David Reviews

 It's the work, stupid.

ACADEMY REWARDS.
2 January 2019

From the vantage point of the New Year, it's easy to say that 2018 was an especially good year for Academy Films, with Seb Edwards's masterful mini biopic of Elton John for John Lewis rounding off the year very nicely.

Earlier in the year, DAVID spent some time chatting to Simon Cooper and Medb Riordan about their joint stewardship of the company, and the way it manages to navigate the advertising industry's ever-changing landscape.

Simon Cooper and Medb Riordan are cracking company. When we sat down early in 2018 to talk about the restructuring at Academy prompted by Lizie Gower's decision to withdraw to a less visible position, they were extremely insightful and entertaining. They bring different qualities to their shared responsibilities and - indeed - to the interview with Cooper often calmer and more measured compared with Riordan's 'take no prisoners' feistiness. It makes them a great double act.

Academy were determined that a profile of Cooper and Riordan should not centre on Lizie Gower but it was inevitable that her changed role would be the first topic of our conversation. It's clear that Gower is going to continue to wield influence at Academy - it would be astonishing if she didn't - but how do Cooper and Riordan see it working?

"It's her baby," says Cooper, adding that she's going to "an ambassador for the Academy brand."


Do they feel they have autonomy though - is she likely to be a back seat driver? Riordan has the perfect riposte, delivered with a mischievous gleam: "we're very loud front seat drivers!"

Simon Cooper has worked with Lizie Gower, on-and-off, for most of her company's long existence going right back to when it was four person outfit known as Simpson Gower. Cooper became a permanent fixture when he began working as Jonathan Glazer's production manager, a relationship with one of the industry's most prodigious talents which persuaded him to eschew other opportunities.


We get a lot of headless scripts that come in from agencies that trust that we will give them the right suggestions, and the right directors.

 ”

The company became Academy Films in 1992 and they've never looked back. Neither of its joint MDs can point to a single cause for its enduring success but, as Riordan explains, they feel certain that it's rooted in an emphasis on creativity:

"I think there's always been a strong passion for creativity, and carefully curating a roster is really important. Everyone on the roster stands up against each other. Even the baby directors stand up against each other, and that's really important for us, and always has been."


This leads to a question about the nature of Academy's offer, what's available to agencies and brands beyond the roster. For Simon Cooper, the key is trust:

"The producers are trusted here... we get a lot of headless scripts," he says, referring to projects where Academy is approached without a specific director in mind, "that come in from agencies that trust that we will give them the right suggestions, and the right directors."


We're very loud front seat drivers!

 ”

Maintaining a highly capable roster has its own difficulties though, with a surfeit of directors competing for each project. How do they keep the existing directors happy when there's a big name signing like Vince Squibb - or, more recently, Ian Pons Jewell?

When Academy signed Vince Squibb, Cooper recalls that he "had a few conversations with some of the directors who it might affect, and they were all unanimously positive about having him on the roster

"I think that they're all confident enough in their talent and in our curating of their careers, that they weren't threatened by it."


"It's difficult," adds Riordan, "because these directors are your friends as well, and their livelihood and creative future is in your hands."

It means that they fight for every opportunity and Cooper is more put out if a decent script eludes them completely. He says it's a lot less painful to see the completed job if it's been made well by a director who provided better ideas. But "if it hasn't even come through the door, then that's a worry."


If it hasn't even come through the door, then that's a worry.

 ”

Helping a director with a treatment is one of Medb Riordan's favourite parts of her job: "We're not just budgets and schedule people, and treating helps us to understand the process... so that when you're in an edit and suddenly the client changes their mind, everyone knows where you started and what you're trying to protect."


Both of them have witnessed a real shift in the landscape, and - according to Riordan - the most significant change is relatively recent: "It's changed more in the last five years than it has in the previous twenty."

Like a lot of film production companies, Academy have been looking for opportunities to work direct with clients. But they've stepped cautiously into the space, as Cooper puts it: "we have no desire to turn ourselves into an advertising agency."

And when Rioran was obliged by one project to act effectively as "production company producer, agency producer, and account person," she says it was "probably one of the worst things I've ever done," and her respect for those who carry out this duties soared: "It's a world beyond ours."


These directors are your friends... and their livelihood and creative future is in your hands.

 ”

Their mood is upbeat though. Cooper nods vigorously as Riordan asserts that "there's an appetite for content that all the agencies and production companies can't fulfil" and describes that as an opportunity for everyone.

It's an optimistic point of view, and Cooper is similarly sanguine about the shadow cast by agency in-house production:

"I've always felt confident that the inherent benefits of the traditional system, and the creative competition and choice that the production company model gives to a client together with the financial competitiveness - all of which are missing from the in-house model - will mean it's the best choice for any projects that actually matter."


The last part of our discussion was devoted to talking about the excitement when a fantastic new piece of work has been unveiled. Riordan asserts that the London industry is still sufficiently small for everyone to feel invested in the best work - whether they made it or not: "When you see a film come out like Dougal Wilson's 'Superhumans', you're like, 'Yes, we did it! Go on, go off to Cannes and win everything!'"

It may be a rosé-tinted view of the UK industry to imagine everyone sincerely wishing each other success in Cannes, but there's is a grain of truth to it, and it's certainly an excellent approach to adopt.

For Simon Cooper though, there is an accolade even better than Cannes jury recognition and he wistfully imagines himself watching a new piece of work by one of his directors: "It might get mentioned in the pub. It's an ad that might get mentioned in the pub."

And with that, you know that Lizie Gower's baby is safe in their hands.

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Stories

David Reviews - Lovely Lenzie Ltd, Woodbourne House, Seven Sisters, Lenzie, G66 3AW. Telephone: +44 141 776 7766. Editor: Jason Stone.