Vicki Brown writes for The Bigger Picture about the main takeaways from This Way Up 2020‘s session on Diversifying British Film Culture.
The word “unprecedented” is frequently used to describe 2020, but conversations around the lack of films by Black filmmakers and filmmakers of colour in the UK are nothing new. The protests centering on the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter this summer provided a catalyst for numerous film organisations to pledge to address systemic racism and examine the industry’s own institutional shortcomings, but what are the barriers to success? That was the question posed by the Diversifying British Film Culture session at this year’s This Way Up Conference.
Representation matters and the importance of seeing yourself on screen cannot be understated, yet the data points to an industry that is failing Black filmmakers. Gower Street’s Senior Box Office Analyst Delphine Lievens noted that in the last decade of all the films released theatrically in the UK, only 28 were by Black British directors and of those only 9 made over £1M at UK cinemas.
Lack of diverse stories
There is clearly no shortage of Black filmmakers in the UK, but why aren’t we seeing their stories on the big screen more often? Accessibility was a factor raised by filmmaker Aki Omoshaybi who described the UK film industry as “a club” and to access it you need “to hunt for the key”. Even when opportunities to showcase Black British talent arise, you have to fight to take part. His film Real screened at the 2019 London Film Festival, but with Black American filmmakers outnumbering Black British ones, it felt that kudos was given to our American neighbours while talent on these shores was not being nurtured or uplifted.
The industry often feels like a series of ever decreasing funnels you need to navigate. Of all the scripts written, only a small percentage make it through to production, even fewer attract the attention of a distributor and only if you’re very lucky do you see your film play in cinemas. But while some Black-led films have been able to overcome these hurdles, the panel noted that the narrative of these films centred on similar themes – slavery, police brutality or Hood stories. Where are the genre films or romantic comedies? If we are only viewing Black films through a narrow lens, then we are doing a disservice to both creatives and audiences.
Doc Society’s Shanida Scotland expressed the need for more diverse voices operating at the top levels of the industry. She wants to ensure that filmmakers can make the leap from emerging talent to first feature and beyond. It’s not just about making one film, but ensuring support is there to allow them to sustain a career in the film industry. Despite Black and ethnic minorities making up 33%* of the UK population, they only make up 3-5% of the UK film workforce.
While the focus can often be on financing and exhibition, the panel also discussed how marketeers have a responsibility to promote films to the right audience. Grace Barber-Plentie (BFI) spoke about her experience working on the campaigns of Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro and saw how they were able to reach a wide audience, yet witnessed other films struggling to break out. As someone who works in film marketing, she sees the issue lying with Black and diverse audiences not being treated as main cinema going audiences and wanted to see more synergy in marketing campaigns.
This year has seen questions arise about the strength of the theatrical release and whether distributors and exhibitors need to adapt to face future challenges. The industry has often relied on box office as an indicator of success, but the emergence of the big streaming platforms is changing the conversation. During the conversation, streamers were seen as more willing to embrace diverse storytelling by diverse filmmakers. A recent example given by the panellists was Remi Weekes’s horror film His House that found its home on Netflix.
It is clear that barriers crop up along every point of the film chain, but there are positives out there. The panel wanted to highlight the amazing work done by organisations such as We Are Parable, The British Blacklist, New Black Film Collective and Brown Girls Doc Mafia, but the existence of these should not make us complacent. Promises about change were made this year and the session was a timely reminder that the industry needs to continue to be held to account.
(*According to the 2011 census)
Vicki Brown is the Director of International Film Sales at Altitude Films. She has represented diverse and critically acclaimed titles including Rocks, Moonrise Kingdom, Calm With Horses and Diego Maradona. She started off her career at the BFI London Film Festival and was named a Screen International Future Leader. In addition to her role as a sales agent, Vicki is also a film programmer and co-host and co-producer of the podcast Roll Credits.