In conversation with Victoria Thomas
Breaking into the film industry with Victoria Thomas, Course Leader for MA International Film Business at London Film School
This weekend, leading figures in the global film and TV industry will come together to discuss diversity and inclusion in the sector as part of Carla 2020, a digital three-day conference. Among them is London Film School’s Victoria Thomas, course leader of MA International Film Business; a vocal champion of decolonisation and platforming diverse voices in the industry.
Thomas has had an unusual career path, having initially trained as a lawyer and journalist before switching professions to become a BAFTA-nominated film producer, director and writer. Her acute understanding of industry structures lifts the unheard voices of those around her. We spoke with Victoria about her career to date, from making films about hip-hop and police brutality in France, to the importance of finding a good mentor.
You began your career as a lawyer and journalist before moving into the film industry. What inspired that change?
I always knew that I wanted to tell stories, but growing up, I didn’t understand how that could be a career. Everybody that I was surrounded by had a white-collar job, so I knew I had to become a lawyer, doctor, engineer or accountant. I decided to become a lawyer — but, at university, I realised I didn’t enjoy it. At the time, in Birmingham, there was a community centre called The Drum. I took free evening classes in screenwriting and camera work there and got into making short documentaries. I found I enjoyed this “hobby” more than my full-time job.
What challenges did you face in making this switch?
My challenges were more mental than anything else. With more ‘traditional’ jobs, there are very clear routes to entry. I didn’t know anybody in the film industry, so when I decided to go to film school, I assumed I was going to get a degree in film then come out through the same pathways as I did in law. When I got there, I realised that the thinking was completely different to anything I’d been involved with before. And then it was that thing of: “now you’ve jumped into the sea, it’s either sink or swim” — and I wasn’t going to sink!
At Carla 2020, you’re going to chair a panel discussion on decolonisation. Could you give us an insight into some of the conversations you hope to address?
I think, for us, it’s really about the power balance. Who gets to tell stories? What stories? How is cinema defined? The film industry is entertainment and taste is subjective, so the rules are made by the dominant cultures. When you’re not from that dominant culture, how do you get the power to find your voice? 2020 is the first year that I actually believe there could be some change. The conversations we’re having now are the same ones we’ve been having for as long as I can remember, but at this point in time, everybody’s watching. Now that we have an opportunity to shift the power, how are we going to shift the power? And how do we address this power imbalance if the people leading the decolonisation process are probably (for want of a better word) the colonisers? Are you going to decolonise into a position of comfort for them, or is it really going to be an equal playing field? That’s the bit I’m not sure about.
What shifts have you noticed in filmmaking since you began your career in the industry? Are things getting better?
It’s definitely better — we can actually talk about inequality now. When I was a film student, I remember saying that I couldn’t afford to do an internship for free. My tutor thought that I was being difficult. Whereas now, nobody’s going to think that you’re odd if you say that you need to get paid. I also think we’re probably seeing more culturally diverse stories, but they tend to be quite stereotypical because of who is doing the curating. This is where the whole thing about the colonisers leading the decolonisation process is a bit disturbing.
I also worry about the lost generations. There are so many schemes at entry-level, but what about the people who are not at entry-level? There are people in their 50s who are yet to have their break. There are probably lots of writers with amazing scripts working in the corporate world to pay their bills, because they just never had the mentoring or the pathway for entry; who probably have lots of transferable skills but were never given the opportunity to use it in the film industry.
You were recently selected by the Writer’s Lab script development programme — congratulations! How do you feel about it, and do you hope to learn from the experience?
Thank you. I really liked the fact that it was a blind read — nobody knew it was my script that they were reading. I didn’t train as a screenwriter, my film education was largely in producing. So to write a script and have it picked out of a pile has boosted my confidence as a writer. I feel less and less like an imposter. I’m looking forward to meeting the other participants as well as the mentors and the organisers of the Lab. It’s an opportunity to fine-tune the script and also to develop relationships that could be useful — not just in taking this particular script to screen but probably other things as well.
