In the caffeine-scented offices of Mandy.com, Josephine Balfour Oatts shares a handshake and an encouraging conversation about the arts industry with CEO, Philip Large.
A firm handshake, a smile. Philip Large, CEO of Mandy.com turns and leads me to his office. Banks of computers stretch across their headquarters – open plan – with the busy tapping of keyboards narrating our every step. We sit at his desk, in the glare of a large window overlooking the office space. The smell of coffee is stronger with the door closed. Conversation flows, our talk turning to the history of the company. “Let me give you an overview,” he says. His voice has a slight rasp to it, like the timid dragging of feet through gravel.
Mandy started in 1990, but at that time, was not part of the network that has been realised today. It began life as Casting Call Pro – an organisation made for actors, while Mandy catered more specifically to filmmakers. Both began with similar roots: “We took the casting resourcing process online,” Large adds, which meant that prospective creatives could go to one place in search for work, rather than travelling across the UK laden with CV’s, headshots and paper scripts. At the time, their endeavours were entirely unique. However, as members became more diversified in their skillset, a family of websites were created to meet their needs and continued to expand over a 10-year period. “Scalability was becoming a big issue,” Large frowns, which resulted in a merging of the platform. It was at this point that Mandy started to struggle, and so CCP took on the company, using its name to launch their updated brand.
Now the world’s largest entertainment recruiting platform, Mandy.com seeks to make the industry more accessible by empowering creatives – a markedly different approach to competitors like Spotlight, a site designed for agencies. “60-70% of castings are never seen by anybody, just an exclusive group of agents and casting directors,” Large says, gesticulating his frustration. Think about it, “The #MeToo Movement started because things were hidden – everything was behind closed doors”. So, how can the arts be made fair or inclusive, and how can professionals be held accountable for bad decision-making if this process is invisible? Enter, Mandy’s Industry Access Programme.
The scheme is woven from a number of strands, each aiming to champion equality and transparency. In recent months, CV surgeries and one-to-one Speed-Dating sessions for actors and agents have been introduced as a means of simplifying the enormity of securing representation. A series of podcasts will also run alongside Mandy’s News Service, and a gender-equality conference has been organised for this month. However, while the company are set on raising awareness of key issues that limit inclusivity, they also want to highlight the range of opportunities for those who subscribe to their platform. “We can’t change the industry ourselves,” Large muses, with regret “we are just the Gatekeepers”.
Every year, the company do a survey of their members in order to properly analyse the landscape of their professional lives. The most recent report is due to be released soon: “It’s quite a disheartening read, unfortunately,” he says, rubbing his jaw, “no matter how you chop up the data, it always turns out that unless you are a white male, you are underrepresented within the industry.” However, Large has noticed a shift, with more organisations focused on achieving equality. These changes are not limited to gender, and also concentrate on one’s ethnicity, socio-economic background, as well as their ability or disability. He is concerned about token gestures, but is confident that an equilibrium will be reached. “I always see it as like a pendulum. It will swing in favour of one side and then it will swing back,” he says, nodding.
There are 7000 jobs posted on Mandy.com each month, but because of the complex relationship between the online and offline worlds, it is impossible to tell how many of these have been secured. “The casting process is a very human thing,” Large states, with the majority of decisions made in the latter. As the digital age tightens its grip on society, the recent development of ‘Amy AI’ has made administrative employees wary of the mortality of their work, especially since countless jobs across other sectors have now been made redundant by the efficacy of automated machinery. Last month, Christie’s became the first auction house to sell an artwork to be created by an algorithm, and now, robots are storming the music industry (championed most notably by Taryn Southern with her new album I AM AI).
So, are artists under threat?
“I don’t think so,” Large says slowly, “I think that the arts will always adapt.” For him, how one uses tech demands a balance between its influence and its impact. NT Live is an accurate example of this, as while it enables greater access to a traditionally elitist activity, it cannot replace the experiences that are particular to theatre. “It offers more opportunity to be creative, essentially,” he says, smiling, “[for instance], there’s no reason why every performance cannot be subtitled!” He is right. With companies like Graeae and Deafinitley Theatre at the forefront of disabled access and representation within the arts, technology has been a successful tool within their work. Yet, the effect of online processors like Amazon, Netflix and other streaming services is impossible to ignore. Whether or not these decision-making services will eventually use algorithms to determine the outcome of more human-led matters (like castings) remains to be seen.
It seems that the future of the arts is uncertain. “I look forward to it,” Large says, his tone one of reassurance. Despite this not-knowing, it is difficult to feel ill-at-ease within the walls of Mandy.com, with warm shades of hazel and bronze made happier by the heady scent of caffeine. Optimism is stuck to the soles of Large’s shoes, and he bounces towards to door in high spirits. His positivity is infectious, snagging on the edges of our goodbye: a firm handshake. A smile.