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Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.

When I was in England in early October 2019, I gave an interview to Empire magazine. I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.

Some people seem to have seized on the last part of my answer as insulting, or as evidence of hatred for Marvel on my part. If anyone is intent on characterizing my words in that light, there’s nothing I can do to stand in the way.

Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri.

For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.

It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.

And that was the key for us: it was an art form. There was some debate about that at the time, so we stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance. And we came to understand that the art could be found in many different places and in just as many forms — in “The Steel Helmet” by Sam Fuller and “Persona” by Ingmar Bergman, in “It’s Always Fair Weather” by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and “Scorpio Rising” by Kenneth Anger, in “Vivre Sa Vie” by Jean-Luc Godard and “The Killers” by Don Siegel.

Or in the films of Alfred Hitchcock — I suppose you could say that Hitchcock was his own franchise. Or that he was our franchise. Every new Hitchcock picture was an event. To be in a packed house in one of the old theaters watching “Rear Window” was an extraordinary experience: It was an event created by the chemistry between the audience and the picture itself, and it was electrifying.

And in a way, certain Hitchcock films were also like theme parks. I’m thinking of “Strangers on a Train,” in which the climax takes place on a merry-go-round at a real amusement park, and “Psycho,” which I saw at a midnight show on its opening day, an experience I will never forget. People went to be surprised and thrilled, and they weren’t disappointed.

Sixty or 70 years later, we’re still watching those pictures and marveling at them. But is it the thrills and the shocks that we keep going back to? I don’t think so. The set pieces in “North by Northwest” are stunning, but they would be nothing more than a succession of dynamic and elegant compositions and cuts without the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute lostness of Cary Grant’s character.

The climax of “Strangers on a Train” is a feat, but it’s the interplay between the two principal characters and Robert Walker’s profoundly unsettling performance that resonate now.

Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Hitchcock himself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again. Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.

They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson are not. When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.

So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.


That includes me, and I’m speaking as someone who just completed a picture for Netflix. It, and it alone, allowed us to make “The Irishman” the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful. We have a theatrical window, which is great. Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would. But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.

And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.

But, you might argue, can’t they just go home and watch anything else they want on Netflix or iTunes or Hulu? Sure — anywhere but on the big screen, where the filmmaker intended her or his picture to be seen.

In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.

I’m certainly not implying that movies should be a subsidized art form, or that they ever were. When the Hollywood studio system was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made — in the words of Bob Dylan, the best of them were “heroic and visionary.”

Today, that tension is gone, and there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.

For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.

Five big questions facing the UK film industry in 2019


What will be the impact of Brexit?

Despite ongoing uncertainty around the entire Brexit process, the UK is still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11pm (UK time) on Friday, March 29 in 2019. How this will affect the film industry remains unclear, but the majority of businesses are preparing for some significant disruption. The UK’s exit will enter a transitional period from March 2019 until at least December 31, 2020, though this could be extended, which should hopefully allow some breathing space to figure out the practicalities.

The industry’s responses to Brexit so far range from optimistic – new opportunities for trade and cultural collaboration with territories such as China, North America, Latin America and India, and a “national re-branding” – to the worrisome, with one exec suggesting once UK films are no longer recognised as European by Creative Europe, it will mean a significant reduction in demand from European distributors and broadcasters.

The British Pound has remained weak against the Euro and US dollar since the Brexit vote in June 2016. That’s a significant challenge for UK-based film businesses that regularly work on the continent. However, it also represents an opportunity for even more inward investment, as companies (particularly American) look to take advantage of the exchange rate to save money on film shoots. Whether the UK can keep up with the demand caused by skyrocketing inward investment – which saw spend on film and TV production in the UK hit a record £1.9bn in 2017 – will depend on the opening of new production spaces.

The British Film Institute has published a Q&A about what Brexit means for the UK’s screen sectors, touching on subjects such as the implications for the country’s involvement in Creative Europe. You can read that here.

What will be the outcome of the ongoing distribution shake-up?

The year 2018 was a disruptive one for UK film distribution, with ongoing challenges in the market causing a shake-up. The US studios now dominate a staggering 84% of UK box office receipts (according to ComScore), with indies scrapping over the remaining 16% and dwindling home entertainment returns.

