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Lost Demographics

Industry analyst Michael Gubbins examines the facts behind the UK Film Council’s final study of diversity in film.

It is fitting that the final act of the UK Film Council would be a comprehensive study of the representation of different demographic groups on the big screen. Among the less recognised strengths of the body was a commitment to research and diversity, and a willingness to put it at the centre of the discussion about the way films are made and distributed.

This particular study with Harris Interactive polled 4,315 people and demonstrated what we might call cinema’s lost demographics. This addresses the way that certain ethnic groups are portrayed, and ventures into important and interesting territory, such as the often asexual depiction of older women in films.

The dilemma, of course, is what we should do about it, invoking questions almost as old as the medium itself. How reflective of wider society does film need to be? Indeed, how far does the social responsibility of film extend?

In some ways the debate has actually subsided, with far more attention devoted to television. While the Bolsheviks and the Nazis saw cinema as an engine for revolution and Hollywood was scrutinised for signs of subversion, notably during the McCarthy era, cinema is no longer the key medium for social change. Television is now the mass medium, its very ubiquity meaning it has the power to reinforce messages about society. In the UK, for example, there has recently been strong controversy over whether crime serial Midsomer Murders is justified in the absence of characters from ethnic minorities, in its sweetly homicidal rural setting.

Given that the average person goes to the cinema only a handful of times, this diversity is less obvious. The issue of the social mix on the big screen is as much about over-representation as exclusion. There are for example, rather more maverick cops, elaborately cunning murderers, and dashing but vulnerable rogues than you might encounter on most trips to the supermarket—not to mention talking animals and aliens. And, most of all, youth and beauty get more than their fair share, even in the art houses.

There are a few good reasons why this emphasis on diversity is necessary. One is that films in the UK and international markets are largely funded by the public, through tax breaks and lottery funds. As the whole community pays, it seems only fair that it should be fully represented.

The second is that the history of film’s treatment of certain demographic groups and ethnic minorities has been too reprehensible to ignore, so production funded by public money has a responsibility to take account of cultural diversity. At the production level, that may mean favouring funding for certain types of film, and supporting initiatives in training filmmakers from a wider variety of backgrounds. But there’s a gaping hole in the argument that has to be addressed. Simply making a film does not, in itself, create cultural change. Lord Puttnam, speaking in March at the Film Distributors’ Association, said: “It’s only when films reach their audience that they achieve their extraordinary potential to invade people’s consciousness, to amuse, amaze and excite.” The real issue for diversity—and a strong acid test of the focus of the new merged film body in the UK—is, therefore, distribution.

A welcome start has been made with the launch of a one-off Lottery Film Fund to support specialised film with wider appeal. But diversity will only mean something when our lost demographics are able to see the films that purport to express their experiences. •

You can read the UK Film Council’s findings at www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/diversitystudy

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 22 (May/June 2011)

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