Kaye Elliott on how Covid-19 has affected TV production

ScreenSkills’ Director of High-end TV Kaye Elliott has written a guest post for the Manchester Wire on how the Covid-19 crisis has affected television and film production and training.

ScreenSkills is the skills body that supports the film and television industries workforce to develop and grow. The pandemic has been devastating for that ambition. Almost all production stopped at the end of March – which, given the size and success of the industry, was a massive blow for the UK economy as well as the thousands of people employed in the sector.

Film and TV create a huge number of jobs as well as income and profile for the country, so to have that turned off overnight had a major and far-reaching impact – not only affecting what people can watch on television or see at the cinema, but for the people hired to work on productions.

It’s estimated 50,000 freelancers lost their jobs immediately when the industry had to stop production with at least £426 million worth of high-end TV (that’s anything costing more than £1 million an hour to shoot) and film productions postponed or suspended when social distancing measures followed by lockdown were announced.

ScreenSkills’ role is to create pathways to bring new people into the industry as well as delivering support to freelancers to progress and develop their skills, ensuring we have a dynamic and thriving workforce to meet demand. When the pandemic hit, our priority was moving training online to continue to support freelancers including identifying what other support we could offer.

I’m pleased to say we managed to move the majority of our training online and we’ve had a hugely positive response from freelancers who have used the imposed downtime to improve and develop their skills. We also recently launched free online coronavirus-specific training to give freelancers the tools they will need to help them operate safely on set or location when production returns.

However, we have also tried to continue the work we were doing before Covid-19 struck. We have an annual new entrant programme called Trainee Finder which has 125 trainees looking to start their careers in high-end television and another 150 in film. It’s a 12-month programme, which includes bespoke training and paid placements on productions across the UK.

The cohorts were recruited in March, just as we were going into lockdown and, as a consequence, we haven’t been able to provide any placements to date due to production being paused. This has been incredibly difficult for individuals who were obviously excited to be starting their careers. What we didn’t want to happen was to have these committed trainees feel they should give up on their place on the programme.

We wanted to retain that talent, so this was one of the areas where we quickly moved training online and put in place departmental weekly drop-ins to build the community as well as putting in place new support specific to the needs created by the pandemic, including financial advice seminars and individual one-to-one sessions on mental health. It was all designed to help them continue to learn and feel connected to the industry, despite having no placements. I am pleased to say as of July we are now starting to be able to put in place physical placements for our trainees, as production starts to return.

For more established freelancers, we also moved our training for roles where there are skills shortages online too. This included first assistant director, line producer and production coordinator training programmes and soon we will be launching online training focused on location management and production accountancy. It has meant that all those who haven’t been able to work have been able to use this time, where possible, to upskill. We’ve also providing mental health sessions for heads of department and senior managers to give them the tools to support their teams when production returns.

It’s been a very interesting time for us to reflect on what we do and how we can best support our amazing television and film workforce. We’ve always had some training online but certainly not the majority. There will always be a demand for face-to-face training, when that is possible, but ScreenSkills will definitely retain some training online in future because we have developed ways of delivering it effectively and you can reach many more people when you’re not bound by geography. There’s clearly a demand.

The pandemic has also coincided with the hugely important questions raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. They are really significant questions for the screen industry, which for many years has been trying to create a more inclusive workforce but still has a long way to go. It has provided an opportunity to ask again how we can be better in the future and what must we do more quickly and with more effectiveness to secure real change.

This period has been exceptionally challenging, but I think the industry will come out of the other side of this with a better understanding of the importance of the people who work in it. That is one of the definite positives. We will need to continue to strive to create more opportunities and broaden the makeup of the workforce behind the brilliant television shows that have been so important in keeping the nation entertained and informed during these difficult times.


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