May 29, 2024

A slowdown in U.K. film and TV commissions and productions is threatening to put indie companies in the red and leave many independent workers within the industry jobless.

As much as 75% of independent contractors in the U.K. who are working in the industry are unemployed, according to a survey conducted by union BECTU on 4,000 TV and film workers, including producers, directors and production managers. Underscoring the U.K.’s heavy reliance on the U.S. production output, around 80% of U.K. industry workers said they were directly impacted by the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike and that of WGA, which just ended after 146 days. Nine out of 10 independent workers were worried about their financial security. Aware of the struggle, U.K. broadcasters have been donating money to The Film and TV Charity, which has given £500,000 to independent industry workers struggling to pay bills.

“My inbox has been inundated with freelancers asking for work, more than ever, and from really talented people who had been booked up for a year 18 months ago,” says Dov Freedman, CEO of premium factual firm Curious Films, who laments that producers are also facing “a lack of clarity” from some buyers about how much they are planning to commission.

The effect of the strikes has indeed been compounded by other issues, particularly in unscripted. This includes a slowdown in commissioning from global streamers, an advertising downturn, an increase in production costs (estimated between 10 and 15% by two producers), the merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery and a freeze of the BBC license fee, which is the primary source of income for the BBC.

One of the casualties of these issues has been Topical Television, one of Britain’s oldest independent production companies. Over 31 years, the company produced 1,500 programs, including films “The One Show” and Channel 4’s award-winning “The £1 Houses: Britain’s Cheapest Street.”

A spokesperson for Topical Television’s parent company, Avalon Entertainment, says Topical shuttered due to a “combination of factors including commission volumes, daytime tariffs unadjusted for inflation, as well as board changes due to retirement.” The spokesperson adds that it was an “incredibly difficult decision” but “the right time to close the door on what has been a well-respected small regional company.” Although it has shut down, Topical still has a show on air: “Caught Red Handed,” a factual crime series hosted by Dom Littlewood, airs on daytime BBC1.

Multiple sources say some other production companies are cutting staff working hours or reducing directors’ pay in order to survive. There were hopes in the unscripted TV community that the pause in scripted due to the strikes would leave more money for non-scripted.

However, as U.K. producers’ alliance PACT CEO John McVay observed, the market is going through structural changes. “We’re sadly going into a market correction for various reasons; it’s quite brutal. A lot of people are having a lean year,” McVay continues. He says the ad downturn has impacted Channel 4 in particular and broadcasters “spent a lot last year” so they are “over-commissioned [and] very careful with spend this year.”

October Films co-owner Adam Bullmore says “the bubble of seemingly-endless amounts of money and commissions has burst,” and points to a “wider reset of what broadcaster and streamers want, what they are going to fund and how much content they can actually afford.”

Bullmore says October Films, whose credits include BBC’s “Laura Kuenssberg: State of Chaos,” is in a strong position because it has offices in Los Angeles and a partnership with Octavia Spencer’s banner and Discovery+ on some true crime projects.

But many producers suspect that post-strike, drama will become more expensive in the U.K. Two years ago it was a different story as new labels blossomed to meet an increase in demand fed by the expansion of streaming companies and the post-covid commissioning restart.

James Taylor, chair of BECTU’s unscripted branch and a series producer and director whose credits include “Gordon Ramsay’s Next Level Chef,” says an “unprecedented number of [independent workers] are still out of work due to the slowdown in unscripted commissions.“

“Things must change, otherwise we’re going to lose this incredible world-leading talent from unscripted genres,” Taylor says. “Freelancers are fed up of feeling precarious in their jobs and are looking for something more stable, whether that be in the near or long-term future.”

Being adaptable is key to survival, says Bullmore, “or you end up sounding like King Lear…we’re curiously optimistic but my brain is spinning more than ever before.”

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