“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f*cking big television.”
Trainspotting: Real black comedy, grime, visual experimentation, tackling difficult subject matter with creative force and cutting wit, and above all else, an against-the-grain counterpoint to the relentless optimism of Hollywood blockbusters. To me that encapsulates the spirit of independent British cinema and TV; scenes to remember, scenes to rebel.
But it’s independent British films that have the most to fear in the looming shadow of a no-deal Brexit. Most people working in the film industry voted against leaving altogether – why? Because the European Union massively supports creative industries in a way that our government alone either can’t or won’t.
For now, our film industry is doing well. In fact, it’s booming. Gordon Brown’s 2005 tax reliefs have made our little island into one of the top choices for international partnerships in film. Investments into studio expansion have paid off; in the last two years production spend has been at an all-time high. The tax reliefs mean companies can reclaim up to 25% of their spending so long as their project passes a cultural test. Generally, this means having a crew or cast with a portion of British or EEA nationals and spending over 10% of the total budget in Britain, for example in local studios. This is an attractive offer for production firms of all sizes, from the American bigwigs to small cross-cultural projects within the EU. Add to this a recent resurgence of the quirky British cult film and new sources of revenue like streaming sites such as Netflix, and there you have it: a financial and cultural boom.
The government has promised to keep the tax reliefs in place post-Brexit, with or without a deal. So, what’s the problem?
Free Movement of People
The film industry benefits immeasurably from the conveniences of EU membership, often in ways that are not immediately obvious and make the lengthy endeavour of filmmaking that much easier and more cost-effective. One of these benefits is the free movement of people across borders.
In August Boris Johnson insisted that this free movement of labour will end with the Brexit deadline. Leaving aside exactly how he expects to implement this disastrous policy, this could be seriously bad news for our films. A huge portion of the workers on productions in the UK are EU nationals, from the construction teams building complex sets to the highly skilled animators that bring worlds and their creatures to life. In a statement in 2017, Lord Puttnam, producer of titles like Bugsy Malone and The Killing Fields and member of the house of lords, highlighted that of the 25,000 people employed by visual effects and animation departments “between 31% and 35% are EU nationals, and a further 12% are from non-EU countries.” Making it more difficult for Europeans to take these jobs won’t “free up” positions for British animators either: our education system lags notoriously behind in the push for STEAM skills and has consistently failed to invest in the advancement of special effects. There are simply not enough people skilled enough to take over and there is no coherent plan in place to address this deficit going forward.
In the words of the British Film Institute, who commissioned this research project directly after the referendum, “abolishing free movement risks not only eroding the available pool of staff and talent across the industry, but would also adversely impact the highly skilled activities in VFX, post production, animation and video games.”
Add to that the costs, complexity and logistical nightmare of acquiring visas for a full film crew and cast when filming in European locations – think James Bond bombing it down a beautiful mountain track in Siena – and it’s easy to see why people are worried.
Free Movement of Goods
Equally, the cost of transporting all the required equipment between countries, currently an easy and affordable undertaking thanks to the free movement of goods, will definitely go up in the case of no-deal Brexit. More costs, especially previously avoidable ones, are not good for any industry.
Similarly, the transferral of data is relatively straight-forward and cheap within the EU. In a no deal situation however, this would no longer be this case and in the globalised, internet driven world in which we live this could have a catastrophic impact across the board. When I contacted Margot James, the previous Minister of State for Digital and Creative Industries, she stated that “Data transfers between the UK and other member states are more substantial than even manufacturing exports. If we leave without a deal smooth data transfers will be at risk and this will affect the creative industries.” Data transferral is an indispensable part of modern global business and more industries than film will suffer from this change in particular.
Whilst the aforementioned complications would affect the whole of the screen sector, it’s nevertheless likely that big corporations, like American giants Warner Bros, Disney, Universal Pictures and, according to recent conjecture, the state-owned Chinese film industry, will continue to be attracted to the tax arrangement in the UK. Big companies can afford to pay the extra costs and outsource jobs internationally where skills and employees are lacking. But it will make it very difficult (not to say impossible) for smaller productions.
So, what gets lost? Ironically, British Film.
Independent productions especially but production firms generally receive an admirable chunk of their funding from EU investments. Organizations like Creative Europe were founded by the Union to invest in creative sectors across the continent and encourage cultural projects. The King’s Speech, for example, almost never happened due to underfunding, until it received over £1million in EU money.
And losing that funding means more than missing out on a few indie films. It could be crippling for the long-term future of the industry. “This kind of funding allows productions to take creative risks,” says Nick Hall, a Manchester film school graduate and free-lance assistant art director “in the context of a no deal exit from the EU those will become too big of a financial risk and would mean the cultural relevance of UK filmmaking would suffer.” Because in a world where only big, established corporations can afford to make films, the next generation of filmmakers is left with no way to develop themselves. “There’s nowhere for aspiring directors and producers to cut their teeth. You just don’t get entrusted with million-dollar budgets based on directing a few student films.”
Christoph Jankowski, the Head of Culture for Creative Europe’s UK desk, pointed out in a recent interview that the HM Treasury had previously offered to replace any immediate funding for projects selected by the EU. Yet the reactionary and changeable nature of the new Conservative party as well as their historical reluctance to support independent British cinema doesn’t make the fulfilment of such promises seem particularly likely. And if Margot James is right that “overall the sector will be less affected by Brexit, with or without a deal, than manufacturing and farming,” then even if labour wins, what kind of priority does film take in opposition to farming and fishing subsidies?
Brexit in general, but especially a no-deal Brexit, will in all likelihood financially cripple independent film. If not in the short term (though very likely in the short term too), it will have carry-on effects on the next generation of filmmakers. We’ll lose access to a whole host of advantages, from funding to skilled experts, without which it’ll be hard to even get the ball rolling on a lot of projects.
It’s not to say big production corporations don’t produce good films, but they rarely capture the unique voice of British TV created in our independent productions. For the sake of the well-knowns like LGBTQ+ staple Pride or sleeper-hit Slumdog Millionaire to the hundreds of smaller productions that made our favourite directors, actors, special effects artists, etc into what they are today, we need to find a way to ensure the future of our home-grown film industry.
We don’t want big f*cking television. We want our independent films.