This has seen a disappearance of the traditional “middle”, with the larger independent companies struggling to make enough money to cover their significant overheads. Icon Film Distribution permanently closed at the beginning of 2018 (with its library sold to Kaleidoscope). Alex Hamilton, the long-standing president of international at film eOne, is leaving the company in March 2019, signalling a shift by the company away from single-picture acquisitions and distribution to a greater focus on development and production. Studiocanal UK’s distribution head Danny Perkins left the company in September 2018 to launch his own production-focused company, leaving Studiocanal UK’s distribution ambitions in flux. Elsewhere, Arrow Films’ acquisitions director Tom Stewart departed after eight years, with the company understood to be re-thinking its theatrical strategy, while distributor Signature Entertainment was purchased by US company FFI Holdings.

A flurry of nimble UK indie distributors have sprung up. Soda Pictures founder Eve Gabereau launched Modern Films at the start of 2018. Arrow’s Stewart launched Parkland Entertainment with John Cairns, founder of sales and production outfit Parkland Pictures. Former Kaleidoscope exec Mike Chapman joined forces with sales exec Simon Crowe and financier Matthew Joynes to launch Blue Finch Films, and 606 Distribution was launched by Cornwall-based filmmaker and actor Pat Kelman with acquisition and legal exec David Maddison. The one thing those companies all have in common – low overheads and ambition to stand out in an over-saturated marketplace.

Will the UK have a better showing at Cannes in 2019?

No question, it was a disappointing showing for UK (and Irish) movies at Cannes in 2018. There were four titles in the Official Selection, and the only Competition representative was Cold War, in which the UK was a minority co-producer with France and Poland. In Un Certain Regard, Critics’ Week, and Directors’ Fortnight, not a single UK film or filmmaker was selected.

Will 2019 be any better? Does it matter? Yes and no. The presence of Toronto and Venice in 2018 eased concerns, with strong titles emerging from those programmes such as The Favourite, Wild Rose, In Fabric, Gwen and Out Of Blue to name just a few. Looking to the new year, the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic programme boasts a good showing of UK titles, with titles such as Sacha Polak’s Dirty God (a co-pro with the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland), Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir all present. The Premieres section also sees the country well represented, with the likes of Sophie Hyde’s Animals, Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, and Gavin Hood’s US-UK co-pro Official Secrets set to bow. There’s also further UK and Ireland representation in the World Cinema Documentary, Documentary Premieres, Midnight, Spotlight, and Kids programmes. However, Cannes remains the pre-eminent showcase for international filmmaking (just look at this year’s shortlist for the foreign-language Oscar) and filmmakers want to be on the Croisette.

Will Netflix or other streamers expand their UK presence?

Netflix moved into a new, larger office to house its London operations this year, though talk of a “UK commissioning base” with more emphasis on film is understood to be premature. However, reports emerged in early December the streaming giant is exploring setting up a production hub at the UK’s Pinewood Studios. The company already has a variety of big-budget film and TV productions on the go in the UK, such as The Crown, so a permanent London hub to oversee those would seem to make sense. Elsewhere, Apple hired former BBC Films exec Joe Oppenheimer as a London-based creative executive in July 2018, so expect to see more UK-based activity from that company in 2019, while it will also be interesting to see how Amazon’s changes to its content strategy affect its moves in the UK.

Can the banner box office of 2018 be sustained for another year?

UK cinema admissions are skyrocketing this year and are being forecast to hit levels not seen since 1971, when they reached 176 million. Despite the lack of a top-grossing Star Wars film this year (spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story only reached a disappointing £20m), other titles such as Avengers: Infinity War, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Incredibles 2, and Black Panther have boosted takings. Next year will see a high-profile Star Wars return to screens in time for Christmas – currently titled Star Wars: Episode IX – but before then there’s a big list of titles that could return big numbers. Released this year on Dec 21, Mary Poppins Returns will continue grossing big numbers in early 2019, while the likes of Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Aladdin, Frozen 2, Dumbo and Toy Story 4 are all likely to do big box office – the fact that Disney is behind all of those titles (and will also likely complete its acquisition of 20th Century Fox’s entertainment assets in 2019) indicates that the studio is set to have another year of domination at the UK box office.

"Agencies should not be a boss to clients,” says one writer as WME and CAA lead a rush into producing and owning stakes in film and TV shows, a practice they say helps create opportunities but the Writers Guild believes raises potential conflict issues.

