The Locarno Film Festival’s annual StepIN think tank dedicated to pressing issues faced by the independent film community saw a select group of mostly European industry executives thrash out some of the root causes that can make the film industry a toxic environment to work in and discuss ideas for positive practices that can hopefully prompt some change.

“The film industry is a particularly demanding environment, obsessed with success and dominated by external and internal pressures, dynamics of power, constant risk and financial instability,” said StepIn project manager Marcello Paolillo in his welcome speech.

“Inevitably, all of these elements have an impact on the mental health of its workers — which, paradoxically, also  risks compromising their performance, and blocking their creativity, in an industry that thrives on it,” he noted.

Both Paolillo and introductory speaker Diego Hangartner, who is coach and founding director of the Zurich-based Institute of Mental Balance and Universal Ethics, cited an alarming survey commissioned by the U.K. Film and TV Charity, released in February 2020, just before global lockdown. It found British film industry professionals to be twice as likely to experience anxiety compared with the national average. More significantly, the survey said that that over half of them have considered taking their own life, and one in 10 have attempted to do so. More such studies conducted in other countries would help boost awareness about what was agreed is likely to be an analogous level of toxicity in the film and TV industries in other countries.

Hangartner got the ball rolling by focussing on change from within. He provided a scientific understanding of how the brain works and in particular how it reacts to aggression. “What usually happens is that when you are being triggered to be in fear mode, then a lot of areas in your brain and in your mind freeze up and become no longer accessible,” he said.

A discussion with three keynote speakers, led by U.S. producer Gale Anne Hurd — who has shattered gender barriers in the U.S. industry while shepherding some of the most iconic genre works in film and TV history, including “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” and “The Walking Dead” — then examined some of the biggest challenges to changing the culture behind frequent abuse in an industry that attracts a lot of narcissists and widespread abuse.

Allison Hironaka, who is an L.A.-based agent in CAA’s Media Finance Department, talked about some meaningful change happening in contracts and negotiations in terms of both parity in pay and protection against unhealthy work conditions. And Berlin-based psychologist and mental health consultant Katherine Dennis Gonzalez, an expert on solution-focused therapies pointed out that in some parts of Europe, such as the Nordics, there is an increasing correlation between companies being socially and financially sustainable.

Here are some takeaways:

The COVID Crisis is an Opportunity for Change

“We surely do not want to go back to the old normal. We need a fresh start,” said producer Laurence Lascary, who is co-president of France’s Le Collectif 50/50 while presenting a summary of what was discussed. “We are looking for a systemic change and we are all accountable for it.” 

It’s Fear of Retribution That Makes the Film Industry Toxic

It was fear of retribution that allowed Harvey Weinstein to get away with his sexual assaults and kept a lid for so long on disclosure of Scott Rudin’s abusive behavior towards his staff, said Gale Anne Hurd who in April contacted the Producers Guild of America and urged them to take a stand on Rudin. “In the U.S. industry there is an extremely toxic work environment and verbal abuse is not illegal,” she noted, adding that “the laws need to change.” Hurd also pointed out that in the U.S. a lot of times people don’t know what kind of behavior on the workplace is legal based on the local jurisdiction. She gave a concrete example of a measure to make for a healthier workplace that she has put in place on the “Walking Dead” sets where there is an anonymous hotline to report sexual harassment. And also mentioned on-set intimacy coordinators and transgender consultants as steps forward.

Unions Are Important

Allison Gardner, CEO of Glasgow Film, said discussions during the closed-door round table that followed the keynotes about toxic film industry workplace situations involved “pay uncertainty; gender inequalities for huge sectors of our communities; ageism” and “support for our free-lancers” and noted that “strong unions can gain that support.” Hironaka pointed out that within contracts that CAA is stipulating these days “there’s more expectation for a safe workplace, not just for talent, but for everyone involved in production.”

“The hope is that the unions on the side of the production and crew can help that,” Hironaka added. “And the agents on the part of talent can help protect them, but obviously they have the help of the unions as well.” Meanwhile in the U.S. “there is very meaningful change happening in contracts and negotiations in terms of both parity in pay —expectations in terms of what the top-line business terms of the contract look like — as well as [workplace] protections.”

New Role Models

“Bridgerton” producer Shonda Rhimes and director/producer Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), who supports the work of people of color and women through her non-profit film collective Array, are the new role models. But the industry “should also keep in mind that below the line crew members can be role models as well,” said Lascary.

Streamers Can Help Move the Needle When it Comes to Diversity in Storytelling

“One of the most important things that I am excited to be a part of and that I think we should all push forward is this incredible new type of project that is coming out,” said Hironaka referring to projects from streaming services and studios that “have led the way to show that [having] more diverse actors –– and having a wider group of representation on all sides of the production –– has led to providing entertainment that speaks to a particular audience but also speaks to a wider audience.”

“When you look at ‘Lupin,’ which has been so successful and Omar Sy –– incredibly successful in France and now known globally –– does that open the door for the next person?,” she asked.

“The streamers have been doing incredible work in local territories, picking up films and TV shows representing underrepresented communities –– from a really local piece to something that’s global,” she noted. “I hope that we can use that as a part of the independent film model, so it’s not entirely with a few global streamers, but that we can actually expand that proven interest out into the larger film ecosystem.”

Industry participants at StepIn’s ninth edition included Susan Wendt, who is TrustNordisk managing director; Carlo Chatrian, current Berlin Film Festival artistic director and formerly Locarno chief; European Film Market director Dennis Ruh; Jing Xu, festival manager of Chinese sales, distribution and production firm Rediance; Susan Newman-Baudais, who heads Eurimages’ co-production program; Fatima Djoumer, Europa Cinema head of international relations; and Mathieu Fournet CNC director of European and international affairs.