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Arrow aims at new targets

Leaving the company that bears your name after 22 years is no small step to take, but former Darlow Smithson chief John Smithson is relishing the creative re-energisation offered by his new venture, Arrow Media. Clive Whittingham reports.

John Smithson

After co-founding Darlow Smithson 22 years ago, John Smithson (left) didn’t waste any time. By the time he walked away from it earlier this year, the company had scooped more than 30 international awards, including a Bafta for Outstanding British Film, for 2004 hit Touching the Void, and the Grierson Award for Best Theatrical Documentary, for Deep Water.


Darlow was a hot property. It was acquired by IMG in 2006 and then in 2009 was sold to Endemol along with another former indie, Tiger Aspect, for a joint price somewhere between £30m (US$47.4m) and £40m.

What was there left to do? Well, start all over again from the beginning, of course. Earlier this year Smithson, together with Tom Brisley and Iain Pelling, who had each been with Darlow for a decade, up and left to start from scratch with their own new company, Arrow Media.

So they didn’t like the Endemol effect? Not the case according to Smithson, but a fresh challenge was required. “It’s about creative renewal, and creative re-energisation,” he explains. “Endemol were very nice to us. There is no ill feeling towards Endemol at all and they let us do what we wanted. It was just that feeling of wanting to be directly in control of our own destiny.

“It was completely amicable. What was good about Endemol was they understood television. I think they have a lot of time for creative people; they understand how creative people work. I think they would have liked us to stay but they respected our decision and the reasons we told them.

“We missed the creative risk-taking, flying by the seat of our pants – that’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s a scary thing to do starting a new indie; it’s a tough climate but we thought ‘Let’s apply all those things we know.'”

A tough but not impossible climate, and Smithson, Pelling and Brisley have been encouraged by the response from broadcasters to the fledgling Arrow Media in their first few months of globe trotting and flesh pressing. “I felt ready for a new challenge and a new opportunity,” Brisley says. “The other area we are heavily interested in at the moment is UK programming – Channel 4, BBC, Sky and Channel 5 have all been very receptive, and that will be one of the areas we look to grow Arrow into.

“Series led by characters seem to be very popular in the US, so we’re looking at that sort of area. Big ambitious coproductions we’re looking at as well.”

Smithson, who worked on Granada’s World in Action and the BBC’s Rough Justioce in the 1980s before co-founding his indie, says the reaction from broadcasters has been positive. Already Arrow has met with potential broadcasters in the US, UK, France, Germany and Australia.

So is it to be more of the same, high-production-value factual programmes on the harshness of nature, air crashes and global events that we saw from the trio at Darlow Smithson? Yes and no. Arrow wants to maintain Darlow’s reputation for the quality of its product, but new genres are being explored and future projects may take more of a dramatic twist.

Tom Brisley

“We’re not likely to do a rom-com; it’ll always be factual,” says Smithson. “If more of the same means very well made, high-quality, well-told stories, then yes, expect more of the same.

“We’re doing a bit more scripted. There’s a lot of interest in taking true stories and telling them in a fully scripted way. It could be historical events – the drama on ITV about Fred West, Responsible Adult, I thought that was really good. We previously did a really good feature documentary on the Ipswich serial killer.”

Arrow Media is treading a path previously walked by The Garden, a new indie set up by Dragonfly co-founders Nick Curwin and Marcus Temple. So do you either have to be small and nimble or part of an Endemol-type superindie to survive and prosper these days? Is there a middle ground?

Brisley says: “It’s about how you structure yourself. If you’re very small you don’t need the constant cash flow coming in, if you’re very big you want to have that constant cash flow.”

“That middle phase is a natural growth phase of a company, where there is a lot going out,” Smithson continues. “When you get to a certain size, as I found out with Darlow Smithson, where that size gives you the infrastructure it feels easier.

“Quick and nimble are very much the words I would use about what we are now, but we want to be clever going through that middle phase to avoid the pitfalls. That’s the challenge.”

A challenge for later perhaps. Arrow is also waiting to see if a boom in 3D television production comes – “It plays to our strengths, but we have to wait and see if the money is there,” Smithson says.

In the meantime, the task is building up the company, and despite all their years in the game Brisley, Pelling and Smithson still seem to be excited by the little things, such as assembling a workforce.

Smithson says: “When building a team from scratch, what we found at Darlow Smithson is that you can really grow home-grown talent. There are some very talented people there who started as runners and are now producers and directors. It’s great to see them flourishing.”

“We’ve got that same opportunity now to find that next generation talent. That’s one of the best things about the independent sector, if you’re talented the opportunities are there.”

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