For years, one of the film industry’s greatest advantages was the fact that in spite of taxing working hours and a somewhat irregular supply of work it was still incredibly fascinating and attractive to people. These days, however, production teams must start shooting without having the entire crew on board. Post production, too, is missing skilled workers such as visual effects, CGI, and FX artists. At the cineCongress 2022 convention in Munich, Germany, an entire panel was dedicated to the shortage of skilled below-the-line workers, i. e. the crew roles not involved in the creative development of the film. The German Producers Alliance conducted a survey among its members and found that there was a significant shortage of staff in almost any area, particularly in production accounting, unit production management, and floor/unit management. Does that mean the industry has lost its appeal?
Not quite, of course. University study courses in directing, screenwriting, or animation, for example, are still in very high demand. But the film industry needs a lot of staff, and authors only make up for a fraction of the crew. The day-to-day business requires people to work in areas for which there is no study course or vocational training at all. People who simply move from one project to the next, always affected by the fact that at least in many parts of Europe, film production is a seasonal business, meaning that there are prolonged periods during the year in which hardly any shooting takes place – or none at all.
South Tyrolean film producer Wilfried Gufler is very well aware of that problem. While his company, Albolina Film, was recently able to grow and hire new staff in permanent positions, the problem of skills shortages becomes painfully obvious as soon as it comes to building the set and starting shooting. That is when the absence of a unit manager or gaffer forces him to reach out and find someone to fill that role – from abroad, if need be. In addition, like many other industries, the film industry is affected by the population pyramid: the baby boomer generation is retiring, and there are not enough people from younger generations to fill the gaps they are leaving behind. “A region such as South Tyrol has the additional problem of many people, mainly the young, moving away to the big cities”, says Wilfried Gufler. Some seasoned crew members have taken the forced break mandated by COVID to change their careers entirely.
“We need support in the form of options for further training. That way, we could acquire junior talent for such professions that you don’t train for the traditional way.”
GOLIATH AGAINST DAVID
The problem not only affects one region or one country alone but all of Europe, and the situation is only made worse by a significant increase in demand for staff. Florian Geiser, Studio Manager at Cine Chromatix in Meran/Merano, elaborates: “In the past two years, that increase has led to staff being head-hunted at scale by the major players in the market, which makes it even harder for locations such as South Tyrol – even more so because there is no VFX training available for young people here. We are short on skilled workers in practically any area that requires manpower.” Another reasons for that shortage is the numerous productions ordered mostly by streaming services to fill their respective platforms with content as well as the fact that, compared to the past, much more TV series are produced, which leads to staff being tied to one and the same production for a period of time that can be very long indeed. Producer Paolo Pelizza, who is currently involved in an international over-the-top (OTT) production (a media service offered directly to viewers over the internet) for a streaming media provider in Sicily, Italy, thinks that it is therefore even more important for the film commissions in regions located far from the big cities to take action and responsibility: “We need support in the form of options for further training. That way, we could acquire junior talent for such professions that you don’t train for the traditional way.”
FUNDING AND FURTHER TRAINING
Funding institutions have long since recognised that problem, however. “Locations such as South Tyrol, with no time-honoured tradition in film production and accordingly no solid infrastructure to fall back on, are always struggling to retain well-trained experts”, says Birgit Oberkofler, head of the South Tyrolean Film Fund and Commission. Even in the years before COVID-19, various measures were brought under way, such as close collaboration with the schools in the region in order to inform the students about the different professions in the industry and organise internships. In addition, there are long-standing offers to arrange, for example, a training course as a lighting technician at the well-known Maier Bros. film equipment rental in Cologne, Germany. (Part of the internship is completed in Cologne and part at the company’s other location in Meran/Merano. This offer and others are available on the website in the MOV!E IT! category.) The comprehensive database in which filmmakers of every shade can create an entry and advertise their skills is another step in the same direction. “We will continue to pursue and expand these activities”, promises Birgit Oberkofler, “and we will also continue to motivate productions to offer trainee positions and internships. However, we have to make sure that the interns get a real benefit out of it and added value is created.”
“But the ball is also in the producers’ court”, adds Gufler. He believes that the industry is still sexy. But now it must be made sure that professional newcomers are offered attractive and secure job options – long-term employment with production companies through various models rather than project-by-project contracts. “Contracts must be updated to reflect that film professionals will stay registered with their employers even during breaks in shooting. That is the only way for us to retain good people, which is also essential for the quality of our productions. A 50- or 60-hour week is simply not appropriate any more. But paid time off is”, says Wilfried Gufler.
A FOOT IN THE DOOR
A possible solution would be to invest in a broader training programme. The Ansbach University of Applied Sciences in Germany, for example, offers a study course in “Production Management for Film and TV” for a future career as a line producer, production unit manager, or floor manager. The Film Commission of the MOIN Film Fund Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, on the other hand, has found a more low-threshold approach: since 2018, the Commission has offered presentations about lesser-known professions in the film industry held by active members of that profession to talk about their activities and their professional careers. This gives Dara Brexendorf, the coordinator of this event, the chance to reach interested students both at schools and universities who want to learn about ways to actually make a living later on. “But we also try to appeal to seasoned professionals who are considering a career change”, says Dara Brexendorf.
“We’re not looking to convey any highly specialised knowledge but an overview, thus creating opportunities to get access to the industry. Ideally, the graduates will start building a network straight away. In our line of business, that is extremely important.”
The Hamburg Media School, too, introduced its “Get on Set” film trainee programme in September, offering graduates a way to get a foot in the door in the industry. This programme currently has 15 trainees, who receive training in various areas at various companies as well as attend 8 modules plus a special module to systematically study the basics and interdisciplinary information about the film industry. “We’re not looking to convey any highly specialised knowledge”, explains Dr Katharina Schaefer, Managing Director of the Hamburg Media School, “but an overview, thus creating opportunities to get access to the industry. Ideally, the graduates will start building a network straight away. In our line of business, that is extremely important.” The programme is mainly aimed at people aged 25 and over who have already completed a degree and want to start as newcomers in the film industry. The fact that there were 180 applications for the first edition alone only goes to show how badly such a programme is needed.
Those with experience, on the other hand, may also apply for a place in IDM’s mentoring programme. That programme follows a similarly low-threshold approach: local filmmakers can consult with internationally experienced industry professionals about building their careers, which benefits not only the young people but also South Tyrol as a location. (Applications for 2022 are closed. For more information on the programme, please visit https://www.film.idm-suedtirol.com/en/location-development/racconti/alumni-mentoring-programme-call-for-applications.)
Training, further training, placement, and better working conditions: that is one way to describe the foursome which is supposed to ensure that the film industry will remain an interesting place of work for a host of different people with different mindsets and demands. On the one hand, it becomes obvious that there is a clear need for regional options and access opportunities. On the other hand, it is also clear that the film industry has long since started tackling this problem with a focus on solutions.