Data and Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) in the Film industry
What story is the data telling about how we tell stories?
Data is a big deal. With directives like GDPR shining a harsh light on how companies and entire industries are misunderstanding, and misusing, data, we’re now living in a new world where data is king, so move over content.
Individuals are becoming more educated and empowered whilst companies, industries and governments are being held accountable, there’s really no doubt about it that data is driving a divide between the winners and losers in the new world.
So what story is the data telling in the storytelling industry?
We spoke to Melanie Hoyes and Lucy Wales who are both at the frontline of how data is used in the UK film industry as members of the BFI Data and Digital Preservation team and who have been closely involved in managing the Black Star report showing the lack of representation in UK film and the Gender Imbalance report as well as the ongoing, ever-growing BFI Filmography.
“The BFI’s job is to champion the future success of film in the UK and this plan is designed to do that – we want to back the brave, the new and the experimental.”
Josh Berger, BFI Chair
Your focus is on Diversity & Inclusion data within the UK’s Film industry, why is data’s role so important in this topic?
There’s a lot of talk around Diversity & Inclusion but most of that is anecdotal, and so we’re realising how powerful data is to back up or disprove this completely.
Diversity & Inclusion is at the intersection of ethnicity and gender, and that intersectionality makes the data and understanding even richer. People want to know the truth, this is an important topic, but on the whole there’s a lack of understanding about where to even start.
For us, data isn’t the final answer but a vehicle for talking about and convincing people of the actual state of Diversity & Inclusion in the industry.
It’s not just about ticking boxes or numbers, it’s not about needing more people in the industry it’s much more nuanced than that, it’s about how they work, how much ownership they have over the processes and their work.
Tell us a bit more about the data you collect?
The BFI Filmography begins in 1911, when the first feature length film (over 40 minutes) was released and our main database goes back to 1895 and the birth of cinema, so we have this incredibly rich resource to look at moments in time and see where things are/were better, or not.
We use our Collections Information Database (CID) to capture information about every title, plus cast & crew within the BFI filmography. Every person has a person and institution record which has information such as birth date, birth name, and nationality and recently we have also collected their inferred gender. Everything is based on research so we recognise that it will always be subjective to an extent but we’ve designed research methods that ensure it is viable data from which we can make reasonable assumptions.
At the BFI we have big data, we have a database of over 1.2M people, so being able to cut it up in different ways is an amazing opportunity, however we are seeking ways to strengthen the dataset moving forward and scoping the possibility of capturing self-certified data.
What role has data historically played in Film?
It’s actually quite a new thing in our industry because of the freelance nature, especially in terms of sensitive data points, so previously it would have been about the box office and the films themselves. We’re still facing a lot of challenges now on how to collect, analyse, cut and establish reasonable outcomes as big data is still a relatively new field of research.
“The Filmography is such an important tool for the industry alongside our work like the Diversity Standards to really show the journey we are on in improving inclusion in front of and behind the camera. By seeing the data - we can hold the mirror up and drive change”
Jen Smith, Head of Inclusion, BFI
Diversity & inclusion data deals with very sensitive personal information, what challenges do you face in comparison to other non-sensitive data sets?
Everybody wants an answer, particularly in regards to diversity and inclusion, so to be able to move towards the ideal of everyone self-certifying there’s a lot of work to do on policy and advocacy on this area to establish how best to approach and all drive in the same direction.
But there is a genuine shift happening, more people are willing to talk about things and are realising that we’ve hit a bit of a loop in terms of access and diversity. You need a baseline from which to improve yet we haven’t had that before now and so constant monitoring is required so that not only is it telling us how we’ve done, but it can tell us how we’re doing. It will become increasingly important and see how we’re performing on an ongoing basis.
Balancing this current push and want for stories with the relevant and truthful data takes huge amounts of work and time, which is a struggle.
What other organisations and processes are critical to furthering our ability as an industry to leverage data in a meaningful way?
In terms of the Filmography, we partnered with NESTA on the Gender imbalance in UK film crews research and that willingness to collaborate on working with the data and then to use it to tell the stories is invaluable. Having a partner to help us see our data in a different way was incredible. The BFI is definitely approaching this challenge in partnership, for example, we recently worked with academic Dr Dave O’Brien to establish a method of collecting data on socioeconomic background. We are also working with BAFTA and our funded partners to ensure we share a consistent approach to collecting data where possible, and we regularly connect with the BBC, Channel 4, Ofcom, Spotlight and others to share best practice in this area. We are also developing international partnerships, including with the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, who are leading the way with diversity and inclusion data in the film industry in the US.
How are the different areas or segments of the industry responding to the evolving, and increasingly important, role of data?
From industry to government to university and academic circles, there’s a keen interest across the board. At University level the students are super engaged, they’re very aware of identity politics so it’s something they’re beginning to think about if they’re looking to go into the industry. They’re capturing the awareness and turning it into hope that they can help to make the change happen.
There’s loads of brilliant initiatives happening at this level too, the Uni of Southampton have undertaken a big research study on women’s roles in UK film, Calling the Shots and the Uni of Greenwich hosted a trailblazing women conference last year. It genuinely feels like a moment where people are engaging in a very real, actionable way.
Who do you think should be accountable for keeping the conversation going?
The industry as a whole, it’s everybody’s responsibility, it has to be, there’s no other way it will get better. As Jen Smith, Head of Diversity at the BFI says in this article, we know it’s the beginning, not the end and the BFI has very openly committed to advocating for change and is leading by example, by setting targets and publishing data on our own workforce and those we fund, as an important move forward in terms of transparency and accountability.