When Beau Willimon was looking for one last investor to come on board his new Sean Penn Hulu space drama The First, he wanted a company willing to provide cash and help handle sales without stepping on his creative control. It might sound as idealistic as actually inhabiting Mars. And yet, when such a deal materialized, there was something unusual and, to some, even a bit controversial about the investor: Endeavor Content, a sister company of talent agency WME.

As the industry moves from star-driven vehicles toward an IP-dominated marketplace, it's likely that the winners and losers of the Peak TV era will largely be determined by who owns what. It's thus little wonder that broadcast networks are increasingly linking up with their sister studios to own everything that airs in their time slots and that global streamers are inking nine-figure mega-deals to essentially own the productive imaginations of some of Hollywood's top creators, including Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Kenya Barris. Now into this mix come the agencies, eager not to get left out as a New Hollywood is divvied up. No longer satisfied to stay solely in the representation business (though they might dispute this), they are becoming media companies themselves, sparking a debate over who gains from their entree into production: Are these firms self-dealing monsters who will screw over their own clients? Or are they Robin Hood, fighting to keep IP ownership in the hands of the artists they rep? That, of course, depends on whom you ask.

The Writers Guild has maintained it's the former, this spring convening a series of informational sessions to drum up support among its members and seeking to dissolve the 42-year-old franchise agreement, which governs the relationship between writers and agents. Now the agencies have responded, claiming their new strategy is actually about seeking both creative and financial power for their clients and that the benefit to themselves and their affiliates will happen alongside, not in front of, the talent. As Exhibit A, Endeavor Content touts The First. For one, it points out, there's no conflict of interest because Willimon is repped by rival agency CAA. And as co-financiers with Hulu and the U.K.'s Channel 4, Endeavor has only a minority interest in The First, with the series mostly owned by Willimon. (That a creator retains primary ownership of content, rather than selling for backend participation, is rare nowadays.)
As studios consolidate or get acquired by telecom conglomerates and as deep-pocketed Silicon Valley streamers flex their muscles, the agencies say they have to grow just to stand their ground, let alone make headway for their clients.

"We saw years back that the existing finance and sales tools available in the marketplace weren't giving the best share, the best control and the best financial model to creators and producers," says Endeavor Content co-president Chris Rice. "And that trend seemed even more challenged in a world of mega-consolidation and global SVOD expansion."

Endeavor Content, which was formed in October from the combination of WME and sister company IMG's finance and sales groups, still counts raising financing and handling sales as its bread and butter, but it takes an ownership stake in about a quarter of its projects. (In the majority of those cases, that stake is 20 percent or less.) In addition, Endeavor Content has made an investment in the company of producer Bruna Papandrea and launched a joint venture with Peter Chernin, both WME clients. Meanwhile, IMG continues to invest in nonscripted projects like Steve Harvey's syndicated talk show Steve.

The only other agency to have embarked on a significant transformation into a diversified media company is CAA, which in December 2016 tapped former ABC president Paul Lee to set up a TV studio called wiip (it stands for "word, idea, imagination, production"; the agency would not disclose the size of its stake). UTA also has signaled its intent to become a content owner and will use part of its recent $200 million private equity infusion to fund the expansion of its nascent content business, which at present is a stake in American Idol producer Industrial Media (formerly Core Media Group).

But many in Hollywood are suspicious of or outright opposed to agencies getting into the ownership game — none more so than the very faction they are charged to represent. THR reached out to more than two dozen showrunners and experienced writers, and many expressed apprehension about agents producing. "The headline is that it's bad for creators," declares The Good Fight co-creator Robert King, who, notably, is a client of Paradigm, one of the agencies not moving into ownership (yet). "This is a black-and- white situation where agencies should not be a boss to clients." Even some agents are puzzled: "Who are you representing? Do you have [the writer's] back or your back?" says Verve co-founder and partner Bryan Besser. "How do you have both backs?"

