Academy Films Managing Partner talks about the ever-shifting landscape of advertising production and tells some of his best production adventure stories
Academy Films has been a force to be reckoned with in the production world since it opened shop 30 years ago. They’ve represented and developed some of the industry’s top directing talent, from Jonathan Glazer to Martin de Thurah. Simon Cooper’s been a part of the company for his whole production career, at the side of Founder and CEO Lizie Gower. He’s vocal on many of the industry’s most pressing issues and has just been elected as a member of the new APA Council of Members - a group that Lizie’s been an integral part of for many years - where he’s sure to make a strong impact.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Simon to hear his tales from his 30 year career in the trenches of commercial production.
LBB> What did you do before you fell into production? We heard you had some pretty testing jobs…
SC> High points were walking the streets of Lewisham dressed as Mr Wimpey the Beefeater and stealing music cassettes to order from John Menzies… the usual stuff.
LBB> What were your first impressions of the production and advertising industry? How have your general thoughts on it changed since then?
SC> God, in 1987 it was the tail end of being a closed shop industry. I couldn't be called a production assistant because I didn't have my union 'ticket'. It meant that everyone had done their time as an apprentice, learnt their craft slowly. As a 21-year old know-nothing, that was impressive and intimidating. There was a lot of confidence, arrogance, money and time!
The digital democratization of the craft, the globalization of the output and, more recently, the fracturing of the traditional processes and relationships has changed all that. Anyone can do anything! But probably badly. A lot of decisions seem to be based on fear, time pressure and financial expediency now, which is never the route to good advertising is it? But the opportunities to make interesting, creative work outside the old structure are infinitely more varied so the changes have been for the better and worse. The only competition advertisers had for attention back in ’87 was the nation’s desire to get off the sofa and make a cup of tea. We’re no longer playing to a captive audience so the work HAS to be entertaining and engaging. Too much of the industry’s output deserves to be skipped. And that needn’t, and shouldn’t, be the case.
LBB> I hear you're a passionate photographer. When did that passion begin?
SC> I took a break from the industry pretty early on when the endless multi-country moisturiser pack-shots we were shooting got too much, and spent three years chasing tribes and festivals round the world. I came home with 10,000 transparencies and the world had turned digital in my absence. I'm glad there seems to be renewed interest in film photography again now, as with all things analogue. I'm starting to dig them out and look at them again.
LBB> Where has photography taken you over the years?
SC> Well nowhere that a zillion other people haven’t been to before and after me, except perhaps to the remote highlands of New Guinea and deep into Borneo. I suppose it was the photographic promise that kept me canoeing for five days up a Kalimantan river or trekking over mountains with a bag of yams to reach a particular tribe I’d heard about.
The timing was key too - I was the sixth person over the Chinese-Vietnamese border when it reopened so I found a country starved of Western contact since the war, and Cambodia still in the grip of Khmer Rouge soldiers, who would hold up the buses and shoot at the trains.
Producing has probably taken me to just as many other countries and into more people’s homes though. It always seems like an incredible privilege dropping into people’s lives in the way that we do when we shoot on location. Just a pity that young producers now are only likely to get as far as Bucharest or Kiev.
LBB> You've worked with Lizie Gower at Academy for the best part of 30 years. What makes the company so special for you?
SC> Academy is a remarkable family. There has always been a great sense of being part of a company with a special ethos. I was very lucky with my timing, growing with Jonathan Glazer, PMing and then producing with him while we made some of the most iconic ads of the last three decades, but I'm not alone in having been with Academy for so many years. Most people learn and grow there then, with Lizie's encouragement, leave and spread their wings, and later return. Academy has always nurtured careers – production staff as well as directors.
LBB> Academy are known for developing and representing world-class directing talent. What do you think are the keys to building and maintaining such a great roster?
SC> I think it's that defining ethos again of only wanting to do good work, of never encouraging directors to take the dollar or engage on work they don't feel passionate about. It can be immensely frustrating to turn away as much work as we do and it often feels like financial suicide, but it means our directors trust us to help them build their careers for longevity, not a quick buck.
LBB> You recently weighed in publicly on the debate over agency in-house production companies. Why do you think that has been a live issue for so long?
SC> I have no idea. Anyone with clear sight should be able to see that the independent production marketplace will always ultimately provide better creative and financial competition than an in-house production department, and undermining that competitive process is as bad for clients as it is for us.
LBB> Academy have taken a lot of music video directors and helped them make the jump into commercials. Is that harder than it used to be, seeing as the gap in budgets has grown between the two? How do you overcome that?
SC> Much harder, especially with all the smaller pieces of commercial work being made in-house. But there are still opportunities for young, strong directors to make their voices heard, even on a 5k music video; and the occasional agencies and clients who are brave enough to give a young director a chance if they are a good fit. The important thing is for those young directors to have a voice that stands out, whatever budget they are working with. Those are the opportunities we try and find for them, even if that means part funding them ourselves.
LBB> What projects are you most proud of working on over the years? Is there anything that impresses your non-advertising friends and family?
SC> In terms of the black cab driver test, Levi’s ‘Odyssey’, Stella ‘Ice Skating Priests’, Jamiroquai ‘Virtual Insanity’ probably score highest. But most of what I’ve done with Jon Glazer, Fred Planchon, Seb Edwards and Martin de Thurah has made me very proud. Most criminally underated, Fred’s Vodafone ‘Kiss’ and Martin’s film for Camelot. I really love those films. Seb’s Army campaign made for the COI early in his career for no money at all, and more recently the rebranded Channel 4 idents, strange and brave and still deliciously watchable each time they come on I think.
LBB> Other than photography, how do you spend your time when you've some to spare?
SC> Screaming from the touchline at Old Actonian’s Under 9s football matches and organising late-night Ubers for my daughters.
LBB> Producing can present some unique challenges in strange situations. What's the most memorable challenge of your career so far?
SC> Everything I've ever done with Jon [Glazer] presents enormous challenges. He just isn’t interested unless we’re treading new ground in some way, whether it is designing new camera systems to create an unusual P.O.V., bastardising old ones to create a unique look or choosing truly insane locations, the one constant has been holding my head at some point and shouting ‘how the fuck are we going to do this?’ Sony ‘Paint’ was a different level. Delivering gallons of exploding paint 200 foot into the air in the manner of (almost weightless) fireworks while being shot at by the local residents was quite challenging.
A defining memory though was as a young PM, trying to ship 10 tonnes of fireworks from Miami into Havana for a Caffrey’s ad, after Cuba’s firework factory burned down. Nothing goes from Miami to Havana, least of all explosives. I had to bunny hop them in and out of unregistered Caribbean landing strips by bribing an ever increasing list of local officials and literally fly-by-night operators. Nothing was more important than getting those fireworks in.
I cried when they finally arrived.
None of them ended up in the final cut.
I learned a fundamental producing lesson at that point.