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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.

Expert view

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.

Funding

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.

Readers' comments (19)

  • Thank you so much for writing this article!!

    I am non white Oxbridge and Ivy League graduate and have NEVER ever been invited to interview for job applications at a variety of levels at public and private production companies. These include BFI, BBC, Film4, Working Title... the list goes on.

    Please don't use the excuse that non white applicants are less qualified... the truth is that they are less connected and have fewers ins because everyone at the top and middle wants to employ people who look, sound and act like them.

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  • Those at the top really could care less about this issue... thanks again to Screen for highlighting it... it makes great companion piece to Christine Langan's embarassing interview at the end of last year, coupled with the fact that there was no representation from BBC Films at the Diversify conference...

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  • It is good that finally this is being addressed by Screen and I totally agree with the other comments. BBC Films is disgraceful, Film4 much more receptive. Interesting to note that I, a high ranking industry professional BAME who has worked successfully in the UK for the past 15 years, was told by the BFI not to apply for a Vision Award as my company did not have enough credits on its own (nevermind my own award winning background). The UK industry has definitely regressed considerably in the past few years, I get more traction and job offers outside of the UK and far more open doors...

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  • I'm also a BAME producer who applied for the Vision Award with a slate that included BAFTA and Oscar winners... did not get an interview... was told that I needed more credits even though my last three films have all been released internationally and are making me money!

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  • I'm BAME and worked at BBC Films for many years.

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  • Please dont label the entire industry the same way our stats are as follows and reflect the official ethnic make up of London (with a higher Black % employed)
    77 WHITE 79.5%
    11 BLACK 11.5%
    9 INDIAN 9%
    The White figure includes South African & Polish, the Black figure should be increased by one and that person is Canadian.

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  • tariq wahr

    As an agent I really cannot say that discrimination is the underlined issue. It has more to do with funders, writers, producers and directors wanting to work within a system that reflects diversity in creation and action.
    I worked at the Film Unit of the FCO for a few years back in the late 90s and saw how the colonial systems of old stifled points of view and filmmaking. It is a huge ask to dismantle and rebuild behaviours that are very deep rooted. It requires a collective desire for a whole new industry reboot!
    If talent alone leads this will eventually produce a well balanced system that we can all work with. Happy New Year!

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  • interesting to read that TWO BAME producers applied for the Vision fund and didn't get past first base.... to quote this amuses me "A number of public funding executives Screen has spoken to in recent months have lamented the lack of applications from people from BAME backgrounds."

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  • also look at the management in US Media... Black, Asian etc etc.. in fact only this morning i read that a Punjabi man has been promoted to to manager level....
    The type of management that the UK is unable (unwilling?) to change

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  • also look at the management in US Media... Black, Asian etc etc.. in fact only this morning i read that a Punjabi man has been promoted to to manager level....
    The type of management that the UK is unable (unwilling?) to change

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  • Would be useful for BFI to publish the breakdown of applicants to Vision Awards

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  • I'm not sure how fair this idea is. It's tremendously hard to get a film or TV show going. Learning to write or develop something compelling takes time to learn, never mind master. Film makers from all walks of life have to go through this. Why should anyone be given a free pass because of their colour or ethnicity? Why does it have to be about the colour of ones skin? Why can't it also be about class? This business is also riddled with class bias but no one's doing much about that not to mention female or gay/transgender issues.

    If you want to make a film, TV or other media just go and do it. Managing to stick around long enough is your worst enemy.

    Just a thought or three.

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  • No one is asking for a free pass, Michael... what is being highlighted in this article is the very obvious and endemic lack of diversity (class, race, etc) in the UK film industry which comes IN SPITE of a huge pool of incredible talent from all backgrounds... that is an issue that needs to be addressed and tackled... Please do not belittle a very real problem

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  • But there's a massive difference in encouraging one minor disadvantaged sector of society to become for instance a boom operator than it is to prioritise applications for funding a piece of work like a film or TV show like some here have suggested.

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  • No one is asking for a free pass, Michael... what is being highlighted in this article is the very obvious and endemic lack of diversity (class, race, etc) in the UK film industry which comes IN SPITE of a huge pool of incredible talent from all backgrounds... that is an issue that needs to be addressed and tackled... Please do not belittle a very real problem

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  • No one has suggested prioritisation - just equal consideration - that is NOT happening at the moment

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  • I'm not belittling the issue, just pointing out that if you're going to do it for one group, do it for all. You know, openness, like not posting 'Anonymous'. There's too much of that in the media biz.

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  • The comment by anonymous re; LONDON is also very revealing.

    People should grasp the fact that the UK film and television industry is specifically organised to serve exclusive select or elite groups and this will inevitably be reflected in terms of its closed shop practices, funding and opportunities and access on the base of class, ethnicity, colour, gender etc and also where you live.

    Jon Williams at pleasedsheepfilms carefully explained the core issues in his blogs at that site and I would recommend people read them. The digital projection scheme funded with lottery money coupled with Jon Williams suggestion of screens reserved for UK films would have eliminated the problem at the root, since it would have entailed an increased demand of UK product by production companies shooting on digital which would then have access to multiplex cinemas (and revenue). The Government despite its completely fake talk of 'diversity' actually stymied the idea - the BFI are just as fake. The elite mentality is also reflected in television. There have been a number of reports and suggestions to the Government and the House of Lords and they've been steadfastly and repeatedly ignored.

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  • What we have when we look at the film industry in this country is true racism . . . in effect 'prejudice plus power' - as the film execs are almost exclusively white and middle class they possess all the funding hence the power dimension that enables overt racism to manifest and persist as an accepted culture in the UK film industry. I have experienced this racism first hand - these execs are unapologetically ignorant and blatantly biased refusing to even peruse scripts/projects sent in by BAME writers/producers etc in favour of their mates.

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