Ep. 15 – Film & TV Directing and Directors UK

With Laura Adams of Directors UK

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Despite being a position envied by many in the media and creative industry and often in the limelight, the role of ‘Director’ is often not the cushy job it seems.  Often described as the loneliest place to be on set, the director often struggles to combine a creative vision with a practical reality, whilst coordinating with various departments on issues as varied as costume, camera and set design.

Owing to the large number of creatives wanting to reach this coveted role, often fair pay and legal boundaries are not correctly set, thus individual directors need someone to both support and fight for their rights.

Directors are the creative leaders, responsible for steering productions with increasingly pressured schedules and budgets whilst embracing new working practices and technology. Directors UK is the professional association of directors working with the moving image in the UK. It is both a payment collecting society and a campaigning body alongside offering training and career development for its 6,000 members.  In this episode I’m joined by Laura Adams, Head of Member Services at Directors UK.

Laura Adams of Directors UK

Scott Ledbury: Thanks for joining me Laura. Some people assume that directors are at the top of the tree as regards to productions but they also need representing too, don’t they?

Laura Adams: Yeah, the key thing about directors is almost the fact that they are essentially in charge of a production and everything falls on them. It’s quite a solitary role in its way. Obviously you get your crew around you, your trusted people around you but everything does fall on you.

For the most part in the industry it’s a freelance industry as well, so really as an association to support directors the key thing is that we are there to be your support, your network, your legal advice, your career development and also someone who can give you financial payments and financial help as well.

SL: You say it’s largely a freelance industry, to give us a picture of how things are now, how many of your members are freelance, and how many are on staff contracts?

LA: Our membership works in a way that the collections that we make are for freelance only. Directors who are working under staff contracts aren’t actually the copyright owners of their work, the company they work for are.

The way that the industry works now, much as the way it is in production as well, there’s very little in-house contracts left, just a few at the BBC, which tends to be going in a more freelance direction as well. Our members for the most part, are freelance, I would say for the whole part are freelance, are copyright owners of their work and are also working alone for the most part too.

SL: I’ve often been told that directing is a lonely job, and I really like your slogan ‘One of you, many of us’. How important is it for directors to connect and network with their peers then?

LA: It’s a really, really important thing, firstly you can get advice from your peers, you can understand what issues are affecting people as well as yourself. You might be working with an issue and you feel that you’re the only one with that issue, and then our organisation can campaign and lobby once we know what those issues are, and we don’t know what those issues are until you’ve spoken to your peers. So that’s really important, it’s really important to gather together and know your rights, lobby for fair renumeration and also find out how other people are working from a creative perspective as well is really important.

Open your own processes and try and find out what new equipment is out there, how people find their way around issues with actors, around issues with self-shooting, it’s just really good to be able to talk freely amongst peers without having to have an answer.

“It’s really important to gather together and know your rights, lobby for fair renumeration and also find out how other people are working from a creative perspective as well is really important.”

SL: Directors UK hosts lots of events and screenings and Q and A’s, including with big names in the industry such as Sam Mendes and Danny Boyle.

Talk us through some of the things you offer your members, as a way of helping those lonely directors getting out there.

LA: We’ve got quite a big community, we’ve got a very engaged membership. We tend to hold around four events a month in London, we also have nations and regions representatives in Scotland, Wales, the south west and the north west.

We try and hold events each quarter in the nations and regions as well. We also hold an annual Directors Festival, that all of our members from around the UK travel to and we offer financial assistance for travel to anyone outside of London as well.

Directors UK event

We also hold an annual conference to talk through the issues that are affecting directors. Part of the monthly events that happen is a mix of preview screenings, recently we had a preview screening of a film that hadn’t even premiered in the UK yet so it was a bit of a hot ticket.

Those tend to be the really exciting Q and A’s with big name directors and also Q and A’s and screenings of work that people haven’t really heard of yet by directors people haven’t heard of yet, so it’s really important to support people at the start of their career as well.

We have regular networking events both with directors themselves and future colleagues. We work with other trade organisations to hold events to meet with writers, editors, cinematographers and also indie producers in terms of gaining employment as well. A big part of what we do is trying to make sure that people are in regular employment.

SL: Touching back on some of the heavyweight names, like Danny Boyle, do you find those people easy to get on board because they feel the same isolation as someone further down in their career. How do you engage with those heavyweight directors, do they like to connect with their peers?

LA: I think that everyone we work with is very support of the organisation and sees the benefit of talking with peers, networking with peers.

