How the representation of disability in screen media is subverting expectations.

It’s said that “One of Five” [i] of the British population suffer from some type of disability, yet flicking through your television, you’d struggle to see this represented. It’s not that there’s a lack of disabled stories being told in screen entertainment. In the past year alone, there’s Stronger (2017) with Jake Gyllenhaal and Breathe (2017) with Andrew Garfield. They tell remarkable real life stories of inspiring disabled people, but what they don’t do, is feature people who actually have a disability. As playwright Christoper Shinn bluntly puts it, Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people”. [ii]

In Hollywood, portraying a disabled character is a sign of triumph and skill for able bodied performers. It’s a complex situation; we need more disabled characters on screen, but sometimes the only way these stories can be told is with a big-name, non-disabled actor to draw people in. Change it seems, will instead come from outside the mainstream, and that is what director Len Collin and writer Christian O’Reilly are aiming to do with their feature film Sanctuary (2016). Opting for the relatable over the spectacle, the film tells the fictional tale of the growing relationship between Larry and Sophie, who are played by actors with intellectual disability. While the film could perhaps be seen as a response the law in Ireland that prevented “people with an intellectual disability in Ireland banned from having sex”[iii] (since repealed), it’s not the focus of the narrative. The conversations throughout are mostly mundane, as they discuss love, life and television. Sometimes it veers into darker directions, such as suicide, but empathy never seems to be the emotion the film looks for. Opting for a restrained narrative in comparison to a more expected sermonising tone allows the characters, and in turn the intellectual disabled actors showcase a more, personable and individual side to disability on film.

The biggest success of the film is how it reaches an audience with a story that normalizes disability as part of regular life, and nothing is doing this on as large a scale as a recent commercial campaign for the Mars Chocolate, Maltesers. The advert portrays three women having chat, with one of them happening to have a disability. A joke is made that involves a mention of her cerebral palsy but, rather than being crude or disrespectful, it’s presented in a ‘regular life’ kind of way. Another advert that is part of the campaign has a character in a wheelchair telling the story of how she accidentally runs over the bride’s foot at a wedding. The adverts were hugely successful for the Mars Chocolate, in which the company stated it was the “most successful in decade…..Maltesers achieved an 8.1% uplift compared  to the target of  4%” [i]. The success and importance of the campaign cannot be understated when “an average broadcast TV campaign in the UK gets 237 million views[iv]. It places the focus on the disabled character, but never on the disability, opting instead for a sense of normality, allowing the relatable side to be a focus of the campaign.

The equal representation of disability has yet to reach all aspects of screen media, but there are growing efforts to change this. Chief marketing and communications officer of Channel 4 Dan Brooke has spoke up in the past about how The creative industries can lead the way on inclusivity for disabled people”[v] . He wants to make Channel 4 “the vanguard for change”, pointing to shows like “the Paralympics, The Autistic Gardener and The Undateables”. It’s not just disabled focused shows either, with “C4 News guest hosting disabled announcers”[vi]  and a “paralysed man hosting an episode of “Come Dine With Me[vii] . There is also the comedian Francesca Martinez, who, as she puts its “wobbled out of the disability closet” and used stand up comedy to find a way to “speak honestly about who I was”. Francesca has featured on shows like ‘The Wright Stuff’, ‘The Jonathan Ross Show’ and ‘Loose Women’, not just as a disabled person, but as a comedian who happens to have a disability.

The arts can be powerful tool in awareness, and when “Two thirds (67%) of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people”, andOver a third (36%) tending to think of disabled people as not productive as everyone else[viii] , an education is sorely needed. Perhaps there’s no harm in seeing an able bodied actor like Daniel Day-Lewis portray a disabled character, but when he then goes and walks onto the stage to accept an award for that, there is a clear sense of dissonance created. Instead, it would better serve to follow the path of success that maltesers found with their advertising campaign and begin to represent disability as the everyday reality that it is.

