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