Navigating the film industry future shock

The British film industry is facing a personnel shortage that many fear could cripple the more vulnerable quarters of the sector. What is being done to address this looming ‘brain drain’?

Despite a few bumps in the road created by the global pandemic, the future of the British film industry remains bright. So bright in fact that outside investment continues to keep UK studios full to the brim with large international productions. In 2019 Disney signed a decade-long deal to have sole access to Pinewood Studios while in the same year Netflix inked a similar agreement with Shepperton - additionally doubling its size as a production hub. With the UK’s traditional studio spaces enjoying long-term occupation by the industry’s major players, productions continue to spill northwards throughout the country with plans for up to two dozen new studios across the UK in various stages of development.

Creating the space for an ever-growing number of screen productions is one problem; post-Brexit and post-pandemic, finding trained crews to populate them is another issue entirely. UK film crews are rightly hailed as among the most skilled in the world but as with the ongoing issues surrounding studio space, crew numbers are not rising quickly enough to meet the ever-growing needs of an industry that continues to skyrocket. Ben Roberts, Chief Executive of the British Film Institute issued a warning call last year amid reports of smaller British productions being in crisis due to personnel shortages.

Boom & bust

As such, key roles such as costume supervisors, art directors and first assistant directors have seen demand outstrip supply to the point that that individuals in under-resourced areas have been able to capitalise on their scarcity, requesting significantly more in wages than would traditionally be allocated. This in turn sends the budget of smaller domestic productions into a realm that they can ill-afford. It is these homegrown independent productions that are suffering the most as this problem escalates. International productions, with their larger budgets and capacity to offer longer-term retention deals are soaking up the majority of the talent, meaning smaller scale projects are suffering the most, particularly as they continue to navigate the minefield of problems created by the global pandemic.

As such, the BFI launched an urgent strategic skills review this year, led by Neil Peplow, the organisation's Director of Industry and International Affairs. The report recommends that 1% of UK production spend gets pushed back into recruitment and training, otherwise by 2027 the sector will be grappling with a skills and personnel shortage that could dwarf the problems currently facing the industry. Peplow explained how he feels the industry will react to the report’s stark warning: “A shortage of crew is said to be one of the main barriers to continued growth in the UK film and TV production sector,”  he says, “While other countries are facing similar challenges, it nevertheless risks the UK’s competitiveness and reputation as a world-class screen production centre.”

Netflix, based largely at Shepperton Studios, spent over $1b on screen production in the UK last year.

Likewise, Peplow adds that there is a “need for intervention” in the UK independent film sector, pointing to the BFI’s recent Economic Review of UK Independent Film as a signpost of the multiple problems the sector is currently facing. Stagnating theatrical revenues might currently have major multiplex chains like the Cineworld group in all sorts of trouble, but the issue is particularly pronounced for the UK independent sector, especially when coupled with dwindling physical media sales (that have not been offset by rising streaming revenues), rocketing production costs and logjam issues created by a two year ‘pandemic pause’ in screen production.

Time to step in?

It’s an issue that has shaken investor confidence in such projects, leading to independent producers fearing for the future of the sector. The BFI has suggested that specialist government intervention is required, with the recommendation being that VAT cuts and further tax relief are offered to homegrown, smaller-scale productions. UK-based producers will be watching keenly to see how the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport respond. “UK Government are working with the BFI and key stakeholders to agree an industry-led response that establishes an on-going process and structure for a long-term solution,” Peplow says, speaking about the wider issues of industry shortages -although whether this integrated approach will include the DCMS offering some kind of further subsidy to the UK indie sector remains unclear.

In the short term, many stakeholders are responding to the BFI’s call for further investment to be made into recruitment and funding. Over the longer term, efforts are ongoing to increase a surer pipeline into the industry through clearer education and careers paths. Past BFI recruitment drives have included UK film producers speaking about having to resort to offering young people jobs at bus stops, so desperate is the need to fill entry-level positions.

Peplow is adamant that a holistic and strategic approach will eventually yield the desired result, although he does point to “the knowledge gap that 13-16 year olds have in understanding the careers available in the screen industries” as being a key area to address. The UK Government’s current direction largely prioritises STEM subjects in schools and Peplow agrees that this is important: “STEM subjects are also important for our sectors, particularly within animation, VFX, and post-production, and if the UK is to embrace new technologies on set,” he says. Moving forwards though, he adds: “It is important for the screen industries to have a presence in schools and education institutions; to provide learning and work experience opportunities, improve careers awareness, and equip educators to teach the next generation of filmmakers.”

Neil Peplow has been the BFI's Director of International Affairs since 2019.

An industry crossroads

The BFI is clearly committed to working with all relevant stakeholders to develop a coherent approach to meeting the looming challenges in recruitment and training through strategic co-ordination and consultation. Ultimately though, Peplow maintains that it is important that the production sector itself is “best placed to identify the skills required, and ultimately benefits from the availability of skilled crew required for it to produce high quality productions.”

As such, he argues that “it is therefore important that industry determines how and where these funds are invested.” It’s certainly true that those inside of the industry are in the clearest position to act in the best interests of the UK film industry, but of course, as both a leading international hub for outside investment  and an industry that develops homegrown productions, the competing interests of key stakeholders, both domestic and international will mean that navigating a route forwards will not always please everybody. Add to this the influence of the UK Government’s view of what the British film industry’s future looks like and things could become increasingly uncertain.

What is certain is that independent producers will be hoping that government adopts some of the BFI’s recommendations and that the BFI’s call for greatly-enhanced recruitment yields positive results and quickly too. The future of the British film industry remains as bright as ever, but details as to precisely what that future entails for smaller homegrown productions? That remains far less clear.

Dan Cooper
Dan Cooper probably has opinions on too many things for his own good. As such, you can find his thoughts in a number of fine publications as varied as Wireframe, Tech Radar and Men's Fitness. His main passion however, is film. You can find his words in each monthly issue of Film Stories magazine and in various nooks and crannies of the internet.

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