It has been more than eight months since Hugo Grumbar was promoted to president of distribution for Icon Film Distribution (IFD), and it is no secret he is enjoying the ride. Previously head of group marketing at IFD in London and a veteran of Capitol Films and Intermedia, Grumbar - who now reports to Los Angeles-based Icon Group CEO Mark Gooder - took the driver's seat as Icon was celebrating one of its best years.
In 2007, the distributor generated more than $44m (£22m) in the UK, putting it third on the list of independent distributors (behind Entertainment Film Distributors and Momentum Pictures) and representing a 2.3% local market share.
"It's one of the best years we've had in a long time," says Grumbar. "We had such a diverse slate and managed to mix it up - that's what's exciting about it and that's what attracts me and keeps the team going. We don't just do one type of title or one genre of film."
Diversity does seem to be key for Icon. Last year, the distributor's UK releases included Icon co-founder Mel Gibson's Mayan-language Apocalypto, true-life crime story Alpha Dog and the Oscar-winning La Vie En Rose.
Investing in diversity
This year at Cannes, Icon picked up UK rights to Ken Loach's new film Looking For Eric, in addition to fantasy adventure Tree Of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and sci-fi film Pandorum, starring Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster. In April, it took UK theatrical and home-entertainment rights to James Marsh's Sundance-winning documentary Man On Wire.
"I like having a mix of films," Grumbar says. "Everyone at Icon is a film lover so we basically make and distribute films that we feel passionate about. There's no agenda as such - we just like to go from small independent films to big multiplex films."
Icon's biggest UK release in 2007 was Walden Media production Bridge To Terabithia, which took $9.6m in the UK, marking the most successful territory for the film outside the US. Icon only held UK rights, which were bought early in script development.
"Bridge was a huge success but it was also a major marketing challenge," Grumbar says. "By comparison to other children's films it is very wholesome and could have been perceived as old-fashioned, as well as lacking in any recognisable cast. We knew we had to focus on the special effects and make-believe to get people's attention."
Further, there was the additional risk of counter-programming the film at the beginning of May, against Spider-Man 3. "Some people thought I was crazy but I was convinced that this Spider-Man was quite scary, a bit darker and so I thought for a younger audience and adults with much younger children, there just wasn't anything out there. We went for it and got a great result."
It is this willingness to take risks that Grumbar feels will help carve a firm place in the independent distributor rankings. Take French-language Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose, which made $3.3m in UK cinemas after a June 2007 release and a theatrical re-release in February 2008.
"We are the most successful distributor of foreign-language films in the UK (2002's Y Tu Mama Tambien took $3.2m while Maria Full Of Grace took $1.4m in 2005)," Grumbar claims. "That is something that I, personally, want Icon to be known for. But La Vie En Rose was different because the director had only done a few small pictures before, it didn't have a big international star attached to it, nobody had seen the finished film and it wasn't cheap. It was a risk but we feel very strongly that these are the kind of films we want to distribute at Icon."
Playing to local strengths
Although the US studios are increasingly interested in local-language films, their marketing muscle does not intimidate Grumbar. "We're better equipped as independents to be able to give these films a good release and give them our full attention," he suggests. "Foreign-language films take a lot of nurturing - you can't just throw a large p&a budget at them. They need care and attention from publicity and marketing through to booking the right screens and strong exhibitor support."
And now that Icon has set up its own in-house home-entertainment division in the UK, led by Ian Dawson, which has been going for just over a year, this enables the outfit to better "nurture" product.
"Warner Bros used to do our DVDs and we did a couple of deals with MGM," Grumbar says. "But while they're fabulous at releasing studio films, they can't necessarily care for the smaller, foreign-language films the way we can. Now, having the whole DVD process in-house makes everything much easier."
In addition to the UK distribution office and home-entertainment division, Icon distributes in Australia and has the London-based international sales arm Icon Entertainment International. "If we're doing a project from production, which I'm also involved with at an early stage, we discuss it with the international sales team and the distribution team in Australia. We tend to take Australia and UK rights to the majority of the films we're selling through Icon, though there are always exceptions."
Grumbar adds that this relationship does not offer enough international product to keep things going and says that while Icon may benefit from buying power in the UK and Australia, other distributors' buying power is increasing, making competition tough.
For the future, Grumbar remains confident despite the fact 2008 will see fewer UK releases. This year, Icon has released Dan In Real Life (on $3.1m in the UK), Awake ($3.1m) and Smart People ($400,000). French film Priceless, starring Audrey Tautou, is due for release June 13.
"We're likely to be releasing fewer pictures this year but that's because there's been some internal restructuring at the end of last year, so we weren't perhaps buying as much as we should have done," he says. "However, we already have several titles lined up for 2009."
These include big acquisitions for Icon, such as The Road starring Viggo Mortensen, and Cameron Diaz-starrer The Box which it has for UK and Australia. Icon has also pre-bought UK rights to The Vintner's Luck directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider).
"We nurture relationships with film-makers, we make films, we sell films and we're buying films," says Grumbar. "Whether it be co-financing, development, production, sales or distribution, we can potentially do it all."