Written evidence submitted by Dr James Fenwick

Re: British Film and High-End Television

My name is Dr. James Fenwick and I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Culture and Media at Sheffield Hallam University, with research expertise in film and media industries, film and media workers, and film festivals. I’m submitting evidence in regard to an often-overlooked aspect of the British film industry’s exhibition sector: film festivals.

I was the Principal Investigator on a Screen Industries Growth Network funded project in 2022/23 titled ‘Yorkshire’s film festival programmers: working conditions, skills, and the relationship to the region’s screen industries’. A series of reports and publications will soon be published. I’ve also researched the history of film festivals and independent cinemas in the UK, with a focus on those based in post-industrial Northern English cities. In this evidence submission I will provide a summary of emergent findings about the precarity of the British film festival circuit, its importance to the wider film industry ecology, and the need to invest in the skills of specialised film festival workers, specifically film festival programmers who serve as a key cultural gatekeeper between new and developing talent, the wider film industry, and audiences. Investing in film festivals can lead to a much more sustainable film industry and exhibition sector with firm roots for the growth of new talent in the regions. Film festivals can spread the potential wealth of the film industry from beyond the South East of the UK to the rest of the country, thereby increasing social, cultural, and economic activity. The report is brief in order to focus the Committee’s attention on the key arguments and emergent research findings.

Film festivals globally have burgeoned over the past sixty years, with estimates suggesting that globally there are anywhere between over 3500 medium-to-large sized festivals.[1] This circuit of film festivals has a close and deeply connected relationship to the wider film industry:

The UK has a varied film festival circuit. Most cities and towns now have at least 1, with many cities now having multiple film festivals throughout the year. Most of these festivals are small-to-medium in scale, organised by local cultural organisations, independent cinemas, universities, or being community-led. However, there are a number of larger and globally important film festivals in the UK. These include (and are not limited to) the BFI London Film Festival, which in 2022 attracted a combined in-person and online audience of 291,100 and had screenings at nine regional partner cinemas across the UK; Sheffield DocFest, which remains one of the most influential documentary festivals in the world and attracted an in-person audience of 25,424 in 2022 and screened 135 films from 55 countries in 2022; and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the world’s oldest continually running festival and which managed to return in 2023, despite ongoing financial uncertainty as to its future.

Film festivals are increasingly integral to the cities and regions that host them: festivals can boost tourism, generate economic activity, contribute to the overall cultural and social wellbeing of a city or wider region, serve a vital role in community outreach, integration, representation, and education, and even encourage urban regeneration and investment.[4] For example, Sheffield DocFest brings approximately £1.4 million spend into the Sheffield city region each year and was a festival that was founded explicitly to further urban regeneration in the 1990s following the collapse of the steel industry.[5]

Film festivals therefore serve both a role to the wider development and growth of the film industry and to the development of the economy of cities and their wider regions. Yet, the film festival circuit is precarious. Despite the successes and contributions outlined above, and the number of major film festivals in the UK, none of this is guaranteed to continue. As was demonstrated in 2022, the film festival circuit is prone to collapse. The Edinburgh Film Festival was a subsidiary of the company The Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), which went into administration in 2022. The future of the film festival was left in doubt, though a slimmed down version of the festival was able to run in 2023 due to the intervention of the local council and Screen Scotland. Similarly, the film festival circuit is built on a labour force of freelance workers and volunteers, leading to an unstable festival model.

Below I have outlined what my research indicates are the 4 key areas of precarity within the film festival circuit. This is followed by 4 recommendations that can begin the process of eliminating these areas of precarity from the film festival circuit and lead to a more sustainable framework for its continuation and growth, and its contribution to the wider film industry.

Emergent Findings

  1. Finance: Film festivals rely on a patchwork of funds in order to operate, with no guarantee that funding will continue year-on-year. Primary investors and sponsors typically include the British Film Institute (BFI), the Arts Council, national media organisations like the BBC, Channel 4, global media organisations like Amazon and Netflix, universities, and local authorities. The burden of financial responsibility to film festivals can fall heavily on local authorities, particularly as a film festival grows in size and importance, thereby increasing the needs of a local authority to maintain the festival within the city and not lose it to potential competitor cities. Yet, local authority budgets are stretched, a combined impact of imposed austerity, national government budget cuts, and rising inflation. Local authorities are having to revisit budgets and reduce financial commitments to major film festival and cultural events, despite their recognised importance to the local economy. Therefore, this places film festivals at risk in terms of financial shortfalls.


