Viewpoint: The Importance of Being Indie

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.

This article first appeared in Realscreen Jan 31st 2014

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