UK film industry: All white at the top
The UK commercial film industry is painfully bereft of black, asian and ethnic minority executives. Why?
A survey of the UK’s leading film companies reveals a remarkably white workforce, particularly in the executive ranks.
Screen drew up a list of more than 75 of the most prominent film companies in the UK industry today. The list comprised companies from production, sales, exhibition, distribution, post-production, public and private finance, VFX, talent agencies and physical studios.
None of the companies are led by a non-white executive. Few have BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) executives in their most senior ranks.
But what are the roots of the problem? Nepotism? The expense of getting your foot in a Soho door? Stigma associated with working in the film industry? Not enough outreach? Lack of on-screen portrayal? Lack of organisation, leadership and regulation within the industry? The size of production companies? Lack of career development opportunities, especially at mid-career level? Complacency?
Probably a combination of all of the above.
In 2012, Michael Foster, former co-chairman of agency ICM (now Independent Talent) and agent for stars including Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Evans, set up Creative Access, a paid-internship programme for BAME people looking to break into the media industries.
Collaborators on the scheme include Endemol, ITV Studios, Channel 4, The Daily Mail, The Times, Sony Pictures, Freud Communications, HarperCollins and the BBC. According to Foster, 85% of the placements have led to full-time jobs.
The scheme has given the influential agent a valuable insight into the varying levels of diversity across different media sectors.
In a rare interview, Foster spoke to Screen about his concerns for the film industry, which he believes is suffering from a lack of action and accountability. “Film in the UK is the preserve of the white middle class like no other media sector,” says Foster.
Certainly, the film industry still suffers from a perception problem. “People often look at the movies and see it as a Mecca on a hill,” director Steve McQueen told Screen in a recent interview.
While the BFI is now looking to address this perception problem at the earliest stage possible — in schools — industry structures also need addressing at management level.
Nepotism is still rife. One executive Screen spoke to admitted that the ethnic and social makeup of his social circle meant that he was more likely to offer an internship to the white, Oxbridge educated son or daughter of a friend than to a person from a BAME background.
Foster’s greatest bugbear is a perceived lack of accountability from the broadcasters and private companies that hand out and receive public money, respectively.
“Black and Asian youth are barely employed in the film industry to develop films. Why not? Because film companies do not make the effort,” claims Foster. “These companies get public money. What are Channel 4, the BBC and BFI doing giving money to white-only companies without any thought as to what they are perpetuating?”
One producer Screen spoke to said that it often made sense to employ Oxbridge graduates in development roles because of their ability to quickly read, digest and analyse scripts. Inevitably, given Oxbridge’s intake, that pool of development professionals will be highly unrepresentative of the country’s racial diversity.
“In a sector that is more heavily funded by public money than most, nothing has progressed,” continues Foster. “It is a disappointment that the public funding bodies have no clear policy on this issue in a society where at least 13% of the population is non-white.”
If public funding bodies do have strategies on the issue, recent Creative Skillset statistics (more here) showing a decline in BAME representation in the industry suggest that they aren’t working.
Diversity of graduates
Foster wants to see greater engagement from existing film companies with contemporary graduates.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 40% of London graduates in 2011 were from BAME backgrounds. Soon after setting up Creative Access Foster called around London’s leading media businesses to make them aware of the economic advantages in dipping into that talent pool: “This is not about woolly, bleeding hearted liberalism, this is about sound economic sense,” an impassioned Foster explains. “This is about recruiting the best talent, exporting the best ideas worldwide and distributing different content in the UK.
“But the film sector doesn’t get it. It gets public money galore in the shape of tax breaks, development funding, regional funding, Lottery funding and other funding but staffs remain unrepresentative of the non-white population of Britain.”
One experienced producer told Screen that the UK production sector is hamstrung by the small size of companies and by time constraints: “Somehow shoving the next film into production takes everyone’s attention. When it comes to diversity it’s too late and they have nothing more to give. Unlike many TV companies, the small size of most production companies means they don’t have an HR department. And yet I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t think this is important and needs to be addressed,” the producer said.
Who will bring change?
Setting the agenda is key. But who will take up the challenge?
In recent months a number of executives have lamented the impermanence of the Creative Diversity Network executive (which changes chair every two years) and its inability to push through meaningful reform in the film sector.
The BFI’s Deputy Chief Executive Tim Cagney told Screen that the BFI will make diversity a renewed priority in 2014: “During 2014 we will bring together organisations to discuss what more we can do collectively to develop opportunities and support progress in this whole area.”
He told Screen that the BFI has seen progress in the diversity of applications for its training programme BFI Film Academy: “From our monitoring so far, we know that in year one of the BFI Film Academy (to March 2013), the regional programme delivered courses to around 420 participants, the residential programme was for 54 participants. BAME representation across the residential programme was 28% and across the regional programme was 19%.”
Monitoring is vital in gauging which areas need more work. Cagney assured that monitoring would become more rigorous: “We are building diversity targets into our KPIs systems and as part of Film Forever we have introduced comprehensive diversity monitoring across all our activities. The BFI monitors all applicants to BFI Lottery-funded activity.”
“We strongly believe diversity is part of everyone’s role at the BFI and should be embedded across all our activity,” he concluded.
And yet, when in May of last year the BFI handed out £2.8m in Vision Awards in order to build “sustainable UK film businesses” which would “nurture new voices, fresh ideas and creative excellence”, among the more than 40 executives from 20 companies that received funding, not one of them was a BAME producer or executive.
This could be down to the small number of applications from BAME backgrounds. A number of public funding executives Screen has spoken to in recent months have lamented the lack of applications from people from BAME backgrounds.
Which takes us back to the roots of the problem — perception, expense of getting your foot in a Soho door, nepotism, and a lack of leadership, organisation, regulation and out-reach.
Clearly, at the very least there needs to be more joined up thinking between the film industry and companies like Creative Access. A number of executives in recent months have also welcomed the idea of quotas and positive discrimination.
Those at the top must take a lead now.