Government and BFI should be much bolder on diversity by Terry Ilott

The government’s response to our report on ethnic diversity in the film industry (It Shouldn’t Get the Money if it Doesn’t have the Mix) is unnecessarily timid. In our view, the government and its leading agency in this area, the British Film Institute (BFI), could be – and should be – much bolder.

Before the formal launch of our report in November, we took preliminary soundings with the BFI, various trade associations and leading companies in the industry. On September 26th, we briefed Margot James MP, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, and on November 7thI wrote to the Secretary of State at the DCMS, the Rt Hon Jeremy Wright QC MP.

Concluding my letter to the Secretary of State, I made three requests:

First, that the Department convene a working party to consider our proposal (that tax breaks should be conditional on the achievement of diversity targets), to consider other proposals (including that of the group led by Sir Lenny Henry calling for additionaltax breaks for diversity) and to hear from the BFI and others who are already doing work in this area;

Second, that, with immediate effect, diversity data be included in the paperwork submitted for film certification, thereby providing baseline data against which to measure our future success; and,

Third, that a Diversity Monitor be set up, possibly managed by the BFI, to track diversity data across individual productions, sectors and segments of the industry and to publish its results quarterly.

On December 24th, I received a reply from Margot James in which she agreed that the film workforce needs to reflect the diversity of society; that more needs to be done to achieve this; and that diversity is not only the right thing to do but makes good business sense, especially in the creative industries where diversity is pivotal for innovation and creativity.

The minister noted that the BFI introduced its Diversity Standards in 2016 and that these have been taken up by BBC Films, Film Four, BIFA, BAFTA and the BFI’s own production arm. She also pointed out that the BFI’s Skills Strategy is already achieving a better balance of new recruits to the industry in respect of gender, ethnicity, disability and social disadvantage.

The minister said that the BFI expects to publish data on diversity next year and that, if progress is not as expected, the standards and the strategy will be revised in 2020.

While we welcome the seriousness with which the minister addresses the issue of diversity, we are disappointed that the department has no appetite for convening a working group, for including diversity data in the paperwork required for film certification or for setting up a Diversity Monitor.

We also have two major problems with the minister’s reliance on the BFI’s diversity strategy.

To meet the BFI’s Diversity Standards a film has to address only two out of four criteria:

  • on-screen representation, themes and narratives;
  • project leadership and creative practitioners;
  • industry access and opportunities; and,
  • opportunities for diversity in audience development.

In practice, the last two criteria could be met by providing work experience and investing in marketing that is targeted at diverse audiences.

Furthermore, the criteria can also be met by focusing on just one group out of six: disability, gender, race, age, sexual orientation or lower economic status. In other words, the BFI Diversity Standard and its Screen Diversity Mark of Good Practice, can presently be met without addressing BAME employment at all.

Our second problem is that the BFI’s scheme is voluntary. The BFI has no sanction except in respect of the projects that come to it for funding.  Last year, a record £1.9bn was spent on film production in the UK. The bulk of this – 89% – was inward investment, mostly from America, accounting for £1.69bn of the total. (Of the £1.1bn spent on high-end television drama, £684m was spent by American companies.) Hollywood, in other words, accounts for the vast bulk of investment – and hence of employment – in the UK industry. But Hollywood does not look to the BFI for funding. The BFI can ask the Hollywood companies to address the issue of diversity but it cannot compel them to do so.

A diversity strategy that only addresses the relatively small, independent sector is inherently unsatisfactory. It is not good enough.

This brings us to our core proposal, that tax relief should be dependent on the achievement of diversity targets. Tax relief is as important to the Hollywood studios as it is to the independents. In her reply to my letter, the minister reiterated that this was primarily a matter for the Treasury. She noted that such reliefs are kept under review by the government and that changes to the relief need to be assessed for their “effectiveness, wider economic impact and ability to stand-up against abuse”. Our reading of this is that the door to changes in the rules governing the tax relief is not completely closed. We will keep pushing.

We will do so with optimism, for this is a very good time. There is far greater awareness of the problem of lack of diversity than there was only a few years ago. Our report was introduced in Parliament by Helen Grant MP, vice-chair of the Conservative Party. The keynote speaker was the Right Honourable Ed Vaizey MP, Britain’s longest-serving Culture Minister. Other speakers included Tracy Brabin MP, shadow education minister, Dame Floella Benjamin (Lib-Dem) and Baroness Bonham-Carter (Lib-Dem). Also attending were Dawn Butler MP, shadow secretary for women and equality, Chi Onwurah MP, shadow minister for industrial strategy, and Baroness Hussein-Ece, the Lib-Dem spokesperson for equality in the House of Lords. The mood among this cross-party group, and among the large and lively crowd of BAME film-makers in attendance, was mostly positive. This is despite the many disappointments and false dawns of recent years.

One reason for this optimism is that the production sector is booming. There are personnel shortages in every department and every employment grade. A period of growth, in which not only is no-one’s present job is at risk but the industry is crying out for new recruits, is a very good time to implement change.

We believe that the government’s response to our proposal should have been much bolder. We will continue to challenge as well as support the government and its lead agency on this issue, the BFI, in the expectation that change can go further and faster. And we will be looking to make alliances with like-minded organisations and individuals in the industry, all of whom see, as we do, an opportunity in the present circumstances to make a qualitative leap on the issue of diversity.

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