British Film Institute Gets Serious in Promoting Cultural Diversity

Long before the lack of minority nominees for this year’s Oscars led to a controversy that motivated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to examine ways it can improve diversity among its membership, the U.K. film business was working on a strategy to improve cultural representation in its ranks.

In October, the British Film Institute finalized plans for the model — called the BFI Diversity Standards, a policy in the works for more than a year — across all of its funds. It also launched a £1 million ($1.4 million) Diversity Fund to be rolled out across development, production and distribution. Other U.K. funders, including Creative Skillset, Creative England, Creative Scotland, Film Cymru Wales, Film London, Into Film and Northern Ireland Screen, have adopted the BFI model.

“It felt to me we should harness the power of being a public funder,” says BFI Film Fund topper Ben Roberts. “We already have loads of guidelines that we ask people to follow, so why not embed some additional expectations that would, over long term, become the norm?”

A catalyst for the new standards was the most recent census report from the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, from data gathered in 2011, according to which Blighty is 13% black, Asian and minority ethnic, a figure expected to rise to 20% by 2030. Further, according to the latest employment census by U.K. industry org Creative Skillset in 2012, just 5.3% of the film production workforce, 3.4% for film distribution and 4.5% for exhibition were from those minority groups.

“When people stop seeing this as a limitation and more as a commercial and creative opportunity, things will shift fundamentally.” “
BFI’s Ben Roberts

There was a lingering frustration among those at BFI about the disproportionate numbers, says Roberts, who joined the org in 2012. “There had been schemes that had come and gone, but they clearly weren’t having lasting impact.”

In September 2014, the BFI implemented requirements to ensure that productions supported by the U.K. lottery through the BFI Film Fund — the nation’s largest, which supports some 30 pics a year, investing more than £27 million ($39 million) annually in development, production, international sales and
distribution — reflected the country’s diversity. Dubbed the “Three Ticks” policy, the assessment required applicants to demonstrate commitment to diversity across hiring, story and characters, satisfying at least two areas for a project to be eligible for BFI money. The org hired former Arts Council England diversity staffer Deborah Williams to the new role of BFI diversity manager to help steer the initiative forward.

Projects that have already received BFI coin from the scheme include Gurinder Chadha’s Brit-Indian historical drama “Viceroy’s House,” Amma Asante’s biracial love story “A United Kingdom” and Colm McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic horror-thriller “She Who Brings Gifts.”

Other BFI endeavors, such as the London Film Festival, under director Clare Stewart; and BFI Flare, London’s LGBT festival, also encourage diversity. “Diversity isn’t just about race,” says “Bend It Like Beckham” helmer Chadha. “It’s about gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class, but it’s ultimately about audiences wanting to see themselves represented on screen.”

Chadha says diversity initiatives seem to have more traction in Blighty because of the industry’s reliance on public funding. “In Britain, we have these debates more openly, because the nature of the British independent film world means we have to rely heavily on international markets and our broadcasting systems in order for us to survive,” she says.

And while BBC Films (which is co-funding “Viceroy’s House”) and Film 4 — the U.K.’s other two major public funding bodies — do not have specific diversity guidelines, they publicly support the kind of approach led by the BFI.

David Oyelowo plays a Botswana prince who marries an Englishwoman, portrayed by Rosamund Pike, in “A United Kingdom.”

Nevertheless, many see progress coming only slowly, if at all, particularly in TV.

“It’s still hard to get narratives for black people (made), outside of the typical gangster and distressed stories, and we still don’t have a black TV show in the U.K. like ‘Empire’ or even ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,’ ” says Akua Gyamfi, founder of the British Blacklist, an online portal that chronicles the careers of British black talent. “While the U.K. seems to be doing a lot more in pushing the agenda forward, we still have a long way to go,” she adds.

Roberts is quick to note that the conversation should not be just about moral and social responsibilities but also about recognizing the commercial value in accessing a broader audience.

“When people stop seeing this as a limitation and more as a commercial and creative opportunity, things will shift fundamentally,” he says. “It’s about looking at the positive qualities of variety across all backgrounds.”

Gyamfi cautions that only action will address the issue: “Change only comes when people stop talking and start acting. Everyone from the creative industries knows that when you truly have a burning desire to do something, you will do it. Just talking about it reflects resistance.”

More Film

  • Durban FilmMart Taps Funds for African

    Durban FilmMart Taps Funds for African Filmmakers

    Long before the lack of minority nominees for this year’s Oscars led to a controversy that motivated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to examine ways it can improve diversity among its membership, the U.K. film business was working on a strategy to improve cultural representation in its ranks. In October, the British […]

  • The Greatest Showman on Earth

    Hollywood Enjoys Rare Dominance of Japan Box Office in First Half Year

    Long before the lack of minority nominees for this year’s Oscars led to a controversy that motivated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to examine ways it can improve diversity among its membership, the U.K. film business was working on a strategy to improve cultural representation in its ranks. In October, the British […]

  • Russell Brand and Paula Patton

    Russell Brand, Paula Patton Join ‘Four Kids and It’ Cast

    Long before the lack of minority nominees for this year’s Oscars led to a controversy that motivated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to examine ways it can improve diversity among its membership, the U.K. film business was working on a strategy to improve cultural representation in its ranks. In October, the British […]

  • Curse of La Llorana

    Film News Roundup: Horror Movie Re-Titled 'The Curse of La Llorona' for Spring Release

    Long before the lack of minority nominees for this year’s Oscars led to a controversy that motivated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to examine ways it can improve diversity among its membership, the U.K. film business was working on a strategy to improve cultural representation in its ranks. In October, the British […]

  • Brad Pitt Leonardo Dicaprio

    Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio Turned Down 'Brokeback Mountain,' Says Gus Van Sant

    Long before the lack of minority nominees for this year’s Oscars led to a controversy that motivated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to examine ways it can improve diversity among its membership, the U.K. film business was working on a strategy to improve cultural representation in its ranks. In October, the British […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content