British film has prospered in the last decade, producing some of its finest and most commercial movies ever. These films, from The King’s Speech to this year’s Palme d’Or winner I Daniel Blake, have proven popular at home and abroad. But now that the United Kingdom was voted to leave the European Union, uncertainty clouds the sector as it looks nervously to the future.
The Vote Leave camp believe the UK will be better off dealing with its own affairs outside of European Union governance. This will lead to a more united country, a safer society and a stronger economy. If true, British film won’t suffer, it’ll be just fine. But there’s uncertainty. And with many of the sector’s leading individuals campaigning for the UK’s continued inclusion in the European Union you have to ask how and why a “Brexit” will be good for British film.
As the vote got under way on June 23, notable British actors rallied around the “Remain” campaign, calling for voters to stick with the European Union. Actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Stewart, Jude Law, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Steve McQueen signed a “Love Letter” urging Brits to say “no” to Brexit.
The letter noted how British film’s global success would be “severely weakened by walking away”. It added, importantly, that films such as The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Hunger, An Education, Amy and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy might not have happened had it not been for European funding and cross-border collaboration.
Success for British film “severely weakened” by Brexit
Backed by leading film producers such as Working Title’s Tim Beven, the group, which included producer-director Matthew Vaughn and James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, the group highlighted the importance of freedom of movement within the continent. In essence, film and TV productions can move across borders without being subject to additional taxation, crews don’t have to spend time and money on visas, and equipment can pass international divides without the dreaded carnet.
As part of the European Union’s MEDIA/Creative Europe Programme British film has also benefited from more than £100m since 2007. This hasn’t just made films possible, it has created jobs, provided career progression and skills development and helped regenerate regional economies.
This has given British film the chance to grow with the number of jobs in the creative industry increasing by 5.5% with the most recent data recording 1.8m jobs worth £84bn to the economy in 2014.
The group of British film producers also made the point about the importance of having “a seat at the table”, particularly in relation to upcoming changes to copyright law which could have a negative impact on production companies financing film and television.
However, in their plea there was still a level of uncertainty that has plagued the entire campaign process. While European funding has helped to support a blossoming industry, the foundations are set for it continue that success. Collaborative funding will not be suddenly cut-off and partnership agreements between British production companies and their European neighbours will still be welcomed by the creative sector. The British government, unshackled from Brussels, could also negotiate its own trade deals with international partners and, with potentially freed up funds, develop new portals for film in Britain to find necessary funding. Indeed, the UK already offers a generous tax incentive to lure in big productions and this could be strengthened outside of the EU.
British film is going back to the doledrums of the 1980s
Michael Ryan, the chairman of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, said we can forget Brexit being helpful to British film. He feels Europe’s tendency to support the creative industries has helped British film’s recent growth over the last ten years. Historically, the British government hasn’t been as eager to support arts programmes.
Ryan said EU subsidies made a “massive” contribution to British film and television, helping to avoid the costly risks associated with the sector. He said we’re now “out of the club” and unable to access those vital funds. The result is that new British films will reduce in number and the industry – one that is particularly strong right now – could regress back to the dark ages of the 1980s when the country made few films and imported most of its theatrical product.
The argument against Britain pumping money into the sector is that only a small number make a profit. But how about the intangible artistic and cultural value they bring, the jobs they create and the skills they promote and develop?
In fact, the films that do turn a profit in recent years pay for those that don’t. Ex Machina doubled its costs at the box office, The Second Marigold Hotel made eight times its costs in profits, as did The Theory Of Everything. If you factor in British-American co-production Spectre, these films alone accounted for more than £1bn profit at the box office in 2015.
A period of stagnation
Brexit could lead to less European films being shown in UK cinemas because of the increased cost of buying the rights. Foreign-language films already have very small margins, if barriers are erected to their inclusion on cinema schedules, we’ll see a lot less variety in our theatres. The same thing could impact British film exports going the other way with European distributors less likely to purchase similar exhibition rights.
If funds do dry up the worry is that we’ll see cinema in the United Kingdom lose its momentum. The industry was limp during the 1970s and 1980s after Hollywood ceased its investment in overseas productions. Similarly, without European money British film could see the re-emergence of its two-decade downturn.
But the European Union isn’t “doing us any favours” says I Daniel Blake director Ken Loach
Ken Loach, a notable lefty whose films often present topical social issues regarding the working class, said before the referendum that June 23 represents “a dangerous, dangerous moment”. He wasn’t referring to the fact he took a pro-EU stance as the best of two “evils” but the domino effect of such a vote, particularly when the result leads us to an EU divorce.
What will Britain’s exit from the European Union mean to its international relationships both within Europe and across the world? How will the vote influence other EU nations? Could it promote a move – Europe-wide – to more hard-line right wing agendas? Could it strike the first blow to the European Union’s dismantlement as well as the break-up of the United Kingdom with his beloved Scotland (where he’s made many of his films) gaining independence? Will there be another recession? Will pro-nationalist parties and the far right make political gains? So much uncertainty.
These are questions the “vote leave” camp are willing to accept as it moves us to a new era in the history of Great Britain. Loach accepts there is uncertainty on both sides and notes the European Union is hardly perfect. “On the one hand, the European Union is a neo-liberal project. It’s a drive towards privatisation and a drive towards de-regulation. The safeguards that are there for workers and for the environment are constantly under attack so it’s not doing us any favours at the moment,” he said. But, “if we leave, we know the individual governments will be moving as far to the right as possible.” Loach’s solution, regardless of the outcome, is to make stronger allegiances with other left-wing European movements.
Loach isn’t the only person in the “Remain” camp to voice relevant concerns about the European Union. Most recently, the plan to create a digital free market has been widely criticised, particularly by Sixteen Films which produces Loach’s films.
The UK’s exit from the EU is likely to be “devastating” to British film
Jeremy Thomas, who was responsible for films such as Only Lovers Left Alive and A Dangerous Mind (starring Keira Knightley) – all British co-productions – says he’s not only “depressed” but “grieving”.
“Freedom of trade and freedom of movement was very important to me and it worked very well. On a practical level, we now have to look at treaties, work permits, withholding taxes,” he said.
Added Michael Ryan: “This decision has just blown up our foundation — as of today, we no longer know how our relationships with co-producers, financiers and distributors will work, whether new taxes will be dropped on our activities in the rest of Europe, or how production financing is going to be raised without any input from European funding agencies.”
What’s going to happen to British film? The simply answer – like the wider equation that considers the United Kingdom’s very existence – is that we really don’t know. What we do know is that change is inevitable but its impact is one we can only speculate on.