Dreaming of a job in the film industry but clueless about how to crack it? ScreenSkills is the friend you might not know you had.
To those outside of it, the film industry can appear shrouded in mystery. Gazing wide-eyed at the big screen, film fans may feel bemused as they watch the credits run down a list of cryptic roles like ‘gaffer’, ‘wrangler’ and ‘best boy’. Even those more recognisable job titles like director or producer are liable to have raised the eyebrows of school careers advisors across generations, provoking well-meaning advice to ‘be a bit more realistic’.
As for the way they all come together to create what we see on screen, it can feel as unfathomable as that strange magic that fills the auditoriums of our best cinema experiences. Without connections to put you in the know or the means to move to where it all appears to be happening, breaking into the industry can seem nigh-on impossible.
This is where ScreenSkills come in. An organisation working with the industry itself, it provides education, training and funding to new entrants into film and TV.
“We know that one of the issues in the past was that people got jobs because of who they knew,” Screen Skills’ Nicky Ball (high-end TV senior new entrant manager) told me, “and it’s really important to try and open up the industry to anybody with talent and application who wants to work in it.”
The First Break initiative, headed up by Nicky, is one of the tools in ScreenSkills’ armoury. Aiming to demystify routes into filmmaking, the programme provides new trainees with information about the different roles, and offers work experience placements on big productions.
Based outside of London, the scheme emphasises engaging diverse new talent all over Britain.
“The myth that you have to go to London to get a job in TV – that’s definitely not the case,” Nicky insists.
“If you live in Leeds, or you live in Manchester, there are opportunities on your doorstep, but you don’t often know about them. And,” she says with a twang that warms my northern soul, “how the heck d’you ever get them?”
First Break ran open-door introductory sessions in 2019 to address these questions. “We held one in Salford, and one in Leeds in the ITV studios – it was in the canteen,” says Nicky with welcome simplicity. It was all about lifting the veil on what’s out there; “what are the job grades? What could you do? What does the word ‘grip’ mean?! It was really, really open.”
Successful First-Breakers don’t need to walk in with a game plan, just the enthusiasm and desire to apply themselves to the opportunities they discover. Following this introduction and a one-day bootcamp, 20 applicants secured four-week placements on set of two of Britain’s most recognisable TV dramas, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. A second round leading to placements on Noel Clarke’s upcoming drama Viewpoint is currently under way, with plans for more in the pipeline.
Crucially, these placements, like all others offered across ScreenSkills’ programmes, are paid.
“It’s really important that those are paid opportunities,” says Nicky, “because one of the biggest problems is that if you’ve got to do it for free, that automatically rules people out.”
Working without wages for months under the banner of ‘gaining experience’ before being able to land a job is not an option for many – and thankfully, ScreenSkills is part of what looks to be a cultural shift in this area.
Nicky is confident that regarding the mutual benefits of accessibility in the industry, the penny has finally dropped: “I think there’s a general desire from the industry now to do the right thing. People are thinking more about telling the stories of a greater diversity of people in every possible way. If you’re only employing certain kinds of people, you might be missing certain stories – and that’s both wrong and commercially not sensible.”
The demand for diverse stories on screen is finally being felt by the industry, and in order to deliver these authentically the scenes behind the camera have to match those in front of it.
Unlike many access programmes that are limited to young people or non-graduates, ScreenSkills understands that it’s not just those in their teens and 20s looking for their First Break.
“We have quite a lot of career-changers – who are up to their mid-50s,” says Nicky. Useful skills can be found in a huge range of fields; candidates have career backgrounds from laboratory research and graphic design to accounting and military service. So think again before you count yourself out.
The impact of COVID has brought re-skilling to the fore as thousands of jobs continue to disappear, but Nicky reassures me that the film and TV industry is recovering well. “The demand for trainees is really high, I’m not getting any pushback from anybody saying ‘I can’t take anybody because of COVID’. I’ve got more and more people wanting more talent and more diverse talent.”
With around 85% of production thwarted by the virus now back under way, ScreenSkills is even helping those made unemployed by the pandemic to find a new vocation in film and TV.
“We’ve just been running a programme working with people who are losing their jobs at Heathrow because of the collapse in the airline industry,” Nicky tells me, citing one participant who switched to a role at Pinewood Studios. “If you imagine the kind of timetabling to stick to a schedule in an airport, that’s not dissimilar to a big television drama or big film.”
“This is a growth industry,” Nicky asserts. “What did everybody do during lockdown? They watched films, they watched TV. There’s a massive demand for content.”
Film has become a bigger part of life than ever before for many, and thanks to the work of ScreenSkills, the industry’s makeup is becoming more reflective of those many lives.
Find out more at: www.screenskills.com
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