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High on creative energy, low on ethics? Indie film-making in the frame

A packed audience at University of London Union The panel listen to one of many contributors to the debate Pic:Jonathan Warren

19 March 2010

Emitting enough creative energy to register on the national grid, temperatures were high in London last night as industry representatives discussed the merits and demerits of micro-budget film-making under the title Shooting Yourself in the Foot?

Whilst the debate was positioned as ‘Free Spirits v The Forces of Control’(and at times that artificial divide did surface) discussion was intelligent, fierce and wide-ranging.

Missed the meeting? Join the new forum at http://forum.indiefilmuk.org/index.php  (nb: new forum details added 29 March 2010).

Most importantly, after two hours of vibrant exchange, ‘both sides’ recognised the need to work together to provide for the sector’s future - almost to the relief of everyone in the room.

As a result, the search is on for a model which will allow low-budget films, which aspire to make money, to be made without anyone being exploited. Let’s hope that’s still the way everyone feels today and in the days and months ahead.

Close to 120 people packed into a room at the University of London Union – film-makers, artists, policy-makers, union organisers – all of them united by their love of film and by their desire to see film-makers prosper, both artistically and economically.

On one side, Jess Search from jobs site, Shooting People, made clear her backing for the national minimum wage (better still the London Living Wage, she said) and for the non-negotiable status of health and safety. Lots of bonus points.

Shooting People subscribers 'want to work for free'

However, Jess explained that subscribers to her site were overwhelmingly in favour of continuing to have the choice to work for free.

 Jess Search gives her opening presentation, WPD event 18 March 2010Jess Search questionned whether the national minimum wage should apply to micro-budget films Pic: Jonathan Warren

A recent Shooting People survey – posted in response to the tribunal decision last November which established the relevance to the sector of the national minimum wage -  found that 81 per cent of the site’s subscribers wanted to see postings for unpaid jobs, that 86 per cent were prepared to work unpaid and that 78 per cent don’t want to be told that they cannot choose to work for nothing.

Choosing to work for free?  Is that a real choice?

Career or hobby?

On the other side, Martin Spence, BECTU’s assistant general secretary, argued that filmmakers who are serious about film-making as a career, and not just a hobby, must recognise their legal responsibilities for insurance, health and safety, and employment. The key, he said, was to distinguish cynical rip-off producers from genuinely collaborative projects.

Martin Spence also revealed that BECTU is in talks with Co-ops UK about using the co-op model to provide a legal framework, and legal protection, for genuine collaborations.

BECTU's experience is that there are too many producers out there who exploit the fact that there are more young people wanting to work in the industry than there are jobs available.

 Martin Spence speaks to a packed audience, WPD event 18 March 2010Martin Spence argued for a a new model to professionalise the micro-budget sector. Pic Jonathan Warren

From the union's point of view, the tragedy of the current situation, evidenced by the abuse and bad treatment suffered by people like Nicola Vetta, is that too many workers on productions with minimal budgets are not paid and, despite the promises, derive little to no benefit from the productions they commit so many hours to.    

With the help of Stephen Overell, associate director of the Work Foundation, who as chair for the event allowed the audience to participate as much as the panellists, a rough consensus emerged in favour of a new legal framework for low budget production to protect the interests of everyone involved - from the producers right through to the runners.

Gone fishing

Jess Search argued for a case to government which would see low budget film-making exempted from the national minimum wage regulations on the same basis as the exclusions granted to fishermen.

The principle that ‘nobody knows’ – in the case of fishing, how big the catch will be and therefore how much money there will be to pay the crew – made low-budget film-making a good case, it was said.  But whilst the meeting represented a range of views, there was little stomach for that.

Workers want to see people paid for their work (therefore low-budget films should make money) which makes any argument for entrenching the current state of play counter-productive.

Alongside, Jess Search and Martin Spence, Chris Jones, co-author of the Guerrilla Film-Makers Handbook and the brains behind the successful micro-budget film Gone Fishing and Benetta Adamson, TV documentary maker and TV Wrap campaigner, rode side-saddle for the opposing arguments.

Chris Jones also spoke in support of the national minimum wage but for freedom in film-making and in response to a question about funding he said that “anyone who makes a film is a miracle worker.”

Whilst commenting later that “film is a dictatorship, anything else is naïve”, Chris did appear to warm to Martin Spence’s suggestion that the co-operative model might provide the business structure which film-making at this end of the spectrum so badly needs. Has Chris had a change of heart this morning though?

Responsible hiring

Benetta Adamson, reminded the audience of the success of the TV Wrap campaign which had brought more responsibility to hiring in television. Whilst accepting that “independent and micro-budget film is different” she argued that “we must accept the responsibilities of leadership.”

Citing a typical ad for an unpaid job, which offered expenses-only but which insisted on a driver with a high spec vehicle for the ferrying of leading talent, Benetta asked whether anyone could have confidence that proper measures would be in place to reflect the liabilities of everyone involved?

Reflecting on the need for the industry itself to collaborate on devising a better model for micro/low-budget films, Benetta said: “we get more results from honey than vinegar, let’s find out how to make this work.”

If there was a consensus to be drawn from last night’s excellent contributions from the floor, it is this; current and would-be film-makers aspire to work in a sector which not only upholds the law but which delivers on the promise of nurturing talent and allowing that talent to prosper. The sector, as a whole, is manifestly not delivering on these obligations right now. 

A breakthrough will only come if the two sides come together. Keep in touch with BECTU on this issue.

Shooting Yourself in the Foot?
the debate organised by BECTU’s Writers Producers and Directors branch was recorded. The union will make footage available online as soon as possible. In the meantime, Benetta Adamson has set up an instant forum at http://forum.indiefilmuk.org/index.php (nb: details updated 29 March 2010).

Join the forum if you were at the meeting last night, and if you were not.

Diary date: BECTU’s Freelancers' Fair 2010, now in its fifth year, and the brainchild of BECTU’s WPDs takes place on Friday 11 June, Savoy Place, 2 Savoy Place, Embankment, London. Contact us if you want to know when booking opens.

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