Haroon Siddique | Thursday 9 April 2015 17.59 BST
Industry veterans behind Sugar Films hope to attract significant investment and plug the gap in black and minority ethnic programming
Pat Younge (left), Lucy Pilkington and Narinder Minhas of Sugar Films. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
A new independent television production company is to put race, gender and sexual diversity at the top of its agenda in a bid to challenge the lack of diversity in Britain’s creative industries.
Sugar Films has been formed by three senior TV executives following a campaign led by Lenny Henry highlighting the fact that only 5% of employees in the creative industries are black and minority ethnic (BME), despite BMEs making up 12.5% of the total UK population.
“Diversity is still seen as on the fringes,” says Sugar Films’s managing director Pat Younge, previously chief creative officer of BBC Productions. “We think of it as large, broad and mainstream. We think it creates significant value, not just public value, but commercial value. We [the co-founders] found ourselves saying, ‘Why’s it all small, why’s it marginal?’”
Younge, who gave evidence to MPs alongside Henry on improving representation of black and Asian people on air, co-founded Sugar, with the new company’s creative directors Lucy Pilkington, a former Channel 4 commissioning editor, and Narinder Minhas, former director of programmes at key indie Diverse Productions. Together they have decades of experience working for and with the major broadcasters.
Although some BME independent production companies exist, they are on a small scale and this is the first time three established BME figures have pooled their resources. The Sugar Films founders hope their combined backgrounds will enable them to attract significant investment to give them clout, enabling them to help existing BME independents and bring through new talent and ideas.
“The three of us have a desire to put something back in,” said Minhas. “Giving people a leg-up is something we want to to.
“We think there’s a lot of diverse talent out there that just needs backing. We value diversity in order to produce ideas that are different.”
One of the ways they hope to bring through new talent is through Sugar Films Lab, an online platform for people to submit short dramas or comedy skits. The best will receive prize money, giving them the chance to develop their work and take it to a commissioner.
The Lab is also recognition of the increasing importance of online content, particularly in reaching diverse audiences. The major broadcasters have all announced initiatives to increase diversity, mainly through increasing representation, but Younge said the content was still lagging.
“[TV] screens are browner than they used to be, but … we’re not hearing their stories,” said Minhas. He added that series such as Orange is the New Black, the hit Netflix series featuring a large number of black and hispanic characters, and Transparent, the Golden Globe-winning Amazon series featuring a transgender parent, were deliberately diverse – and successful because of that.
On a smaller scale is House of Black, an online platform showcasing black British entertainment.Venus v Mars, a programme first shown on House of Black, has been bought by Sky Living; the first episode will be broadcast on 9 April.
The online platforms have created more possibilities for diverse content, which Sugar Films is determined to exploit. But given the founders’ backgrounds, they believe they have the ability to help mainstream broadcasters address an issue with which they are struggling.
Pilkington said: “We’ve had big, serious people at the broadcasters saying, ‘We are so happy you exist.’ There’s definitely a lot of goodwill; it’s up to us to turn that into commissions. If we get it right, we are solving a problem for them.”
The director of BBC TV, Danny Cohen, welcomed the creation of Sugar Films. He said: “I’ve got high expectations of what Sugar can deliver for UK television and beyond.”