Stewart Till talks to Screen about his new role as chair of Skillset and the importance of training in the film industry.

Throughout his film career, Stewart Till (currently chairman at Icon) has combined high profile industry jobs with a heavy involvement in the British public film sector. During his stints at PolyGram, Signpost and UIP, he also served as Vice-Chairman and Chairman of the UK Film Council and as Deputy-Chair of Skillset, the Sector Skills Council (SSC) for Creative Media. This month he has taken over as Chair of Skillset, succeeding Clive Jones. Skillset supports skills and training for not just film but for such areas as fashion and textiles, advertising, computer games and advertising.

It remains to be seen what Skillset’s budget for film will be in the coming year. Presuming that the BFI continues with the same levels of Lottery funding for 2011/12 as Skillset received in 2010/11 from the UK Film Council, the organisation can expect to receive around £3.25 million.

The money from the Skills Investment Fund (SIF) is additional and is based on voluntary contributions from productions. The amount for 2010/2011 will be based on production levels and how many productions contribute.  In 2009/2010 the SIF fund was $1.1m (£704,000). In total, Skillset has received $11.6m (£7.4m) from 668 contributions to the SIF since it was established in 1999.

Do you see your new role at Skillset as a natural continuation of the work that you’ve been doing in the public film sphere over many years?

I think so. I enjoy working in the public sector. Both the Film Council and Skillset bridge the two worlds (public and private). These are unpaid positions. I do enjoy giving something back. With my Film Council position coming to an end in 2009, I felt I had the capacity. I have always been obsessed by the role of education and training. In this incredibly competitive and dynamic time, I think it’s even more important.

Are these difficult times for Skillset with the squeeze in public spending?

It’s a time of great challenge but also of opportunity. Skillset doesn’t yet know what its core funding from Government will be. All the Sector Skill Councils across the UK get the same core funding from Government, which is about [$2.6m] £1.7 million. That will probably shrink. But the Government has set up a growth fund for Sector Skills Funds to apply for on a project by project basis. In its public funding, Skillset could either have reduced income or enhanced income, depending on how successful we are in applying to the growth fund.

How well do you believe the SIF (the Skills Investment Levy raised on film productions shooting in the UK) worked?

The production levy has been remarkably consistent over the past years and remarkably supported by the industry. The film industry has led the way across the whole economy let alone across the creative sector (in supporting it) and I do think it’s one of the reasons why the last Government and the current one look fondly on film. They see it is not just taking.

How do you respond to the argument put forward by some film figures that it’s perverse to invest heavily in training when there are relatively few jobs available in the industry?

I think that’s said tongue in cheek. It’s inane (as an argument). It is not as if the only thing the UK Film Council or now the BFI was spending money on is education. In this incredibly competitive industry, the [$7m] £4.5 million or so spent on training is bringing in a new generation, attracting the bright and the best and giving career development for people already in the industry. I can’t think anyone would argue that that is not money well spent. You can really look at the benefits we’ve reaped from inward investment – the enhanced quality of the crews, the post-production, special effects and editing work done in Soho, the pre-eminence still of Pinewood and Shepperton, and the increasing commercialism and creativity among young up and coming writers and directors. I always felt that of all the money the Film Council spent, the training and education was the best spent money.

One key goal has been to help the UK film industry build a more diverse workforce behind and in front of the camera. How do you see the industry’s record on diversity?

I think it (diversity) is vital. There is a moral argument anyway. More importantly, if we only recruit people who are white, middle-class, have relations in the industry and can afford to take internships for no money, we’re recruiting from a very narrow segment of the population. Obviously, when you’re recruiting for anything, you want to recruit from as wide a pool as possible. You want to recruit from 100% of the population, not 15%, because you’re going to get better people. You want people telling the stories that reflect the racial diversity of the country. The progress has been slow but there has been progress.

The Film Business Academy (FBA) at Cass Business School has closed. Is business training still emphasised by Skillset?

The philosophy is absolutely still in place. A big part of the Bigger Future 2 [Skillset’s film skills strategy for the next three years] is absolutely to give people business skills. I think it’s vital in the world we live in that people have that expertise.

Have you had personal contact with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey? Do you believe he is broadly sympathetic toward Skillset’s aims?

I think it was significant that at BAFTA [when Vaizey announced the BFI would take on many of the UKFC’s actvities], he very specifically said the training and education money will be spent by Skillset. Although Skillset in terms of Ministerial responsibility much more leans toward Education and Business than the DCMS, I know that Ed Vaizey is very supportive. He has a very strong relationship with Dinah Caine, Skillset’s Chief Executive.

How much time are you able to give to Skillset given your commitments at Icon?

I am great believer that if you want something done, give it to a busy person! With my move at Icon from Chief Executive to Chair, that has certainly freed up some time. The timing has been perfect for that.