Photo by Aneta Pawlik on Unsplash

Independent film, and the future of work

An interview with Charlotte Knowles from the Independent Film Trust

Round the back of the Rec stands International House, one of the centrepieces of Lambeth’s successful bid for Brixton’s Creative Enterprise Zone (aka Make It in Brixton). What was once a rather forbidding 70s council building has been transformed. It’s now home to myriad creative businesses large and small, and thanks to 3Space who run the building, is a model for sustainable rents: large established businesses pay market rate for space, which then subsidises youth enterprise, start-ups, not-for-profits and charities.

Charlotte Knowles, Independent Film Trust

It’s the kind of set-up where future worlds are imagined. Where activists pretend they have a proper job. It’s a bit rough-and-ready (that’s a compliment BTW 3Space), and utterly down-to-earth. And it’s home to both The Brixton Project and the Independent Film Trust (IFT).

The IFT support under-represented independent filmmakers, helping them find their voice and audience; they also help navigate the labyrinthine process of funding and production. They are tireless champions of marginalised voices. If you walk past the meeting room on International House’s ground floor of a weekend, chances are the community meeting you’ll see will be an IFT workshop.

Charlie Waterhouse caught up with IFT Chief of Operations Charlotte Knowles to talk 21st century co-working, and what needs to change in the film industry and beyond.

Charlie: So – International House. It’s great, right? Especially the sixth floor, filled with community organisations, people making connections. There’s an implicit trust in the building, isn’t there?

Charlotte: It’s such a great idea, and for the Independent Film Trust it’s been absolutely transformative, because rooting yourself in a space surrounded by so many other like-minded people is just such a brilliant opportunity.

I just like the trust within the building itself. When I came in We Rise were building that edit suite in the middle of the eating area. I think that’s amazing. People have decided they want to have an edit suite, and so they build it, and they’ve got support from the building to do that. It’s so great. It’s not as though there are these people (3Space) off in the shadows, that you never get to meet who sort of manage the building. They’re there every day, and visible, and want to get involved. And when we’ve been running events, always helping with promoting things, always trying to get people involved. It’s very very real, genuine, and I think that’s the basis of the real trust you are talking about. You don’t have to be told – you just see it happening every day.

Charlie: So does that feel like the future of the IFT, the future of creative work?

Charlotte: Yeah. I really hope so. Our way of working is quite unique, I suppose, in that we’re not protectionist about what we do or how we work – and that’s quite novel. There’s generally quite a cliquey nature to people working in film, and there’s quite a protectionist attitude towards projects, and also relationships. I can obviously understand that, people wanting to protect their intellectual property, I don’t have an issue with it. But we find that when people come to us, they’re very surprised at how open we are, and how much we want to help, and how much we want to actually tell people. Particularly when it comes to getting your film funded. So many people really struggle to find that information. We’re doing a series of workshops right now, going through all of these processes in detail, and talking about how you build relationships with funders etc, essential bits of information that are so rarely communicated.

We have this attitude that people really need that information, and we’re not going to try and hide all of our techniques around fundraising and everything. We want to make sure that people know that – so in that sense the way we work fits very well into International House, because that seems to be the attitude of most people (at least on our floor) wanting to share information and wanting other people to succeed – and not being threatened by the success of others, but being empowered by it. Everybody’s kind of of rooting for each other and that’s really key.

And I really hope that can be part of the future of people making films, because we really need it. We really can’t afford to be protective over these sorts of things because British cinema is going to suffer if we do that. We’re not going to get diversity in that environment, it’s just not going to happen. We need to be open, and we need to be embracing different people. Other people, people and experiences we don’t know. If we’re actively avoiding them by keeping our little clique together, then we’re just going to keep churning out the same stuff all the time.

We need this different attitude – and ticking boxes for diversity’s not going to cut it. People have to really change their attitude. If the way that we and other people in our building are working can encourage people to see that there’s best practice happening across the board; if different organisations are finding new ways to bring in people that might not otherwise be engaged in film (or other visual arts) then we should absolutely be sharing that, and I think this is an environment where we can do that.

I think people are suddenly getting on this bandwagon of talking about the importance of diversity, and throwing money at it – and that’s great – but we have to think about how people’s operations actually work, and make sure that people are feeling like they can really get involved.