[i] Maltesers’ disability campaign “most successful” in decade [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jan 12]. Available from:

[ii] Shinn C. Dear Hollywood: Disability Is Not Just a Metaphor [Internet]. The Atlantic. 2014 [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

[iii]  Change in law removes illegal status around sexual relationships for people with intellectual disabilities [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

[iv] £5.28 billion invested in TV advertising in UK in 2016 [Internet]. thinkbox. [cited 2018 Jan 12]. Available from:

[v] The creative industries can lead the way on inclusivity for disabled people [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

[vi] Disabled guest announcers take control of Channel 4’s continuity mics – Channel 4 – Info – Press [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

[vii] Disabled guest announcers take control of Channel 4’s continuity mics – Channel 4 – Info – Press [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from: )

[viii] Most Brits uncomfortable talking to disabled people | Disability charity Scope UK [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

Home Media Insights: The Changing Landscape of Filmed Entertainment

The 17th January 2018, saw the launch event for two books providing a critical perspective on the recent history of home media distribution:  Cult Media: Re-Packaged, Re-Released and Restored and DVD, Blu-Ray & Beyond: Navigating Formats and Platforms Within Media Consumption, both edited by Jonathan Wroot, Lecturer here at the University of Greenwich, and Andy Willis.

Meanwhile guest speaker Robert Price, Managing Director for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Chairman of the British Association for Screen Entertainment (BASE) was there to give an insight into what the future might hold for the home entertainment market.

Here are three key points that stood out from his talk:

The popularity of the movies is not in decline.

 One of Robert’s main points was that content is driven by customer demand, and the large number of content available proves that there has been a growth in cultural significance for movies. In the UK, “£4.1 billion is spent on watching films every year”, over “£77 per person”, and within this, the home entertainment market was worth “£2.7 billion in 2017” an increase of “7.5% from 2016”. It’s said that the average buyer spends £99 on home entertainment a year.

The growing importance of the foreign market was highlighted throughout the talk. “Fox now distributes to over 130 countries Worldwide”, and the global theatrical box office took in an insane, “£39.9bn”, up “3%” from 2016. Franchises are being propelled by the global market, with the Transformers films being “kept alive by the high numbers in the Chinese box-office”; it’s estimated that between 2016-2021, the Chinese movie market is expected to grow by “68.5%”.

Above all, the way we interact with movies on a social level is the driving force for commercial success. Robert stated that a past 21st Century Fox release, Deadpool (2016), was partly made due to the highly positive response that leaked test footage received online, spurring it into production. Along the same lines, he added that “movies create a constant stream of conversation and consumption”, with the recent release of the Avengers Infinity War trailer prompting “1.45 million conversations on social media” for a film that does not release until April.

It’s clear that digital has changed the way we consume content

The relationship between digital and film does not just end at the social level, but has also remodelled the way we consume entertainment. The power of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services has continued to rise in recent years, partly due to the fact that they operate via distribution methods that differ to the studio strategy of old. They don’t have to follow the standard 5-year release window, as all their content is made available on the service, giving them an edge on distribution. Having new content available instantly and constantly is a major incentive for customers. The combined number of paying subscribers (Netflix, Amazon and Now TV) for October 2017 is “10.8 million”, up from “9.5million” in October 2016.

Netflix’s original content is increasing more and more, but while this has led to “quality exclusives”, the overall library of third party content is considered by many to be “poor”, leading to the “number one reason people cancel Netflix” being that “they ran out of things they wanted to watch”. Studios, like Fox are pulling content from third-party streaming platforms (see link for more info: so, since for the customers “content is still king”, Netflix have upped the number of their own productions.

It’s estimated that the annual video content budget for Netflix is “£4.4 billion”, with Amazon operating in a similar fashion with a “£3.3 billion” budget. These are not the only contenders, as Apple have begun to dip their toe in original content production, with it being said their current budget is “£0.7 billion – a figure that will surely rise. Netflix has changed from a streaming platform to a full-blown competitor for the major studios, and Robert added that he feels that “It’s almost inevitable that Netflix will soon be in every home.”


Home Entertainment has “powered the Hollywood economic model”, but this way of work is “under attack” from the rise of digital.  2017 marked the first time that digital sales overtook physical in the UK home entertainment market. We can attribute this shift to the fact that “there is new content everywhere“, with an “explosion” of devices creating “access ubiquity”. Movies are now watched on “36% of televisions”, but “89% of computers, 42% of games consoles and 58% of iPads”. The digital streaming market will only continue to rise ; in 2013, “digital subscriptions made up 7% of home entertainment sales.” In 2017, this figure is up to “32%”.

