Studying race in the UK film industry

Race of producers FB image 400In the past, I have conducted quite a bit of research into gender inequality in the UK film industry. I often receive questions asking when I’m going to tackle race to the same degree I have researched gender.

My answer has always been two-fold:  yes, I’d absolutely love to but sadly I don’t have a way to perform the classification. Race is a more complex issue than gender and is hard to measure from the outside.  And because of this, race has gone largely ignored while gender gets ever better analysis and research.

However, I think I have now found a reliable method and am ready to start addressing questions around race in UK film.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that it’s going to take more resources than my gender studies.  Most of my gender research has been for this blog so didn’t need any outside funding or support and the biggest piece I performed on gender (the 150-page Cut Out of the Picture report) was supported by Directors UK.

In order to perform the same analysis on race in UK film, I’m going to need more support.  Before I expand on that, let me first tell you a little more about my new method and give you some findings we’ve already uncovered.

The Webber-Phillips model for measuring ethnic origin

The new method comes courtesy of Professor Richard Webberwebber_philips and Trevor Phillips.

  • Professor Richard Webber is the originator of the postcode classification systems Acorn and Mosaic and is a former Director of Experian.  He is a visiting professor at Newcastle University and a fellow of the Market Research Society and the Institute of Direct Marketing.
  • Trevor Phillips OBE is a writer and broadcaster. He is the former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the London Assembly. He is currently the President of the Partnership Council of the John Lewis Partnership, and the Deputy Chair of the Board of the National Equality Standard.

Together, they have built up the Webber-Phillips system which uses name data to classify people according to the part of the world that their forebears are most likely to have originated from. Each person is placed into one of 200 different ‘Origin’ types on the basis of their personal and family names.

The raw data comes from two datasets; one containing the personal and family names of 527 million adults from around the world and another with personal and family name frequencies covering another 529 million adults. In total, they have data on over a billion people across 18 countries.  They have used this to build up origin data on over four million family names from the UK. They describe their system like this:

Using a file of some four million family names and some 800,000 personal names built up during a ten year research programme, it has proved possible to associate each of the 130,000 names on the [UK film] database with one of some two hundred different “Origin” categories, each of which represents a distinguishable ethnic, linguistic or religious grouping. Thus Hindu Indians, Sikhs, Tamils and Pakistani Muslims are each recognisable as a cultural group and each has a portfolio of names which distinguish its members from each other and of course from native Britons.

Applying their origins research to study race in the UK film industry

I have been working with Trevor and Richard to apply their system to my database of the UK film industry.

My database tracks 3,400 films made in the UK since 2003, and includes over 497,043 crew credits and 101,219 cast credits.  Together, we’re able to get a sense of the ethnic diversity of the UK film industry.  A preliminary look has revealed that the Webber-Phillips system can reliably ascertain the origin of over 95% of people who have worked on a British film in the past thirteen years.

So what have we found?

We started with a list of every writer, director, producer and cast member of a British film made between 2003 and 2015.

Across all of these names, we found that the film industry as a whole is much more diverse than the UK population.  85% of the UK population is classified as “White British”, compared with 63% of people in key film roles (i.e. writers, producers, directors and actors).

Origin and race in the UK film industry

However, this diversity is far from uniform.  As Professor Richard Webber puts it:

The roles these different groups fulfil are very different. If a person had a black Caribbean name or one typical of American Blacks, then there was hardly any chance at all that that person would be anything other than a member of the cast.

By contrast the role of producer is particularly associated with people with Jewish or Armenian names. For example 40% of the Jewish names on the database were producers but fewer than 5% of the Nigerian names.

It seems that there are certain cultures which foster creativity as a writer and that these are issues relating to culture rather than integration or prosperity. For example, people whose names are associated with any of the South Asian groups are particularly likely to be writers.

A look at the origin of producers of UK films

To illustrate the level of detail that’s possible, we looked specifically at the role of producer.  We studied the origin of all producers’ credits on British films shot between 2003 and 2015.  This amounted to 21,465 credits, shared between 11,812 different people (i.e. each producer received an average of 1.8 credits).  All ‘flavours’ of producer are included, including producer, executive producer, co-producer, associate producer and others.

The chart below shows the percentage of UK producer credits for people of the listed origin, compared against the general UK population. I have only included origins with at least 100 producer credits.

Origin race of UK producers

Origins which appear to be disproportionately under-represented (compared to UK population) are:

  • Pakistan
  • White British (i.e. England, Wales, Scotland and the Irish Republic)
  • Poland
  • India : Hindi
  • Muslim (Other)

Origins which are more frequently found among UK producing credits than in the UK population as a whole are:

  • Australia
  • Israeli And Jewish
  • Sweden
  • French Canadian
  • Germany

What’s next?