In this spring's guild-convened meetings with writers about the issue, members seemed alarmed. "When they laid out the facts, it did look like a serious issue," says one showrunner who was there but asked to remain anonymous. "It became a very big topic of conversation among the upper-tier writer set."
In April, the guild sent a letter to the Association of Talent Agents detailing its demanded changes to the franchise agreement and triggering a 12-month countdown to termination of the contract should they not be met. The ATA has asked to meet with the guild, to no avail. "We look forward to hearing back from the WGA and rolling up our sleeves to ensure writers can continue to thrive in the midst of this upheaval," says ATA president Karen Stuart. The WGA would not comment, nor would Willimon, who is the WGA East president.
Many writers were reluctant to speak on the record. "The writer-agent relationship is a strange one — they work for us, but it feels like the opposite, because you don't get work until they call. CAA isn't going to quake in its boots because one client spoke out," says a veteran television writer who requested anonymity. "We're concerned about being known as troublemakers [to our agencies]."

Some of the complaints related to conflicts of interest can be traced to lingering resentment over packaging fees, a decades-old practice that has grown into a huge business at all the large agencies but one that the WGA is seeking to drag back to the negotiating table.
"WME is so big now, with its tentacles in everything, and behind a lot of the problems that the guild has with packaging," says the showrunner. "That's led to a lot of issues. It's a serious problem when you can only work with the people who happen to be signed at your own agency. You can't trust that your agent is protecting you versus protecting the package. Add to that literally producing a project, and who knows?"

The agencies insist that their affiliated content companies operate independently from the talent arms and with separate business affairs departments. Additionally, "we will not conclude a deal with somebody at WME without outside counsel being involved," says Endeavor Content co-president Graham Taylor. Adds a partner at another agency, "There's independent management that runs those businesses." But at the end of the day, all their paychecks come from one parent company, and that fact is enough for detractors to be opposed.
Some writers don't trust their reps to even make them aware of potential conflicts of interest. One writer with whom THR spoke expressed uncertainty as to whether he'd ever worked on a project that an agency had a stake in. The reps swear to the transparency of the process. "We take it upon ourselves [to disclose financial interest in a production entity]," says the agency partner, "whether there's a technical obligation or not."

Suspicion also remains that agencies give preferential consideration to their affiliated entities. In 2015, Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next became the first film financed by Endeavor, then known as WME-IMG. The distinction was noted on the documentary's title card when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. At the time, the agency downplayed its role, perhaps anticipating a host of questions about a potential conflict of interest, since it also was selling the film rights. The dealmaking was slow and disappointing, according to sources. And last summer, Endeavor bought foreign sales company Bloom and now, rivals complain, funnels features to that company more than other outfits.

"It's a dangerous game if you're not taking it out to the market and laying out the other options," says one top agent at a competitor. "At the end of the day, you're supposed to deliver the best possible deal to your client. If [Endeavor Content] is the best possible deal, then it shouldn't be a problem. Where you're hearing a lot of complaints is they are taking movies off the market without exploring other options."

But self-dealing isn't happening, say the reps. For example, WME client Papandrea's Made Up Stories is partnering with CAA's wiip for the dark comedy Queen America, which Facebook has ordered to series.

"It's more players in the market and more people we can get money from for our clients," says Gersh partner Jay Cohen, who runs film finance and global packaging for the agency. "Would it [be] nice if we had an ownership stake? I guess so, but then this agency has to be able to take the risk to do that." Gersh and other smaller firms like APA lack the scope to become buyers themselves and are OK with focusing on the core representation business, as is the larger ICM Partners, whose content ownership begins and ends with the Just for Laughs comedy festival, which it acquired this year.

Talent representation remains priority No. 1 at CAA and WME as well, reps at those agencies insist. "It would be stupid for us to cross the line with the number of writer clients we have, because the risk to our underlying business is substantial," says the agency partner. "There is zero chance we don't take that seriously."
Agencies say they remain mystified as to why the WGA is beating up on them when talent management firms — an adjacent business — have been free to produce and own content for decades. After all, the guild isn't making an example of Anonymous Content and 3 Arts Entertainment, both of which actively manage talent and produce their clients' shows, and didn't object when Lionsgate bought the latter in May.

