Researching the Independent Production Sector
a Focus on Minority Ethnic Led Companies
Pollard E, Barkworth R, Sheppard E, Tamkin P
Pact/UK Film Council , January 2005
a study commissioned by Pact and the UK Film Council
This is a preliminary study that gathers known literature, industry data, expert views and primary data (both quantitative and qualitative) on the independent production sector within both the film sector and the TV sector. The key focus is to explore the experiences of ‘minority ethnic led’ (MEL) independent production companies, out of a concern that they may face particular barriers to success.
Indeed, the industry has a poor record on diversity; with low representation of minority groups, particularly those from minority ethnic backgrounds, in the workforce, and in content and portrayal. However, key industry organisations are taking action on diversity, acknowledging its importance and recognising the business case for change. This report will add to the debate and act as a springboard for further action.
The primary research process involved a series of stages:
The first stage was to define what is meant by a MEL company. This was achieved through reviewing the literature and scoping interviews with experts. The definition constructed focused on leadership rather than workforce or output:
A company in which the majority of decision-making power resides with an individual or individuals who consider themselves to belong to a minority ethnic group. Here, the majority is taken to mean at least half. Thus, an organisation where decision making is shared by an individual from a minority ethnic background and an individual from a white background, would be deemed to be a MEL organisation.
The next stage was to identify and approach such companies to encourage them to participate in the research. This raised two issues – difficulties tracking companies due to the unstable nature of the industry, and difficulties reaching and engaging MEL companies. This was achieved through scoping interviews with experts, and communicating the research within the industry.
The third stage was to define what is meant by success to those operating in the independent production sector, to measure these aspects of success across the film and TV sectors, and to benchmark MEL company performance against this. This was achieved through scoping interviews with industry experts, followed by a web-based survey involving 79 companies (including 14 MEL companies).
The last stage was to explore, in greater detail, experiences of independent production companies’ barriers to success, and to compare and contrast the experiences of MEL companies with similar white led companies. This was achieved through ten case study interviews (five with MEL companies and a matched sample of five white-led companies of similar size).
The independent production sector
The online survey provides a detailed snapshot of independent film and television production companies in the UK. Among a wealth of detail encompassing workforce size and make-up, profitability and turnover, sources of financing, membership of networks, access to business contacts and perceived barriers to success, the following figures are noteworthy:
- Nearly one-third (29 per cent) of organisations surveyed used or were made up of unpaid workers. The survey found that unpaid work was more common amongst those from minority ethnic backgrounds.
- Around two-fifths of all companies surveyed had no staff from minority ethnic groups (42 per cent).
- Respondents’ median (average) turnover for the last year was £380,000 but ranged from £10,000 to £23 million.
- A similar proportion of companies had experienced an increase in turnover (35 per cent) as had experienced a decrease in turnover (33 per cent) over the past year. There was no difference between film and TV companies.
- Over two-thirds (67 per cent) had had programmes shown on UK TV or had had their films distributed theatrically in the last year.
- Just over one-third (37 per cent) felt their company was doing okay, and a further third (33 per cent) felt it was doing quite well. 14 per cent that felt they were not doing very well, and six per cent (five companies) felt they may not survive.
- Over one-quarter (27 per cent) of responding organisations reported that most of the time they were unable to compete because of a small number of big companies dominating the market.
- Over one-third (34 per cent) of all respondents reported that they experienced commissioners using preferred suppliers ‘most of the time’, and a lack of creative risk taking among film funders or TV commissioners ‘most of the time’. These appeared to be a particular issue for small companies. A quarter (25 per cent) of all responding organisations also reported regular problems with the lack of openness and clarity in the commissioning process.
- Based on available data, IES estimates that MEL companies make up, at most, ten per cent of the independent production sector.
- The majority (12 out of the 14, or 86 per cent) of MEL organisation respondents are small (turnover was under £1 million and/or they had less than ten staff).
- MEL companies are more likely to be ‘one-man bands’ ie to have only one worker than other small companies – 42 per cent compared to 23 per cent.
- Respondents from minority ethnic groups have a higher qualification level than their white counterparts, with nearly 75 per cent (compared with 63 per cent) having a degree or postgraduate degree.
Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of respondents from minority ethnic backgrounds said that lack of junior positions offering a first rung on the career ladder was never a barrier to their careers. However, almost half (45 per cent) saw the lack of permanent positions available as a barrier often or most of the time, a greater proportion than their white peers.
- In both film and TV, a greater proportion of white-led companies were commissioned or financed than their MEL counterparts. In the film sector, 40 per cent of white-led companies were financed, compared to 25 per cent of MEL companies. In the television sector the figures for commissioning are 63 per cent and 55 per cent.
- MEL companies feel far more restricted by the lack of creative risk taking among film funders and television commissioners than other companies, with nearly 60 per cent of MEL companies describing this as a barrier most of the time.
- Of the 12 small MEL companies, 58 per cent felt they were not doing very well or badly compared to only 16 per cent of small white-led companies.
- Focusing on only small companies, MEL companies still had a lower average turnover than white-led companies. MEL companies were also more pessimistic about past and future turnover than white-led companies of a similar size.
- Looking at funding and commissioning, the numbers involved are very small and should be treated with caution. However, they suggest that whilst MEL companies were more likely to apply for public funding for film or TV projects they were less likely to get full funding. For example, 34 white-led companies applied for funding and 15 of these said they got full funding. This compares to eight MEL companies who applied for funding, only two of whom received it.
- MEL companies were much more likely to feel they regularly suffered from a lack of contacts in the industry (29 per cent compared with 11 per cent of all companies).
- MEL companies were more likely to regularly experience a lack of support and advice from sectoral bodies than other companies surveyed (31 per cent ‘most of the time’), even more so than small companies (12 per cent ‘most of the time’).
- Over half (54 per cent) of all responding MEL companies felt ‘pigeon-holed’ most of the time, compared to only 22 per cent of small companies, or 18 per cent of the whole group of responding organisations. Indeed, the tendency for commissioners to ghettoise them was considered one of the main obstacles for MEL companies.
- However, frequent experience of direct discrimination was rare in the sector and, though marginally more likely, was still rare amongst MEL companies.
The survey and interviews demonstrate that the critical factors for breaking into this industry and becoming successful are:
- work experience in large, or well-regarded organisations particularly broadcast organisations in the TV sector
- to know the ‘right’ people, belonging to formal or informal networks, and to develop a positive reputation and track record
- perseverance (particularly in the film sector due to the lead time involved in developing and producing a film project), possibly working unpaid, on short-term contracts and/or long hours.
This study found that those from minority ethnic backgrounds are disadvantaged in this process. They report that they lack access to networks, experience more ad-hoc career paths, rely more heavily on unpaid work and have fewer role models. Those from minority ethnic backgrounds also talk about the existence of negative stereotypes about ability and the commerciality of their product.
Interviews and the survey indicated that success for an independent production company was seen as moving from a position of survival through securing work and building a reputation amongst peers and the industry more generally, through creating (regular) employment for oneself and others and maintaining a good cash flow, to a final goal of self fulfilment and control — being able to make projects that have real personal resonance.
Defining success – the hierarchy of goals
Source: IES, 2004
As the figures above demonstrate, many companies reported they were successful. Their products are broadcast or distributed theatrically, they are obtaining funding or commissions, and roughly half were reaching beyond the UK market and also receiving investment from abroad (particularly those in the film sector). They are also optimistic for the future (particularly those in the TV sector). However, there was a mixed pattern of increasing and decreasing turnover and profits; and general core employment levels remained static, though companies expect to increase their levels of freelance staff.
Responses from MEL companies suggest that they are less successful than others in the sectors. Comparing self-reported performance measures against similar (small) companies, MEL companies were more pessimistic about their success (thus focused on the bottom hierarchy of goals), they achieved smaller financial rewards and had greater uncertainty about future finances. They were less successful in securing funding and commissions despite their activity in this area.
Independent production companies operating in the film and TV industry face numerous barriers, difficulties and obstacles in their quest to attain success. These have been discussed for some time but are still preventing success.
