Catharine Des Forges is the Director of the Independent Cinema Office. She has spent over 20 years working in the exhibition sector for a variety of organisations including the BFI and Arts Council England. She has worked as a freelance programmer and arts consultant and progammed for festivals and cinemas both in the UK and internationally. She has lectured on film at a number of UK universities and is a regular contributor to industry events and a frequent filmmaker Q&A host. You can find her top ten films here.
I could only make a difference because I’m the boss. On the leadership course, I encourage women to go for the top job… If you’re not there, it is much harder to change things.
Can you tell us about running the Independent Cinema Office (ICO)? How do you manage that and being a parent?
I started the ICO in 2003 – although I didn’t start having children until 2008. The ICO came out of BFI services shifting, and a need for an agency to support the independent exhibition sector. I knew there was an opportunity, and we were given ten months’ of skeleton funding by the UK Film Council. Fourteen years on, we’re still here. I’d been in the sector for a long time, and knew there was a need for a one-stop shop – programming, distributing, advice and information and, very importantly, building professional skills as there were no training programmes for independent exhibitors then. Now I do the strategic planning and fundraising, and some specialist and touring programmes, but at the beginning, I also programmed cinemas.
It’s harder to make things work when its earlier in your career – whether you want to be a festival programmer or a venue programmer, you need to put your own time in outside office hours when you’re getting started. You go to festivals, screenings, visit archives, and you have to maintain your visibility. The industry is very sociable and networking-dependent. A lot of the job is going away to see films in festivals for example and visiting venues or attending events. But now I pick events very specifically, and plan in advance so I can attend them, and I think everyone could do that.
How have caring responsibilities changed your working practices over time?
I’ve got three children, who are now 3, 5 and 8. When I had the first one, I didn’t go anywhere for the year, then I went away for just two nights when she was one to lead a course at a film festival abroad. Even now, I try not to be away for more than two nights at a time. Making it work, though, is obviously dependent on your partner and what they do.
Having a child definitely changed what I could do. I was fortunate that I didn’t have children until I was quite old. People say there are downsides, but the upside is that you are further along in your career. I’d already had lots of experience of festivals, travelling and networking events, and I was the Director of my company, so I could make an argument to the board for how I thought I could make things work. This is harder to achieve if you are not so senior or experienced.
Even now, I try not to be away for more than two nights at a time. Making it work, though, is obviously dependent on your partner and what they do.
Do you share your experience with the trainees who come on the ICO courses?
No, we don’t cover parenting and caring on the ICO training courses specifically, – only on the Women’s Leadership course in exhibition. Now, on that course we have people coming to talk about work-life balance, including speakers who do have children. It’s a small group, so people share their experiences.
We have had a few pregnant people on courses: I do think that people have kids and then sometimes leave the industry because they find it difficult to carry on. It’s very hard to juggle the hours (especially if you work in a venue or festival) and your income and the costs of childcare.
Have you had any role models in the industry, or seen any particular examples of good practice in making provision for parents and carers in the exhibition and distribution sector?
I had no role models or examples of good practice(!). I started the company, and worked weekends and late nights for five years, then had a child, and I wanted to come back to the same job. At the same time, there were two senior managers – both men – who had children, so there were things we wanted to make available for everybody such as salary sacrifice for childcare and more flexible hours. That’s the thing: parental rights needs to be a priority for management. I’ve got three children now, and as time goes on, I see the difficulties more.
I sometimes wonder, if you did bring them up on a diet of cultural cinema, maybe they’d hate it? As a parent, whatever you do, you worry about it but I haven’t shown them any arthouse classics yet…
How do your children understand what you do? Have they come to work with you?
My kids know what a cinema is, and that I work with cinemas. And when I’m running training days, they understand that I’m teaching. I do like taking them to the cinema, and will do when they’re older, but film choices are always tagged to thinking about what the youngest can and will watch. Luckily I quite like Disney films! We all loved Moana; I thought Disney was finally getting to grips with cultural diversity, and loved that it had a female lead character. But their favourite film is Nativity! Their dad keeps saying it’s not Christmas anymore! I sometimes wonder, if you did bring them up on a diet of cultural cinema, maybe they’d hate it? As a parent, whatever you do, you worry about it but I haven’t shown them any arthouse classics yet…
What changes would you like to see the industry implement to make it more possible for parents and carers? We had lots of people working in exhibition and distribution respond to our survey.
