Amid buoyant demand for experienced crew, industry attention is now focused on the pressing need to train more craft talent to help expand the production workforce.
At the start of 2022, one of most pressing challenges for many shows is simply finding well-trained and experienced crews.
This applies to film and drama production right through to multi-camera entertainment series.
In the UK, high-end TV production alone hit a record £3.44 billion in the 2021 according to BFI figures, driven by shoots such as Netflix’s The Crown, Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air, and HBO’s House of the Dragon. Including film, the figure is £5.64 billion.
Against this background, it’s little wonder that training has shot up the agenda in the scripted space. Industry execs say the issue is two-fold: firstly, they need to bring more people into the industry and train them up to widen the available pool of talent; and secondly, they need to tackle specific skills shortages by offering training for certain grades.
The issue is pressing for an industry that has long relied on a freelance workforce, but that has not always prioritised training.
Now, however, as the spend and scale of film and high-end TV (HETV) productions have risen, so too have expectations. With so much money at stake, productions are looking for the very best and most experienced people to take on key roles – but such is the demand for talent, they often cannot find them.
“We simply need the sector to be bigger. We need more people from more and different backgrounds,” Helen Mattioli, BBC Drama
For multi-camera productions, the issue is slightly different. Many say the current studio workforce – from camera operators through to sound supervisors and vision mixers – received a solid education from the BBC at a time when it was a major provider of training for in-house talent. But this experienced workforce is ageing and preparing to leave what is now a predominantly freelance industry, and there are not enough formal broadcaster training programmes or new trainees coming into the industry to replace them.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the problem. The need to keep crews safe and socially distanced on set has reduced work experience and trainee opportunities. Others have simply quit the industry. According to training organisation ScreenSkills, 16% of the screen industry workforce moved to different sectors, outside of screen during the production shutdowns of 2020.
The ScreenSkills Assessment 2021, which gives a snapshot of skills issues affecting the UK screen industries, reports ongoing shortages in production management roles – from accounts through to locations crew. It also cites a shortage of editors and edit assistants.
ScreenSkills also identifies a challenge in games, VFX and animation (2D and 3D), with each sector competing for talent amid high demand for content. The hot area of virtual production is cited as a particular area of concern.
“Crewing up has been difficult,” confirms Jo Evans, Head of Production at Buccaneer Media, which is currently in production with Whitstable Pearl 2 for Acorn TV and recently shot revenge thriller Crime for BritBox.
She says finding people available for entire shoot periods has been challenging, and that Buccaneer has brought over people from adjacent industries – such as live events production – to work on its high-end TV shows.
In the past, production crew who were new to their jobs would have had the opportunity to gradually learn their respective roles from experienced people around them, building knowledge and confidence from production to production with breaks in between. Now there is little opportunity for this, says Evans. Often whole departments are staffed by people who have been promoted at the same time who are all themselves learning on the job so there is little opportunity for them to nurture those in the roles below.
It’s a situation that Post Production Supervisor Kiri Degon recognises. She says that before 2021 she would have worked on one or two productions a year. But during 2021 she worked on an unprecedented six productions, including Channel 4’s We Are Lady Parts and BBC One’s The Cleaner. “It’s incredible because as a freelancer you want a lot of work. But there is a lot of pressure to perform and step up really quickly.”
2022 is likely to be busy too, amid continuing investment in content by the streamers. In the UK next year, the second season of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings is set to shoot; the first series alone had a budget of $465 million.
Filling the gap
Steps are being taken to address scripted skills gaps and shortages, most notably through industry organisation ScreenSkills, which administers the High-end TV Skills Fund and the Film Skills Fund.
The HETV fund has invested more than £25 million in training since it was created in 2013, with the money raised from high-end productions. The Film fund, meanwhile, has invested more than £15 million since 1999.
Each film or HETV accessing UK tax reliefs pays 0.5% of its production budget spent in the UK into the respective Skills Funds, with contributions capped at £61,000 for productions with budgets up to £5 million per broadcast hour and for those with budgets above this the cap is £100,000.
