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Viewpoint: The importance of being indie

As more and more prodcos are acquired, we present this viewpoint piece from Icon Films' Laura Marshall (pictured), in which she discusses the advantages of remaining a true indie.
January 30, 2014

As more and more prodcos are acquired, the value of staying independent can sometimes be obscured by other considerations (see: money). Here, Icon Films’ managing director Laura Marshall (pictured) provides an overview of how – and why – her company remains proudly independent.

Twenty-four years ago my husband Harry and I sat on a floor in my parents’ house looking at the documents that confirmed we had just formed a company. We didn’t have a house or a job. We had a development slate (featuring one project, a film about Don McCullin going to Borneo), a bit of experience in making films, much less in pitching projects, unrealistic expectations and an accompanying lack of qualms about setting out on this journey.

Today we are in Bristol, UK, where we made our home shortly after setting up Icon Films, and loving the ongoing adventure. Icon Films has around 90 people working in the center of the city, a mixture of staff and freelancers, and around 35 hours of projects in production. Bristol is a city of travel and adventure (Cabot, Brunel, Concorde), dissenters and independents, with the first out-of-London elected mayor, an independent. Similarly, our company remains independent, led by a strong management team who revel in their autonomy and ability to act nimbly and take calculated risks.

We’re small enough to be able to get together on Monday mornings as a company and have each person introduce themselves and share what they will be doing in the coming week. It’s an opportunity for new starters to put faces to names, see what the company looks like and for us all to commit to what we need to do.

We’ve managed to survive the ups and downs of the independent roller-coaster for a long time, and are growing year-on-year. Why? For the early part of Icon’s history Harry and I did most things ourselves, and we learned a lot of lessons the hard way. It wasn’t until we sat back and worked out the things that we were good at and liked doing (and conversely, what we were bad at and hated) and brought people in and empowered them to do their best work, that Icon started doing its best work too.

I think our customers liked it better at that point as well. We bring in people at the start of their careers, looking for the brightest and the best across the spectrum, and do our best to train and nurture their talent.

We encourage our team to build good working relationships with their counterparts across the industry, in production management, commissioning, finance and commercial affairs, believing that it is not just the idea that sells a project – it’s the package and the relationships within it.

We also see it as important to have a diverse output. Unusually for a UK indie, our biggest market historically has been international, primarily the U.S. We have been working with Discovery Communications networks for more than 20 years and our returning series for Animal Planet, River Monsters, has been a standout hit.

That allows you to develop more and riskier projects. We’ve always enjoyed a wide customer base, working across the factual cable nets in the States and the terrestrials in the UK. Also, we’ve stayed away from the first look deal, which has given us the freedom to match each project with the right distribution company.

It’s not always easy being out there without a mothership to beam us up when things get tough, and when things go wrong or big payments get delayed, we have to use our combined nous to get through. It’s not easy balancing creativity and commerciality. Creativity is not comfortable, it doesn’t sit in neat little boxes ready to be sold; it is prickly and amorphous and doesn’t do what it’s told. Without it we would be dead in the water and sometimes it takes us into deeper water.

Still, it is the reason people come into the business and thus, it’s essential to respect the creative and support it, so it can survive the rigors of creating a 47-minute hour.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.

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