Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production
Inclusivity at the Ground Floor of Production
London, UK
Liked by Mia and -1 others
How new agents Just Runners are making better on-set diversity easy for British productions
For an industry that prides itself as a meritocracy, the UK production landscape is nowhere near as diverse as you might hope. It is way more male, white, middle-class and able-bodied than it should be. But as founder of Just Runners Paul McLoone knows, the film and advertising spheres have a lot of catching up to do. TV has pushed an inclusivity agenda onto productions and the effects are showing.

According to an Ofcom report, women account for 48% of employees across the UK’s five main broadcasters, versus 51% of the wider UK population. BAME employees make up 12%, compared to the UK average of 14%. It’s not perfect - there’s a lot of progress still to be made at the more senior levels and definitely on the disability front (3% versus 18% of the population) - but progress is being made in TV. Advertising production doesn’t get anywhere close to these figures. “I really feel that it is time that bodies like the IPA request that production companies employ with inclusivity as a factor. Just like TV does,” says Paul. 

Juliette Larthe, founder and executive producer at Prettybird, feels the same. “There are not enough people who are monitoring who they employ on set,” she believes. “If we all had to give our statistics at the end of the year as to whom we had employed and this information was public. I feel our industry would do more and then we wouldn’t be struggling to crew up with a truly diverse crew.”

Instead of waiting for that diversity mandate to come from on high, Paul has taken matters into his own hands. His idea for Just Runners first came to him over a year ago. He’d create an agency to represent a new cohort of the best potential runners he could find every six months, all from backgrounds other than the usual. They’d be paid, earn experience and build up their CVs to the point where they could make their way onto a dairy service’s books. He asked around to make sure he wasn’t missing something key, phoning production companies and 1st assistant directors working in commercials, film, TV and corporate. He wanted to find out if they thought inclusivity initiatives were a good idea for the industry. “Pretty much 98% of people did think it was a good idea,” he says. “And I would ask ‘do you have any initiatives that you follow?’ and probably only 20% of people did.”

As he thought about it Paul realised he’d have to provide a service. Regulating the TV industry is one thing, but for the fast-moving cluster of small businesses that make up advertising production, speed and convenience is what moves people.

Matt Klemera, a producer at Gas & Electric, appreciates Paul acknowledging this. “Finding runners initially is usually word of mouth, or purely a case of availability/convenience with a diary service,” he says. “What makes me like working with someone and want to book them again is all about attitude. Someone who is eager to learn no matter how experienced they are. Being polite and approachable, with good manners goes a very long way.”

He tried to crowdfund the project last year. About 50 companies - people in the production world with good reputations - came on board in support. “I didn’t get to raise the money, but there was enough there to realise this was a good way to do it,” he says. He worked out a structure with fewer overheads and set up shop.

Kerry Smart, a producer at 1stAveMachine, explains why the idea made sense to her. “[Diversity] just sometimes isn’t the key focus when crewing up. I guess that’s a lesson and a responsibility for us in production. They’ve done the leg work in bringing diversity to the table. It’s a great idea. And it’s going from a place of expertise and knowledge for the industry.”

Matt considers why Just Runners is so important. “I don't think this is necessarily about ethnicity or gender, rather: class, luck, situation, location, he says. “I was fortunate enough to be born in London and had my Mum's house to crash in when I was doing unpaid work experience. I had various shitty part-time / temp jobs to support me financially, but I really empathise with anyone that a) lives outside of London where the bulk of this industry is, and b) anyone who has to pay rent here while starting out in this industry, it's bloody hard to find the time to spend the time knocking on doors and creating opportunities for yourself when you have to work and have bills to pay.”

With the production community on board, Paul needed a source for his diverse, passionate intake of runners. Thankfully there are thousands of people hammering at the door of the film industry, so this was less of a challenge. Just Runners couldn’t just take on anyone though, there needed to be a filter. “I get a lot of emails coming from here there and everywhere trying to get into Just Runners, which is difficult because you get thousands of people and I really admire their devotion,” he says, “but we’re trying to do it as a pipeline with diversity programs leading to film, guiding that along the way.” He connected with programs such as the BFI, Creative Skillset and Prince’s Trust. 

That pipeline works to filter down all the people who want to get their first chance in filmmaking to a cohort of just 20 diverse, talented and eager individuals. The first step is that the courses and initiatives nominate their very best individuals - people who’ve got something a bit extra, as well as not having the usual, often nepotistic, opportunities to get on set.

Next, each of these fill in an application. All of the nominees have experience making films, either from film courses at colleges and universities or making films with firneds - so attitude is the main distinguishing feature. 

From these applications, Just Runners selects 50 candidates to go through to an assessment day, at a studio, where the potentials are interviewed and have to perform various tasks that would be expected of runners.