I’ve come from an organisation that was very public facing and it’s very refreshing to get into a situation where you’re talking with really successful directors and they see the importance of giving back to their own community in terms of their time, and their mentoring and expertise, also giving their time freely in the networking sessions and giving their advice freely. That’s really exciting to be in that kind of position.

“A big part of what we do is trying to make sure that people are in regular employment.”

SL: Directors are authors of their work under copyright law, so can you lay down what actual rights a director has over their work?

LA: As you say, directors are copyright owners of their work. The way that it works in the UK; a director is the copyright owner and for the first use of their work signs over the copyright to the production company that they’ve made the programme with, and that process involves screening the work on broadcast or in cinemas, or theatrical release.

Then for second use onwards the copyright reverts to the director and that’s what we collect payment for. We’re very popular amongst our members as they do receive regular cheques from us and well as the members services and benefits they get from our organisation.

SL: What sort of legal issues and advice should your directors be looking out for in general?

LA: One of the widespread benefits of being a member of Directors UK is everybody who is a full or associate member has access to free contract advice from our legal advisor. That is the most used service on the legal side. Just people not being aware of what kind of contracts they should be demanding, what kind of rights they have and making sure they’re not waiving too many of their rights in terms of working hours, in terms of travel expenses and in terms of the copyright of their work, ongoing.

For our full members we also offer more involved advice, our Head of Legal has stepped into situations where a director has been taken off a project halfway through, going against their original contract. They’ve started work without a contract which is something that often happens when productions are scurrying to get everything in place. We’ve got in-house legal advice that can really help with that and a lot of people aren’t aware that they’ve got more rights than they realise.

SL: Directors UK collects and distributes payments to directors in the UK, how this work and who and what are you paying on behalf of?

LA: A lot of people come to Directors UK, not realising that there is an association for them in the first place and secondly not realising that they have access to collections that we have made on their behalf for their copyright, which is quite a nice surprise for them.

Anything that’s been broadcast on UK television or DVD sales, or second use sales in terms of home entertainment, we collect payments for in terms of secondary use of that work and then people get a lovely cheque at the end. Which is a lovely surprise for people.

Screenshot from FreelanceDiary’s promo video,
created by director Richard Jeff

SL: I know you’ve got a big list on your website of names of people that you’re trying to hunt down as you have money to pay through to them for second rights use. How many names have you got exactly?

LA: It really does vary, the last time I checked it was 200 names. Some of whom were directors I know! So we do often check the trace list and get in touch with people, and we ask our members to get in touch as well.

Sometimes you’re not aware that an organisation exists which is collecting money for you. One of things that we do like to do, when we’re at places like the Media Production Show and we have directors coming over to us – we have a copy of the trace list. So we can say, we know that you’re a director, and you should join our organisation because we have money for you. It’s really wonderful to see people’s faces light up at that.

SL: Typically what figures are we looking at here Laura, £5, £500, £5,000?

LA: It varies depending on where and how often your work has been shown. I should also mention that we work alongside our sister collection organisations in Europe as well and we’ve got a very dedicated team that look after foreign rights payments as well. They’re regularly signing up sister organisations, we’ve recently moved into Russia, to start collecting payments for work shown there. That’s important in the output as a UK creative industry is being shown all over the world so it does depend on how often your works been shown.

It might be that you’ve had one episode of a documentary that’s been shown once and never again, in which case the payment we hold for you, we do hold but we don’t chase you up if it’s not an exciting amount. However there are people who’ve been working in the industry for years and have no idea that we’ve been holding money for them. We also look after estates as well so anything that is still being collected for directors who have passed away on behalf of their estates. Those payments can be fairly interesting, shall we say.

SL: There’s an ongoing issue with gender equality in the UK television sector, as in many sectors, how does this fare with directors?

Paint us a picture of a typical TV director, what’s the balance of gender there?

LA: My colleague; Head of Campaigns, Alison Bailey, has been doing some absolutely amazing work, especially alongside our outgoing Chair Beryl Richards, who has recently won an award for her campaigning work. All of the reports that we’ve done, one for Women in Film in particular, one for Women in Television, one called ‘Adjusting the Colour Balance’ about diversity and inclusivity in TV.

Across the board, this won’t be a surprise that the picture of a director is a middle aged white man. That’s not a bad thing – that’s our members to a great extent, but we’re trying to call attention to the fact that there is an imbalance.

