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Freelancers' Fair 2017: amazing, inspiring and funny

Technical talk with ARRI whose team did a great job at the event

13 June 2017

How do you shoot a scene in total darkness? This question, posed to the audience by director of photography Dominic Clemence speaking at BECTU’s Freelancers’ Fair, was just one of many that highlighted the combination of technical knowledge, imagination and creative flair necessary to make a great film.

And it is this combination of vital elements that has made BECTU’s annual Freelancers’ Fair a highlight of the filmmaker’s calendar, writes Janice Turner, editor of members' journal, Stage Screen and Radio.

Taking place at the Royal Institution in London on 19 May, this year's event incorporated a range of workshops and seminars alongside an exhibition offering a range of services. It was organised and directed by a committee of the union’s Writers Producers and Directors branch along with several union officials and staff, and coordinated by organising official Jane Perry.


Attendees also had the opportunity to have a one-to one meeting to discuss tax with media accountants Blue Skies Partnership, and to take CV advice from careers adviser Beverley Hills. Attendees who had submitted a script in advance were given half an hour’s feedback on it by Euroscript. And safety advisor Chris Lawton was available to give individual advice on security and safety when planning news, factual and film production in hostile or remote environments.

Storytelling is key

Clemence, whose credits include Silent Witness, Heartbeat and George Gently, was speaking at the seminar Think Small, Film Big. He and fellow panellists including award-winning director George Watson and Technicolor’s Mitch Mitchell gave valuable technical and creative advice to the audience. There was a fascinating discussion on the merits of hiring a top of the range camera versus getting the very best technical performance out of a cheaper one and spending the savings elsewhere on the production. As Joe Cannon commented: “It’s all very well hiring a £20,000 camera, if you can’t tell a story the audience isn’t engaged.”

The seminar From Script to Screen played to a packed audience. Chaired with wit and humour by writer/producer Mark Foris, the panel included Rachelle Constant, a development producer in Drama for BBC Writers’ Room, highly experienced writers Tony McHale, Helen Blakeman and Alex Holmes along with Nathaniel Price, a recent graduate of the NFTS screenwriting course.

Constant outlined what Writers Room are looking for: “It’s the voice, it’s the world, the characters, there’s something for us that speaks to us. When you read a novel, watch a play, watch a film, at the end would you enjoy it or want to watch it again?”

McHale, who has long experience on continuing drama such as EastEnders and Holby City, and series such as   Waking the Dead and Trial and Retribution, told the audience: “My agent said: ‘Do you want to earn a living out of this business or not? Then you’re going to have to learn to write other people’s shows’ … If you want to write your own stuff you’ll probably go slowly broke, but if you want to make a living you need to work on other people’s stuff.”

Blakeman found that writing for Hollyoaks was a valuable experience: “It was very different. You get up, write a script, send it in. Writing a script every day for deadlines – my goodness that absolutely teaches you the craft.”

Asked whether they become pigeonholed into certain areas, Holmes replied: “I’d love to be pigeonholed, then I’d have a regular stream of work coming in. There are two things that matter – 1: your passion, if you believe in it enough. Cultivate one garden rather than having lots of plots. However, once I had a genius idea for a rom com, and I still have a genius idea for a rom com, but nobody wanted one from me.”

Building relationships

But he added: “I thought this industry was all about talent. It’s not. A good half of it is about building relationships. I used to bristle at the idea of a cosy club. What I didn’t realise, but now do, is that those relationships are creative partnerships. By pairing up with other people, producers, directors, you establish a shorthand so work comes more quickly. You need producers to sell your work into broadcasters and film companies – “I vouch for this person”.  If someone believes in you it’s easier to get the next person to believe in you.

“If you find someone who believes in you, cultivate that relationship. Don’t think you can do it on your own because you can’t.  Producers need material, they need stories to sell, so they need you at the end of the day.”

The panellists urged young writers to keep developing their own voice alongside the work they are doing for others.

Building relationships was an overarching theme of the day, and one session judged extremely valuable by attendees was a workshop on networking run by David Thomas of David Thomas Media. He gave the audience many clear insights into how to present yourself successfully and professionally in your online presence and in person. He gave the attendees 10 minutes to circulate round the room and obtain key details about five people – a great way to practice the kind of social interaction which for many is a difficult skill to learn.