20 are selected from this process. Then they become the runners on Just Runners’ books for the next six months. Producers can pick up the phone and book them on their jobs and they have the chance to prove themselves in the industry, building up a CV.

Just Runners is now fully operational, with its first group of 20 enthusiastic people selected and getting on their first professional sets. They come from various backgrounds, but as Paul says, what unites them is “experience of closed doors.”

The first assessment day in December 2017 wasn’t forgiving. Just Runners had to whittle their intake of 50 down to 20. “We were quite ruthless about timing,” says Paul. “People went to the wrong address, turned up ten minutes late. From word go it’s been that you don’t mess up.” 

The organisers weren’t expecting expert filmmakers though. It was a chance to go over the things that can be really daunting to runners when they first get on set - “the everyday stuff that once you get used to you forget,” says Paul. Where things are in a studio, how to open big studio doors, how the lights work. It was about getting over the hump. “Everybody went through a list of the things that made me feel stupid when I first started,” he says.

The runners basically ran the day. Harti Mohamed, one of the runners who made it through, had the task of ushering people into the one-to-one interviews. “It was interesting to see people going in confidently or nervously and hearing their stories and how they’re going to do,” he says.

Constanza Manzoni says the day helped her to get used to the fundamentals of running on a professional set. “Building the idea that you have to have a checklist in your head,” she says. “Because it’s common sense, but for me I’ve worked on sets but they were university sets between friends. Everyone does everything so it’s very relaxed. But when you go on a professional shoot it’s a very different thing. And if you go through all these steps once you have a bit more confidence. You’ll always have this attitude of checking around and being prepared.”

The runners had to tackle a range of tests, but speaking to the graduates the one that looms largest in the Just Runners minds is the ominously named test ‘the door’. Sarah Kate Stoll recalls the task - the first of the day - where they had to open and go through an 18-foot against the clock: “It was a huge double door. You had to lift up this latch and really give it a good push in under 15 seconds. I believe it was timed. It was a hefty group of people just watching someone open this door. If you got selected you had to run out the door and if you couldn’t open it, well….”

Penelope Joannidou likes to learn from YouTube, but online learning can’t beat the real life experience she got on the day. “You can learn anything there. I learnt to gut a fish there,” she says. “I watched a lot of videos on being a runner, but it makes such a difference if you actually touch that door and open it yourself, next time you’ll be comfortable doing it. So to do everything there in real life gave us the confidence to go on set.”

“That door is symbolic of how hard it is to get your foot in the door,” says Just Runner Jordan Dunn, who has recently worked on his first professional set with 1stAveMachine. “Once it’s open, you’re in. When I joined the studio at 1stAveMachine I was ready to push open the door and at first it was hard to push but once I got rolling I was really enjoying it. It gave me a whole new crowd of people.”

Sarah Kate has also been on set since, on a fashion shoot with Prettybird. It was a long say, but she says she enjoyed every second. And Paul’s checklist of things that made him feel stupid helped her to overcome these moments. “Once the ball’s rolling you feel confident going in head first and doing whatever it is you’re assigned to do,” she says.

Juliette explains how the Just Runners process works for her company: “We are always specific as a company that we need a mix of runners, from the onset. I discuss with Just Runners, who explain the level of experience in the person we’re getting to come on set. Once this has been gauged we can understand if they are coming completely green or if they can be of significant use to the production. 

“At that point we’ll inform our AD department whether we are adding to their team someone who needs the basic building blocks, or someone who’ll be a contributing asset. On occasions I have asked for a Just Runner who has to be au fait with central London or other such attributes needed when on location. I haven’t yet been disappointed.” 

For companies like Prettybird, 1stAveMachine and Gas & Electric, using Just Runners as part of their process is a guarantee that they are creating an inclusive space for people who would like to explore the industry, but wouldn't have the opportunity based on the composition of the industry as it stands.

Juliette highlights how much easier it makes the challenge of promoting diversity: “If every shoot in London employed one Just Runner, in a year we would have a talented new generation in whatever field they choose to explore.

“Running is a fabulous opportunity to get to know what goes on behind the scenes,” she says. “And as one’s experience grows, the benefits of being good at it mean one can not only be in constant work but also decide which area to pursue. Running helps people figure out if this is indeed the industry they would like to commit to. It's not for everyone and yet for those that take to it, it can lead onto be the best job in the world. 

“It’s also not terrible to be a ‘bad’ runner either,” Juliette adds. “Some of the worst runners I have ever had are now some of the biggest directors out there.”

Just Runners' patrons include 76 Ltd, Bare, Blink Productions, Fat Lemon, P for Production, Partizan, Rattling Stick, The Sweet Shop, Caviar, Prettybird, Skunk, Stink and Gas & Electric.

More News from LBB Editorial
Work of the Week
Work of the Week: 01/12/23
Work from LBB Editorial
Hero: Focus
Full Story