A producer's perspective on working with the BFI Diversity Standards

By Gareth Ellis-Unwin, ScreenSkills Head of Film and Animation

We all recognise the need for and importance of improving diversity and inclusivity in the screen industries workforce and in the stories that we tell.

Just as with other significant periods of change (such as the removal of sale and leaseback, the introduction of the UK tax credits and British cultural test and the advent of the European Convention of Cinematographic Co-Production), change for the better doesn’t happen overnight or, indeed, necessarily happen in a frictionless environment.  There is no magical silver bullet to addressing this challenge.

But if producers and others with direct hiring authority use our positions properly to increase the opportunities for others, with planning and a slightly more open-minded approach we can work with these new standards effectively to drive change.

What follows are examples of good practice I’ve encountered in my new role as Head of Film at ScreenSkills and having recently produced two films working with these standards. It is not a cheat sheet.  Our team are available to you all, either on the phone or by e-mail, if we can help explain further.   

The BFI Diversity Standards

The BFI developed the diversity standards in consultation with key industry stakeholders, and the first iteration was launched in partnership with Pact in 2014 as the Three Ticks and piloted on the BFI’s own projects to test their viability. They have evolved into the BFI Diversity Standards which have been in place since 2016.

They challenge productions and projects to demonstrate a commitment to inclusion and meet the criteria in at least two of the following four areas:

  1. on-screen representation
  2. creative leadership
  3. industry access and training opportunities, and
  4. distribution and exhibition strategies.  

Since then industry organisations in other countries have approached the BFI – and continue to do so – to explore how to structure similar strategies and policies for their own national industries.

We believe in order to have a healthy, resilient, world-class film industry we need to showcase, invest in, develop and present the best talent we have in the UK. This means that diversity needs to sit at the heart of our decision making. For us, it is about the ability of diversity to raise the bar and set the standard.

British Film Insitute

If you are applying for or receiving BFI investment into your project you must;

  • Pay the Film Skills Fund contribution to ScreenSkills:
  • Meet a minimum of two of the four diversity standards criteria
  • Complete a draft diversity standards form at the time of applying
  • Two weeks prior to the application going before the Lottery Finance Committee (LFC), a final draft of the diversity standards application form must be completed
  • Through the course of production, track how the diversity standards are being met and collect evidential material should it be asked for.

If you exceed the required two standards and can evidence three standards being met, the project is permitted to carry the screen diversity mark of good practice.

If you wish for your film to be considered for BAFTA submission in either the Best British Film or Outstanding Debut for Writer, Director or Producer categories, your film must meet two of the four BFI Diversity Standards.

Standard A: On screen representation, themes and narratives.

Three of these six areas need to be addressed to meet standard A:

  • A1: Meaningful representations of diversity in main protagonists and/or antagonists
  • A2: Meaningful representations of diversity in primary or overall themes & narratives
  • A3: Meaningful or unfamiliar representations of diversity in secondary themes and narratives
  • A4: Meaningful representation of place (e.g. nations, regions or communities that are under-represented on screen)
  • A5: Meaningful representations of diversity in background and sundry characters who are pertinent to the narrative & themes
  • A6: Non-specific representation (e.g. casting not intrinsically based on or related to specific under-represented groups).

A meaningful representation of diversity on screen is one that is significant and adds value to the story. The representation is not tokenistic or stereotypical. The diverse characters are not there to portray an ‘urban’ look, simply there to add a punchline or hover in the background. The diverse character is not solely defined by their diversity characteristic and most importantly if they were removed from the story it would have a significant effect.

Standard B: Project leadership and creative practitioners

Two of these four areas need to be addressed to meet standard B:

  • B1: At least three of director, scriptwriter, principal producer, composer, DoP, editor, costume designer and production designer

For programmes and festivals: where the artistic leadership is delivered by individuals from one or more of the under-represented groups

  • B2: At least six other key roles (which could be mid-level crew and technical positions, or other roles where there is existing under-representation)

For programmes and festivals: at least six other key project staff

  • B3: At least half of all crew or project staff are a mix of under-represented groups, in a variety of departments and varying levels of seniority
  • B4: Productions located in the UK outside Greater London that demonstrate an intention to offer substantial local employment.

Standard C: Industry access and opportunities

Two of these five areas need to be addressed to meet standard C:

  • C1; Paid employment opportunities (such as apprenticeships, internships, expert advisers)
  • C2: Training opportunities and skills development (craft, creative and business) including one-off, bespoke and student work-experience opportunities
  • C3: Promotion in a role that constitutes career progression for at least one crew/team member
  • C4: First job in a role that constitutes career progression from prior training
  • C5: Meaningful, structured mentoring programmes.

Standard D: Opportunities for diversity in audience development

Three of these five areas need to be addressed to meet standard D:

  • D1 Provision of disability materials and access above and beyond statutory requirements which demonstrate a real commitment to making a venue, festival, event, release etc. accessible to as wide an audience as possible
  • D2 A strategic focus on one or more under-served audience groups
  • D3 Added value for audiences in a specific UK region or nation, or outside central London
  • D4 Reaching new audiences through alternative distribution and marketing strategies (e.g. VOD, special events, targeted pricing strategies)
  • D5 Partnership opportunities to reach under-served audiences, utilising specialist or expert knowledge.

Practical advice from the producing coalface on meeting BFI standards

Don’t panic. The standards are structured so that you can meet them – with appropriate planning. Obviously, the scale of your production will have a bearing. The standards are proportionate to unit size, budget and scale of production, But remember it’s the knitting together across the four standards that gets a positive result. You can underperform on one standard so long as you deliver more elsewhere. Apply the same careful thinking that has become automatic when you calculate the British cultural test to the diversity standards.