So Hollywood will have to change…

While change has been hard to receive, it is not proving detrimental to the market as a whole. Fox reported that digital has grown from “10%” of home entertainment revenue to “60%”, but the overall market has yet to suffer, with the UK’s filmed entertainment “£4.8billion” value in 2016, showing an increase from 2014’s figure of £3.8 billion”. The big studios aren’t retreating from increasingly powerful streaming services, but instead are welcoming the challenge.

With the Fox/Disney deal still fresh in the news, a lot of the discussion centered around the potential danger this could bring to the film industry, Robert was positive about the deal, and stated how it was “driven by scalability”. There is a need for “more content and more outlets of revenue”, and with that being said, the smaller avenues like “Fox Searchlight” should not be facing consequences as a result of the deal, and could perhaps even increase their output, as it provides Disney with a new audience.

(See link for more information on Disney’s plan for their streaming service:

In fact Robert highlighted the potential danger of the “tent pole” release strategy, that tends to put too much focus on the blockbuster films, an example being that “The Last Jedi”( 2017), while successful made less money than previous release, “The Force Awakens” (2015). The point Robert kept returning to was the importance of delivering content that people want. Failure won’t come from piracy or streaming but from a lack of engagement with the consensus of the audience.


Should the Film Industry implement the ‘Rooney Rule’?

The Creative industry continues to have a problem when it comes to hiring minorities and women  for top tier positions. “Now is the time for action” [i] is the rallying cry from a lead author of the report, “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair?” [ii] What this action should be, however, is harder to define. Perhaps the best solution could come from a different industry, namely the NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule’.

The National Football League’s ‘Rooney Rule’, named after former chairman of the league’s diversity committee, Dan Rooney, is the policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for heading coaching roles. It was implemented in 2003, after the controversial firing of two black coaches. The policy was used to make sure minority coaches, who may not have been considered before, were given a chance in a high coaching role. Many have cited its success, pointing to the fact that between 1992 to 2002, less than 10% of coaches were minorities, but in its first decade this figure has risen to about 20%” [iii]. Since then, other companies have begun to implement the rule as a means of combating diversity issues. The Football Association confirmed “that it will enforce the ‘Rooney Rule’ when selecting future coaching roles within the England set-up” [iv] Outside sport, companies like Facebook, Patreon and Pinterest have highlighted the ‘Rooney Rule’ as influencing their hiring policy. “It’s been very well received, and there are strong lead indicators of its effectiveness” [v], Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global head of diversity said, adding that the rule has slowed down the hiring rate, but that “it builds the habit of looking longer, looking harder”.

Perhaps the film industry could benefit from implementing the policy when hiring directors and writers? The ‘Rooney Rule’ was originally created for a job role that only hires men, but the idea could be changed to implement women into the policy. Aaron Mendelsohn, secretary-treasurer of the Writers Guild of America West has suggested just that “It should be mandatory that at least one female writer and one writer of colour be interviewed for open writing assignments….. In sports it’s called the ‘Rooney Rule.’ In screenwriting it’s called ‘smart hiring” [vi].  Figures show that in “1989, 25% of the writers on television series were women”, yet in 2016 it was “29%, rising just four points”.[vi] Diversity needs to be more than just ‘filling a quota’, as Francesca Butler, WGAW board candidate added We need to do away with the idea that diversity is hiring one woman or non-white writer and calling it a day”.The Great Diversity Experiment” [vii] , which uses practical social experiments in an effort to prove that diversity leads to better results, highlighted the ‘Rooney Rule’ as one of five steps the creative industries can take to change the industry.

“Look harder, further and accept that often a round peg in a square hole is a good thing.. – the ‘Rooney Rule.'” [viii]  The ‘Rooney Rule’ can make it so that writing rooms are open to hiring more than one woman or minority. Rather than fulfilling a quota and moving on, the ‘Rooney Rule’ means that diverse candidates are being looked at constantly and hiring rates will improve.

