In Conversation

with Academy

6 October 2022

Directors ranging from Jonathan Glazer to Frederic Planchon and Seb Edwards all signed to production house Academy at the start of their careers, and continue to shoot award-winning work with Academy to this day. Thirty-five years after it opened its doors to provide a proving ground for new directorial talent in the mid-1980s, Academy remains firmly focused on the new while its roster of established, much-awarded directors reads like an A-list of advertising and music video creators at the top of their game.

For Academy’s co-owner Simon Cooper, whose career began at the production house, “We’ve spent 35 years nurturing directing talent and training production talent, so our reputation and history does a lot of the work of attracting new people. The challenge and the reward comes from maintaining the kind of company that people want to stay at while they grow, and providing the creative guidance and opportunities that help build long successful careers.

But you have to find the right talent to nurture in the first place,” he adds, “and we’re proactive in searching out as much new work as we can, looking for that glimmer of brilliance, a singular voice or an attention to craft that marks someone out as special.”

Some of the attributes of the incoming generation of talent reflect, says Cooper, the cultural and economic contexts in which most of us swim. “Speed, flexibility of approach, and a willingness to throw themselves into projects with no time or money, and to find lo-fi solutions to big problems,” he says. “And understanding how to connect with a generation that is ever-more resistant to conventional advertising. They aren’t appalled by the six-second TikTok edit...”

This sense of creative speed and mobility reflects, perhaps, the changing nature of the entry routes into the creative industries. “There was a time when commercial directors were all film school graduates, ex-editors or ex-agency creatives,” says Cooper. “There were very few other routes in. Now anyone with a camera and a Vimeo page can create and self-promote. New talent can come from absolutely anywhere.”

He describes how Academy’s current roster of new talent comprises graphic designers, art school graduates, writers, documentary makers, self-taught shooters and photographers, as well as a trailer editor, a producer and an ex-runner. But however much the opportunities and entry routes may have changed, the work itself makes more or less the same demands on talent as it did when Academy first opened its doors.

“It’s still about chasing the most creative work,” says Cooper, “and giving directors the tools and the support they need to make the very best of the opportunities they’re given. The demand for content has completely exploded over the last couple of decades, of course, but the creative is still king – the right piece of work, even with no budget, can transform a director’s career and can come from anywhere.”

He points to Billy Boyd Cape’s 2019 breakout commercial for Pride London, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. “It had zero budget, but we invested and it won Billy young director accolades around the world, including Best New Director at the British Arrows.”

Pride In London

That talent such as Frederic Planchon and Seb Edwards are still Academy directors helps the young talent too, Cooper believes. “Having a large and broad roster of established directors helps attract work for the younger ones. Agencies trust our suggestions of newer talent when the A-listers aren’t available – and most of our directors have developed their reels with work that came in for others.”

Some of Academy’s most famous work has been in music video, and while that habitat has changed drastically since the Nineties, Cooper still regards them as “an enormously important creative testing ground – despite their currency, and their budgets, having been massively eroded since Jonathan Glazer and Walter Stern built their careers on ground-breaking videos.”

They are, he adds, still a great opportunity to develop a director’s style, voice and craft. “While spec commercials can be helpful, we’d rather see a short film or music video that really shows where the director’s heart is.” Not that spec spots can’t be effective. “Dorian & Daniel made a Johnnie Walker spec advert when they were at film school, which has now had more than 20 million hits on YouTube.” The dynamic duo from the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart have since gone on to make multi-award-winning work, most recently for Samsung’s The Spider and the Window.

Johnnie Walker

As the pandemic (hopefully) recedes from view, Cooper reflects on its impacts on Academy’s young directors and producers. “The greatest casualty was the loss of in-house immersive training that young production talent gets by sitting in a production company surrounded by talented and more experienced producers and PMs,” he says. “Listening to conversations, negotiations, being in a room with directors, learning and problem-solving... Remote working cannot come close to providing that kind of training.”

For Academy’s directors, Covid’s impact was more minimal. “The months following the first lockdown were some of the busiest in our history, all across the roster,” says Cooper. “We also signed GRANDMAS, Ethan+Tom and Remi Laudat, all three of whom shot their first commercials during the pandemic.” Such new signings, even at a time of global crisis, demonstrate why Academy is a sponsor of the Young Arrows. For Cooper, in a constantly evolving, trend-driven industry, Academy’s longevity and its continuing relevance is dependent on nurturing young production and directing talent, who in turn will reach out to teach the next incoming wave of ambitious new talents.

“The Arrows are the UKs most important industry awards and it is absolutely right that we should celebrate and recognise the contribution of those starting out in the industry or in a particular role,” says Cooper. “Championing their achievements will only encourage the next generation of stars to make their mark in our industry and, frankly, nothing is more important than that.”

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