Culture Trips

‘Getting work has never been harder’: TV and film production during Covid | Film industry

The film and TV industry suffered a slump in production last year due to the pandemic, with a decline of more than £700m in the amount spent on filming. The Guardian spoke to four people who work in film and TV about how their work has been affected by the pandemic.

‘Getting work has never been harder’ – TV director

“The big question is ‘will I ever work again?’ And if not, how can I best say goodbye to an industry I have been part of for all my working life,” says Robin Sheppard, a 55-year-old TV director in London.

Robin Sheppard.
Robin Sheppard. Photograph: Robin Sheppard/Guardian Community

At the start of the first lockdown, Sheppard was collaborating with Benidorm star Julie Graham on a TV show, Dun Breedin, that she hoped would be commissioned. The production was funded, but all the cast and crew worked for free. They continued to make the show during lockdown, and it was broadcast on YouTube in late April.

“Directing remotely while sticking tightly to all the lockdown rules was a massive learning curve for all involved. This intense but exhilarating experience got me through the first months creatively. Not financially though – we were hoping Dun Breedin might get commissioned and lead to paid work for us all, but that hasn’t happened,” she said.

“Since then I have read lots of scripts and prepared for many meetings, but nothing has materialised into an actual directing job yet, with the exception of one commercial. Getting work has never been harder, and I’m the main breadwinner,” she said. “I’m very aware that my life is not at risk unlike frontline workers, so I’m reluctant to moan about my situation, but things have been really tough.”

“The drop-off rate for a woman director after 40 is massive,” she added. “I’m 55, so I’m already pushing at tough boundaries. I’m probably at the end of my career, but I don’t want that to happen.”

‘I’m holding out hope for a new roaring twenties’ – film director

For 33-year-old-film director Tom McNie, new projects “have more or less dried up”. He hasn’t had any directing work during the pandemic, instead returning to digital design and consulting which he did before going to film school to support himself.

Tom McNie.
Tom McNie. Photograph: Tom McNie/Guardian Community

“The odd job appears on the horizon but is usually postponed or cancelled,” said McNie, who lives in London.

McNie and his team had just finished a short film which is enjoying success in festivals, and while this has “buoyed” him, it hasn’t offered the same opportunities for career development as in pre-coronavirus times.

“You’re not meeting any producers, and the films aren’t being screened in person,” he said. “Festivals are struggling to move the social and networking elements of these events online, which is the bit vital to career development.”

Despite this, McNie says he remains positive about the future.

“In other parts of the world where the virus is under control, production remains open. If we can adapt to it over here, and make the virus less transmissible, I’m confident productions will return apace,” he said.

“I’m holding out hope for a new roaring twenties, with cinemas getting a boost from people who want to leave the house and enjoy films with friends and strangers on the big screen – an experience that can’t be topped.”

‘It was difficult not being out and about and having a purpose’ – commercials professional

Ben, who works in commercials based in the north-west, saw all of his work disappear between March and May last year. He did some freelance work in translating, and received a small amount from a grant, which meant his income was “coming straight in at rent, bills and food”.

Since then, he estimates his work as at 60% of its pre-coronavirus levels, and has been able to rebuild some savings, though he said he’d be “back in the red” if the pandemic hadn’t caused a drop in his spending.

The impact has also been psychological.

“At the start of the pandemic, no one had any work, so it wasn’t so much of a problem. At times it was even nice not to be working. But when you’re freelance, you wonder whose doing what and doubt yourself, and when shoots opened up again, it was difficult not being out and about and having a purpose,” he said.

“Despite this, I don’t have any plans to change career or look for something more stable. In general, the future of the industry is pretty good. I’m not worried about the next few years – as long as the vaccines are effective,” he added.

‘Within two weeks I lost five months’ worth of work’ – broadcast engineer

Richard Carroll.
Richard Carroll. Photograph: Richard Carroll/Guardian Community

“Last year was a disaster, for many people in my industry. Within about two weeks I lost five months worth of work. I had been booked to work on the ATP tennis for Amazon Prime Video and a new series of 24 Hours in A&E. I had other odd days in the diary, but it all got cancelled,” says Richard Carroll, a 47-year-old freelance broadcast engineer based in Shepperton. “I did manage to get 17 days work between 10 March and 24 August last year, and I count myself as lucky. But in a normal year I’d have that many days minimum a month.”

Carroll says that losing the work so suddenly was a “massive financial blow”. He was forced to pause his mortgage for six months and live off his savings, but said he and his family were “lucky” to manage.

Carroll claimed on the government’s furlough scheme, but as he is the sole director of a limited company, he could recoup only a fraction of his income.

“I was claiming about £600 a month,” he says. “I was very fortunate that work started back for me in earnest by the end of August. And the tail end of 2020 was actually quite busy. But 2021 and a new lockdown has brought closure to many productions. January was very quiet, February is also quiet. The rest of the year is unknown.”

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