  1. Contracts: Film festivals rely on large precarious workforces to successfully operate, whether a pool of volunteers to staff a festival throughout its live operation, through to a range of specialised workers hired on a short-term basis to carry out duties such as marketing, events management, and programming. Film festival programmers are a particularly important form festival labour. Film festival programmers sift through films submitted to a festival, watch them, provide critical feedback, and from a shortlist build a festival’s programme. Programmers also curate retrospective programmes, provide programme copy, arrange, and host filmmaker Q&As, track the development of projects and secure them for premiere status, liaise with distributors, liaise with producers, mentor filmmakers, and introduce films. Programmers are typically educated to postgraduate level, with a high proportion educated to doctoral level, and possess a complex and specialised set of skills. Yet, they are typically employed on an informal, short-term basis with no guarantee of future work. They are treated as a disposable workforce, with festivals across the globe regularly dismissing programmers without notice. Programmer contracts are rarely formal. Instead, they are employed through informal verbal agreements. They are employed freelance, with no employment rights. Typically, programmers work extreme hours in a condensed period of time in order to meet a festival’s programme deadline: this is the festival’s ‘crunch’ culture. Programmers who have spoken out about their working experiences have told of the impact of this precarious lifestyle on their wellbeing, suffering from anxiety, depression, and uncertainty.


  1. Pay: Film festival programmers are typically employed underpaid for their work and there are no nationally agreed pay scales or contracts. Many programmers have to negotiate their pay with no comparators, meaning they typically undervalue their work. My research also indicates that many programmers have to work multiple jobs, often both as a programmer and in non-specialised, non-festival work in order to supplement their income.


  1. Training: Many paid film festival roles are highly specialised, such as the role of the film festival programmer. But opportunities to broaden access and entry to these roles remains limited. Many film festival programmers report only becoming aware of the role through voluntary work whilst at university. This in itself presents a problem of representation, with the workforce not being particularly diverse. There is also a lack of access to training and skills development, with a greater need for collaboration between national bodies such as the BFI, festivals, and universities in order to promote, educate, and inform.



  1. Workers’ rights: There is a need to protect the rights and working conditions of film festival workers. Greater union involvement in the sector, through BECTU for example, or the creation of specialised workers’ collectives would enable the strengthening of workers’ rights and the potential to eliminate some of the more problematic business practices of festivals that lead to a festival ‘crunch’ culture, precarious working conditions, and the undervaluing of labour.
  2. Pooling of resources: Many film festival workers, in particular film festival programmers, work short-term contracts across multiple festivals. However, one way of potentially eliminating the precarious working conditions experienced by film festival workers is for festivals to pool the labour resource and provide more secure year-round contracts, with festivals sharing workers.
  3. Training: Film festivals required specialised labour in the form of film festival programmers who are integral not only to the successful operation and delivery of an individual festival, but also to the wider film industry ecology. However, specialised training is needed to prepare the next generation of skilled festival workers, which can be achieved through greater collaboration between festivals and local educational organisations (colleges and universities) and through community outreach in order to break down barriers to access.
  4. National film festival investment fund: The film festival circuit in the UK remains financially precarious. The collapse of some of the UK’s major festivals could severely impact the regional economies of cities beyond London, in particular those in the north. The importance of the festival to cultural wellbeing, community cohesion and identity, and to the creative economy needs to be recognised and the burden of financial responsibility lifted from local authorities. A national film festival fund, delivered either by the BFI or by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, can provide long-term sustainability to the country’s festival circuit and, in turn, support the wider film industry ecology.


My own research into the role of film festivals continues and I am particularly interested in further examining the issues of 1) specialised film festival work and 2) film festivals and urban regeneration. Film festivals are integral to the film industry, the film exhibition sector, and to the local and national creative economy. Recognition of the festival circuit’s importance is crucial in the work of this committee, and I am more than happy to share further research findings, expertise, and insight, and I am available to answer any questions the Committee may have.




[1] Jesper Strandgaard Pedersen and Carmelo Mazza (2011), ‘International film festivals: for the benefit of whom?’, Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Research, vol. 3, p. 140.

[2] An Economic Review of UK Independent Film, July 2022, Alma Economics, P. 5.

[3] Dina Iordanova (2015), ‘The Film Festival as an Industry Node’, Media Industries Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 7-11.

[4] James Fenwick (2021), ‘Urban regeneration and stakeholder dynamics in the formation, growth and maintenance of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in the 1990s’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 838-863.

[5] Sheffield DocFest Annual Report 2022, p. 24.