“At some point there is going to be a big shortage. We need to do our bit to try to make our businesses and the industry more sustainable,” Andy Waters, Dock10 Studios
Kaye Elliott, director of high-end TV at ScreenSkills, says 220 productions paid into the HETV fund in 2021, allowing them to access training and skills development across the UK. That’s more than double the 104 productions that paid in 2020 and compares to 111 in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
She points out that there are many advantages stemming from the boom. In particular, the challenges that productions face in crewing up represent a great opportunity for people to sustain and progress their career in the TV and film industry.
She also notes that plenty of production is now taking place across the UK, whereas historically most was based in London and the South East. “That’s fantastic news in terms of the opportunity for people to get into the industry and develop their careers locally, rather than feel they have to move,” she says.
Elliott adds that ScreenSkills has focused most of its training investment on mid-level career support to help people gain skills and keep moving forward in their careers in high-end TV production.
Key programmes include ScreenSkills’ Make a Move, which provides productions with funding to subsidise the cost of employing and training individuals into higher grades. The idea is that at the end of the training the individual will be already in or able to apply for their next job at the next grade up.
Examples of potential ‘step ups’ could be a location assistant moving up to a unit manager, clapper loader to focus puller, or production secretary to production co-ordinator. The scheme covers all departments on a production, and High-end TV Skills Fund-contributing productions can apply for up to £15,000 per production.
ScreenSkills also runs the new Leaders of Tomorrow programme, which is focused on providing support to mid-level professionals working in HETV. The aim is to give them the tools to progress to a senior decision-making role in the future. It currently has a cohort of 19 professionals taking part.
Post Supervisor Kiri Degon is one of the participants. She says the training infrastructure provided by Leaders of Tomorrow has helped her embrace roles that she might not have considered so early in her career, allowing her to progress faster in the industry. As part of the programme, she is given access to a mentor, a pool of professionals to ask for advice, and bespoke training and courses. “I want to do my job really well, so training is important,” says Degon.
Helen Mattioli, Senior Business Partner at BBC Drama Commissioning, says that the corporation has increasingly started to focus on outreach and attracting entry-level talent in the nations and regions. “We simply need the sector to be bigger. We need more people from more and different backgrounds.”
BBC Drama is also backing the Leaders of Tomorrow programme. “As an industry, there is not very much that we offer in terms of long-term development. I don’t think there are any real shortcuts to this kind of development. It needs to be over a long period of time,” she adds.
United in approach
Mattioli says that no single organisation can solve the acute need for more skills in the industry, and that it is important for them to work in partnership with the likes of ScreenSkills, development agencies, production companies and streamers to make the industry a better and more inclusive place to work.
This is a point also echoed by those in multi-camera production. Many broadcast studio bosses say that the industry needs to work together to help build a new generation of craft talent, and to provide training for them.
“A lot of the current crews are the same people who have been working together for 20 years,” says Andy Waters, Head of Studios at Salford facility dock10, which is home to shows such as The Voice and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? “At some point there is going to be a big shortage. We need to do our bit to try to make our businesses and the industry more sustainable.”
Dock10 studios has started to run its own paid apprenticeships to train new talent. It partners up four craft trainees every 18 months with supervisors in specialisms such as sound or cameras so that they can learn on the job and, crucially, build working relationships with directors, studio managers and supervisors.
“It’s only a small thing,” acknowledges Waters, “but we are starting to expand the programme. We’d love for other people to get on board with this idea – we are hoping it may become a model for others if it’s appropriate for them.”
Inclusive access to training is a key priority too, say industry execs. “Inclusion needs to be absolutely baked into everything you do,” says Elliott, adding that ScreenSkills works hard to ensure that its training is open and accessible to everybody. She cites the social mobility initiative First Break, which introduces people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds to the drama production process.
“This is an industry where you do not need to go to university to have a fantastic career. You need really great skills, and you need to work really, really hard and to have great commitment.”