«An Interview With Charles Thompson C.E.O of Prestigious “Black BAFTA’s” Screen Nation. Charles Thompson, CEO of the Screen Nation Film & TV ...»
An Interview With Charles Thompson C.E.O of Prestigious
“Black BAFTA’s” Screen Nation.
Charles Thompson, CEO of the Screen Nation Film & TV Awards, denies being a
trendsetter but the Ghanaian has a history with pirate radio at the beginnings of
what would turn into the club music scene we all know today, and his efforts to
bring to the mainstream an annual celebration of black achievement in British film
and TV may be seen as nothing short of being ahead of the game.
Can you tell me a bit about what has been an influence on you in your early life, in terms of impacting your work ethic and just your way of life in general?
I’m from a family originally of nine children, from my mother who worked very hard obviously, but when I was a young boy two of my elder brothers died in accidents when I was very young so I didn’t really get to know them. What that left was five sisters, four of which who are older than me and one was just a year younger than me, and on top of that my mother was the eldest of seven sisters, so my biggest influence on my life that actually has made me as much of who I am I imagine is women, and African women generally.
Through my immediate family, my siblings and my aunts, they were all extremely strong women, professionals, as well as mothers, housewives and the like, and had a very strong work ethic, and were very nurturing. Being a boy amongst all of that I actually learnt about women and their…magic, lets put it that way.
How important is it to have an annual award show celebrating black achievement in film and TV?
I suppose it is important to recognise the excellence in people when they’ve achieved good things. If they’re not being recognised elsewhere, if say these individuals are part of the British film and TV industry, and they feel that they have achieved very good standard, have done the best they can, have worked very hard, made sacrifices like many others, but for one reason or another, very complex and difficult reasons sometimes, they’re not being nominated, never mind even winning. There then is a sense of, a lack of motivation to kind of really do more, in this context anyway they might think to move somewhere else where they’ll be more recognised, and so in that sense an award show which rewards the sacrifices for the most part, their creativity, their excellence, is an important moment for them to be seen, that their peers are acknowledging them, and that what they have done has some value. So in that respect it is important, it’s also great to have a great party and a get-together once a year too.
How hard was it to make Screen Nation happen?
It was very hard, it is hard now. *laughs* Just because you make a movie and it makes ten million dollars, doesn’t mean that the next movie you make is going to be easy, it might be just as hard. It’s just another experience, so in that respect it’s a continuous journey. It’s been hard to get it started because the concept, the idea of it first of all. A lot of people will say “Well if you do something that is generically known as a black film and TV awards, and award people of African heritage, won’t you be ghettoizing them, wont you be excluding them, wont you be marginalising them?” and I say “No, actually I’ll just be recognising them.” That’s all I’ll be doing. If you see that they’re marginalised or excluded, then that’s your perception. I’m saying this is what we’re doing in a positive form.
So it’s difficult to get the support, not just from the mainstream where you need the support in terms of sponsorships and deals, etc, but from the sector. That’s from the black film and television sector where they’re like “No I don’t want to be part of these awards because I see myself as a British filmmaker, I should be nominated in the BAFTAs” and I’ll say “Fine, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t. I’m saying this is what is available to you if you wish to take it, take it on board positively, don’t take it on board negatively” because I don’t look at the BAFTAs negatively because they haven’t nominated or awarded many black actors or technicians. I’m just saying they need to address and develop on that point of view. Try and challenge it positively, and so in that sense it has been hard to get the consensus of agreement on how we can proceed forward, but its been most difficult in terms of financing it. Awards by their very nature are expensive, if you want to set a standard and there is; the standard is the Oscars, which is high gloss, high glamour, etc, etc, and you’re basically PR’ing your business to the world and that costs money. Then you need the support of the BBC, channel 4, ITV, etc.
Do you perceive a lack of black acting talent allowed to shine in central character roles in British mainstream films?
I think that’s reasonably clear. People see it, you know, its not like you cant see it.
There are a lot of extremely talented black actors who could play leads, but its not a straightforward question as to, well is it the producers not being put in that position, is it…its about writers being able to write any which way they like, as producers and directors help develop these works with a view to an audience. Its about casting directors being open to colour blind cast and leading characters who’s written as ‘John’ to play the hero, lover, whatever, to be [from] any type of culture, not just black. Then there are producers who are confident enough in the awareness of the talent to be able to pitch them hard enough to distributors who finance these movies for the most part, for them to believe that there is an audience that will come and watch them.
There’s all of those things that…its proven time and time again from many, most of the African-American actors, there are some British, who are leading men, from Denzel Washington to Laurence Fishburne to Samuel L Jackson and this is across a range of movies, not just movies that are set in a generically ‘black story’ as such, but completely outside [such as] an action comedy. Its proven that people who come to see these people are not just people who are of that culture but other people, so yes there is a lack and when you consider that someone like Chiwetel Ejiofor, from Dirty Pretty Things, his talent is acknowledged. It’s been acknowledged for a long time, he’s been in a lot of major works but he wasn’t acknowledged for Dirty Pretty Things. I think he was acknowledged two years later, or a year later, as a rising star, and in the same year he plays alongside Denzel Washington in a Spike Lee movie and he holds his own against Denzel. This is a guy who just played a lead in Kinky Boots. For someone who is a rising star he’s done bloody well, considering he’s a black guy, so that has to be looked at and if he was any other actor, in fact if he was Keira Knightley. *laughs* Do you know what I mean? Who’s a god now almost and she’s a 21 year old kid who’s done a couple of movies and you know, anyway its clear.
