Diversity on screen: what does that really mean?

Posted on June 29, 2017 by Mikaela Smith

Categories: Cinema Careers, FEDS Scheme


We asked Mikaela Smith, one of this year’s FEDS trainees, about how her host organisation Showroom Cinema is thinking about diversity in their programme and how they are trying to improve representation on their screens.

As many independent and community cinemas will know,funding deadlines for 2017 have been looming: in my first few months at the lovely Showroom Cinema, our little programming and development team were squirrelled away with funding bids aplenty: creating plans that will shape our cinemas output for the next three years. Hefty stuff. Having worked for anon-profit in the past, I know a little of what a monumental task getting funding can be, and how important it is to not only have your goals and objectives set out, but to understand what your current output is. Who are you helping? Why? With the BFI’s focus on diversity, it is an important subject across the UK film industry, and it’s also not something that can be taken lightly. If any change is going to happen,people need to get serious.

Its a topic I am willing to say I am pretty enthusiastic about. There are many personal reasons I wont get into, but in short, I grew up mixed race in a very white area. Growing up is harder to do when there is no one that looks like you to help you understand yourself. Its even harder when this is stretched across all the media that is available to you, and when all the media that is available to your peers portrays people that look like you in an unfavourable way. But enough with my life story: lets get back to business.

Showroom Sheffield
Image: Showroom Cinema, Sheffield 

Joan, the Showroom’s Senior Programmer, tasked me with analysing the last year of programming at the Showroom: every film that played on one of our screens over a twelve month period. She asked that I complete this small, simple task, so that we could really understand what our output was, and how we could use that understanding to set goals for diversity in our future programme. I was looking at writers, directors and protagonists: are they male or female? Are they BAMER? Are they LGBT+?(The latter was specifically looking at narratives/characters, rather than directors/writers, as I am not a wizard that can predict anyone’s sexuality).

Note: We chose to categorise ethnicity using the BAMER (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnicity and Refugee) tag, rather than BAME, which is a slight divergence from industry standard. For us, BAMER represents a progression, and we think it is important to recognize refugees as an important minority audience. BAMER is also the standard of our local audience: we work with the Sheffield equality hubs and try to connect with the needs and voices of the people that fill our city we have a BAMER equality hub for Sheffield, and it made sense to align ourselves with them.

It was a mammoth task, but I was ready for it. I could see the importance in knowing this information, because if you don’t know where you are, how can you really make a conscious effort to move forward? Unfortunately,as soon as I got into the swing of things, I faltered. There were many films popping up that were representative of what I would call diverse cultures, but that I struggled to categorise. Important films that teach us about traditions,religions and parts of the world we don’t always understand. Mustang, for example is a beautiful film about young women coming-of-age in a restrictive environment that is different from the one lots of you (and certainly I) grew up in, I would call it diverse,but are those young girls BAMER? Or are they white? How can you shoe-horn the melting pot of culture that is independent and foreign language film into ayes/no checkbox?

Image: Mustang

I checked in with Joan. Meaningful representation of diverse subject matter: an extra column on my now far-too-wide Excel spreadsheet, but it did make all the difference. Now I could still recognise the importance of diverse subject matter, but not be forced to mix it in with non-white narratives. This may seem ridiculous but its important to recognise both: there are many meaningful stories including white-majority casts, but they do not serve a BAMER audience in the same way that a film featuring BAMER characters does. The only issue with that column is that in order to do it right, you need a pretty great understanding of the programme(it was around 500 films, and though I watch a lot of films, I do also enjoy going outdoors from time to time: Nosferatu I am not.). Thankfully, the Showroom programming team is made up of a selection of truly bad-ass ladies that have a collectively fantastic knowledge of film, they have also worked at the Showroom far longer than I have. Together, the task was tackled.

How Did We Fare?

Our statistics came out better than I had expected, which isn’t to say I don’t think the Showrooms programme is fabulous and diverse; I do. But I don’t think I am the first to suggest the film industry is not the most diverse, and a film programme can only be as good as the films available to it, really.