There is so much more work to be done on this topic.  Even looking just at the producer credits, we need to further investigate the people involved (not just the credits), subdivide by type of producer credit, scale of film and many other factors. In my recent gender report, we found that these sub-divisions were essential to understanding how the industry is operating. For example, as budgets increase, fewer women are given the chance to direct (16% of films under £150k are directed by women, whereas just 3% of films budgeted over £30m).

And we would like to look at much more than just producers.  By using Trevor and Richard’s system, in collaboration with my database of UK films, we’ll be able to measure every job role within the industry.

So why don’t we?  Well, the research above has been achieved without any kind of funding or support but in order to be able to study the industry as we feel is necessary, we’re going to need the backing of some people and organisations.

So, if you feel you or your organisation can contribute, then please get in touch.

At this stage, I don’t know if we are going to find one body who can support us or if we need to build a coalition of people and bodies. And, quite frankly, I don’t mind.  I am only focused on being able to do this research and shine a light on race within the UK film industry

Epilogue

It’s worth asking ourselves why the ethnic origin of film industry personnel matters. For me, it comes down to three reasons:

  1. Who are we? We as an industry should be able to get a clear picture of who we are and then we can all pitch in our thoughts as to whether we are satisfied with our current practices.  Within my gender research, we discovered a stark difference between perception and reality, in that most industry professionals had no idea just how pro-male / anti-female the industry’s processes were.
  2. Identify unfair practices. By studying cast and crew we are able to identify unfair and discriminatory practices within the way the industry functions.  It’s my opinion that we don’t need to be working towards some kind of Platonic ‘perfect mix’, but rather that everyone entering the industry should have equality of access.
  3. Films matter.  Culture can be defined as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  Therefore, if part of the ‘British culture’ is reflected through UK cinema then we need to ensure we have diverse creatives telling their stories.

Outside of this epilogue, I have avoided making value judgements on today’s findings for a couple of reasons. Firstly, my opinion is the least important part of this project.  My main interest is in measuring and explaining, rather than decrying or campaigning.

Secondly, we are a long way away from having enough data to start talking about ‘problems’ or ‘solutions’.  We need a much clearer picture of what’s really going on before we start to look at what should change. For example, there are a number of factors that could explain today’s findings.  These include the concentration of film workers in London (which is far more diverse than the UK generally), the choices made by people of different backgrounds (children of first generation immigrants could find that family pressures make it harder for them to pursue a career in the arts) or any number of other factors.

On a final note, I would remind everyone that we need a mature, adult debate about this topic. Our focus should be on methodology first, then data and analysis and then finally debate on what should or shouldn’t happen. It’s easy to spin most of these data points to seemingly validate one opinion or another.  For example, it’s both true that 40% of the people with names of Jewish origin (within writers, producers, directors and actors) are producers, but it’s also true that only 2.8% of producers have names of Jewish origin.  One sounds high and one sounds low.  Both are true and either could be used to further an already-formed entrenched opinion.

The wider truth here is that we need to build up a detailed, data-driven picture of our industry and then use to it identify any unfair and discriminatory practices. It’s certainly possible that we conduct the full research and end up proving that the UK film industry is equally open to everyone of all ethnic origins. However, I suspect that we will find areas that need improvement. We as an industry should be introspective, aware of how we operate and consciously striving to make it more meritocratic for all.

If you can help fund this, then drop me a line.

Notes

Race can be a very contentious topic, and even the definition is open to interpretation.  Therefore, just to be really clear what we’re measuring here, I asked Professor Richard Webber to explain in a little more detail.  He said:

The classification is based on names and although races tend to have their own distinctive names sometimes religions do as well.  So we can’t really call Sikhs a race but we do know from using origins that behaviourally they are very different from Hindu Indians.  Albanians may be an ethnic group but they don’t just come here from Albania.  We often refer to origins as a system based on cultural, linguistic and ethnic factors.  Describing it as a system which classifies people according to the culture of their forebears often works well.

The research is looking at all films shot in the UK.  Much of the identifying of such films has been initially done by the BFI.  They tracked all films budgeted over £500,000 shot between 2003 and 2007 and films of all budget ranges since 2008.  I have then added missing films, removed erroneous records and expanded upon that initial list.

‘White British’ is a defined term and includes people who originate from England, Scotland, Wales and the Irish Republic.

The headline figures today relate to the credits, not individuals.  That means that if someone worked on two films then this will count twice for their origin.  In a fuller piece of research we can provide both this method of counting, as well as look at the origin of the individuals working in UK film.