"The WGA is trying to put us on the other side when in fact we have always been on their side," says UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer. "They are so busy trying to take us out of the picture that they are losing their most powerful advocates."
When agencies bring money to the table, they have the opportunity to own a portion (or all) of the show — and, claim reps, they are more creator-friendly than the studios. "[Agency productions offer] more transparency and fewer bullshit costs — you're not gonna be paying Les Moonves' $80 million a year," says a senior agency source.
The studios dispute that characterization. "Yes, it's true [agency entities] can be smaller and more nimble and that Amazon, Apple and Netflix, in particular, would rather pitches come through the door without a big studio attached," admits one top studio exec. "But we bring a huge infrastructure and a depth of experience. Wouldn't you rather be at a place where people know what they're doing? I'd challenge any of these companies to demonstrate that they've actually produced a hit. Ownership is not valuable if your show isn't profitable."
Of course, agencies aren't investing in their clients' content out of charity. Packaging fees have declined as studios lowball "imputed license fees" from their sister networks and streamers lock up global rights for long terms. And diversification is necessary for agencies backed by private equity pushing them to go public (Silver Lake Partners and TPG Capital are majority owners of Endeavor and CAA, respectively).

In preparing for an IPO, copyrights or ownership stakes are seen as stronger assets than income streams from clients who could walk out the door at any time. Notes analyst Hal Vogel, "It's not like you're sitting on a gold mine or a diamond mine and it's yours forever and ever. No, [talent] moves around." Hence, the rush to engage in a less transient business.

"I understand why agencies are doing it," says one rep. "An agency is limited. There's no guarantee how many movies Tom Cruise is going to make. He could leave or get hit by a bus, and then you lose that income. The only guarantee of making money is to become a content company and start owning the content your clients are in."
King says that in guild meetings, writers have been passionate in their opposition to the trend, and he believes there is enough leverage on their side to stem the tide. "The client has the power," the showrunner says. "If they feel that their agency has a split agenda and walk out the door, suddenly the agency has to get out of the producing business."
That's exactly the argument that the agencies are making, pointing out that there has yet to be any mass exodus over the issue. "If there's a true conflict of interest and the client is getting a lesser deal, the client is going to leave and end up at a different agency," says Gersh's Cohen.

Some observers question the guild's endgame: Will writers really leave their agents, who procure work, simply at the WGA's command? If not, what is the guild's leverage? Some might point to federal antitrust law, which forced Lew Wasserman's MCA/Universal to divest its talent agency business in the early 1960s, but the law is more permissive today (see the AT&T-TimeWarner deal), and agency content companies aren't as dominant as Wasserman's giant was.
The guild could also seek to restrict the agencies via California's Talent Agencies Act, which prohibits them from referring clients to services from any "corporation in which the talent agency has a direct or indirect financial interest." Should the guild take this approach, however, the agencies will certainly lobby their cause — Endeavor has formed a PAC, and all the major firms regularly interface with politicians.

Ultimately, says an entertainment attorney, "As an industry matter, we should be promoting new entrants, because that generates jobs. I don't understand why the WGA would be so violently against another production company. Are the deals better? If not, they're wasting everyone's time."

The agencies note that no one has yet to come forward with an example of creators being disadvantaged by their in-house production entities — though the practice is still so relatively new that there aren't case studies accounting for years of financial returns to compare.

And the stakes have yet to be determined. Analyst Vogel doubts that even the biggest agencies have enough capital to significantly compete with the legacy studios and streamers: "If Amazon is spending $4 billion, Netflix $8 billion and Apple $3 billion, then a cheap seat is a billion dollars. You have a billion dollars to spare as a talent agency?"
Even so, the agencies believe they offer an important alternative. "The structure of the deals at Netflix had the potential of getting cemented, with less negotiation around backend participations," says the agency partner. "The more competitors in the marketplace, the less likely a particular buyer, no matter its size, can [exert] control."
Several agents suggest that their companies are simply being scapegoated by a beaten-down guild, whose average member is earning less as a result of shrinking episode orders and limited residuals. Having been put on the defensive by previous industry shifts that left writers at a disadvantage — think streaming royalties — the guild may be eager to avoid a similar mistake here. However, given the gargantuan industry forces at play, resisting agency-owned content might prove to be raging against the new norm.