Also when you consider classically, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the actress from Secrets & Lies. Historically nominated as the first black British women to be nominated for an Oscar, but yet when British Screen as it was at that time took what was the young hot talents at that year to Cannes, to parade them and say “This is our talent”, they didn’t take Marianne Jean-Baptiste who was Oscar nominated. Not one of them had been anywhere near an Oscar nomination or had the charisma or appeal as an actress and she quite rightly said “That’s it, I’m quitting England”, so yes its clear that there is a lack of black talent in central roles in mainstream films.
You used to be a DJ, can you tell me about your experiences?
I was a DJ back in the day, as they say. This was in the early to mid 80’s, before the DJ was the DJ, if you know what I mean.
Before the Carl Cox’s and the like.
Yeah, before house music, the summer of love, all of that. So back then it was something fun to do, that I enjoyed with my friends, but we were just on the verge of beginning to create the club music scene that is now here. I basically did it as a bit of fun, joining my friends who were actually guys who started a sound system, and then we talked our way into a club in the West End and then began playing the West End which was not that usual for young black guys to be playing what was then kind of electronic music, early hip hop, pre-house, it wasn’t house music then, in the West End just for a mixed crowd any type of music, because mostly now you generally get certain styles of music in certain clubs, and that’s the way it went.
But it was a really great experience; it was the time of the pirate radio, when pirate radio was beginning to become legitimate. Kiss FM was a pirate weekend station at that point, where many of the world-renowned DJs started. Also Choice FM was then a pirate radio station, etc. I was doing some pirate work and I met people like Trevor Nelson, Trevor Madhatter as he was called then as part of his sound, Jazzy B from Soul To Soul sound system as opposed to Soul To Soul the band, Gordon Mac former managing director of Kiss FM who was just a DJ and entrepreneur, Paul Trouble Anderson one of the great house/garage DJs who was just Troublesome at that point, all these guys that were coming up.
Do you consider yourself a trendsetter, considering your involvement with radio and now with Screen Nation? Are you ahead of the game?
I don’t know if I’m ahead of the game but I suppose I must be in a circle of things, and people, that are doing things that are making some kind of change or having an effect in London at the very least, maybe the part of the planet that we’re in. I don’t think about it because you just do it and then it happens; it takes a lot of circumstances to make that all happen.
How and why did you get into the film industry from radio?
Well I didn’t make it a conscious thing, you end up on radio because someone says “We’re doing a pirate, come on we need you to fill a slot.” I take the late night slot because I’m up late at night and I can play what I like and my personal music is jazz funk, that’s what I really like. You just get used to knowing how to communicate in another way and that’s interesting, as well as just with your music. I didn’t go into film and TV purposely. I was unemployed for a while in the 80’s and not sure what I wanted to do because previously to that I was training to be an accountant, what my mum and dad wanted me to be, and I saw a thing. It was through a, what is kind of now known as a New Deal scheme, to train in video production. So I went to a place called Pimlico Arts & Media and learnt about video/television production. From there I realised this was something that I was interested in and went forward with it and here I kind of am now.
What has your experience as a producer been like?
Well over many years things change, you know. I started off as soon as I knew about video television production. I knew I wanted to be a producer but I knew I couldn’t just be a producer because you need to know quite a lot, you need to have a lot of relationships and you also need something to fall back on. I was an editor first, for about three or four years because I understood that filmmaking, anything audio/visual, is in the edit. That’s where it happens.
It was my backup as a job but all the time I was trying to gear myself towards making work and I understood that to make work, to actually be in control of it was not to be the director but was to be the producer. Now, my experiences over that period of time have gone up and down as my experiences increased, so my circle of relationships has increased, because that’s the key thing. The more relationships you have, the more significant relationships you have as a producer, the more you can get things done.
Because it’s just about getting things done.
The contacts you have.
Yeah, ultimately, and beginning to make them as well. With a background that people will at least sit down and listen to you because you’ve got something behind you. So its been pretty difficult, but I’ve been reasonably lucky in that I made, well I opted to make, a lot of first films by new directors because my interest was to develop a whole bunch of directors that would all work for me, and I would make feature films with them in the future. I did that and many of those directors have all gone on to work in television, commercials, doing movies, different things like that, and I have relationships with them.
So its been different from the beginning to now, but its not been easy, because raising money, which is the bulk and serious part of what a producer’s work is, is extremely tough for anybody, and when you’re trying to raise money for projects that are maybe deemed not to have the audience value that you might feel it could have. The financers with their institutional private or industry…they are sometimes reluctant to take the risks that are involved in making any film production.
There are many sponsors involved.
Yeah, you need that, but the reason there are many sponsors because the many give very little, so you need all the very little’s to make it work on a bigger scale. So it’s been difficult in that respect, just getting to grips with all the political questions and issues to do this, because I make films. I try to make films as opposed to give awards and acknowledge people.
There are many sponsors involved with the Screen Nation Awards. Do you think you’re established now?
No, not at all. It would be silly for me to think, just because I’ve had all the broadcasters in the industry or most of the institutions support the event over the years in various ways, that we’re established. It’s not the case. Every year you have to go back and make the case for support, continuously. It’s not like they just say “Yes we’ll sponsor you for the next five years” and so in that respect I know we’re not established. There are many supporters and individuals in the business who understand what I’m trying to do and see it as a positive thing, especially these days with regards to the interest in cultural diversity and all those things, but yet there isn’t a consistency in terms of the financial support increasing as the costs and the scope of the awards increases.