'Gangs of London' Producer Pulse Films' CEO Thomas Benski on 15 Years of Multi-Disciplined Disruption

Thomas Benski - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Pulse

Thomas Benski

The studios has enjoyed a 2020 like few others in the industry thanks to 'Gangs of London,' Riz Ahmed's 'Mogul Mowgli,' Spike Jonze's 'Beastie Boys Story' and one of the most talked about commercials of the year.

While much of the industry has been having a 2020 they'd rather forget, for Pulse Films it's arguably been one of the studio's best to date.

Among a number of reasons to celebrate, the production and talent management house — in which Vice took a majority stake in 2016 — has seen Mogul Mowgli, the music-soaked feature co-written by and starring Riz Ahmed in a deeply personal role, earn rave reviews following its world premiere in Berlin and more recently in London. Then there's Gangs of London, the 10-part blood-splattered crime drama from the unique mind of Gareth Evans and Pulse's most ambitious project so far. Having already amassed a fanbase on Sky in the U.K., it's now doing the same for AMC in the U.S., with a second season in development.

Elsewhere, from its non-scripted arm, Spike Jonze's Beastie Boys Story doc landed on Apple TV+ to critical acclaim, while on the commercials side, its dynamic split-screen spot for Nike entitled You Can't Stop Us, narrated by Megan Rapinoe, has become one of the most talked about ads of the year.

For Thomas Benski, who co-founded Pulse Films with Marisa Clifford in late 2005, the recent success stories from across the board is the culmination of 15 years of hard work, a decade and a half in which the company has gradually expanded across disciplines and platforms, taking its roster of creatives along for the ride. First emerging as an uber-cool production house for music videos and commercials (think Chemical Brothers, Run the Jewels, and Beyonce's Lemonade), it breezed into music documentaries with the likes of 2012's LCD Soundsystem doc Shut Up And Play The Hits, then scripted features (American Honey and The Witch were early credits) and — now — television, a space it looks to navigate further thanks to upcoming projects Atomic Bazaar, an espionage and terrorism thriller being written by Gregory Burke, and What Have I Done?, based on Laura Dockrill's hit memoir about post-partum psychosis.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter to celebrate Pulse's 15-year anniversary, Benski explains how it was always his ambition to create a studio spanning media and formats, despite it being considered unorthodox at the time, and why this model has helped see them through a year of chaos.

Although it doesn't feel like the right moment to celebrate, is it fair to say that Pulse is having its best year to date?

That’s right. For us it feels like, coronavirus notwithstanding, we’ve arrived in the last couple of years. And I think the kind of model that we've built, that we’ve worked really hard to build over the last 15 years, is really thriving. So it is a really special moment. And then it looks like it's going to be a great few years. So now it's a good time to take a pause and look back.

What is this model and how has it helped you through the current situation?

The vision we had, from the outset, was really based around three key values.

The first one was as a talent destination, to really put the emphasis on building a place where talent wanted to bring their ideas.

The second thing, which I guess was the most original at the time, was the idea of being multiple disciplined, on having a studio that was able to be multi-platform, that was diverse in format, in medium and in voices. The idea of having a company that has a short form division, representing filmmakers across the world and working in music videos and advertising, combined with a long-form output, both on the non-fiction side and scripted side, with talent transitioning from one to the other, 15 years ago seemed like heresy. And the amazing thing is it, it feels that this is now a model that a lot of people embrace, and actually a model that is kind of needed I think for survival, because the asset flows of each division allow us to really power through and benefit from creative economic advantages that those different divisions offer.

And the third thing, which was also very important, was to be a global business. This sounds obvious now, but we never identified with a specific territory, we always wanted to be present and active in different markets.

It was just four years ago that you began moving into scripted. What's the biggest side of the business for Pulse now?

Because of the scale of the projects, scripted it has now become the biggest revenue and profit driver. But the commercial business is a very stable, very healthy and growing business. And non-fiction, just because of the size of the budget is a bit smaller, but the activity there, you know, keeps on accelerating.

It was also four years ago that Vice acquired a majority stake in Pulse. What has that done for the company?

We'd had a lot of approaches to be invested in or acquired, but I always saw us as a fairly disruptive type of studio, and the idea of us fitting into a more conventional setup, especially at the time, didn't really feel attractive. But what was attractive for us with Vice was that they really saw the potential of Pulse as a strong brand in itself, one that could live in the Vice ecosystem and benefit from some of their resources. But it really allowed us to grow and build on the strength of what we did and never intervened or suffocated what we wanted to do, instead enabling us to have a very strong independent voice and brand.

Vice has had a few financial concerns of late. Has there ever been a concern that Pulse would be seen as an asset that could be sold to raise capital?

Not really. I actually think the fact that we went from strength to strength was a reassuring perspective from their side.

How have the #MeToo movement and recent push for greater diversity impacted Pulse’s focus?

By the nature of the company, we've always been very diverse in the voices that we've had. We've celebrated young talent from the beginning and have never been afraid to bet on that. So I feel that to us it’s just strengthened us as a destination company.

MeToo generally didn't really touch us at all, because culturally we were never there. We’re quite a modern company in many ways where the very old school, patriarchal style just didn't really apply to us.

As far as the push for diversity right now, this is accelerating some of the talent that we've been working with and I feel this is only strengthening us. I feel we have the advantage actually to set up at a time where we were able to look forward, because we didn't come from your obvious places, especially in the U.K. So those things were natural to us, rather than things that we felt we had to correct.

Over the last 15 years are there any particular projects that you think have helped define what Pulse is about?

The work we did in music, using music to make films really was the defining factor. When we started, making Shut Up and Play the Hits, and [Nick Cave doc] 20,000 Days on Earth, all those films I guess defined us, because they weren’t classic documentaries, they were movies, really. And then all of the amazing independent films we got to make, like American Honey, just validated our approach. And then in advertising, it was our ability to just build our palate in non-conventional advertising. So I think we’re actually defined by our collective output. If you look at 2020, one of the things that makes me really, really proud is that we can be dropping the Nike ad (Oscar Hudson’s You Can’t Stop Us) that effectively becomes one of the ads of the year, then the Beastie Boys Story next to Gangs of London in the space of, I think, four weeks. And that’s the fruit of 15 years work.

What does the future hold?

To continue to grow with our talent. When they succeed, we succeed. And that's the key to our success. I think we want to continue to interrogate the market as a whole, and how we can continue to innovate on that. And the other thing that I would say, is key for us is the international space. I think from the beginning, we always saw the world as a bigger canvas, and never necessarily identified as a British company, an American company or a French company. I'm a big, big believer that incredible voices are going to come from other markets. And we saw this with Parasite and the fact that now this is the new norm. And we are perfectly positioned to do that. So we want to really lean into that, and the office we just opened in Italy, and the one we have in Germany and of course in the U.S. are just continued expressions of that.

You mentioned Parasite, so can you see yourself extending beyond North America and Europe and opening offices in Asia?

Absolutely, I can see that. I just think it's a question of understanding which are the markets that are more suited to us. Italy, for example, wasn’t an obvious strategic thing, but I'm so glad we proceeded because I think there's incredible talent, there’s an industry evolving and there are stories that are starting to burst out. And that’s exactly the sort of place where I think we can bring value to.

Finally, Gangs of London season two. Where are we?

Well, you know, I can’t tell you anything. There are some very scary people in Gangs of London! But we’re super excited to bring it back. And we'll be shooting next year and are going to be pushing the boundaries again. And there are some pretty cool ideas that we’ve got.