The most common barriers concern the decision-making process in funding or financing films, and in commissioning TV programmes. The process is criticised as being slow, conservative and closed. MEL independent production companies find it harder to operate the funding and commissioning processes effectively. They fall foul of commissioners’ and funders’ fear of taking risks on new talent (preferring to use the tried and tested or ‘preferred suppliers’), and their culturally bound assessment of what constitutes a commercial project. MEL companies are more likely than other similar companies to perceive a lack of clarity and openness in these decision-making processes (particularly TV commissioning). Interviews highlighted concerns about the inaccessibility of decision makers and a desire for greater dialogue.
A key barrier that affected MEL companies alone, is being labelled and pigeon-holed to produce programmes and films for minority ethnic audiences or involving minority ethnic writers and actors (‘ghettoised’). Other small white led companies also spoke of being pigeon-holed but this was on the basis of their current output not their company make up. Having choice (arguably the highest goal in the hierarchy of success) is important – with MEL companies being able to make the projects they want to, whether they are mono-cultural to ensure these projects are made, or mainstream projects that reflect the multicultural nature of society.
Competition was also a barrier, with organisations feeling unable to compete because of a small number of big companies dominating the market, and concern that they lack scale and resources. There was higher reporting of inability to compete among the MEL companies, coupled with a lack of advice or support from sectoral bodies.
Other key barriers restrict individuals and companies from breaking in to the sectors and making contacts. MEL companies feel excluded from influential and established networks and suffer from a lack of contacts. Many feel they miss training opportunities and permanent positions.
The report concludes that MEL independent production companies appear less successful and face more obstacles breaking in, competing and gaining work, and overcoming attitudes of decision makers than other companies in the film and TV sectors. This preliminary research advocates greater dialogue between all stakeholders in the industry, changing attitudes through learning and understanding (not least about the implications of labelling), and changes to business policy and practice amongst key sector organisations, particularly broadcasters, commissioners and film funders. It is hoped this research will reinvigorate debate and create a climate for change, with all organisations in the industry working together to acknowledge, understand and tackle these issues for MEL independent production companies.
Key recommendations are as follows:
Further research activity:
- A study to review what other sectors and organisations have done to encourage engagement with those from minority ethnic groups in the labour market.
- A review of career paths within the sector and how they are changing.
- Setting up a research panel; practitioners could be invited to join a research panel of MEL independent production companies. This panel could then be called upon to explore general issues of success or specific issues such as careers, accessibility of schemes and opportunities, and navigating the marketplace; either as interviewers or interviewees. They could also comment on research output and dissemination.
- Regular survey of the independent production sector; updating the web-based survey, to provide a picture of how the film and TV sectors are changing over time.
- Encourage larger organisations to form links with schools, colleges and universities with high proportions of minority ethnic students (through diversity networks).
- Produce careers materials which are inclusive in their depiction of diversity.
- Provide work experience places for students and new graduates in larger organisations.
- Create a database of companies for information and dissemination purposes.
- produce an industry newsletter promoting new talent, highlighting funding opportunities, and highlighting activity in this area.
- Create new awards for the industry for newcomers or independent production companies of various sizes to help reputation building.
- MEL companies need to be engaged and empowered through the strengthening of existing networks for them and individuals working in the industry from a minority ethnic background. Rather than a proliferation of such networks, there needs to be consolidation. It is important that MEL companies themselves form these networks and establish membership criteria that will not perpetuate the negative use of labels within the sectors.
Tailored advice and support:
- Explore the provision of specialist business support for this sector in partnership with DTI, Business Link and Skillset.
- Mentoring and coaching opportunities for new companies or students provided by larger organisations in the sector. Staff might be encouraged to do this as part of corporate social responsibility activities and would be likely to gain development for themselves.
- Write and publish best practice diversity strategies from which organisations can copy and learn.
- Review practice on diversity constantly and provide new thoughts and ideas to maintain the focus.
- Provide workshops and master classes to those in the industry (by Skillset).
Procurement best practice:
- Write and disseminate diversity statements to be included in procurement exercises.
- Encourage diversity within responding companies.
- Encourage partnerships and alliances in commissioning explicitly.
Monitoring and feedback:
- Conduct annual reviews of application and success rates of submissions and publicise results.
- Set clear outcome indicators for all initiatives so that success can be continually monitored.
Researching the Independent Production Sector: a Focus on Minority Ethnic Led Companies, Pollard E, Barkworth R, Sheppard E, Tamkin P. , Pact/UK Film Council , 2005.
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