Charlie: So do you feel that this focus on diversity is a genuine attempt to make a change, or is it just opening the pressure valve enough to maintain the status quo? Because that’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. The idea of the Arts having been hung out to dry under lockdown, but then £1.5bn turns up. But if all that money does is preserve the way things were before, most people are still scrambling around in the shit: not having any money, not having any opportunity.

You kind of want everything to come tumbling down. And then, what would happen if we were able to take over? That would be a really cool theatre or a really cool film industry.

Charlotte: I know exactly what you mean. I have this exact same thought. There are so many things going on. You’ve got the fact that a lot of people are losing their livelihoods. As you say, theatres are closing, cinema is struggling, productions are not happening. And then you’ve also got the issue of a lack of diversity, and people getting access to opportunities. Certain stories and narratives not being told. The gatekeepers not wanting to take any risk – at least that’s the case in film.

So, I think people are very keen to see them as two separate issues. You know, there’s this COVID thing that we just need to sort out, and then we can look at the diversity. And we feel like the two things are totally involved with each other, so we cannot afford to go back to the same way of working. We have to use this… I don’t know, this sounds very insensitive, but I think we have to use this opportunity to try and think of a better industry, in a better world after COVID.

We’ve had this insane opportunity to experiment: like, what would happen if there were no cars on the road? You just wouldn’t normally be able to do that kind of experiment. How would the air pollution drop – that kind of thing. And obviously the effect of that has been massive on businesses, but also I think: oh my goodness! Look at what impact that had on the environment, look at what might actually be possible. I don’t think we can we can afford to lose that opportunity, when people are in that mindset of thinking let’s build something better. Let’s not just rebuild what we had.

We and a lot of other organisations have a lot that we can offer, and I think we have to start looking at best practice. What is working? What can we actually share? Start getting our heads together beyond just throwing loads of money at it. Who’s actually employed with that money? Who’s story is really told with that money? Who’s writing that story? Who’s advising on the writing of that story? We need to make sure that the right people are being put in the right places because we’ve got this opportunity, haven’t we? And we don’t want to go back to exactly the way it was, because the way it was was keeping a lot of people disenfranchised.

Charlie: And also, why not have as many different stories as possible? It beggars belief doesn’t it? It’s an industry that should at its very heart be embracing as much difference as possible.

Charlotte: I know! This is exactly what we say all the time. I don’t get into emotional arguments with people about it – because there’s a lot of emotion in there and a lot to unpack – I just look at it in a very mathematical way. I just think that if you are taking all the talent from one tiny subsection of the population, you’re obviously not getting the best of what’s out there are you? Look at all this stuff that you’re ignoring! It’s just not mathematically possible to get the best.

It’s impossible that we are allowing cinema in this country to reach its full potential, because we’re just not hiring from broad demographics. We know we’re taking a tiny sliver of the talent that’s available. And that is so stupid. For any industry that is so stupid. We just have to stop doing that.

Charlie: It’s simply based on being able to being able to predict, isn’t it? It’s about guaranteeing. It’s about certainty, and certainly from a storytelling point of view is bullshit, isn’t it? It means you know how everything ends. It means you already know the story.

Charlotte: The whole point is you’re trying something new – and there’s no way of being able to gauge whether it’s going to be a financial success. If it’s never been done before you just have to do it, and gather enough people around, and build momentum – and it won’t always be a success. You have to embrace failure at some point.

Charlie: I think that’s something that people don’t get. There’s all that stuff about the people that take the risk need to reap the reward – but it’s always couched in financial terms. Whereas lots of people I guess you’re working with, they’re taking a massive risk just walking into a space that doesn’t guarantee paying the rent, let alone delivering a return on investment!

That’s kind of the thing that the IFT is doing at the moment isn’t it? A thing called Talent Led?

Charlotte: Yeah, I mean it’s basically connected to everything we’ve been saying. Talent Led is an evolution of our previous professional mentoring programs – the Vertical Lab, and before that 25 by 25 which we ran in collaboration with Raindance film festival. We’ve helped people get their films off the ground, over certain hurdles. First of all Talent Led is about enabling people to look at some of the organisational financial challenges. We’re not teaching people cinematography or any sort of craft, we’re assuming they have all that, and the ideas , but they’re being stopped by things unrelated to their talent. Those hurdles are often applying for funding, knowing where the funding is, trusting that somebody will read your funding application – and then having the right connections to producers, executive producers, other people you’re going to need in your team to win the confidence of the people with money to take you over the line.