We have to acknowledge that as a freelance industry it’s inevitably disjointed, but on the flip side, as everyone ends up working together there will always someone in your crew talking about it.
What great changes have you seen to move the needle and change the story the numbers are telling?
We’ve seen some brilliant industry activations from the Inclusion Rider, which was conceptualised at the Oscars 2018 and is now being adopted as policy by Warner Bros to drive tangible change in diverse representation, to the more recent 4% challenge launched by #TimesUp and the Annenberg Institute. The BFI Film Festival showcased an industry-busting programme last year with 38% directed by women, but the 4% challenge shows us that the real story, across the last decade is shockingly unequal.
These are examples of being empowered to demand changes on-set so that’s indicative of it becoming everyone’s problem, it’s becoming too high profile to ignore.
We’re seeing huge power used for good. It’s a very star-led industry and actors and actresses are starting to use their power for good. Take the David Oyelowo’s keynote at the Black Star symposium where he honestly and openly discusses the scale of change that still needs to occur.
At the grassroots end, we’re working with industry to on lots of brilliant initiatives too. BFI Film Academy has worked with LucasFilm on two films – Solo: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars: Episode IX – to employ a cohort of trainees from 1st ADs to camera operators and every role inbetween, who have now gained hugely valuable experience and gone onto other jobs on film and TV thanks to that credit. This is practical talent development, while the BFI Diversity Standards have now been adopted by key industry players like BAFTA, BIFA, BBC Films and Film4 to ensure film are challenged to become more representative – from what’s on screen through to who is behind the camera.
This all sounds really positive, like change is really happening. Is that the case?
Data is in a position of real influence to tell the real story and the difference is in the data – being able to access, monitor and other people accessing it and questioning it.
All the above are great and seem to show things getting better but looking at the data gives a fairly shocking reality check. Fundamentally, the numbers are so low, there’s no hiding. It’s barely statistically significant. Women are doing a little bit better but it’s so clearly below where we should be. When I’m talking on panels, I feel like the bearer of bad news, it’s amazing how the real numbers silence people.
It can feel like all the stories are negative but there are opportunities here. We noticed that where there were female directors and writers on set, there was higher diversity and representation on that production suggesting that if you increase diversity and representation in key roles it will drive it across the board.
How are other global Film markets doing? Do you have a comparison to contextualise the story data is telling us?
Not really, everyone’s figuring it out and doing it similarly because it’s really hard. The Annenberg Institute use similar methods to us, but diversity data is too sensitive to do it any other way. I’m not sure anyone is doing it on the same scale as us in the UK market, and our gender report really was a groundbreaking way of analysing gender inference.
What can make the task at hand easier?
Big data is becoming a really big thing. People have wanted to do it for a long time but it’s so sensitive, people haven’t known where to start. What can we use? What can we say? How do we go about this? All of these are very fair questions to ask when dealing with people’s personal information.
Collaboration is what we’d have more of, and more headspace to drive R&D in the data space. The Nesta support was a great example of how we can open up access to the stories data is telling us. We’ve often just captured it and now we want to tell stories with it, so their help on the gender front was incredible.
There’s been a hugely transformative movement in data powering the big new players in production, with the likes of Netflix, will this help to raise awareness and drive adoption of data-centric processes across the board?
Potentially but there needs to be a lot of thought and constantly reassessing, something as it’s seen or understood today can have a very different connotation tomorrow.
There’s such a dearth of workforce stats and we’re (the BFI) in a very unique position in the industry which quite rightly demands we should be open and we’re really happy to help the process of understanding and furthering the role of data because it’s beneficial for everybody.
What do you hope data can achieve in 2-5 years?
“Keep the focus on the agenda, keep the discussion going and drive actual change – someone needs to action what we’re all talking about and data will drive that.
We need to keep showing the numbers and telling the stories to help stop the complacency of people thinking things have changed when in reality they haven’t really. I hope I don’t have a job in 10 years’ time!” Melanie Hoyes, BFI Filmography Researcher
“I hope that data says something positive, that we have more positive stories to tell and that the things we’re doing now show in the numbers being markedly different in a few years time.
The convergence of everything from technology, to identity politics and social awareness is driving things forward but data can’t do this alone. It’s something that can’t be buried now, social media can enable people to bring their own experiences to the fore time and time again and gain important momentum.”
Lucy Wales, Digital Preservation & Data Manager, BFI
Will technology impact the role of data in Film?
Potentially on the processing side of certain data sets, but for Diversity and Inclusion, manual work will always be required. To get the information itself, it simply has to be checked, you just couldn’t presume someone’s ethnicity. This goes for all sensitive data points; how could you even begin to infer socio-economic background, sexuality, etc when these points are so sensitive and changeable?
You can do this kind of stuff with technology already but we’re not that convinced by it. Take facial recognition, a lot of it is inherently racist so won’t recognise ethnic faces as well as white males, because the technology is following society so until you get more diversity in technology we’re not there and this is simply the most human subject.
What can the industry do to help drive change?
There’s no point in having all this data if people don’t use it and refer to it to know the real story. It’s really driving awareness across the industry of the reality, not the anecdotes. Then we can be sure we’re all starting from the same, truthful place from which to make things better and ensure inclusion no longer has to be a topic.