CRAFT: PROFILE LIZIE GOWER - How to stay relaxed and keep your talent in tow/Academy’s Lizie Gower explains to Richard Cook the art of keeping star directors happily employed

So far, 1999 has already been a pretty good year for Lizie Gower.

So far, 1999 has already been a pretty good year for Lizie

Gower.



And 1999, of course, has barely started. Gower, who in her past has been

a thespian, a switchboard operator and a general production dogsbody,

returned from the blue seas and palm-fringed beaches of the Caribbean

only last week. She promptly found out that Academy - the company she

helped found eight years ago - had picked up Campaign’s production

company of the year award.



Better still, it was difficult to find anyone who found fault with that

decision. Because Academy is these days more than merely a showcase for

the considerable talents of Jonathan Glazer, even if that director

personally weighed in with two of the finest films of its year -

Guinness ’swimblack’ and Stella Artois ’last orders’.



Academy has done well to pull itself up from the status of an also-ran

in only a few years. By ’discovering’ Glazer, the production company was

able to prove its worth to the rest of the industry.



Besides Glazer, the company now boasts a number of serious talents:

Frenchman Frederic Planchon is a rising star, as his Sony Vega ads of

last year testify, while the US director, Floria Sigismondi, impressed

on the Fanta ’photo booth’ spot for Leagas Delaney. Another notable in

this line-up is Walter Stern, who has a reputation as a music promo

director but is also assuming a higher profile in the commercials

world.



For Gower, it’s all a long way from the time when a broken leg curtailed

an acting career that hadn’t yet reached the promising stage and sent

her into Soho looking for gainful employment.



She found it in the shape of - as she cheerfully admits - a rather poor

receptionist for Messenger Price. More important, it was a tentative

introduction to an industry she is now starting to shape.



Stints of menial labour at a succession of production houses were

quickly followed by a small start-up with Richard Simpson. She remembers

difficult days working at a borrowed desk in a borrowed office, living

on borrowed money and hoping that a turnover of pounds 250,000 a year

would be enough to keep all those - no doubt borrowed - balls in the

air.



Then she persuaded the leading producer, Nick Morris, to join. The

result was Academy and a concerted period of growth which may only now

be drawing to a close.



’I think there is an optimum size at which a film production company

operates,’ Gower says. ’I still look at around 30 reels a week but we

already have 13 directors and we have to be able to work closely with

all of them. The production company’s job is much closer to an agent’s

these days. It’s essential that you help them make the right career

moves. Each has their own producer, of course, but we try to help with

the overall talent management side. If we had many more directors, that

sort of attention just wouldn’t be possible.’



There is, though, always room for exceptional talent, which is what the

Full Monty director, Peter Cattaneo, has quickly proved himself to be,

despite a hefty dollop of industry cynicism when he joined Academy in

October 1997.



It looked like he was another feature film director happy to coast

through the advertising process in search of a couple of big pay days.

It hasn’t worked out like that at all. His ’golf club’ film for Audi and

the VW Passat ’ruler’ ad quickly marked him out as a special talent.



Gower insists she used precisely the same criteria to choose him as she

has all her other directors but says: ’I wish I knew what the magic

formula for picking a great director is. Until we find it we just go for

someone whose work moves us, that makes the hairs on the back of our

neck stand out. It can be the most polished or visually stunning piece

of work but unless it generates some sort of emotional response it’s not

worth having.’



But for all the success that Academy has enjoyed in the last few years,

there are now some tough-looking hurdles coming swiftly into focus - not

least of which is that for its two biggest name directors, 1999 is going

to be a year devoted to ’other projects’.



’As it happens we are losing both Jonathan Glazer and Peter Cattaneo for

large parts of this year - a feature film might only take 13 weeks to

shoot but with pre- and post-production that is going to take six or

seven months out of the year. But there’s no point in trying to hang on

to them if that’s what they want to do; you’ve got to let them go with

your blessing and that way they will come back. And when you get them

back you often find that they have learnt new skills and can bring even

more.



’It would be suicide to try to make your directors do stuff just because

it’s lucrative,’ adds a remarkably sanguine Gower. ’I remember Jonathan

Glazer turning down a pounds 1 million job to take on an pounds 80,000

music video because that was what he really wanted to do. And as a

production company you’ve got to be fine with that, because that’s the

way that the directors are going to keep interested. Obviously, it’s

asking a lot to replace two directors like that but, in truth, Jonathan

only does four films for us a year anyway - they will be sorely missed

but we have 13 directors here that are capable of doing great work.’



And then, of course, Gower is looking to the joint venture operation

agreed last year with the US production giant, Propaganda, to help pick

up the slack. It was launched with a considerable splash, but has since

- to the surprise of many - failed to produce any tangible results.



’That’s really just been an accident of timing - directors like Spike

Jonze and David Fincher have been involved with their own feature

projects and so we are only really going to see the results of that

tie-up later this year when they return to making ads,’ a relaxed and

tanned Gower explains without a hint of frustration. You see, 1999 is

already turning into a pretty good year for Lizie Gower.



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