THE WEST MIDLANDS
The West Midlands Screen Bureau (WMSB) is a network set up with a simple mission: to help a dynamic and diverse Creative Screen Sector realise its potential in a changing world.
The Creative Screen Sector comprises a range of established and emerging industries, art forms and platforms that broadly reach audiences through some form of screen, or a combination of screens, including games, television, film, virtual reality, music video, augmented reality and online video.
The aim is to bring together a wide range of businesses and interests into an active network that will help the sector become a national beacon and an international powerhouse in the emerging converged media ecosystem.
WMSB is leading on the building of a Creative Cluster, as part of the British Film Institute's Creative Clusters Challenge Fund, with support from both the West Midlands Combined Authority and Birmingham City Council.
The Bureau will strive to highlight the wealth of talent that exists in the region, often without the recognition that they deserve but it will also recognise that talent needs to find its way in an evolving ecosystem, which challenges old media models. Successful business models within the media sector have largely broken free of single platforms and are international in nature.
The future is not written. It needs to be designed and WMSB has a clear ambition:
To help create the most diverse, dynamic and competitive Creative Screen Sector in the UK, exploiting the opportunities of an emerging global, converged and participatory media ecosystem.
The WMSB is working on creating and active Creative Screen Sector network attuned to the opportunities of a changing ecosystem.
It has also taken on the challenge of building 'creative clusters' in the region.
The term ‘creative cluster’ is used in a number of ways but essentially describes an environment that brings together a critical mass of related businesses to support creative collaboration, foster innovation and build a network to support growth.
Clusters often require an initial push from public funding and private capital but they are always intended to become engines of growth that are able to drive business.
Those clusters have physical and digital dimensions, delivering economic value but also social benefits through regeneration and jobs.
Given that the output of the Creative Screen Sector also has cultural value, the work will also be closely integrated with the existing work of cultural institutions to help a broader mission to support an inclusive and ambitious renaissance in the region.
An important part of the work will be uniting existing businesses and talent into an active network.
There are strong pockets of excellence in different sectors in the West Midlands but it connectivity is often the missing link.
Lack of communication and information in the sector has been an issue in the West Midlands. The Bureau itself is intended to be part of the solution to that issue.
But in changing times, fresh thinking about the nature of business, audiences and the tangible value of networking and collaboration is also required.
UK innovation agency NESTA offered a useful outline in 2012, warning that the “mere existence of a creative agglomeration is not enough for the benefits from clustering to emerge. The other crucial ingredient is connectivity between firms within a cluster, with collaborators, business partners and sources of innovation elsewhere... and finally, with firms in other sectors that can act as clients, and as a source of new and unexpected ideas and knowledge. These three layers of connectivity are underpinned by a dense web of informal interactions and networking.”
In the process of finding those “other The approach taken in our work will strongly emphasise building networks and connections but experience and evidence from clusters in the UK and around Europe is that participation can only be achieved if the work is seen to provide practical outcomes and credible strategic direction.
A West Midlands
There is a tangible sense of optimism around the West Midlands.
Major events are helping shape that sense of direction, including Coventry City of Culture in 2021 and Birmingham's Commonwealth Games in 2022.
Towns and cities are expanding across the region with new infrastructural investment, including HS2 promising to enhance change.
In the screen sector, there are already pockets of exceptional dynamism with international reach. Silicon Spa at Leamington offers a fine case study in how a creative cluster can be developed and evolve.
And the potential of a united screen sector was clear in the campaign to bring Channel 4 to the region.
Steven Knight's Peaky Blinders is not just the poster boy for Birmingham storytelling, it is a jewel in the crown for the UK's drama reputation worldwide. Knight is now planning new studio facilities to help the region expand.
What is missing is the connecting tissue to bring these factors together.
The region has used a difficult period of relative decline in some areas, notably television, to storm ahead in others. The West Midlands has been building a powerful digital skills and business base in the digital and ‘experience’ economies.
The region’s rich storytelling tradition has not declined, even if weaknesses in infrastructure and business have held back a broad-based progress to match pockets of world-class business.
Supporting that progress is the core aim of the bureau and it should think big.
The West Midlands metropolitan county alone boasts 2.8 millon people, more than six EU countries. Birmingham is the 16thbiggest city agglomeration in Europe and by most measures the second city of the UK. Ranked by the city boundaries alone, Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, are all in the top 20 of UK cities.
The Greater Birmingham and Solihill LEP estimates that its region alone has already created 50,000 jobs in the broad creative sector, with the potential to add 3,965 new enterprises and 30,000 new jobs, increasing employment from 5.6% of the workforce today to the national average of 9%.
The region has an impressive range of universities, some with courses directly related to developing creative industries.
The demographics of the region are a more mixed picture than the “young, digital and diverse” cliché suggests, with serious issues around skills, social mobility and cultural exclusion. Nonetheless, the population mix offers unique opportunities to build a serious base for innovative business.
It wants to be a significant part of a much bigger drive towards what should be seen as a renaissancein the region.
FROM IDEAS TO IP:
BUILDING A CREATIVE
The Digital Revolution and dramatic changes in audience consumption habits has dramatically changed the nature of the screen sector.
While different parts of the sector may have strong variations, at heart they all face the same challenge of an over-supplied market and vastly increased choice.
The key economic unit in the creative industries is increasingly time. And everyone engaged in every part of the screen sector is in a fight from audience minutes.
In the short term, that has given major advantages to the biggest global businesses, with their access to Big Data and vast marketing budgets.
The region will, of course, need to find ways to attract investment from the digital giants, the telecoms companies, the media conglomerates and the Video On Demand subscription companies, such as Netflix.
There are ways to attract that investment, through financial incentives, efficient services and high-spec spaces and facilities at competitive prices.
But investment also follows ideas.
The West Midlands Screen Bureau is dedicated to encouraging and supporting the development of diverse and dynamic stories, ideas and concepts, which are the raw materials of creative growth.
The West Midlands has a long history as an ideas factory, producing some of the most important innovations of the industrial history of the UK, as well as a long history of creative genius in writing, film and television to music and games.
It is essential that the West Midlands Creative Screen Sector taps into that entrepreneurial and creative spirit.
And this may be the perfect moment for that renaissance of ideas, with big changes to the kind of content made, the desire for diversity and originality, the technology helping drive new consumer habits and rapid convergence of art forms and screen businesses.
WMSB is dedicated to ensuring that ideas are allowed to achieve their potential in terms of economic, cultural and social value.
But the bureau will not begin with a hierarchy of screens and content but rather look for a dynamic mixed economy.
The creative sector as a whole is overwhelmingly comprised of small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), working from project to project, or at best slate to slate. The space to stop and think about their own business strategy, never mind sectoral strategy, is often in extremely short supply.
Bringing together the right mix and level of creative people for the tasks will be a challenge. The plans do try to address the problem by limiting the requirements for physical presence but it will be necessary to ‘win’ that time.
Those issues cannot all be resolved in a single year. And there has been a long history of initiatives that have failed to kick start the sector.
The priority here will be to take on the challenges in terms of a strategic cluster plan, which will finally and collectively clear a path to success through understanding what needs to be achieved.