There have been multiple cases of now big-name women and minority film directors who have struggled for years to gain funding and jobs. In 2017, Patty Jenkins directed Wonder Woman (2017), which released to worldwide acclaim and broke the record for the “highest-grossing film directed by a woman” [ix]. Her last film before this was also her debut, Monster (2003). Despite Monster earning $60 million from a $8 million budget, winning Academy Awards, and being hailed as the ‘best film of the year’ by various critics, Patty Jenkins struggled to make another picture. Jenkins “met with Warner Brothers right after making Monster wanting to make Wonder Woman”, but instead spent the decade “working on films that never came to fruition” [x], before moving on to TV. Some directors are never able to get going again, such as Julie Dash after her 1991 independent film, Daughters of the Dust (1991). The film was critically acclaimed across the board, but Dash was unable to get another film financed. “I pitched to every existing studio out there and every mini-major from A to Z,” [xi], recalled Dash. She was even unable to get an agent following the film’s release. The ‘Rooney Rule’ could go some way towards solving the problem of talented filmmakers feeling left behind. Sometimes a successful film isn’t enough, you need connections, and the policy could serve as a bridge between studios and minority and female directors.

The ‘Rooney Rule’ has, however, come under wide criticism, with the success of the rule being heavily debated. After the English Football Association’s introduction of the rule, there were complaints from black coaches, saying they “didn’t want to be interviewed to fill a quota” [xii]. There was also a case in 2003, when the Detroit Lions “hired a white coach without fulfilling the ‘Rooney Rule’” [xiii] , but they fought this, saying that they only interviewed, and wanted one man in the first place. If implemented into the film industry, there are sure to be similar problems. Adam Moore, Associate Affirmative Action and Diversity Director for the Screen Actors Guild was sceptical of the rule being introduced into the film industry. When asked whether the ‘Rooney Rule’ being used at an executive level could encourage the major studios to hire more women and people of colour, he replied, “I don’t know how much stock I put into the familiarity leading to actual jobs argument,”, adding that the ‘Rooney Rule’ applies to high-ranking NFL jobs, not to the players themselves[xiv].

The idea does seem however to have some merit to it and could potentially go some way to solving diversity issues, especially for writers, directors and executives. Perhaps it would serve best as a guideline, or a recommendation, rather than a binding rule that studios have to legally follow. There may be only be one director the studio may want to hire, like Disney with JJ Abrams and The Force Awakens (2015), so they should not have to interview just to fulfil a rule. But if Disney are planning a new film without any director or writer attached, the ‘Rooney Rule’ could be implemented, and may even introduce them to a talented minority or female director. It makes the studios realise that the talent is there, and even if they do not hire them straight away, it puts the under represented filmmakers into a conversation they previously weren’t a part of. The ‘Rooney Rule’ isn’t meant to create replacements for existing options, but instead to show that there are other ones available. It may make the process of hiring more demanding, but the results can be beneficial for the industry at all levels.

[i] Jagannathan M. The pool of Hollywood film directors is still alarmingly white and male [Internet].. 2018 [cited 2018 Jan 22]. Available from:

[ii] [No title] [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jan 22]. Available from:

[iii] Zarya V. Why is the “Rooney Rule” suddenly tech’s answer to hiring more women? [Internet]. Fortune. [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from:

[iv] Staff S. What is the Rooney Rule and how will it affect English football? [Internet]. The Independent. 2018 [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from:

[v] Feloni R. Facebook is using the same approach the NFL took to increase diversity in the league [Internet]. Business Insider. 2016 [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from:

[vi] Robb D. WGA West Election: “Rooney Rule” Proposed As Diversity Takes Center Stage [Internet]. Deadline. 2017 [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from:

[vii] [No title] [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jan 22]. Available from:

[viii] [No title] [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jan 22]. Available from:

[ix] Stefansky E. Wonder Woman Is the Highest-Grossing Live-Action Female-Directed Film in the World [Internet]. HWD. Vanity Fair; 2017 [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from:

[x] Patty Jenkins as T to RF. “Wonder Woman” Director Patty Jenkins: How to Make a Female Heroine “Vulnerable,” But Not “Lesser in Any Way” [Internet]. The Hollywood Reporter. 2016 [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from:

[xi] Buckley C. Julie Dash Made a Movie. Then Hollywood Shut Her Out. NY Times [Internet]. 2016 Nov 18 [cited 2018 Jan 19]; Available from:

[xii] Edwards L. Ipswich Town coaches Kieron Dyer and Titus Bramble slam “Rooney Rule” [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from:

[xiii] Sichel J. NFL Investigates Oakland Raiders: May Have Hired White Head Coach Before Interviewing Black One [Internet]. Daily Wire. The Daily Wire; 2018 [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from:

[xiv] Rosenberg BA. How Hollywood stays white and male [Internet]. Washington Post. The Washington Post; 2015 [cited 2018 Jan 19]. Available from: