Let me start by saying, I don’t like polarised positions and I don’t like being drawn into debate where parties end up demonising each other. I seek to unite and not to divide. In that spirit, I have been asked to get involved in a very important debate on the National Minimum Wage in the UK.
Last year BECTU (the film and TV technicians union) won a ‘landmark’ case which seemed to imply that Indie film makers may be exposed to prosecution IF they do not pay the National Minimum Wage (NMW). Even if the crew members who got involved know and agree that there would be low or no pay, the producers could still be prosecuted under this law.
It’s a great headline grabber.
But the law itself is a minefield. Everyone interprets it in a different way, based on their own preconception and of course, their own beliefs and working practices. The whole area is a mess of contradiction, misinformation and woolly legal interpretations (and implied threats from some quarters) of a law that was never created for, or indeed suited to, the creative businesses (never mind low budget film making, what about fringe theatre or a local band playing down the pub, both in clear breach of the national minimum wage).
Next week, I am taking part in a formal parliamentary style debate between two BECTU members, one of whom is Martin Spence (who will be arguing for the national minimum wage to be applied to low budget film making) and with co-founder of Shooting People Jess Search and myself (opposing the national minimum wage being applied to low budget film making).
This is all couched under the less in your face motion of… ‘Working for free is the only way for new entrants to get a foot in the door of the film and television industry but are you shooting yourself in the foot?’
So are you for it or against it? (why do you have to be one of the other? So just to be clear, I am both for it and against it, just a little more for it, based on my own life experiences).
BECTU have organised the event in an attempt to better understand the problems and differences we all face in regard to this idea. Their aim is to draw up a code of conduct for indie film makers to follow so they can get behind it. And like most indie film makers who have looked into this problem, I do find myself agreeing with BECTU on many points. No-one wants to see people being genuinely and knowingly exploited by unscrupulous producers.
But… Will this actually help? Do we actually need more rules and regulations to ‘protect’ vulnerable film makers? I also find myself at logger heads with some of BECTU’s more aggressive assertions. And some I find downright offensive. More importantly, they are simply unsustainable and unworkable.
Frankly, this whole debate makes me quite sad.
In many ways, it’s very regressive thinking, harking back to an industry of yesteryear. In days gone by, there really were clear paths for film and TV professionals to follow, from assistants and runners, all the way up the ladder to the top of their chosen game. Back then, there was a viable and stable market for films, and a good producer could make a business of it, based on proven working practices and budgets.
I guess in those days, this kind of thinking and legislation made sense.
But in 2010, most film makers I know are producers, directors, self shooting, self editing, helping and collaborating on each others films, sharing knowledge and information generously… (I might add, back in the ‘good old days’, no-one shared any information, they kept it all to themselves, hence our Guerilla Film Makers Handbook). Today, the notion of a single career path seems a little absurd to myself and many other indie film makers I can call my friends. And the concept of a national minimum wage? Honestly? When we have spoken about it, we kind of giggle at it as a concept. It’s just kind of ridiculous out in the real world that I know and struggle through every day. I can only assume that the people who proposed this law have never been involved in a massive ‘against all odds’ creative endeavour such as a low budget film.
For me, there was no way into the film business unless I kind of smashed my way in (or you have personal wealth and connections). And no-one actually knows what the film industry will look like tomorrow (and I mean literally tomorrow, not one day some day…) Everything is sooooo unstable and in evolutionary flux.
I believe we are in a revolution as big as the industrial revolution. It’s MASSIVE! The industry is changing on a daily basis and I genuinely don’t know where a union such as BECTU belongs in this brave new world, let alone one who appears to take a stance where they may aggressively pursue film makers for alleged breaches of a law that is as open for interpretation as the NMW law appears to be. Maybe not open for interpretation legally, but certainly practically.
Of course in times like this there will be casualties – we are inside a brave new evolution of the film business. But there will also be extraordinary successes too. Inhibiting these breakthroughs by enforcing draconian and outdated thinking will only curb creativity, for both artists and entrepreneurs. And that is good for no-one.
And so I hope that BECTU really strive to find a middle ground. Lighten up a little. Go with the flow.
My final thoughts? If you have been to my blog before you will know I often film events to share knowledge with other film makers. And so I am going to ask BECTU if a couple of my friends can come and shoot the event so it can be edited, uploaded and shared with everyone who cannot make it (I am happy to organise the filming, get an editor in and to upload the event to the web all for FREE!).
I will need to ask a few of my friends to do this for no-pay as there is no budget to do it. Sadly, I guess that to avoid breaching the NMW at a union organised event, I can only conclude that I had better not do it, just in case, you know, I get prosecuted. So if you can’t attend because you live too far away, for now, tough luck. You just experienced the effect of the National Minimum Wage on film making in 2010. It’s there to protect you and me.
I am of course being deliberately sabre rattling antagonistic. I only mean to illustrate the minefield ahead of us all in the UK.
Onwards and upwards!