A strategy for the reel world

26th January 2001 at 00:00
The British film and broadcasting industry needs an influx of properly skilled entrants to maintain its global reputation for quality, but up to now has not had a coherent, accessible training structure. Sue Jones reports on a new initiative.

BRITISH talent and skills in film and broadcasting are admired across the world. But the newly-elected Labour government was so concerned about the industry's future that it set up a task force to tackle the problems and create a national strategy.

Despite its modern image and glamorous celebrities, behind the scenes the industry is suffering from short-term funding and skills shortages. Reputation and glitz pulled in the recruits but has not yet secured the future. The industry has expanded but the proliferation of small companies and the struggle for market share and profits has encouraged even the larger organisations to downsize and cut back on training.

The industry is becoming dependent on a pool of ageing freelancers carrying increasingly broad portfolios of skills. Media courses have blossomed, but skills have not always matched needs.

"There is a lack of clear pathways for people wanting to get into the business," says training consultant Jeremy Barr. He believes that training has often been "tactical rather than strategic", with economic uncertainty undermining employers' commitment to long-term planning, a concern shared by the broadcasting union, BECTU.

BECTU's training officer, Trish Lavelle, sees the union's members hard-pushed to find the time and money for their own training, and not always sure about which course to apply for.

Clear benchmarks and accreditation are needed, she says.

The union is working closely with Skillset, the national training organisation for broadcast, film, video and multi-media. Skillset's task is to create a more coherent structure for training, using the new Skills Investment Fund derived from a voluntary levy from the industry supplemented by the government. So far, 33 films have contributed pound;600,000.

Its immediate training priorities will be for new entrants in craft, technical and production grades, health and safety and production accountants. It will also prioritise NVQ delivery and assessment across all grades. It has also established committees to promote modern apprenticeships and training for freelancers.

Also working with Skillset is the newly-established Film Council, set up by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and chaired by director Alan Parker.

It aims to secure thefuture of the British film industry through long-term financial and training strategies and increase its share of the UK box office, running at 15 per cent since 1994. Poor company structure and script development have been identified by the council as the major causes of failure. It will spend pound;10 million a year over the next three years to encourage private investment in British films and enhance the business skills of producers.

Another pound;5m will be spent to improve training for scriptwriters. Research by Skillset earlier this year showed a shortage of audio-visual engineers, a situation that many in the industry believe extends across most craft skills.

Workers who joined during the expansion following the creation of ITV and BBC2 in the 1950s and 1960s have reached retirement age, and there is no structured apprenticeship system to replace them.

Part of the solution is to accredit the skills that workers have gained informally. Skillset is enthusiastic about NVQs and an industry that depends on mobile freelancers needs people with broad, up-to-date skills portfolios. But tomorrow's freelancers have to start somewhere, by choosing an initial training course from the broad range available.

Current controversy about the value of media courses should not discourage potential students. But they must be clear about what they want to achieve, advises the British Kinematographic, Sound and Television Society, an organisation which has represented people in film and broadcasting since the 1930s.

BBC training remains prestigious but many of the placements advertised on its website are only open to graduates and people with previous experience. Colleges running HND and BA courses are also likely to give preference to applicants who have worked in the industry or have other relevant qualifications.

Aspiring filmmakers and broadcasters are expected to build up their own portfolio of photography, sound recordings or experience in broadcasting. And it is a system open to abuse.

BECTU believes some work experience amounts to unpaid labour with no proper training. Such practices undermine equal opportunities by taking wealthy people who are willing and able to work long stretches for nothing, said Trish Lavelle.

The challenge is to create a structure that delivers worthwhile training. "Ephemeral success is often confused with accomplishment," warned Alan Parker in his foreword to the Film Council's reports. Support must be "well-targeted assistance rather than scattergun subsidy".

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