Diversity in UK film: when is a breakthrough a breakthrough?

It is a story told easily in numbers that eloquently, embarrassingly set out the scale of a problem, and the fairness and effectiveness lacking from a British industrial success.

Raymond Snoddy
28 November 2018

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash, All rights reserved.

Eighteen years ago the proportion of BAME workers – black, Asian and minority ethnic – stood at 3 per cent. Since then across the country society has changed, access in the workplace has improved but the UK film industry has stuck to its traditional ways.

The most recent available figures show that the BAME representation in the film industry now stands at – 3 per cent.

The population context is even more dramatic. Around 70 per cent of the film industry is concentrated in and around London where close to 40 per cent of the population comes from a BAME background.

Do the math, as Hollywood would say: proportionate BAME employment in the industry would be 28 per cent in London.

The disparity is even more startling, according to Kanya King, founder of the MOBO awards, when you consider that BAME groups are over-represented among cinema-goers and digital film “while yet shockingly there are so many barriers to entry for them to work in film.”

Equally simple numbers set out, if not the solution, a possible solution designed to end a “shameful” state of affairs in the booming UK film industry.

Not only was such a lack of progress, and the size of the gap, “shameful and embarrassing” to Helen Grant, vice chair of the Conservative Party, the former DCMS minister also sees it a tragedy.

She told the launch of the Film Diversity Action Group (FDAG) that “without diversity the talents, skills and opinions of many, many people, significant groups of people, are completely discounted and that is bad for decision-making, policy making and artistic development and it’s also extremely bad for UK plc.”

A modest proposal

With a nod in the direction of Swift the Film Diversity Action Group has produced “a modest proposal” to enrich our film culture, film employment and improve social mobility by increasing diversity.

In numbers the modest proposal goes like this:

-  within six years 15 per cent of employment in each film production, taken as a whole, should be BAME

-  within 12 years the 15 per cent figure should apply in each below-the-line department within each film.

The mechanism? Making such BAME employment percentages  a necessary qualification for gaining film tax credits.

The UK’s longest serving Culture minister Ed Vaizey welcomes the blend of carrot and stick and believes the Film Diversity Group is right to focus on the film tax credit as “a potential mechanism to force through real change.”

More in sorrow than in anger film industry consultant and film industry veteran of 35 years Terry Ilott told how he and other founders of the FDAG such as Fiona Clarke-Hackston and Simon Albury had been involved in the Committee for Ethnic Minority Employment in Film set up in 2000 by then Culture Secretary Chris Smith.

Illustrious names from the film industry were involved and six recommendations formulated and passed – and nothing happened.

Such a 3 per cent situation, Ilott argues, is not just a matter of unfairness it’s also imprudent.

“From the point of view of social cohesion, social mobility, talent development, creativity and economic opportunity, lack of diversity it is simply not a good idea,” the film consultant believes.

Many studies show that diversity equals creativity and enhanced performance while lack of diversity leads to “a narrowness of  of vision and groupthink.”

The reason why there should be such great inequality in the midst of a liberal and generally sophisticated industry is suggested strongly by another percentage, this one produced by the University of Leicester.

A report found that 71 per cent of people working in film today heard about their present job through “informal means” and therefore involved a process dependent on who you know rather than what you know.

“Informal means” produce a self-perpetuating workforce where production offices and heads of department hire people they have hired before. And if those people are not available they hire the people recommended by the people they’ve hired before.

In the face of such stubborn, institutionalised work practices Ilott concludes in a major report on the issue “voluntary doesn’t work. Goodwill doesn’t deliver.”

Something firmer is needed and it has to be for the longer term to avoid the prospect of coming back to greet failure again in another 18 years.

Diversity targets should therefore be added to the eligibility criteria for film tax credits, which basically provide a cash rebate of up to 25 per cent on UK expenditure of qualifying British films.

It’s tough

If the diversity target isn’t met there would be no tax credit under the FDAG proposal, which would need primary legislation.

“It’s tough. It’s all or nothing. It’s not enough to show willing, you have to deliver. And we’re not looking for a pick-and-mix menu, where you can choose what kind of diversity you support. If the BAME target isn’t met, no tax credit. End of,” said Ilott at the Parliamentary launch of his report.

The 12-year window of opportunity would not mean nothing would happen for such an extended period. Work would begin immediately and 12 years was the time needed to achieve “our full ambition” rather than progress in the meantime.

After legal advice the group has concluded that such a scheme would not fall foul of EU state aid rules – while they continue to apply – breach the Equality Act 2010 or contravene Data protection legislation.

How would you define those from the BAME community? They would be self-identifying.

Why choose 15 per cent as a target as opposed to some higher number – perhaps even 28 per cent?

Fifteen per cent, or roughly one in six, would create a critical mass and change the culture of the industry enough to ensure that thereafter things would look after themselves.

What about unintended consequences, the formation of unscrupulous “quota crews” holding productions to ransom? The industry is a small one where people know each other and could easily cope with such abuses if they happened. Regionally based productions far from the conurbations would surely find it difficult to meet such BAME thresholds. In such circumstances the British Film Institute, which administers the current tax credit scheme, would be able to show discretion based on individual projects.

