Diversity in film begins by acknowledging poor social mobility and audience access

13 mins read

Another BAFTA award ceremony has come and gone, but as with previous years the debate on diversity continues. As the distinct lack of colour and gender diversity of those nominated once again found itself placed under the microscope. With Joaquin Phoenix, Rebel Wilson and HRH Duke of Cambridge all using their speeches to highlight the need for action.

However, these problems are not unique to BAFTA, and have dogged the film industry for many years. In fact, even within TV, diversity continues to be a problem. So, does this lack of representation sit within institutional discrimination, or a broader set of complex problems relating to representation?

The answer to this question is complicated and equally nuanced here is the UK. Where the film industry has made great strides to try and improve representation. But equally, often lacks the leadership to transform box ticking into cultural change. Often due to a complex structure of companies, studios and distributors that operate on a global platform. However, despite this the UK should be taking a leading role in the fight for cultural change. And as a result, should be honestly and openly challenging its own structures in adapting and embedding diversity; BAFTA included. And no matter the size of challenge, this must start with dismantling the age old barriers to social mobility in the sector.

Poor social mobility not only directly effects diversity, but also actively blocks inclusion. And yet, despite this it is a subject that has been largely ignored and accepted within the industry. Never receiving the attention it has deserved as part of the wider debate over diversity and inclusion.

BAFTA Award – Alamy Stock

However, the film industry has now reached a point where this can no longer be ignored. As the lack of social diversity within the sector is further exacerbated by a gradual decline in independent film. While recent scandals continue to highlight those who have wielded power in abusing those trying to progress. And when coupled with the decline of social mobility in wider society since 2009, the film industry must now act to ensure positive action. A theme we will explore in more depth later in this article.

Meanwhile, audiences and cinema chains also need to accept their role in furthering inclusion. With an unconscious bias that still places white heterosexual men at the top of the movie going tree. Coupled with a media that still critically analyses leading women based on appearance, age and roles. While also continuing to pigeonhole actors based on race, disability and sexual orientation. However, we must also acknowledge the role of our cinema chains. Where smaller films are often sidelined in favour of the blockbuster. Despite small budget and independent films often more fully embracing social and cultural diversity and discussion. Thus, denying audiences choice and scope in their film viewing opportunities. For example, a Hollywood blockbuster will often occupy multiple screens long into its release. While smaller films struggle to find any voice in many of the biggest UK cinema chains.

Meanwhile, streaming services continue to trump cinema in reflecting a more diverse programme. In turn leading many people away from the social experience of the big screen in favour of home viewing.

Therefore, the film industries problems in reflecting the diversity of our communities are multi-faceted. Ranging from social mobility, distribution and finance to independent film. So, where is the starting block to increased inclusion?

Social Mobility

There has long been a presumption that success and achievement in the film industry is based on who you know and not the talent you bring. And this is a perception and often reality that industry must face honestly. Acknowledging that the gates to a film career have and often still are guarded by where you studied, cultural background and your ability to gain entrance through friends or family. This of course does not mean that there are not many people working in film who have come from modest or working-class backgrounds. But it does mean that their journey into the industry has often been more challenging. Particularly when competing with those graduating from our red brick Universities. Where the subject of study often has less relevance than the prestige of place and it’s possible connections.

This problem is not unique to the film industry, in fact one could argue that the TV industry is equally challenging. And when coupled with the reality of society where social mobility is decreasing due to financial pressures, student fees and housing to name but a few, it may seem as though the battle is already lost.

However, there are always routes to explore in challenging this barrier. For example, ensuring person specifications for interview-based roles do not stipulate unnecessary degrees or experience. Opening the door to those wishing to move into the industry or gain their first paid position. While also ensuring diversity sits at the top of any organisation, enabling those leading cultural change to work freely in embedding change. Equally being able to honestly and openly challenge the structures and practices of the organisation in a constructive manner.

Meanwhile colour blind casting allows for fresh interpretations, new thinking and innovation. This should not be viewed as ‘brave’, but an intrinsic part of reflecting our vibrant communities and society. Challenging unconscious bias and perception in both filmmakers and audiences alike.

Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

Apprenticeships can also fulfil a unique role in ensuring the brightest and the best find their voice in the industry. Likewise, the need for female leadership and direction needs to move beyond a pure target into the cultural norm. As does the representation and reflection of disability, sexual orientation and gender identities.

However, it is within acting, music and dance, where social mobility plays such an important role. And it is here where the film industry must apply pressure on the Government to ensure that the dramatic arts once more find their place within education. It is nothing short of both a travesty and embarrassment that these subjects have found themselves relegated to the wings of public education in the UK. While private education continues to ensure their vital place within a curriculum. This action has only served to take Britain back 50 years in enabling future generations access to acting, music and art opportunities. Stifling the talent and ambitions of many young people before they ever have an opportunity to thrive. Their ability to access after school clubs or artistic opportunities held within the power of a parent or guardian to pay.

It is fair to say that there are wonderful examples of both the BFI and BAFTA trying to ensure better social mobility. Just as there are in theatre through the community outreach. But these are more often than not dependant on where you live. With our town’s and villages loosing out to large cities. While funding often limits the ability to do more. As does a declining entrance through the work of independent film. Which alongside a failure to celebrate short films nationwide leads to limited entry points. And once again cinema chains could have a clear role in their communities in this area. Embracing local short film productions and showing them before a main feature. While also encouraging community based artistic activities from their venues.

Ensuring Diversity in Theatrical Presentation

The arrival of the multiplex in the 1980s was supposed to herald consumer choice and diversity in film presentation. However, the reality is that choice has only decreased, as cinema companies focus on the films they believe can generate profit. This has led to many large multiplexes showing the same film on multiple screens, while ignoring the smaller releases of the week.

This ultimately directly affects the diversity of film the public see, while in turn leading to a pressure within awards bodies to reflect the films that the public have acknowledged. And while independent and arthouse cinema chains continue to do a wonderful job in reflecting the diversity film. The truth is that many of these chains are city centric, with big chains dominating our smaller towns and rural areas.

So how do we change the theatrical representation problem? Well that question is far more complex than others, as audience behaviour often dictates presentation. And the link to profit is something we all influence in the cinematic choices we make throughout the year.

However, maybe audience demand for inclusive programmes of film at your local cinema is the right path. And maybe we all have a responsibility to demand more? After all we buy the tickets, and we steer the choices a cinema chain makes.

Increasing diversity across the film industry is far more complex than a just an awards speech. But one speech can fire an important starting gun for cultural change. However, the solutions will require a joined up multi platform approach, while also encompassing the fragile independent sector. It therefore requires everyone from artists to business manager’s to buy in to a new way working. One that embraces and reflects the diversity of talent on offer, no matter of background, culture or identity. But it also requires distribution to reflect this cultural shift, with cinema chains understanding the link between diversity, representation and scheduling. Ensuring a wealth of content reaches all people and not just those living in large cities.

Can this be achieved? Yes, but honesty and action are required. Not a simple policy or strategy that sits on a shelf. And when the film industry is ready to move forward in proactive way. There will be many, including me, ready to support them in creating real change.

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