Production skill shortage is threatening the British film and TV industries boom
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book on the film industry. What nobody – including myself – foresaw then was that the internet would create many immense, hugely lucrative opportunities.
Netflix’s emergence, followed by the rise of competitors like Disney+, has transformed both film and TV production and audience consumption.
Equally, nobody foresaw the central role the United Kingdom would play in our “golden era” of production. According to the British Film Institute (BFI) combined spend by film and high-end television productions in the UK during 2021 reached a record £5.64 billion - almost 25 per cent higher than pre-pandemic.
The UK’s success as a magnet for inward investment from Hollywood stems from several factors, most significantly our wealth of creative and technical talent. Our world-class infrastructure has become equally crucial. The owners of studios at Pinewood, Shepperton, Leavesden and in Belfast have invested shrewdly in response to rising demand, while new studios are being built across the UK.
Scarcity of talent has only two possible consequences: poorer films and TV and spiraling wage inflation
Underpinning this success is our system of tax relief. I’m proud it was Labour which, in 2007, introduced a form of industry tax relief which has proved remarkably effective and efficient. To their credit, the coalition government followed suit with relief for high-end TV in 2013, along with similar initiatives covering animation, children’s TV and games.
These strengths, along with the English language and advantages like cutting-edge digital expertise in our post-production houses, and the work of agencies such as the BFI and the British Film Commission, have all played their part in the UK’s remarkable success in attracting US investment. These stakeholders have worked hand in glove with the Motion Picture Association, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
But success has also exposed some structural weaknesses – not least failure by both industry and government to sufficiently invest in skills. For decades I’ve argued that scarcity of talent has only two possible consequences: poorer films and TV and spiraling wage inflation.
Fifty years of engagement with the National Film and Television School has left me acutely aware of the importance of ensuring investment in talent and skills is equal to industry needs. At present, this is not remotely the case.
The result of this failure has become all too apparent, with recent – and inevitable - reports of significant cost inflation in UK production. We can only hope that the forthcoming British Film Institute review of skills, being undertaken for DCMS, will carry some tough messages about the likely consequences if we fail to step up to the plate on investment in the talent that sustains UK success.
Equally, it’s proved difficult to make the Apprenticeship Levy work for screen industries, although recent progress on flexibility is welcome. Hope now lies in a pilot scheme being delivered by ScreenSkills.
Ultimately, the UK is operating in an increasingly competitive global environment. From São Paulo to Stockholm to Sydney, countries, regions and cities recognise the economic power of screen production.
And why wouldn’t they? Olsberg SPI found that of the global expenditure on screen production in 2019, although 65 per cent originated in the US, only 40 per cent was spent there. The total impact of that spend across global economies was $414 billion, resulting in the creation of £14m full-time equivalent jobs in the screen sectors alone. So, there are huge prizes to play for.
There are, naturally, other challenges ahead. Some say “peak TV” may have been reached. Indeed, there is some evidence that spending will be reduced although there is, as yet, no sign of any notable decline in production expenditure.
Piracy remains a big challenge for the studios, and increasingly for streaming services, with password sharing emerging as the most recent revenue drain.
Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that, should the UK step up to the challenges on skills, it can maintain, and even strengthen, its competitive position in global film and TV production.
As ever, the responsibility lies with politicians, public agencies and industry itself, working together to seize the moment, and support the development of both the existing workforce and a new generation of creative and technical talent to build on the extraordinary successes of the past 25 years.
David Puttnam is a British film producer and former Labour peer.
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