So it’s a lot of stuff related to money. Because let’s be real, the age of being able to live in squats is over, and people have to survive.

And then we also connect up with industry – finding where people could be working with production companies say, or getting commissions at the BBC or Channel Four.

But it’s also what people are able to give back, because you know, we’re the Independent Film Trust and we work with independent filmmakers; people who are trying something new, normally related to social justice in some way. So we’re also looking at what a project is going to give back to a movement, or to a community. There are lots of ways that films can provide really important social impact. So we’re encouraging people to understand that as filmmakers.

We also have a number of speakers coming in from the industry. We’ve got the BFI, we have Phil Hunt from Head Gear Films who’s starting Bohemia Media specifically to produce films from marginalised voices.

We’ve been very careful about who we ask to come in, to make sure that these people are already travelling this road. In the past we brought in people who are, you know, they have that title executive producer or commissioning editor or whatever and they haven’t really understood. They get the general gist, but they haven’t really started on that road themselves.

At the end of the four weeks those projects will hopefully be developed to a point that we can as an organisation understand them and see whether the IFT would be able to offer more help. There’ll be a sort of pitching process, which sounds very formal but it’s not really, it’s just sort of ‘this is my project, this is what it’s about, this is where I could imagine funding streams’. And then we’ll see how many of those projects the IFT can take on and support further.

After that we are trying to expand into a bigger research process looking at the industry as a whole, looking at best practice, and also at the different ways other organisations are trying to improve their ways of working.

So this is sort of the first step in what we hope will be a three-year programme. Hopefully incorporating a feature film lab too. I was reading a British Independent Film Awards release – something like between 70 and 80% of people who produce their first feature film never go on to produce a second.

So you’ve got a load of people who produce that first feature, and it might be very successful. You’re not expecting a blockbuster, right? It would be kind of crazy – but they often do very well. People win Baftas or whatever, and then they never go on to make that next film because it’s such a crippling experience.

There’s very little infrastructure in place to help people transition to making their next film, and so we really want to take a close look at that. What can we now put into those people, because they also receive the least help, right? They come to places like us and say ‘I can’t get this off the ground even though my first feature was Oscar-nominated’, and organisations like us look at them and go what on earth can we offer you? You’ve already done it! You’ve gone and done the thing that everybody wants to do. But they still need that help.

They maybe go into academia or some other line of work because working in film just isn’t feasible. So there are really big systemic problems that we have to look at, and this is why we want to take a long time to go through it. This is not a small project. And there’s systemic racial discrimination, systemic gender discrimination, systemic problems around a lack of producers, a lack of people who understand the film business and finance, and a massive gap in education. People are going to film school who are not learning these skills, and then not able to develop something sustainable.

So, if we want a film industry that can be sustainable and exciting, and have films that are telling interesting unheard narratives, we have to look at why this isn’t happening.

Charlie: So basically what you’re doing just happens to be in the world of film, but it’s actually just a metaphor for the system?

Charlotte: I was thinking about this the other day. I was listening to a podcast – I forget his name now, but he was a barrister working on the Stephen Lawrence case – and he’s become an advocate and campaigner, and he was talking about how businesses often say, ‘Oh, we’d really love to hire people from BME backgrounds, or women or whatever it is, but they just never get to interview stage. If we can’t interview we can’t hire.’

He was saying that they should be investing in the pipeline. Because there are organisations and non-profits and charities like the Independent Film Trust who are working to try and build that pipeline, trying to get people into those interview rooms.

We need to have that pipeline being invested in, and valued. The film industry doesn’t currently value it. It doesn’t engage with it. But it’s not like these issues are exclusive to film, we’re just dealing with the same problems as everyone else.

Find out more about the work of the Independent Film Trust here. If you are interested in supporting the IFT – by donating, or becoming a sponsor or mentor, head here.

We all want to make it.
Make it in our chosen career. Maybe make it big.

Sometimes perhaps just make it to pay day.
But whatever our ambition, what unites us all is the desire to thrive, be recognised – and be supported.
And that’s what Lambeth’s Creative Enterprise Zone is all about. Supporting creative people to do amazing creative things without having to leave our amazingly creative corner of south London.
Because we all want to make it – of course – but more than that, we want to Make It in Brixton.