“That’s just not possible for the majority of people"
Screenwriter Bisha K Ali is teaming up with Netflix and Sky to launch a fellowship scheme in a bid to make the TV industry more inclusive.
It will give six screenwriters from minority backgrounds a year’s salary.
Bisha, who has created the upcoming Ms Marvel series, hopes that taking away the “sense of clawing financial instability” that many young writers face will reduce the barriers for people from minority backgrounds.
According to Ofcom’s diversity report, “progress is still far too slow” in TV employing a wider range of people.
But Bisha says the way television is set up makes it “prohibitively expensive” for many to get a start.
The fellowship is based on Bisha’s own experiences when she was struggling to make ends meet as she looked to move from being a domestic violence support worker to TV.
At one point, she thought about selling her sofa to pay her rent.
Because she could not afford to live in London, she moved to Manchester.
She said she felt a “kind of isolation in the industry on my way up… I feel like it’s inherently hostile with the way it’s set up”.
Her first year or two of being a TV writer in the UK involved having a series of general meetings with production companies.
For many, that meant “getting the tube into London, finding somewhere to set up camp for the day – if you don’t want to sit in a cold park – paying your way between meetings if you’re not getting paid by whoever you’re meeting with, [and] getting time off work at short notice because this really cool producer can meet with you tomorrow.
“That’s just not possible for the majority of people, so we can talk about diversity in terms of inclusion and getting more voices on screen and that kind of thing, but how can we get more voices if those barriers are just not being looked at?”
The idea came to Bisha K Ali in 2017 when she said the process was “prohibitively expensive” for people on low incomes.
In a Facebook post, she wrote:
“It all feels like it’s stacked against people with lower incomes – disproportionately women of colour, obviously, because of wage disparity – and I don’t feel like there’s funding out there to support new writers in this space, to match the attempts at supporting ‘diversity’ in these industries.”
After achieving success, Bisha thought about how “can I be good on my word and set something up”.
She said diversity was talked about “forever” but a lot of young writers felt “just give us money, that will help change that pipeline”.
Industry bodies like ScreenSkills have been trying to help, awarding £1.3 million in bursaries to 1,200 people over the last two years.
This is typically used for things like laptops and wet weather gear.
According to Bisha, another answer to improving diversity was:
“Hire us, commission us, pay us… it is not rocket science.
“We can do studies, we can look into it as much as possible, [but] commission us and if you fear it because it’s a risk, surround us with people that you know.
“I’m not a commissioner [so] what I can do is try to give us more opportunity to be undeniable.”
Bisha K Ali has been developing projects with Netflix and started speaking to Anne Mensah, Netflix’s Vice President of Original Series, on the issue in 2019.
The plans were accelerated and Netflix got Sky involved when the pandemic happened.
Bisha said: “My fear was the pandemic is going to take us X steps backwards in terms of taking risks on new voices, so we have to be supporting and making us less risky prospects.
“How you make us less risky is by building credibility, so that’s why the fellowship will get you your first television credit… plus mentors, connections… [and] hopefully creative partnerships that can go on into the future.”
The fellowship scheme will begin in September 2021. Applications are due by June 18, 2021.