We do what we can as an organisation to work with our own activities in terms of the career development that we offer, the events that we offer and also work with other key organisations like the funding bodies, other trade bodies to raise awareness and see what we can do to change the way that things are working.

The things that the reports have found are that women are being set aside from the start of their career. For both TV and film, they’re coming out of film school with their training 50/50 but then the balance edges away and there’s no particular reason for that – there’s no evil person out there saying ‘I won’t hire a woman’. It’s insidious.

SL: Some reports have suggested that because once you’ve left the TV industry it’s hard to crack back in, could women starting families and having children, play a role in lowering the number of women directors?

LA: One of the interesting things that Ali has been finding in her campaigns is that is of course a very important aspect of gender equality in general not just in the film industry that generally it tends to be women who are taking a break in their careers. But actually amongst the evidence that we gathered, for the campaigns, that wasn’t the main reason. For a lot of people it’s not the main reason. However, we also work with several other organisations such as Raising Films to make sure that we’re engaging with people who are returning after a break, whether that’s a career break for caring for a parent, or a career break for children or for some kind of illness or injury, it is very important.

I think that there’s possibly just an image in people’s minds of what a successful director looks like and that needs to change. One of the best ways to do that is show them some excellent role models of women directors and show them that it can be done.

SL: Directors UK are at the forefront for campaigning for the recognition and rights of directors, and we touched on this before but talk us through some of the major highlights you guys have achieved on this front.

LA: Well, like I say it’s very much an achievement of the teams in the campaigning side and our Chair and our Head of Campaigns. Several years ago we did a study into Women in television in particular, and off the back of that have been working very heavily with the main broadcasters and it’s definitely been affecting change. We regularly work with them on our career development front, Channel 4 have made a commitment to be inclusive in their hiring of directors and that’s very much part of their remit.

SL: That inclusivity is to do with the BAME workforce?

LA: And women and also disability which is something that isn’t necessarily information that’s collected about our members. But something that we’re generally making sure that inclusivity and change is effected. The other report that was done was our ‘Adjusting the Colour Balance’ campaign report which essentially showed that as little as 3% of directors working in the UK are from BAME backgrounds. When my colleagues were going round the broadcasters with these statistics it wasn’t a name and shame, it was more making them aware of the figures. They were shocked and a lot has been done to change that.

On the gender equality side and the inclusivity side in terms of background and access, a lot of work still needs to be done. Our campaigns have been hugely important in starting the conversation and what we like to focus on now is trying to work with organisations to effect the change as well. We’ve made recommendations in terms of employment and in terms of role models and in terms of training and networking.

“Our campaigns have been hugely important in starting the conversation and what we like to focus on now is trying to work with organisations to effect the change as well.”

SL: Directors UK have done the traditional working body thing which is fight for the rights of pay, which is great to see, give us a summary of what you’ve achieved there?

I read a summary which stated that many freelance directors wait seven years for a pay rise?

LA: It’s very much an ongoing issue for us. You’re right one of the things that we do do is lobby at government level, but also speak with employers, whether that is production companies or broadcasters at a level.

We’ve had information from some of our directors that directors on production are being paid less than some of the much more junior roles and it’s about whether there’s a collective bargaining power for that group of people, and as a group as a collective organisation we do have that bargaining power.

We don’t operate as a union however, but it’s very important work that we do and our CEO is very active in that as well.

SL: For those looking to break into film or TV directing what are the key things you need to be clued up about, and what sort of key attributes do you feel you need to become a successful director?

LA: This is something that we are looking at very much at the moment in terms of making sure that our own members are gaining employment and growing in their careers. Also, that we’re looking to our future members as well.

I think the thing I hear the most is that people have a unique voice and are able to say why they should be the person that is heading up a show, heading up a film, moving forward with a self-shooting factual story – that’s the really key thing. That’s what, for the most part, people who are employing directors are looking for. It also helps if you’re able to network, it shouldn’t be the case but it really does help if you’re able to network. Really it’s a case of keeping on trying and don’t get put off.

One of the main things is that even within our membership, people who are trained professionals are also looking to grow in their careers. A huge amount of the industry at large puts a lot of focus on emerging directors and people who are just starting out.

One of the things we do is look after people who are still midway through their career as well. Or someone who has been working in factual for a long time and may want to move over into drama, someone who’s been working in drama and has a documentary idea and doesn’t necessarily have the skills or the contacts to do that yet. That’s something that we’re really interested in.

SL: Thank you very much Laura, it’s been brilliant to talk with you.

LA: Thank you!