Sara Gunn-Smith – Marketing and Audiences Officer at Film Hub NI and mother of two – shares their experience of the year that was 2020 – both the lows and the highs, and we’re delighted that one of those highs was participating in Making It Possible. Sara also shares her hopes and ambitions for 2021, which are both uplifting and, let’s always hope, achievable. Raising Films extends huge thanks to Sara for this open and honest account.
I remember the date clearly, Friday 13 March would be the last day my two children (now age 7 and 9) would attend primary school until September… I will never forget my feelings of anxiety, stress, bewilderment and shock at this sudden interruption to our lives. How would we (myself and my husband) cope? How would we deal with homeschooling, and in particular supporting our dyslexic son? How would we both work from home? Would we keep our jobs?
There were plenty more questions than answers…
Roll on a few days later and the cinema (beautiful Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast) where Film Hub NI has its office, would shut its doors – on St. Patrick’s Day, of all days. This seemed like a particularly cruel irony, on a day when we should have been off work celebrating the bank holiday (probably in the pub), we were in packing up our desks and saying goodbye to colleagues with no real idea of when we would see each other again.
My role as Marketing and Audiences Officer for Film Hub NI (part of the BFI Film Audience Network) is primarily focused on audience development for independent cinema. When the message is ‘stay at home’ and everything is closed, it is hard to adjust thinking and pivot the direction of work quickly, but we did, as a team.
I am one of the lucky ones; my role is a secure contract until March 2022. Usually my hours are office hours, with the odd evening event thrown in. A privilege I acknowledge is often not common in our business. This four day per week role has allowed me to develop my career, work on projects I love, enjoy the company of colleagues and spend one afternoon per week concentrating solely on having fun with my children. Around this I also took on freelance roles – a regular one for a TV educational charity that accounted for around a third of my income. It was a lot of work but gave our household extra income and was flexible.
It made me realise I’d been burning myself out for too long and the stress had taken its toll.
This freelance role was unceremoniously terminated with two weeks’ notice in early April. It was a blessing in disguise. Having one job, while co-parenting and co-teaching (using the term ‘teaching’ here very loosely) was more than enough. It made me realise I’d been burning myself out for too long and the stress had taken its toll. Having distance from it now, I don’t think I’ll ever take up that amount of work again – the stress is not worth it, especially when children come along.
Even now, ten months into this new way of working, I haven’t got the time to engage with much online.
Focusing on my one main job during the pandemic was hard enough – several daily online meetings, new ways of working, adjusting comms messages, keeping up with every article, panicking at the news of every film release that was being moved and all the surrounding issues was very, very difficult. There is also no doubt that we were overloaded with streaming services, VOD releases, live zoom Q and As etc. and while many people enjoyed accessing these, I found I had even less time than usual to engage with films – a key part of my job. Before COVID (are we allowed to use BC?) I spent many happy uninterrupted hours in dark rooms, previewing films with a view to programming them, suggesting them to our network to screen in their cinema, or coming up with audience development ideas for them. Even now, ten months into this new way of working, I haven’t got the time to engage with much online. Meetings and discussions clash with school pick up times (we don’t ask grandparents pick the kids up anymore) while any small windows to watch films as part of screening days coincide with bedtimes routines. The sheer exhaustion of dealing with all this, while prioritising looking after the physical and mental health of two children, means I’ve been crashing out by 10.30pm. Until the stress induced insomnia kicks in… then it’s time to get up and do it all again.
There have been a few things that have personally really helped get through this time – my family, a WhatsApp group with my best friends, Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties and BBC 6 Music being some of them. On a work front, I am so lucky to work with a fantastic group of people who have rallied round each other and supported everyone through the bad days and the good. (Special shout out to my manager, Hugh Odling-Smee.)
Other significant sources of support, inspiration and a place to talk candidly about fears, stress and challenges were two programmes supported by Screen Skills.
When I had days I couldn’t cope with everything, Hugh took the reins and vice versa. We’re both parents of children of a similar age, which helps a lot. Other significant sources of support, inspiration and a place to talk candidly about fears, stress and challenges were two programmes supported by Screen Skills.
The first was Birds Eye View’s Pandemic Response Programme for key women in exhibition, distribution and audience development. This group of over 60 remarkable women met on a regular basis, led by the formidable Mia Bays and Simone Glover, to discuss all the issues affecting us personally and our area of the film business ecosystem. Focused on rebuilding a stronger and fairer sector, this programme enable me to meet (online) lots of new people, strengthen existing relationships and have a voice to help shape what our sector should look like as we move forward. I attended many of the meetings but occasionally the evening sessions clashed with bedtime routines and helping with homework – sometimes these things need to take priority.
The whole ethos of the programme is around supporting parents/carers in the film business and it was during these sessions that I found myself constantly nodding in agreement to many of the issues faced by my cohort.
It is with this struggle to take part in anything meaningful from between school pick-up time and when I collapse in a heap at the end of the day in mind that I eagerly applied for Raising Films’ Making It Possible programme. I was delighted to be accepted and to take part. The whole ethos of the programme is around supporting parents/carers in the film business and it was during these sessions that I found myself constantly nodding in agreement to many of the issues faced by my cohort. Having a safe space to share the specific challenges of being a parent in the film industry during a global pandemic was something I found invaluable. Meeting others in different disciplines across film was really useful and I hope that our paths will cross again. I also hope to take part in other Raising Films initiatives in the future.
While most things that have happened this year have been negative, I feel that there have been some positives indeed. Sometimes being based in Northern Ireland is difficult geographically – we can’t just jump on trains or drive to various parts of the UK for training or events. The use of online platforms to deliver training and programmes such as the two mentioned above can only be beneficial to bridge that gap. While nothing beats face-to-face contact, having these opportunities keeps us connected – even if you’re taking part while sitting on the stairs with your laptop as children climb over you!
We can, and will, successfully build back a sector which places value on treating people well whether they are employed or freelance, widens access to opportunities for more diverse workplaces, which allows us to work more flexibly in order to fulfil our caring responsibilities.
Who knows what 2021 will bring? For me, I hope to spend more time in those dark cinemas I miss so much, continue to try to be a decent parent while also keeping a close focus on my career and what I can bring to my organisation. I’ll be choosing freelance projects (if they come along), based on workload and the ethos of the client, and not purely for additional income. I’ll also be seeking out opportunities to network and keep connected to the wider film sector in the fervent belief that we can, and will, successfully build back a sector which places value on treating people well whether they are employed or freelance, widens access to opportunities for more diverse workplaces, which allows us to work more flexibly in order to fulfil our caring responsibilities, and recognises all those individuals and organisations who worked so hard to keep the sector together during these difficult times.
Sincere thanks to Raising Films, Birds Eye View and ScreenSkills.
Mother of two and Marketing & Audiences Officer, Film Hub NI (part of the BFI Film Audience Network)
Follow Sara on Twitter
Follow Film Hub NI on Twitter
Visit the ScreenSkills website
Visit the Birds Eye View website