Inspiring Women's Enterprise in TV

By Laura Marshall

Thanks to Skillset and the UKRC, I spent a great morning at a workshop meeting women with professional experience working in the TV industry or returning to the industry after a career break who were considering setting up a business or diversifying their current freelance or company interests.   My contribution was to be one of guest speakers along with Emma George of De Facto Films talking about our journeys.  I had been asked to talk how Icon Films started, and the issues we had faced in the twenty plus years of its existence,  illustrated by a few milestones in my career – I’ve bullet pointed them below:

  • STARTED Icon in 1990 – with my husband Harry Marshall.  Looked at our skills and decided we were complimentary.   It was the best decision I ever made.  We wanted to make films we believed in and not work for others.  Took us a little time to understand that of course working for others, working for the client.

  • Nervous that we were starting a company in Bristol, when London was a bigger centre, more work – also more competitive.  We looked around us and saw others working and decided, build it and they will come.

  • Wanted to create bespoke films for the best commissioning editors, and set out to stalk them. 

  • Family and friends thought that we were naive, inexperienced and unrealistic – we were, it caused our biggest problems and allowed us to be brave and unencumbered by doubt

  • Found our first commission by finding a story – the story came to us because we had been working on another project and had impressed the collaborator with the way we approached the story – Don McCullin, the war photographer, put us in touch with one of his friends who had a great story to tell.  We believed in the story – a journey on elephant across North India with the only woman mahout – we didn’t know it was difficult, we took it to Discovery who were brave and  believed in us, and they gave us silly money to make it.  It’s still making money for them.

  • The film was long, a bloody experience and nearly killed us.  By the end we had spent all the money on screen, and hadn’t developed any other projects to carry on with.  Kept the bailiffs at bay until the film came out and people came to us wanting to make films for them.  The first time that happened they only wanted to risk a percentage of budget, and so we had to find the rest by learning about co-productions, and holding onto rights.

  • When we set up the company we had one daughter, two years later we had three daughters.  We put the company in the basement, lodgers in the top of our house, the au pair and us in the middle and juggled.  The washing machine was in the office behind what looked like filing cupboards which meant we had to do all the laundry first thing in the morning or last thing at night. 

  • I haven’t seen being a woman in this industry as a disadvantage – so I can’t talk about it – our company employs 50/50 men and women – and our SMT is 50/50 – I know what is like to try and work and be a mum, there is an uneasy balance.  Many of the women I work with have children, are single parents, and so we try to support them by listening to requests for part time working.  It’s not easy running a company with part time staff, but I really hope it makes us stronger as a company and those that we support more loyal to us for doing so.

  • Working with someone else, with Harry, was the reason for my success.  Together we could talk through issues, separately we could deal with issues, our skills are complementary and I respect him more than anyone else.  We argue a lot – not always pretty – but probably brings about better resolution.  Now we have an Strategic Management Team of 6 and we all argue and support each other.  Finding someone to work with makes you stronger.  You are not alone in meetings, pitches, taking turns to talk and listen and take notes, you don’t’ feel like noddy no mates at away days or markets, you have an inbuilt quality control and you can be more flexible about opportunities between you.

  • Big moments in my work life – first commission from Discovery Networks in 1991- Queen of the Elephants, first external offices – 1995, first redundancies 2003, First insert commissioned for the new BBC show the One Show 2008,  2009 first Series of River Monsters,  Animal Planet’s highest rating series ever, 2010 Icon Films moves to College Green with 60 staff, and  I am elected Chair of Bristol Old Vic, 2012

  • What do I like most about running my own business – developing staff, taking risks, acknowledging challenges, getting over it, my lack of confidence, my lack of experience, I have never run a company this size before.  Everything I am doing I am doing for the first time.

  • What’s next –diversification, brand extension, finding places for our content, getting better at what I do

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