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Black History Month – in conversation with Francis Annan

Francis Annan

Francis Annan graduated from the BA (Hons) Television Production course at BU in 2006 and has since gone on to forge a successful career in TV and film.

Francis is a film director and writer who began his career at the BBC 16 years ago. He has won awards for his short films, directed BBC drama and earlier this year made his directorial debut on the international big screen with the political thriller, Escape from Pretoria, starring Daniel Radcliffe. In 2020 Francis was named one of BU’s Alumni of the Year Award winners.

We caught up with Francis to discuss his experiences of building a career in the media.

Recent reports have highlighted the barriers facing black people when it comes to career progression in various sectors. What are your experiences of this in the media industry?

“If you are a producer with a budget for a film or television project, you are going to want to invest that money in the safest possible bet. In this industry, the stereotypical director is a middle-aged, middle-class, white man. That becomes the norm and therefore also becomes what those in the industry expect to see.

“Anyone outside of that stereotype is seen as a riskier proposition. So, if you are a young black person you are going to find it tougher to get a break. I don’t necessarily think that is overt racism, but it is a context you have to be aware of and have to work harder to overcome. Every now and then there is a kick back against the expected norms, and the industry looks to find fresh voices and perspectives. This opens up opportunities – which could be based on ethnicity, sexuality or gender – and you have to be able to make the most them when they arise.”

Are there particular challenges for black graduates starting out?

“As with any industry, the key is getting experience and credits. To draw on the stereotype referred to earlier, just because you are a middle-aged white man, it doesn’t mean that you are going to make great films. Conversely, you may be young and incredibly talented but you need to be able to demonstrate that by producing work that others can see and judge for themselves. Unfortunately, you often need a decent private income to be able to do that in the first instance.

“What often happens for Black and Asian filmmakers is that they lean towards producing music videos or straight to YouTube films, because that is all they can afford to do. Their showreel then becomes poorer in quality and they don’t gain the recognition they deserve. It’s a catch-22 situation which his difficult to break.”

What about schemes to support and develop talent from minority groups?

“It is important to have schemes which encourage and support those who don’t conform to the stereotype, however my experience of them is mixed. Sometimes they are so focused on recruiting based on the particular criteria that they don’t recruit the most talented or the most tenacious. They can therefore end up damaging the cause. I would encourage new graduates to look at them and go for them if they’re relevant, but don’t over-rely on them to do the work for you. They can open doors, but at the end of the day it’s up to the individual to make things happen in their career.”

What would be your message to black people looking to start out in the media industry?

“Don’t count yourself out. You will get knockbacks because that’s the nature of the industry. Those knockbacks might be based on the colour of your skin, your age or gender, and while I don’t excuse or condone that, it can quickly become the reason you don’t go for things. Those with the most talent and tenacity will be the ones who make it, so be ambitious. In the media industry everyone starts out doing low-level roles. Be prepared to take these roles, work hard, and position yourself for the breaks when they come along.”