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Lights, Camera, Action: Looming Talent Crisis Opens MBA Careers In Movie Business

Ivan Dunleavy, chief executive of film studio Pinewood Shepperton plc, has partnered with the Open University to address the skills shortage on the business side of UK's movie industry.

Wed Nov 12 2014

Ivan Dunleavy, chief executive of Pinewood Shepperton plc, has forgotten his script – but the boss of the British film studio ushers a helping hand onto the stage as he searches for his stack of notes.

“The seventh Star Wars movie has just finished shooting at Pinewood,” says Ivan later, offering an explanation for the two-foot robot – known as RT-D2 to fans and sci-fi geeks – skirting around his feet. The infamous robot is an icon of the blockbuster film series. But it is also serves as a monument to Britain’s thriving film business.

Star Wars’ robot prop was built on British soil nearly four decades ago but has spent several years overseas, catering to foreign media markets. The UK’s film industry similarly saw much of its production shifted to other countries – but business returned for a sequel.  

“We’re winning back business,” says Ivan. He’s the CEO of the UK’s leading film studio, famous for producing the James Bond films, and more recently Oscar-winning space thriller Gravity and Disney’s Cinderella.

Film is the cornerstone of a thriving media industry which is growing strongly and creating new jobs, as companies seek to expand services and production to new markets.

According to official Government figures, the UK’s creative industries – including film, television, music and video games – are worth £71 billion each year to the economy. The sector grew by nearly 10% in the past year, faster than any other part of the UK economy. “We’re in a sweet spot,” says Ivan.

Pinewood’s group revenue was £64 million in 2013, up 16% from the previous year.

But the business of film faces a dearth of management talent. “We’re starting to see the warning signs of a skills shortage in this country,” Ivan says. He reckons that in 18 months this shortage will begin to bite.

To combat the potential crisis, Pinewood has teamed up with the Open University, a distance learning specialist, to produce an online course on the commercial side in the film industry. The program will use the FutureLearn platform, the UK’s first provider of Moocs, or massive open online courses, to deliver its content to a global audience.

According to Oxford Economics, an economic forecasting and modelling firm, the UK film industry directly generates 44,000 full-time jobs – more than the region’s fund management sector.

“When you think of the film business you think of glamor, red carpets, big stars… But the truth is it’s the icing on the cake,” says Ivan. “There are literally hundreds of people working long hours to produce world-class content,” he adds.

The OU is not the first business school to cater to the creative sector. A clique of other high-ranking schools are completing to train the next generation of media managers as the film industry gears up for global growth.

Henley Business School in the UK runs an MBA for the Music & Creative Industries, which graduates students into international film groups as well as television broadcasters and record labels. The program was set up in 2012 and has grown to have a 65% increase in enrolment for its second intake. It has expanded into South Africa and plans to launch a third program in Hong Kong in 2016.

In the US, the Fordham Graduate School of Business runs a Communications and Media Management MBA that is based in New York, as well as an MSc in media management. Graduates of these programs go on to work at major TV and cable network groups, according to John Carey, a professor on the MBA.

Graduates have tended to drift towards more lucrative sectors such as financial services and technology, which typically offer higher salaries than media firms and film businesses. But by developing specialist programs and partnering with movie makers, business schools think they can lure students to the management side of the industry.

“We attract executives from across the creative industries – film, TV, music, content distribution, broadcasters, tech services [and] games,” says Helen Gammons, director of Henley’s program.

The flexibility of Pinewood’s program, which will be delivered through an online channel, means that the film giant will be able to reach a wider audience and attract working executives. “FutureLearn’s global platform will actually help equip people across the world,” says Martin Bean, OU vice chancellor.

Television is one area of expansion likely to need new talent to address the skills shortage. Pinewood in particular has had a close working relationship with the TV industry and this is a rapidly growing segment of the group. Television revenues rose almost 20% to £6.2 million in 2013.  “The films that the UK makes drive very significant revenues when shown on TV,” says Ivan.

“This is the golden age of TV,” adds Helen. She says that broadcasters will need MBA executives with an understanding of the sector.

Media groups have also been trying to evolve their content offerings for a global audience.

The UK’s film industry competes in the global market and Pinewood, which has studios in Canada, Germany, Malaysia, and the Dominican Republic and US, is a big UK exporter of media. Ivan says exports from the core UK film industry were more than £2 billion in 2010 – the latest year figures are available for – and the net contribution to UK balance of payments was more than £1.5 billion. “I fully expect those figures to rise at the next count,” he adds.

Job opportunities for graduates of these MBA and online programs are opening up in new markets, including China, a country which Ivan says is opening nine new cinemas every day. “China has a huge new middle class – 600 million strong – and they are hungry for movies,” he adds. China’s film industry is now the second largest after the US.

The rise of smartphones with 4G connections, and TVs connected to the internet, are making online video an ever bigger business across the world. China’s viral video scene, which has 400 million viewers, is the biggest in the world.

But the television and film industries are beginning to lose market share to digital competitors. Many viewers are turning to streaming services from Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.

Ivan thinks that the film business can innovate, however.  He says that the CGI – computer-generated imagery – effects the film industry has deployed are now widely used in TV productions, as well as in commercials and the video games industry.

“The UK film industry isn’t just living on artistic craft skills of the past, but it [is] also building new skills that put it right out there at the leading edge of the new digital economies,” he says.

“Video games are now huge business, and a huge new customer for all of our skills,” adds Ivan. “We’ve also learnt to take advantage of new distribution channels that digital has created.”

Like Pinewood, cable companies are also shifting content online. HBO recently announced a new standalone digital service, while online distributors such as Netflix, YouTube and Amazon are changing media consumers’ viewing habits.

Business schools think digital disruption is another career opportunity. “The field of digital, on-demand video services is a prime area of career opportunity for graduates,” says Tim Holmes, who helped to develop the MBA in Media Management at Cardiff Business School.

There are signs that educators are adapting their media content for the digital age. Specialist MBA programs are teaching the use of big data and analytics, say program directors, which film and TV companies use to examine media consumption trends and to develop new digital strategies.

“Excellent business acumen will be required to navigate this terrain, and an MBA with knowledge of the industry will indeed be a valuable asset,” says Rob Bolton, a manager at Warner Music who teaches the media management MBA at the Schulich School of Business in Canada.