Following Access Industries acquisition, Icon UK lays off 15% of workforce but plans to invest in new hires before Cannes; company to have greater emphasis on international sales while maintaining 15 theatrical releases per year.

The Icon UK Group has confirmed a restructuring that sees 15% of its workforce made redundant, but group joint MD Hugo Grumbar told Screen that the moves are not a sign of distress, rather “a decision to refocus the company a bit, and move in a slightly new direction.”

“Access Industries bought us a year ago and following that, we wanted to move things around a bit,” Grumbar [pictured] said. Len Blavatnik’s US-based Access Industries acquired Icon’s international sales and UK distribution business (but not the Australian businesses) in November 2009. At the time, then-CEO Stewart Till said the move was an important step forward in his ambitions to start an international distribution network.

It is understood that plans for a PolyGram-style pan-European distribution network have been shelved, at least for now.

“In the current climate we’ve got to adapt,” Grumbar continued. “We’re going to have greater emphasis on international sales operations of the business, we’re being very aggressive on that.” At EFM, Icon’s hot sellers were Mel Gibson starrer How I Spent My Summer Vacation and Sundance opener Project Nim; and buyers are also keen on the slate of films Icon is developing with James Wan.

Now, Icon has hired Vince Holden, former head of production finance at the UK Film Council, as Finance Director starting in April. “He will help to package up productions as we’re doing more of that in-house,” Grumbar noted.

Finance and production will become a bigger piece of the puzzle moving ahead. In late October 2010, Icon and The Weinstein Company announced a new film finance and production fund, focusing on commercially viable films with budgets of $5m-$20m. The fund could reach $100m over its initial two-year period.

In management changes announced late last year, Grumbar and Ian Dawson were named joint managing directors, with Grumbar handling international and Dawson the UK. At the same time, it was announced that Stewart Till would step aside as CEO of the company to become chairman.

Dawson and Grumbar are now running the company day-to-day with Till being less hands on.

Till’s change of role comes as Access Industries have found UK distribution “tougher than they expected,” in the words of one insider. In 2010, Icon was ranked 11th of UK distributors, behind the studios as well as eOne, Lionsgate, Entertainment and Optimum. The company had a market share of 1.52%, and its biggest hit of 2010 was the moderate success of Edge of Darkness.

With the international distribution market as tough as it currently is, Access is said not to have the appetite to move into other territories. 

Till, a long-time advocate of multi-territory distribution philosophy in line with the old PolyGram model, is understood not to have wanted to run a UK-centric operation and a sales company. As chairman, he is expected to take a more strategic role and to use his contacts to help Icon secure films.

As for UK distribution, the company will continue to handle about 15 theatrical releases per year, and its recent high-profile acquisitions include Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double and David Mackenzie’s You Instead.

With the TWC production fund and boosted sales operations, a “larger proportion” of the UK theatrical slate will now come from “Icon itself,” Grumbar noted.

“The reality is we have the backing of Access Industries and Len Blavatnik and they are very ambitious, they want to make a successful film company.” He added that one or two more key hires would be announced ahead of Cannes.

Recent redundancies represent about 15% of the company’s 40 employees (about five or six staffers). Names of those departing weren’t disclosed, but in recent weeks head of marketing Anna Butler and PR officer Chris Lawrance have confirmed to the industry that they are no longer at Icon.

Grumbar added: “People always read negatives into these things. Yes it’s a painful period, but I think this needed to happen for us to go forward full steam ahead. In some ways, in terms of everything here, it’s like we’ve gone up a gear.”