Workshop 3: Sustaining Talent in small nations

2-3 June 2016
Aarhus FilmCity, Denmark

The term ‘talent’ is ubiquitous within industry discussions of television production and creative success.  Furthermore within the economic and cultural ambitions of small nations talent is an important resource. This has meant that strategies for nurturing, developing and leveraging talent are an important part of the support infrastructure of many small nations.  For small nations, the question of talent is even more pertinent as their own pool of talent may be limited and they often have to compete with the lure of bigger markets in other nations where opportunities seem more abundant and attractive.

It was this context that framed the third and final workshop of the ‘Television in and from Small Nations’ network in which industry and academic contributors came together to share their perspectives and experiences of talent.  This workshop took place in FilmCity in partnership with our project lead in Aarhus University, Anne Marit Waade.

FilmCity is the regional film and media centre of Western Denmark and has a strong commitment to building creative talent both locally and nationally. We were pleased to have a range of industry stakeholders and academic scholars join us for the various sessions and the debate was a thoughtful and provocative one.  Below is an overview of some of the questions that were addressed over the course of the two days of the workshop.

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What is television talent and how is it changing?

Despite its widespread use in both creative industries policy and television production, the term ‘talent’ has had little academic discussion amongst television scholars. An important exception to this is work by Lisa Kelly and Katherine Champion (2015), which examines talent as a resource within the Scottish television industry.  Lisa joined us for the workshop outlining some of the conceptual and methodological challenges they faced when researching talent.

For many of those present the term talent related to two distinct but often overlapping parts of television production: talent in terms of creativity, innovation and idea generation, and talent as a more instrumental set of skills around project management and artistic delivery.  While creative talent often dominates discussion, a number of those at the workshop reiterated the growing importance and talent associated with project delivery especially in the current financial climate for production. Building the capacity of the labour market within small nations needs to be an essential strategy going forward.  Over the course of the workshop a number of projects were outlined which are part of this capacity building strategy including New Danish Screen, a talent development subsidy scheme providing support for fiction and documentary films.

While leveraging talent can realize specific economic goals, many of the contributors reiterated that talent also has a cultural remit especially in the context of small nations.  Throughout the network, we’ve discussed the value of nations telling stories for and of themselves.  In this session talents associated with storytelling were central to making a place visible and attractive as a creative place.

Contributors also added a range of new skills and talents that condition creative work in a globalized and digitalized landscape.  These included flexibility, ability to work effectively on co-productions, telling stories across multiple platforms, accessing funding and delivering effective mentoring.  Many of the contributors and nations represented told us about different strategies in place for future-proofing the sustainability of talent with their industry.  For instance, Jakob Hogel (project manager New Nordic Noir) illustrated their plans to build on the international success of Nordic Noir and how part of the local strategy was to ensure future talent could envisage creative forms beyond Nordic Noir rather than continually replicating the genre.

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Image from ‘Mapping Talent’ group discussion

How can talent be cultivated and nurtured?

One of the concerns of those at the workshop was around the ways in which talent can be cultivated and nurtured within a nation.  Professor Mette Hjort (Copenhagen University) reiterated that globalization means that creative talent can be sourced and developed not just from and within a national space.  She outlined a number of projects that seek to develop talent across national boundaries.  Central to the success of these projects was that they were characterized by a dialogical (and not an overly bureaucratic) way of working and they often develop talent through taking practitioners out of traditional spaces and engaging in new practices.  As she described it: ‘making talent uncomfortable’ in order to challenge their ways of things and to fulfill their creative potential.

In the project outlined by Hjort, partnerships were a key component in establishing a holistic approach to talent development.  The nature and role of partnerships was one that echoed throughout the workshop.  While many argued for the continuation of public support for talent development through Public Service Broadcasters and educational institutions, many felt that commercial broadcasters and the independent production sector must also play a role – though the nature of that role was much more keenly debated.

The responsibility for talent development across the various parts of the industry is a feature of the creative interdependency of television, film and other screen media in today’s media ecology.  One other component of that ecology, necessary for talent development, was the mix of big-ticket productions and local returning series (such as local drama River City in Scotland (BBC Scotland) and Ros na Rún in Ireland (TG4)) as essential training grounds for talent.

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What are some of the obstacles to television talent in small nations?

Three factors seemed to emerge as key drivers of talent development in small nations: media structures, digital technology and talent mobility.  While all of these offered opportunities they also presented some obstacles to the fulfillment of talent.

All of the participants recognized how the media landscape is changing through, for instance, the threats to the sustainability of PSB and the shifts towards more casual and precarious forms of labour.  The latter proves significant as it can often diminish the diversity of the talent pool as it is often difficult for those without financial security or those with other personal commitments to realise a sustainable career in a industry reliant on project-based work.  The current financial pressures on television commissioners mean that for some of the participants, commissioning was becoming a major obstacle in realizing the potential of new talent.  An over-supply of labour in many markets means there are fewer incentives to remedy the challenges within indigenous labour markets.

As with the previous workshop, digital technology also represented a key resource for talent especially those working within minority languages as it offered an alternative route to an audience.  Hanne Bruun (Aarhus University) outlined how many emerging Danish comedians have prioritized new platforms such as YouTube in an effort to build an international fanbase and thus legitimize their transition to traditional broadcasting.   Equally, broadcasters mine social media and other platforms to identify new talent and alleviate the threat of creative stagnation within the genre.

Finally mobility of talent was seen as a key feature within small nations offering both positive and negative consequences.  While the loss of talent was a concern for many, it was also seen as part of the cultural renewal of many nations and regions especially if there was local capacity to attract people back to the area.  This was seen equally in the biographies of a number of our speakers, who having established successful careers in major international markets, now choose to return to their ‘home’ to help grow the new generation of creative talent.

Participants suggested a number of ways forward.  While the session offered a critical unpacking of the term talent and its application, many of the participants suggested that more careful mapping of talent as a construct within the policy landscapes of both sector-specific and wider creative industries discourses would allow for more precise and careful interventions in this space.  The variety of interventions outlined in the workshops also highlighted the value in mapping models for talent development across small nations to enhance best practice.

What was a very lively and reflective session ended with a plea for greater risk-taking in talent development amongst public institutions and policy-makers.  Individuals, companies and public bodies taking a risk characterized many of the examples given of significant talent emerging from small nations and this was seen as an often-overlooked element of talent in and from small nations.

References

Lisa W. Kelly & Katherine Champion (2015) Shaping screen talent: Conceptualising and developing the film and TV workforce in Scotland.  Cultural Trends.  Vol. 24, No. 2, pp: 165–175, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09548963.2015.1031482

Caitriona Noonan, 13 July 2016

Dr Caitriona Noonan is lecturer in Media and Communication in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) at Cardiff University.