Film

The problem with UK's film industry? It's easier to win an Oscar if you went to private school

Filmmakers from working-class backgrounds explain to The Big Issue why it's so difficult to make it big in the film industry – even as the Academy and BAFTAs celebrates diversity

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Around 40% of British nominees at the Oscars have been educated at private school. Image: Unsplash

Michael Beddoes left his producer role on an independent film for a paid job because he could not afford his rent. That film went on to be nominated for a BAFTA.

So it’s no surprise that new analysis from Labour shows that nearly half of all British cultural stars nominated for major awards in the last decade went to private school.

“Money equals time,” Beddoes, a 39-year-old filmmaker from the West Midlands says. “If you live in your parents’ house or if you’ve got someone paying your rent or offering a financial safety net, that time to get off the treadmill of life allows you to think like an artist. It allows you to spend your days networking and exploring opportunities. That’s hard to do if you’re working a day job.”

Labour found that 40% of Brits nominated for key awards in the Oscars, BAFTAs and Mercury prize over the last decade went to private school, while only 6% of the British population are privately educated.

Dave O’Brien, professor of cultural and creative industries at the University of Manchester, says: “Awards are symbolic. They symbolise what an industry values, how an industry makes decisions, what an industry thinks is worthy of highlighting, and who is marginalised. While there have been changes, because of the backlash and rightly so, it is striking that every year there is effectively the same discussion.”

Beddoes had always loved TV and film. But a school career advisor told him that “people from the Black Country don’t really make films”. He studied journalism instead.

Film lured him back in and he went on to do a master’s in TV and film production. He wrote letters to every film and TV production company but heard nothing back, so he took a job working in commercials.

It was through this that he met director of 2016 film The Ghoul, Gareth Tunley. “He sent me the script, and I loved it,” Beddoes remembers. “And I started looking at the budget and who we could use for crew and actors who could come and support his vision.

“It was a really rapid, fast shoot. By the time we had gone through pre-production, I just couldn’t afford to pay my rent. I just couldn’t afford to stay with it. And it got to a crossroads where I had to either join this film full time with no income and no time frame or go back to my commercials job.”

Michael Beddoes had always dreamed of a career in film, but he was discouraged because of his background. Image: Supplied

The Ghoul was nominated for the BAFTA in the category of outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer. Beddoes was given an associate producer credit, but he distanced himself from the team who he had considered good friends and the disappointment set him back.

“It was an amazing film and the cast was incredible,” Beddoes says. “It hurt not to be part of the finished product. I was invited to a second screening when it was doing well ahead of the BAFTAs and I couldn’t bring myself to go.”

The situation is getting worse as the film industry is under increasing pressure following the pandemic and surging inflation. Hollywood screenwriters demanded better pay through one of the longest strikes in the industry’s history last year, joined by actors, but it is estimated that this cost the industry $5bn.

“It’s a really difficult moment for the British film industry,” O’Brien says. “I’m hopeful that film survives, and gets the support it needs through this moment. But it’s often at moments like this that questions of diversity and representation usually get thrown out by organisations. The challenge is not only how the industry survives this downturn, but also how we make sure that diversity and representation is built in.”

The BAFTAs and Oscars saw actors and filmmakers celebrate their diverse communities. Killers of the Flower Moon’s Lily Gladstone was the favourite to win best actress – and make history as the Academy’s first Native American acting winner – but she lost out to Poor Things‘ Emma Stone. 

The BAFTAs honoured actress Samantha Morton with a lifetime achievement fellowship, and she gave a powerful speech about the care-experienced community. It’s vital representation, but experts fear these individuals are used as symbols of progress, while inequalities are systemic. 

“I think there’s a role for the industry to try and think about who is making decisions about awards,” O’Brien says. “There have been some attempts to kind of change the composition of the Academy and the BAFTAs. There’s also a role in terms of how casting is done. Maybe the industry should pause and think about how it recruits rather than working with people they’ve worked with before.”

He adds that policymakers also have a responsibility to make change through funding organisations such at the BBC and Channel 4, while audiences are also to blame. “Audiences have to step up. I think there is a role for a conscious, ethical audience who are able to say to the film market that we demand better representation.”

Beddoes believes it’s important that people get the mentorship they need to thrive in the industry. “We need this sort of confidence building as well as pure hard injections of cash. If you give funding to producers from diverse backgrounds. they will choose to work with filmmakers that speak to them. By investing in the people that speak to them, we’re rewiring that old boys network.

“We don’t have those voices. We see dramas you could describe as poverty porn. So few of those films are made and when they do sneak through, they are heavy, depressing, award-baiting dramas. Where is my comedy about a family trying to start a business in Liverpool? Where are these regional stories?”

Sam Oddie, a young filmmaker looking to break into the industry full-time. Image: Supplied

Sam Oddie, a 23-year-old filmmaker from Manchester, found mentorship through the charity Art Emergency. Its members share opportunities, contacts and advice so that young people can flourish in higher education and the cultural industries. He dreams of being a documentary filmmaker.

Through mentorship and networking from the age of 17, Oddie found work experience opportunities and has since been able to showcase his work with companies such as Google Arts & Culture, BBC Radio Manchester and HOME Cinema. But he is struggling to find full-time work and keeps being told he should move to London.

“It just feels like a wasteland,” he says of the industry. “It doesn’t really matter how hard you work. It’s based on luck. There’s so many talented people who are really eager and willing, but they just have no chance.”

This lack of space for working-class voices means stories are missing. “We’re going to look back on this period that we’re in, post-pandemic and during a recession, and we normally look through the media to find out what life was like back then,” Oddie says. “And there should be an accurate representation by people who actually lived in working-class areas who were hit most by these events.”



Like Beddoes, Oddie has taken on unpaid work – but it’s come with a cost. He has had to pay for travel and sacrifice a paid job, having to do work experience five days a week and then work part-time in the evenings and weekends to pay for it. But he hasn’t lost hope that the future of the industry is bright.

“Things look grim right now, but I don’t think that it’s over. There will be an industry on the other side. There are people that I’ve met and people who are really talented, passionate, and the industry is ready for change. We definitely don’t have a shortage of talent.

“Very soon there will be jobs, and it’s important that the young people from working class backgrounds who rise up in the industry keep the door open, and we make sure that the industry changes. Twenty years ago, it was a lot worse. Change can happen.”

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