Brexit two ways

The political issues of the day have a major impact on our industries and so Brexit featured in two sessions: The British Film Industry after Brexit, which was a serious discussion, and Brexit Bingo hosted by award-winning comedian Samantha Baines, which wasn’t.

Fake News, Alternative Facts and the Truth featured representatives from the heart of the debate. Google vice-president Peter Barron, the BBC’s controller of daily programmes Gavin Allen, Richard Smith of satirical website Newsthump and Professor Jonathan Hardy of the University of East London and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. Angie Mason, a leading light in the Writers Producers and Directors branch chaired the session.

Fake news is very entertaining as long as you know it’s fake,” said Allen. “So long as we make an effort to make our true news as compelling as fake news there’s still a lot of hope.”

Smith told the audience that satire has become very closely aligned with fake news. Newsthump is satirical and they found it very amusing when people believed the material on their website. But when they parodied David Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’ by claiming that Jeremy Corbyn was suggesting “hug a jihadi”, they were not so amused to find that as a result of a far-right organisation taking it and passing it on, hundreds of thousands of people were believing it.

“For me what it comes down to is intent. The further you go down towards propaganda the more you intend to deceive.  And that’s fake news.”

Barron outlined the actions Google has taken with regard to fake news, including the launch of their ‘fact check’ feature on Google News which labels untrue stories as false.

The wide-ranging debate covered the rise of paid advertorial which seemed to blend ever more seamlessly into pages of editorial content, and the rise of corporate news releases: “We need to distinguish between real news and material supplied by corporates in this way,” said Hardy. “People should know when they’re being sold to.”

In response to a question from Michelle Brooks: “Can we not be trusted to work out for ourselves what is fake news?” Hardy replied: “We all hope we get better at media literacy. But it is a matter of how the burden is shared. Should the burden all be on consumers? Research has shown pretty poor levels of consumers recognising fake news.”

Smith added that most people would say they could spot fake news, but the less people know the less they can identify their own knowledge gap. “If you rely on people to know themselves when material is fake they will rely on their own knowledge. For example ‘Hillary is crooked, therefore that story is true’.”  Allen commented that fake news plays to what people actually believe –  it hits a nerve that chimes with people.”


The freelancers attending the event were delighted with it. One producer director commented: “It’s excellent, it’s a really good event and it’s going from strength to strength. It’s good for networking.”

BECTU assistant national secretary, Paul Evans, told the gathering at the end: “Everything that happens isn’t because we’re servicing you as members, it’s because our members have decided to do something for each other. This is an important time. We’ve just negotiated a TV drama agreement – if you work in TV drama you will work under that agreement. We want to give you a voice but we can’t give you a voice unless you’re inside the union. We are a union, not a service. Join the union and if you don’t you’ll be letting everyone else down.” Many non-members did respond.

Asya Petrova, who had joined BECTU in the previous few weeks and had recently graduated with an MA in directing, said:

“It’s brilliant. I didn’t really expect much from the first floor exhibition but I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of stalls. I haven’t had the chance to go to every single one but those I’ve been to have been extremely helpful.” Regarding the session on copyright: “I didn’t intend to go, I didn’t think I’d benefit too much, but it was so so helpful. I learned about music rights. The smaller the production the more roles you take on.”

Of the workshop on networking she said: “it’s been very helpful in improving my networking skills. At other events they were not very practical but at the workshop they gave real skills that we can use at future events and gave us a whole new way of looking at it. I benefited a lot.”

Another member commented: “I learned a lot.”

A member giving her name as Laura commented: “The Freelancers’ Fair was amazing, the Brexit bingo was very funny”. She described the workshop by Euroscript, on advanced screenwriting, as “inspiring –  I wish it could be a monthly session.  It was a down to earth approach from very knowledgeable people.” She added: “It was a masterclass in scriptwriting.”

This inspirational event is a credit to the union’s Writers’ Producers and Directors branch, and it answered many questions for the professionals taking part. And in case you’re wondering how Dominic Clemence did succeed in shooting a scene in total darkness, the answer is he shot it in infra-red.

The number of industry folk attending this year's event equalled the previous best figure of 370. Huge thanks to everyone who shared the day with us and especially to all our contributors, sponsors and exhibitors who helped to make the day such a success. Footage from this year's sessions will be uploaded to BECTU's YouTube Channel in the coming weeks. Follow us on twitter @bectu for the alert. 

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