The film industry is not family-friendly across the board – for men either. You need to be well-paid and have a nanny perhaps, or space for an au pair, or have family carers like grandparents who are unpaid, live nearby and don’t have any other caring responsibilities.
Anecdotal evidence tells me that the perception of part-time workers is that they’re working less hard or are inflexible. I’ve also heard that people returning to work are dropped from planning meetings or those at which decisions are made – their views aren’t sought. We need to recognise that people with kids are focused, organised and experienced.
But we could do also think about:
- salary sacrifice schemes for childcare: the ICO pays OFSTED-registered childcarers and nurseries directly, and recoups it from salary. It costs nothing to set up, so why not do it? Someone can elect to “sacrifice” £243 per month from gross (before tax) to childcare, and that saves then about £80 per month in taxes.
- maternity pay: we pay three months full salary, then statutory pay for up to another nine months. Bigger and more wealthy companies could do that or more. I’ve heard negative stories about people being moved out of their jobs to avoid maternity pay or bigger companies who don’t pay any more than statutory maternity pay which is £140.98 per week after the first 6 weeks. But for small companies, the government refunds a significant percentage of statutory maternity pay.
- flexibility about work hours: the ICO shuts its office at 6pm, and people have to leave. I don’t believe in the culture that says staying in the office late equates to doing more work. I’d rather people just did their work effectively when they were here and left for the day. People do take emails and calls on their days off or stay late if necessary. I did three days a week when I came back to work, and I always took calls and read my emails on my days off – but then I was running the company. I don’t necessarily expect it of anyone else.
- equal parental rights: if you have family-friendly policies and men want to also make use of them, encourage that. We’ve had fathers working flexibly and part-time.
- leave: don’t make people take leave if they’ve taken time off to look after their children when they are ill.
- don’t assume a one-size-fits-all solution: There are cost implications around having a nanny versus using a nursery, it doesn’t work for everybody. You need to support a variety of solutions.
It’s about recognising who is working hard, and doing a great job, who is diligent and conscientious, and then being flexible for the early years. I try and support people in the way that I would want to be supported myself.
We need to recognise that people with kids are focused, organised and experienced.
Exhibition and distribution have lots of influence on what gets seen on screen, and how. What can E&D do to make cinema more family-friendly?
Commercial cinemas are good at family programming in terms of accessibility. The larger circuits offer a Kids’ Club on weekends with very cheap tickets, often around £2 – that’s affordable even for a larger family. Local cinemas such as Peckhamplex and the Genesis are also affordable for new films – the Kids’ Club programme is still not equal access because it’s repertory programming, and kids want to see what all their friends are watching at school. Lots of independent cinema clubs offer clubs or family memberships or young viewers’ discounts.
I went to see Sing! Recently which was in a huge screen with a good rake, and toddlers and babies were free to wander around at the front, and nobody minded, that was a really nice experience and fraught-free which is unusual (!). It’s important to think about the space – where is there to go after the Parent and Baby screenings, for example? There was a session about this at This Way Up last December. There’s lots of great initiatives bound up with festivals or special events, and there’s Parent and Baby screenings with baby-changing and buggy parking. But that thoughtfulness could extend to families with toddlers – I think ultimately though that cost is the biggest factor, for cinemas and for families.
What advice would you give to other parents and carers who want to work in E&D?
For me, my family is more important than work – I’m not going to look back and think, “I wish I’d spent more time at the ICO” although obviously, the work that I do is important to me. As a boss of a small company, I’d often prefer to have an experienced professional working for me part-time if they have caring responsibilities than a full-time person with no experience because they are very effective.
I think it’s hard for young people whose bosses have never thought about this (even male bosses who have children, but whose partners are primary carers), who perhaps preside over a culture of long and out-of-hours working. Anecdotally, it’s a big issue in other commercial sectors of the industry but I think things are changing as a new generation comes in.
I could only make a difference because I’m the boss. On the leadership course, I encourage women to go for the top job, to have the confidence to go for it, otherwise you’re just facilitating leadership. If you’re not there, it is much harder to change things. You need someone at the top who is supportive and understands the practicalities of your situation.