Icon has cut 15% of its 50 staff

Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries has halted its plans to use Icon U.K. as the foundation to build an international distribution empire.

Access, which bought Icon in November 2009, has decided to refocus the company on its existing foreign sales and U.K. distribution operations.

As part of this realignment, Icon has cut 15% of its 50 staff, in a bid to reduce overheads.

But it has also hired Vince Holden, previously head of production finance at the U.K. Film Council, as finance director to help beef up its slate of projects, and is planning further new appointments.

This change of strategy by Access already prompted a shake-up of Icon’s senior management last fall.

Stewart Till stepped down as chief executive to take a part-time role as chairman. Ian Dawson and Hugo Grumbar were promoted to joint managing directors, with Dawson responsible for U.K. distribution and Grumbar for international sales.

Till was the architect of the original strategy to build an international distribution empire, modelled on the network of local distribs he ran at Polygram.

He brokered the deal for Access to buy Icon from its founders, Bruce Davey and Mel Gibson, and became CEO after the purchase. At the time, Access said it planned to buy distribution companies in all the key territories around the world, including Eastern Europe and Asia.

However, Access was discouraged by a tough year for Icon’s U.K. distribution arm. It also failed to find any suitable targets for acquisition in other countries, despite exploratory talks with a dozen distribs in Germany, France and Spain.

“It’s a complicated scenario, simultaneously retrenching to cut overheads after a tough year, but also getting more aggressive about picking up bigger projects on a multi-territory basis,” said one insider.

“The multi-territory distribution strategy is on hold for some time, but not completely abandoned. Access didn’t get involved just to run a U.K. distribution and international sales business.”The U.K. is one of the world’s most competitive markets, with several deep-pocketed indies vying against the U.S. majors for product and audiences.

Icon struggled to make an impact in 2010 on the U.K. box office, with a slate of releases including “A Single Man,” “The Edge of Darkness,” “The Road” and “The Killer Inside Me.”

Icon’s international arm enjoyed better fortune, racking up strong pre-sales for the Mel Gibson vehicle “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” This prompted Access to switch its focus towards investing in product for foreign sales, rather than in local distribution companies.

The willingness of Access to invest in Icon’s sales business is reflected in its partnership with the Weinstein Co., announced last fall. Under that deal, Icon and TWC will work together on a non-exclusive basis to identify projects in the $5 million-$20 million budget range for Icon to finance, with TWC taking certain territories.

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