British cinema’s exclusion of the young, skint and state educated is a national shame.
Danny Leigh 

The 1963 arrival of Billy Liar looked like the beginnings of a more democratic, working-class film industry. So why are we still stuck with polite social realism and sniggery classism?
Billy Liar always was a great night out. “A brand new kind of escapist entertainment,” the trailer blared when the film was released in 1963. But the escape it most literally concerned – one in which a northern funeral clerk might jump on a train and make it as a London scriptwriter – wasn’t then so far fetched. Adapted from his own novel by Keith Waterhouse, it arrived in a Britain giddy on the Beatles and grammar school upstarts like Billy. Social mobility brought the film to life. While director John Schlesinger was solidly Hampstead, Waterhouse was a dropout from Osmondthorpe Council School, Leeds, and star Tom Courtenay the son of a Hull dockworker. As the box office boomed, a daydreamer might have conjured up a British film industry filled with working-class actors and writers, maybe even directors and producers, too.

Of course – spoiler warning – Billy never caught the train. The apparent golden age of social mobility would quickly sputter out. And the idea of this class calling the shots in British cinema? Rarely more than fantasy. Now, the mood is darker. In 2018, it can be hard finding working-class talent exerting any influence in the creative space of British film.
Even the actors are vanishing. “We have got a big problem,” Equity president Maureen Beattie said recently of the lack of opportunities for working-class performers. Actors including Maxine Peake and Lesley Manville appeared at the BFI this spring to publicly highlight the crisis. Drama has been cut from the classroom, young actors priced out of training, a glum contest among those who remain for dwindling roles as gang members and sex workers.

But actors are just part of an ecosystem. They can only play roles created by writers for films made by directors. And the story of working- class screenwriters is another with a glorious future behind it – the postwar era that produced Waterhouse also witnessed the black precision of Harold Pinter and the singular vision of Shelagh Delaney, writer of A Taste of Honey, finder of wonder in back streets and bedsits. It’s worth pausing just to consider how unlikely it would now be for a major British film to be written by a young woman from Salford with no university education.

Class in 2018 is hard to define but harder to address. Even discussing the most straightforward socioeconomic measure – how closely an industry reflects the national baseline of 7% of the population attending private school – causes fluttering unease. Still, the scale of the problem can be glimpsed in the origins of five current directors who have scaled British cinema to win regular big-budget studio projects: Matthew Vaughn, Guy Ritchie, Tom Hooper, Sam Mendes and Christopher Nolan. All were privately educated. Parity in terms of class – let alone representation of women and people of colour – would require there were 66 other directors of a similar standing who went to state schools.

Feel free to start counting. Of course, British directors from working-class backgrounds make high profile films. Just not many – and these success stories tend to come with caveats. Danny Boyle made his first feature, Shallow Grave, nearly 25 years ago. Steve McQueen will open the London film festival in October with his much-anticipated thriller Widows, but his route from the London suburb of Hanwell to the red carpet came via the art world, which, like theatre, is more meritocratic than British film. And then there is Lynne Ramsay. For a director in a landscape of limited chances, the reward can be whispering campaigns. Ramsay, whose mother was a cleaner in Glasgow, acquired a reputation as difficult and volatile and all the other codewords used for working-class women who have an opinion. Her last film, the astonishing crime drama You Were Never Really Here, was wildly praised. It was also only her fourth feature film in nearly two decades.

Move through the ranks of the business – past the actors, writers and directors – and eventually you reach the producers, development executives, the heads of production companies and funding bodies. Here at last are the decision-makers who shape everything British you see on a cinema screen. Socio-economically, it is a group drawn from the same pool as so many of our MPs, lawyers and journalists.

It was ever thus and the 1960s didn’t change it. Legally, class is not a “protected characteristic” in the labour market – but then film is mostly lawless anyway, filled with opaque hiring practices and internships for those whose bills are paid by other means. From script readers up, the result has been a highly specialised gatekeeper class taking charge of endless safety-first development streams. Presented with working-class experiences, its members might just as well be listening to Finnish. The issue is not only people having a fair shot at the top jobs in British film; also at stake are the films that never get made.

A defining feature of the 60s working-class moment was youth – Delaney co-wrote the screenplay for A Taste of Honey at 22. The tradition endured: Ramsay was 29 when she made her first feature Ratcatcher, Shane Meadows 23 at the time of his, Small Time. Now, the industry’s risk aversion would slow any young film-maker – but the particular discomfort with these kinds of voices means an extra long spell in limbo. Director Deborah Haywood was 47 before she made her debut feature, this summer’s brilliantly off-kilter portrait of smalltown England, Pin Cushion. Colin O’Toole, winner of the 2018 Bafta for best British short with the tightly wound Cowboy Dave, is already 40 with a string of other shorts behind him. Meadows, by the way, effectively left British film in favour of TV 10 years ago.