It’s not just down to you. Recognise that you are not in this alone. The producer is not the only person who has to meet this challenge. Your partners on the production, your suppliers, your service companies, heads of department, sales agents, financiers, distributors and exhibitors all have a part to play. Do not neglect them in your assessment against the standards. It is not just about those on set or working through post. Consider the entire value chain.

Gender and ethnicity are hugely important, but they are not the only criteria. Inclusivity comes in a multitude of visible and invisible forms: age, disability (seen and unseen), gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, parents and carers, and representation of nations and regions are all important factors in the criteria alongside gender and ethnicity. Certain stories and content will naturally lend themselves to better diversity and inclusivity. Have you investigated working with writers and directors with a different background from your own? Can you challenge yourself to be more open-minded about the stories you want to produce?

Get time on your side. Time is a much-cherished thing on set. Treat it with equal importance during your prep period, particularly with regards to meeting the standards, as it may take you longer to develop stories around cultures that are not your own or to find a more diverse crew.  If you rely on phoning the same old names on Friday night for a Monday morning call, you won’t be widening the gate. We know the importance of relationships in this industry, we play a high stakes game, but turning solely to those you have worked with before is not an even-handed recruitment process and is not going to help you meet the standards.

Help is available. Employment and training opportunities are an important part of the standards and we can help you find and offer these. Our careers and accreditation team can help advise and arrange schools/college/university access in a structured way. Look to graduates of our accredited higher and further education courses to identify students who have studied courses judged by screen professionals to be relevant to the industry. Our Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Lead is on hand to advise what training opportunities are available for your employees.

We have four levels of bursary support available through our website for individuals at every stage on their career journey. Could one of these bursaries unlock an opportunity for someone on your production? We consider applications for support for the costs of travel, purchase of key equipment, childcare and training.

Offering career progression is embedded in the standards. Getting into the industry is a key challenge, of course, but once on the inside it is important that individuals continue to be nurtured and supported. One way is through mentoring and ScreenSkills has devised a guide to best practice as part of ScreenSkills mentoring UK, our initiative to support individuals at different career stages and help improve retention in the industry. We have a Mentoring Associate who can help advise on pastoral care and structured mentoring.

Are they ready? Consider stepping up crew that are ready or help prepare them to step up soon. No one is advocating promotion before a member of crew is ready to make the move, but is there training available that you could offer so an individual is ready to step up next time? Can you help their next employer even if you can’t help yourself this time round? The industry knows we are in this together and how important it is not only to give back, but also pay it forward. Could you create an opportunity for a crew member or employee to improve their skills while working for you?

It’s not just about trainees. It is important to recognise that building a more diverse workforce isn’t only about the members of the team in lower grade positions. All grades in all the sectors should be examined with the same lens of inclusivity. Yes, we are working towards a more inclusive next generation of content creators, programmers and filmmakers, but that will take time. In the meantime, look across your workforce to see what opportunities can be created.

Could you think laterally and create job shares to help ease those with families back into work? Are there ways to recruit that might find you a more diverse range of workers, such as through job centres, youth clubs or charities. At ScreenSkills, we have a pilot programme establishing our first Centre of Excellence, building stronger links between industry and the local community in Yorkshire and the Humber. We aim to open up opportunities for more people at a local level so that productions don’t have to bring in their entire crew from across the country to fill positions and meet diversity standards. Our initiatives to diversify the workforce and fill skills gaps includes a programme to help people return to work after a parenting or caring break and another scheme to help former military personnel transfer their logistical and organisational skills to screen.

Think beyond the M25. Some of the nations and regions have excellent support programmes so consider engaging with them early to identify whether they can help source the workforce you need. Try to consider the whole production, not just studio time. Could you look to shoot further afield than the M25?  The diversity standards are tougher in the London area to reflect the demographics of the capital.

It doesn’t stop at delivery. Okay you’ve delivered the film, the Notice of Acceptance (NOA) is back, time to kick back and let the sales agent and distributor handle it from here. NO! You have to make sure that all the good work to date doesn’t unravel. Insist that the delivery elements include information on disability access. Will your distributor make the project available to under-represented groups in regions often overlooked? What can you do to make sure this process is promoted? Will your key creatives roadshow the film or speak at schools etc?

This is not an exhaustive list but a number of prompts to help colleagues do the right thing and meet the standards. And one final thought:

Work with partners. There are a number of organisations that specialise in broadening inclusion in the creative industries. 

About Gareth Ellis-Unwin

After graduating from Ravensbourne in 1995, I forged a career as an assistant director, working on 14 feature films and television shows such as Dream Team and London Bridge. A short stint as a line producer on The Flying Machine, Michael Smith’s Drivetime and Britain’s First Suicide Bombers led to a desire to become more involved in the production process and creating my own content. I decided in 2006 to set up Bedlam Productions with my best mate from Ravensbourne, Simon Egan.

At Bedlam I produced five films, ranging from the low budget thriller Exam to picking up the Best Picture Oscar for The Kings Speech in 2011. I have produced films in the UK, Europe, Israel, Thailand, Mongolia and the US. I know the passions and pains of practical producing, facing skills shortages and trying to create a brilliant film under the financial and logistical pressures of budget and schedule. My most recent film, Steel Country, met the BFI Diversity Standards. I am a voting member of AMPAS, BAFTA, PGA and PGGB and a member of BECTU.

Gareth can be contacted at: film.team@screenskills.com