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Can flexible working be introduced on film and TV sets? We’re finding out.

Long hours, burnout and poor mental health are blighting film and TV productions. We’ve explored the barriers and scoped out solutions; now we’re going on set to create a blueprint for change.

By Emma Stewart, Co-Founder

Full disclosure: this time it’s personal. I used to work in TV production, and left 17 years ago when I found it impossible to juggle the job and my family. So I’ve long been keen to take everything I’ve learned through my years at Timewise and apply it to the film and TV industry.

And right now is most definitely the right time. Why? Because the industry is facing a perfect storm. It has some of the longest working hours in the UK, and 86% of people in film and TV are experiencing poor mental health. The resulting burnout, exacerbated by the rush to production after the Covid-enforced hiatus, has led to real skills shortages, with large numbers of crew leaving, and production companies struggling to replace them.

So, last year, we joined forces with BECTU Vision to explore how flexible working could be used to improve work-life balance within drama productions. And today, we’ve published a report on the first phase of the project.

Film and TV sets are hard to make flexible – but not impossible

It’s worth noting up front that introducing flexible working into the film and TV industry is far from straightforward. Schedules are historically built around long days, and budgeted in the number of weeks a project will take. So making them shorter means making the project longer, which in turn has implications for budgets and talent availability.

However, here at Timewise, we thrive on bringing flexibility into hard-to-flex sectors – as our work in construction, nursing and retail demonstrates. And there are positive examples out there – it’s said, for example, that Clint Eastwood’s projects are run on a 9-5 basis. But there’s been no evidence or learnings about what works – which is why we decided to get involved.

Phase 1: scoping the barriers and exploring solutions

We began with a six-month research phase, to explore the barriers and opportunities around introducing flexible working within scripted drama productions. This research, funded by Screen Scotland, included interviews with crew, commissioners and production leads, as well as desk research. And here’s what we found:

  • There are pockets of good practice, within organisations that match the flex to the role. For example, some production teams and editors are working on pre- and post-production from home. Some larger art departments are splitting days and shifts to cover long hours. And some forward-looking line producers are exploring job shares and job splits as a way to train new recruits and soften the retirement cliff-edge.
  • The will is there; there is widespread agreement that the status quo is unsustainable, and that the loss of experienced crew is exacerbating the problem. It is recognised that supporting work-life balance is central to retaining and attracting crew, and supporting their mental health.
  • There is also agreement on the solution. Flexible working means different things within different industries; in film and TV it’s all about reducing the length of the working day. Any kind of sustainable solution needs to have this at its core, and most of the crew and producers that we spoke to believe this is the way to fundamentally change the industry.
  • But the barriers are real, and there is some cynicism about the feasibility and cost of extending a production schedule to accommodate shorter working days. Can it be done? The answer is, we don’t know – so we need to find out. And that’s what we’re doing next.

Next up, phase 2: creating a blueprint for change

The second phase of the project starts in April, and will see us going on set to explore whether productions based on shorter days could be commercially viable, and how they could work in practice.

We’ll be shadowing two live BBC productions in Scotland, both of which are running on a standard schedule and working day. We’ll be capturing and stress-testing crew preferences, using the fact that they are ‘in the zone’ to explore their thoughts on how shoots could be done differently. We’ll then use these insights to build a blueprint for an alternative production schedule and budget, based on a shorter working day, that’s steeped in the reality of life on set.

We’ll also be producing guidance on how to implement this new model, which we’ll ask crew to feed back on and help us refine. And we’ll be working with industry experts to review any previous modelling that could support our approach.

This phase of the project is being supported by Screen Scotland, the BBC and the Film & TV Charity in collaboration with BBC Drama.

Looking ahead to phase 3: piloting our blueprint on a live production

Of course, the best way to get buy-in for fundamental change is to prove that it’s possible. So, our plan is to use these insights to have an informed discussion with a range of industry commissioners and production companies about how viable our blueprint is. It’s our hope that this will lead to the development and piloting of a live shorter-working-hours drama production – and with it, the game-changing example that the industry needs.

In the meantime, we have set out a number of recommendations and potential opportunities for industry stakeholders in our report, such as capturing and sharing existing good practice, building leadership capabilities on flexible working, and undertaking cost-benefit analysis to model the impact of shorter working days.

We need all parts of the industry to come together and support this; bringing about this level of change will require industry-wide attention (and funding), as well as an acceptance that there is likely to be a financial cost.

But the cost of doing nothing is also high; if we want a healthy film and TV industry, we need to pull together to make it happen. Seventeen years ago, the flexibility I needed wasn’t there; let’s make sure that won’t be true for much longer.

Published March 2023

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