While it felt reasonable to hope that iPhones and YouTube – or at least cheap cameras and Vimeo – would provide cinema with a new generation of ordinary hotshots, the reality has been patchy. Gifted young directors have appeared online, many either working class or dealing with working-class life – Cecile Emeke, Aaron Dunleavy, Kibwe Tavares, Emma Gilbertson. But a well signposted bridge has yet to open between online creativity (nimble, democratic) and British cinema (nervous, arthritic).

In 2018, class definitions are works in progress, old touchstones such as university degrees less meaningful, race and gender recognised as central. But to get lower-class characters on to a big screen, the safest bet remains being Ken Loach. Thank God for him – few directors have his heft, or could have made a film as vital as I, Daniel Blake. Things only get tricky when the industry sees Loach as a ticked box, apparently believing working-class people exist in a state of gritty social realism the way children think Victorians lived in black and white.
Loach has always been more subtle than that. But what are missing are emotionally complex films about people who just happen to work in call centres – one exception that proves the rule is Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming, about a working-class black family touched by metaphysics. Most working-class people are neither thugs nor saints but as mixed-up as the average executive – and the best films hold two thoughts at once. Billy Liar was an absurdist frolic with a brutal punchline; Ramsay’s eponymous Morvern Callar a blank young raver from a Scottish supermarket who became the heart of a shimmering Spanish road movie.

But it is hard to contain multitudes when working-class lives are treated as a niche. It also defies demographics. With class, the situation has never been one in which a small group of people have been shut out of British film; rather, a small group of people have shut themselves inside it. The consequences ripple through everything from the sniggery classism of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman movies to the British Board of Film Classification awarding a 15 certificate to the recent documentary A Northern Soul (too many “fucks” in the wrong accent) to the very cinemas in which prestige British films typically play, the expanding boutique chains Everyman, Picturehouse and Curzon.
Economically, short-term salvation lies in the middle-class pound that extends to wine and gourmet popcorn. But the exclusion of the young, skint and state educated from a mass market art form is a shame – and flatly suicidal in the age of Netflix. If the problem is vast, a mirror of the whole British class system, it is also deceptively simple. People like to see people like themselves on screen and be able to afford a ticket. The prize for the solution could be just as huge – a plausible future for a British industry now clinking glasses as the iceberg looms.

The Perennial Industry Class Debate

This is such a thorny subject in the media business and always gets paid lip service and very little else I thought maybe I should stumble in with my hobnail boots.
My bug bear is not so much that the industry is almost exclusively higher educated types from wealthy backgrounds but that they make the same stories over and over again. Another movie about the Enigma Project anyone? Even when projects do emerge about working class life it is either patronising, poverty porn rubbish about triumphing over adversity or dodgy geezers or gals doing blags or hustling with a cheeky smile and several notches on the bedpost. 

Of course when you check the credits they are mostly made by the very same people from very comfortable backgrounds that have been off with a tourist visa to the bad lands of Britain. Of course only to check it out temporarily and shine a light on some shocking behaviour (as they see it) that needs healing or at the very least reported upon as if it was a lost tribe in the deep undiscovered Amazon jungle. I accept this is all done with the very best of intentions but always sadly, miles from hitting the nail on the head in any meaningful way. In fact one could argue it is not a long way from the vile Victorian pastime of poking the unfortunate in the poorhouse with a long hard stick. We are forced to watch through our fingers as the fabulous, highly trained actors struggle to emulate the body language of the underclass which is something you either have or you don’t and deliver the often clunky dialogue in a desperate effort to emote and move us to tears. 

We have such a wealth of amazing stories and wonderful attitudes on this side of the pond which is why we led the world for so long in music and youth culture. There was a time in the post war period where we made hugely successful films for a mass audience before the cinemas became part of some shiny suited wide boy’s property portfolio. It seems that when it comes to films and drama the higher classes are the ones in touch with their soulful sides and have colonised this area as if it was a branch of serious theatre. Time for those from the wrong side of the tracks to flex their gym toned muscles. Can't all be footballers, reality stars or karaoke singers. Now we all have smart phones, any idiot can point a camera! To be continued....