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The diversity opportunity

Screen and Creative Skillset gathered industry experts for a discussion about diversity in the UK film industry. Wendy Mitchell reports on the meeting’s highlights.

Diversity in the film business means more than a few women or ethnic minority film-makers writing and directing the occasional feature film.

The entire industry needs more joined-up thinking about diversity in front of and behind the camera, from executives down to admin assistants, and in developing future audiences.

Those were some of the key talking points when Screen International and Creative Skillset gathered UK industry experts for a discussion on diversity.

They noted a large number of programmes and schemes available currently, as well as good intentions in various parts of the business. But it was not always clear where to begin, and there were no places where best practices could be shared.

Tim Hunter, head of learning and events at Bafta, said: “It is not made quite clear exactly who is responsible for diversity. Actually there’s a fantastic amount of work going on but it’s not very well joined up.”

Dan Simmons, Creative Skillset’s head of film, added: “There is so much information out there but it’s knowing where to start… [The industry needs] something that simplifies and provides more formal routes. One thing Skillset has been doing is putting together a platform that will be an aggregator that can link to all the sources of information.”

London-based DiVA is one top provider of training initiatives, and has set up apprenticeships in the film industry for people from diverse backgrounds. Arit Eminue, DiVA’s founder and managing director, said one key aim of her work is to recruit people who might not know the film industry is open to them - reaching out to people who have never heard of Bafta, the BFI or Creative Skillset. She said: “It is great to have these platforms but you can’t have them only in the industry. You need to go out and talk to people, saying, ‘This is what we do and these are the different options.’”

Justin Edgar and Alex Usborne’s production company 104 Films seeks to include disabled and disadvantaged talent in front of and behind the camera. Edgar noted they have a database of “500 exceptionally talented disabled film-makers, not just directors but also crew”. But getting them work is not always easy. “It is true there isn’t a set route and that’s the biggest problem.”

From admin to auteurs

Those at the roundtable noted a need for diversity across the film industry, from executives to writers and directors to support staff and crew positions.

“If you want your business to succeed in a changing cultural environment, you need those different perspectives on the inside,” said Creative Skillset’s Simmons.

Kate Kinninmont, a TV industry veteran and chief executive of Women In Film And TV, said: “We have got 32,000 graduates coming out every year and it’s not their fault they all think they want to be directors… they’re really not aware of the range of jobs available and I think that’s a really essential thing.”

Getting diverse executives in positions to greenlight films is also important. Samantha Horley, MD of The Salt Company, noted: “In terms of creativity, you are always on the lookout for new voices, originality, and I actually think going back to the white middle-class industry is far more worrying. I think companies need to be looking for new voices.” She added that sales in particular was not reflective of the community. “[Sales people] are all white, middle class, nicely spoken… I think people hire people who they think the international buyers want to meet or want to see and that includes the accents. I think class is a problem.”

Breaking down class barriers can start at the very beginning of someone’s career. Eminue said that getting young people into the industry via apprenticeships is also a step in the right direction. “The thing with apprenticeships is the opportunities are there and it’s not that much of a cost when you think of the long-term benefits to the industry.”

Paying interns and apprentices a fair wage will also open the industry up to people who cannot live off the bank of mum and dad. Kinninmont praised Creative Skillset’s push for paid interns. “Young people in the industry are still working for free. What kind of industry are we trying to set up? It’s Dickensian.”

Finding new talent from outside the traditional who-you-know channels is also key. That takes time and effort, noted Marc Boothe, founder and MD of B3 Media (where he is currently developing a feature slate) and producer of films including Bullet Boy.

Boothe said: “Talent doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. It takes a bespoke approach, and that takes time. It takes a whole range of people around that person before they get to make a feature film. B3 has supported a range of talent through shorts, including young film-makers Fyzal Boulifa and Mustapha Kseibati.”

Commercial opportunities

Diverse voices will appeal to underserved audiences in cinemas, but making broad commercial films is also to be encouraged among women and ethnic minority film-makers.

Horley said: “I am all about making films for a target market and being super clear about understanding the audience… If you look at Steve McQueen or Mark Tonderai, they’re not making films for an ethnic audience, they’re making films for a wider audience.”

Boothe said that working towards a diverse film industry was not just about public money, but also encouraging entrepreneurship from underserved groups. “I am actually encouraged by the recession. What we do isn’t solely predicated on public money. What we do in the meantime can be entrepreneurial.”

Talk of diversity for cultural reasons should not exclude the financial imperatives of the industry. “Diversity can also make business sense,” Boothe added. “The rapidly changing audience demographics and the growing demand for multicultural content is a multi-million pound opportunity which the UK film industry has been very slow to wake up to. We need to find a better way to connect the dots between emerging and established talent from diverse communities. We also need to unlock scarce resources - access to equipment, expertise and funding, public and private - and in a much more efficient way.”

One company that sees business success with underserved voices is Revolver, the distribution company that has its own production arm, Gunslinger, which has worked on films such as Shank, Sket and Anuvahood.

Nick Taussig, MD of Revolver and director of production at Gunslinger, said: “A film like Adulthood [which Pathe distributed] came as a surprise to everybody. Distribution realised there was an underserved market and the fact is the industry wasn’t rich in content for a large audience. That film made about $5.6m (£3.5m). Kidulthood sold about 700,000 DVDs.”

Because Revolver is a producer and distributor it can sometimes greenlight films more risk-averse companies would not chance. He noted: “We have had a sales agent say, ‘That film’s going to struggle to sell in Eastern Europe with a black lead,’ then we just say, ‘We’ll do it anyway.’”

Part of Gunslinger’s plan is to work closely with a film’s audience throughout development. “If you’re making a token gesture to diversity, the audience sees through it; the audience is smart. What we’ve found is - we’ve learnt it the hard way - anything we develop for an audience, we have to ensure at least 50% of the whole film-making process, we’re working with that audience.”

The BFI, which was unable to send a representative to the discussion because of scheduling conflicts, plans new diversity funding under its Film Forever plan. The BFI now has deputy head of strategic development Wendy Parker looking at diversity across all BFI initiatives.

Kinninmont noted: “They’ll be having some kind of diversity funding next year… I would hope many people around this table would be able to access particular funding for schemes from the BFI for the first time, maybe next year.” The BFI’s increased efforts around general film education can only help, too.

Eminue concluded the discussion with this pertinent reminder: “Diversity is not an afterthought, it’s part of life. It’s about making sure your company reflects the diversity of the community. It really is about not thinking of it as a chore but rather this is something I need to do for my business. It’s an opportunity.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • sandip mahal

    I read about this diversity issue every six months in broadcastnow and honestly very little changes. Minorities get marginalised apart from the odd person that makes it but really, it's all talk. We are still 20 years behind America and also its a shame diverse UK talent is moving to America for better parts... Check out my zeroheadroom blog as it covers the same ground

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