Published on: 14 May 2024 in Industry

“Directors can only defend their profession if they do it together” — Paul Evans’ industry blog

Reading time: 6 minutes and 3 seconds

In my last posting here, I argued that film and TV directors are letting their industry down when they don’t collectively stand up for themselves. I’ll give you an example. 

I’ve been speaking to a lot of UK continuing drama (aka ‘soap’) directors lately. They all bring up the same problem — usually shared privately, and never within earshot of their employers. 

They tell me that a director who is doing as many blocks as possible can often expect to earn between £45k and £60k a year. They will be directing the flagship programme of a channel that pays more to most of its mid-level executives.

Of course, when you look at the state of the wider industry right now, they’re grateful to be working. But this represents a major drop in income over the years, even before you take into account the scarcity of work since the closure of Holby and Doctors and the planned contraction of Hollyoaks. In most cases, those directors would need a 20% - 30% increase just to get back to pre-pandemic levels in real terms – and many of those rates have been depressed for a long time. Similarly, many are working on expense policies that haven’t changed for more than 20 years. In a world where hotel bills have soared, a director working away from home can expect just £30 a night to cover all their accommodation and subsistence costs.

But as I said in my previous post, they care deeply about their job — and concerns about the quality of work are usually the things they talk about first. They often complain that they can’t influence the script at an early stage. They talk of squeezed prep periods which are disrupted with a confetti of late script changes. They are often excluded from parts of post-production work that they care about.

They find that production economies and over-hasty planning result in some of their shows featuring too many ‘pickup’ scenes that they didn’t direct themselves.

When dense planning work is done in a hurry, opportunities to save money and tell the story better are wasted. They know that this is a false economy, and it has got worse in recent years. The industry focus is on more fashionable HETV shows, and their budgets are getting squeezed. Risk-aversion is in the air.

Managers, placing most of their trust in people with a script background, have more influence than ever before.

Our members tell me that there is always at least one crucial link in the decision-making chain who doesn’t understand the value directors bring. This ensures that this creative and logistical contribution is undervalued, and directors are pressured into being ‘shot-gatherers’ and not the co-authors that all good dramas need.

Time and time again, I hear “If I’m ‘difficult’” or “If I charge what I’m worth, they will just shop around.” The directors must either swallow their pride or leave an industry they love. 

Soaps still have a dedicated audience, and this is not serving those people well.

This won’t change until directors can articulate a shared consensus and a willingness not to undercut their colleagues on matters of principle. It’s obvious to me that individual directors can only protect the integrity of their role if they are confident that their colleagues will all assert those same principles. 

This brings me to the conclusion I trailed in my last post.

Directors need to develop a sense of collective efficacy. It’s possible – if they want to do it.

For me, being assertive about pay should be the first point. It’s about more than the money: a director that wants better prep provision can demand a higher wage and then negotiate some of it away for principled concessions. There are plenty of professions where there is a widely-held sense of its own professional value. A group of people with a collective efficacy of this kind would no more collaborate in a cut in their wages than they would in the diminishing of their craft. My role at Directors UK is to work with any willing directors to help build that sense of collective efficacy. 

I can’t do it without directors though, and I’d love to hear from you – please reach out to me via this link.

The Market for Lemons

As an epilogue to this post, there is an economic theory - “The Market for Lemons” – which explains the false economising I’ve described here. 

Broadcasting decision-making chains are only as strong as their weakest link. When one of those links doesn’t have enough expertise to know the difference between something that is good, and something that is poor (a “lemon”), they will only pay rock-bottom rates — and not even value what they eventually get for their money. This is why businesses exposed to these kind of market pressures hire buying specialists.

But soaps aren’t exposed to normal market pressures. In a normal market, companies that buy badly go bust, and good directors would walk away or create a route around this problem. But soaps are not a normal market. Instead, they are an “oligopsony” – there are only a handful of commissioners. 

So, there isn’t a “good” player in the market who steals all of the customers by doing the job properly. 

Because of this weak lemon-loving link in the commissioner’s decision-making chain (and every commissioner has at least one), directors know that the only way to protect their craft is to take the work and try to assert their values with subtlety and diplomacy wherever they can.

It’s a citrusy recipe for market failure. The people who know the most about good storytelling and craft-economy are left with no bargaining power. No sensible business would do this — but that’s the business our members are working in. 

Paul Evans is Head of Industry Relations at Directors UK. 

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