How does mentoring play an important role in the film industry?
It plays a massive role. This is a relationship business. That’s one of the reasons we spend so much time going to schemes and labs. Coming from a background like mine, where I didn’t know anybody in the film industry, it was only when I began to build these professional networks that I stopped making a lot of mistakes. The business models in the film industry are not traditional or straight-forward. Mentors can help you understand what to expect and offer guidance on how to approach stuff. Even my mentor has a mentor!
The course you lead at London Film School focuses on International Film Business. What is the value of learning about this side of the industry and sharing knowledge about that?
I think if you understand the film business, you can do anything in the film industry. I would love to see film education stop treating the business side as though it’s a separate thing, and bringing filmmakers or writers through without having any business education. In my cohort this year, there are students interested in directing or writing, and as a tutor, I’m doing some business but I have creative interests. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my later attempts at being creative are getting more traction than my earlier attempts: I’m navigating things in a much smarter way, because I understand what the business expects. It’s important to understand how the business operates, what the value chain is, who the key players are, what the obvious no-no’s are, and how you should go about things. Even though film is a creative business, it is also very formulaic and quite rigid in a way.
Your film project Born in New York, Raised in Paris is currently in post-production. Can you tell us a little about the project — what the film explores and when we might see it?
It explores how French hip-hop empowers youths in France to highlight and protest police brutality. France is the one country in the world that says everybody is equal, everybody is French and race does not exist — but over the years, there have been a lot of tensions between the minorities and the police in France. I was once choked by the police in France — I was on the train in first class and somebody called the police to complain that I was suspicious. I remember them storming my berth and then choking me up against the wall. I was black and that made me suspicious. How can you live in the one country in the world that says “we don’t see colour”, and yet colour is so vivid?
The film also talks about the symmetry between Paris and New York. France has a very different relationship with America — American soldiers are still held as saviours that helped France win the war. The French fascination with African-American culture started during the war with jazz and then morphed into hip-hop. The first hip-hop TV show in the world was in France, not in America — at a time when it was being called “gangster” in America. But if the Black French embrace American culture and begin to apply it to France, it’s treated differently — African-Americans are saviours, but Black French are subjects from the former colonies. So there’s a kind of bizarre two-tiered Blackness in France where, if you’re Black, it’s much better to be American in Paris than to be French.
Ironically, while we’ve been in post-production, the biggest police brutality story happened. So we’re now looking at the material. I don’t think it makes much sense to have a film that talks about police brutality that does not reflect what just happened — especially as Paris had such a massive response to what happened with George Floyd in June. So hopefully we’ll finish it this year and then next year it should be available for people to watch somewhere.
Victoria Thomas is chairing a panel at Carla 2020 this weekend. https://www.carla2020.se/
About MA International Film Business
Unlike existing film-related degrees, this MA course at London Film School explores the entire film business, embracing world and national cinema(s), non-Hollywood independent film production, financing, sales, distribution and marketing, alongside programming, exhibition and digital strategies for the future. Find out more here.
Carla 2020 is a three-day digital conference and bring together new visions for diversity & inclusion in the global film & TV industry. Carla 2020 will unpack power structures, give space to unheard voices and celebrate activism in its various forms. We will foreground listening, sharing and constructive discussions. You will leave with new tools, strategies and inspiration to implement in your country of origin. During the fully digital three-day symposium the international film ecosystem will convene: film professionals, researchers, public officials, film school representatives, studio and broadcast executives, financiers, journalists and activists will come together in conversations, roundtables, networking and we will hear keynotes, speeches and research reports and be able to participate in workshops and speed networking. The mission of Carla 2020 is to generate a deeper understanding of the power and impact of our industry on cultural progress. Reaching beyond the work of film festivals and industry events, Carla 2020 will focus on systemic change and personal growth of all players in the industry. Book your conference pass here.
Interview conducted by Rosa Abbott — contact her here.