple's Final Cut Pro software app until Apple changed its focus to amateur from commercial users.

The agility with technology is matched in staffing. VMG employs nine staff and uses freelancers for production. "Our cinematographers, for instance, are all freelance," Mr. Haffie-Emslie says. "Not only does this keep costs down, but it allows us to tailor the look of the product to the individual client."

Despite the rapid rise in revenue (VMG recorded $538,871 in revenue in 2009 and $1.8-million in 2010), the VMG team has not varied from its original thriftiness – although the company has moved into a studio in the Liberty Village neighbourhood of Toronto's core. "We have always taken a very conservative approach to growth; we're more of an earn-first, spend-later philosophy," Mr. Haffie-Emslie says. "We have neither outside investors nor debt – it's all a step-by-step, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, put-your-head-down-and-do-good-work, get-more-and-more-customers method – a very organic style of growth."

All of these rules have allowed Mr. Haffie-Emslie and the Campbells to avoid the traditional waiting period they were dreading, and have also given them the freedom and satisfaction that comes with financial success. Mr. Haffie-Emslie says he is "living the dream" and that he is enjoying his shift from a hands-on employee to a more managerial role. "We know from our early days that you don't need a big salary to be happy, but things are definitely changing as we mature," he says. "I certainly don't want to live in poverty again."