When I crunched all the numbers into some sort of a sensible report, I did so comparatively against Creative Skillset statistics, BFI statistics and a number of other sizeable reports from development/production areas of the film industry. I will mention that I would have loved to have had data from more independent cinemas to see where we really sit: are we behind the times, or daring and progressive? We can only find out if we share our information, but that might be a debate for another day.

Doc Fest 2017
Image: Sheffield Doc|Fest

We fared better than the UK industry output – which is in part thanks to the Showrooms commitment to foreign language film, and specialised festivals and seasons: our ever popular selection of East Asian cinema and annual Japan Season (thank you, Japan Foundation) helped with our BAMER representation statistics, which were significantly higher than the UK employment rates for BAMER directors and writers. Doc/Fest also provided an enthusiastic boost to the number of female directors employed on films we showed: ourstatistics for this jumped from 13% to 17% with the inclusion of festivals and seasons. Doc/Fests programme for films on our screens (I cant speak for their entire programme) was around 39% female directed (high fives all round for Doc/Fest).

Overall, our on-screen statistics were considerably better than off-screen, with 36% of films with a notable protagonist having a female lead. Interestingly, when looking at the programme in terms of the F-Rating, 40% of our programme was F-rated – the closeness of these numbers suggests a correlation between films written/directed by women also being the strong players in terms of leading ladies. This is why it is so important to have more diversity off-screen: its really the only way to get these stories told, and have them told right. Similarly, 18% of the Showrooms programme features a director of BAMER background and 17% of programmed films were from BAMER writers. This is in spite of the UK film production workforce only employing 3% of workers from BAMER backgrounds. In supporting a vast programme of foreign film, the Showroom actively encourages much broader representation both on and off screen, and more accurately reflects the multicultural nature of the UK.

What Does it All Mean?

As much as I would like to shout about these statistics – and I would like to: across the board, percentages for female and BAMER writers, directors and protagonists, and LGBT+ narratives were strong.But were they strong enough? Do the films on our screens serve the communities in our city and across the UK? I think as much as they can, yes. But there is certainly room for improvement.

I’ve started analysing this years programme more in-real-time (I figure month-by-month chunks are much easier than analysing 500 films at once). I’ve added two new columns to the ever-growing spreadsheet: admissions for each film, and how many shows they get. As soon as I started writing the report, this became information I wish I had. Moving forward, well be able to see how heavily our programme supports on and off-screen diversity, both in terms of what is programmed, but also how much time we give those films to find their audience. Both factors are important for monitoring how well we serve diverse audiences. We’ll also be able to see what audiences get behind, and if audiences for more diverse content are growing.

Daughters of the Dust
Image: Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust

Its going to be an exciting year for the Showroom: the newly-implemented F-Rating is a call to arms, not just for our programming team, but our audiences. F-rated and Triple-F-Rated films now proudly wear a stamp across our website, print and box office marketing: if people are really keen to support women in film, were making it as easy as possible for them to see where and how they can vote with their seats. We’ve also just implemented Cine26, a fabulous initiative offering cinema-goers 26 and under 4.50 cinema tickets, all day, every day. It is a perk of the job that I get free cinema tickets anyway (all my childhood dreams have come true), but believe me: it takes me half the time to convince my friends that they want to spend two of their precious hours watching a bizarre French cannibal-horror (Raw, I’m looking at you), or better yet, a dreamlike re-release title musing on Gullah culture(thank you, Daughters of the Dust),when they know it will only cost them 4.50. It opens up a wider range of films to a wider range of people, and though the scheme is aimed at young people across the board (us millennials have it tough), I think it is important to recognise that this is also a great offering for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (who are, statistically, more likely to also be young BAMER people). Combining a more accessible cinema pricing (we also offer benefit claimant tickets at concessionary prices), with more active and more open analysis of what our programme offering is and who it really serves, are solid first steps in chipping away at the daunting industry issue of diversity on and off-screen.

Have any of your organisations carried out a diversity audit on your programme? What did you discover? We’d love to hear about your strategies for ensuring a diverse programme.

Want to learn about what our other trainees have been up to? Rico Johnson-Sinclair recently let us in on the secrets to surviving a film festival.

Subscribe to our mailing list

What would you like to receive emails about?
* indicates required