Initial reaction

The initial reaction to the modest proposal was supportive although some thought it erred on the side of being a mite too modest both in percentages and time scale.

King of MOBO declared it a “positive move” and argued that the UK has lost some of its best actors who have gone abroad after failing to access opportunities here. Everything possible should be done to ensure production people do not take the same path.

“If this country wants to be at the forefront of innovation and change then we need to utilise talent from everywhere and not just from the select few,” King argues.

The writer and director Kolton Lee welcomed the idea of tax breaks in principle but bridled at the 12-year time scale, which carried the implication, to his mind erroneous, that the talent wasn’t already there as opposed to being denied opportunities.

His Windrush-generation mother, a qualified teacher who had not been able to work as a teacher in the UK was symptomatic of film industry talent being wasted to this day.

Could not some money be found to devote to “creative asset protection?” Lee asked.

Ilott explained that the point was that the plan extended far beyond graduates of the National Film and Television School, such as Lee, to cover every part of the film industry including  set construction and props.

“In some areas it will take a long time because there is nothing there at the moment. It’s about training and apprenticeships and hopefully the time scale can be foreshortened,” Ilott explains.


Tracey Brabin, actor and writer now Shadow Minister for Early Years insisted that “if you can’t see it you can’t be it.”

Brabin took 40 South Asian girls from a school in her constituency to Pinewood Studios to see the wide range of jobs in the film industry beyond acting and writing.

“Part of the problem is about careers advice,” suggested Brabin, who remembered how students were told at RADA that they didn’t have anyone who dealt with black hair.

“How can you welcome people into our industry and not have people on staff that look like them,” Brabin added.

There was advice from Baroness Floella Benjamin, a member of the House of Lords Communications Committee who has been campaigning and making the case for diversity for 44 years.

To make changes you have to keep on campaigning, writing to MPs and newspapers and never giving up.

The most important target has to be the Treasury which would have to approve any changes to tax credits.

“People feel they are doing it right, they want to do it right but they don’t know how to do it right. Unless we can change the mindset and the environment in which we are working we are up against a brick wall,” Baroness Benjamin concluded.

Ed Vaizey didn’t quite bring himself to sign up for the tax credit proposals as set out in the report, although he understands entirely why people are “pissed off” that meetings have gone on and on yet nothing has happened.

His reservation is an opposition to quotas, although the modest proposal seeks to set qualifications for a tax credit rather than a creating an overt quota. Film makers will have a choice whether they want to qualify for a tax credit or not.

Vaizey’s fear is that the “quota” element will give those who “are instinctively opposed to change” a reason to attack it.

But Vaizey, as an old political hand, accepted it was always good for campaigners to come to ministers with well-argued answers rather than vague ideas.

“The FDAG has in fact thrown down the gauntlet and said this is our answer, what’s yours? and I think that is a good thing,” said Vaizey.

Chances of success

What are the chances of success?  There is a sense throughout the creative industries, and indeed society, that the time is more than overdue for historic injustices to be redressed – everything from gender, disability and equal pay to ethnic diversity.

Last year a similar campaign to persuade Ofcom to tighten BBC rules on representation behind the camera, as well as on-screen was successful with the backing of the then Culture Minister Matt Hancock.

Earlier this month (Nov) Sir Lenny Henry led a delegation to 10 Downing Street to deliver a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May calling for a television and film tax break designed to encourage a wider range of diversity and increase the number of women, BAME and disabled people working in film and television.

“All we are asking for is a seat at the table,” Sir Lenny told BBC News.

Is it wise for two separate groups to be campaigning on similar territory even though their approaches are different, though one is broad and seeks new tax concessions and the other precisely targeted and looking for additional qualifications criteria for existing tax breaks?

Simon Albury who organised the FDAG campaign sees no incompatibility and believes there is room for both schemes to put pressure on DCMS and the Treasury. Both are firing at the same target and informal contact continues between the two groups.

“Lenny Henry has tabled a bold proposal and Terry Ilott's paper is pretty substantial. This thing is going to gain momentum,” argues Albury.

For Clive Jones, first chairman of the Creative Diversity Network, the launch of the new campaign was a bitter sweet occasion because the battle was still having to be fought more than 20 years later.

He remembers being rung up by Granada to be told there was good news, Coronation Street was going to have its first black character.

He tuned in to find that the “breakthrough” involved a young lad breaking into the flat of one of the longest standing Corrie characters, Emily Bishop.

“Since then the soaps have changed, dramas have changed, a great deal has changed over 20 years but we are only going to change film when every department has proper representation and we are going to get there in the end,” says Jones.

“We have made some progress and if it takes another 20 years so be it. We are certainly not going to stop trying,” he adds.

Consultations have begun with the film industry and politicians and the campaign to take 3 per cent to 15 per cent is under way.

FDAG has written to Jeremy Wright, the DCMS Secretary of State, to ask him to take three immediate first steps: to require the BFI to include diversity data in the paperwork submitted for film certification; to convene a working party to consider both the Lenny Henry and FDAG proposals; and to establish a quarterly Diversity Monitor to track diversity data across individual productions, sectors and segments of the industry.

They are hoping that their modest proposal for fairness in the film industry can become a reality in a way that previous initiatives embarrassingly, shamefully failed to do.

And well before 2030.

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