‘In England now, there is only the noise of division,” intoned Ralph Fiennes mournfully at the European cinema awards last Sunday. It sounded like a quote from one of Shakespeare’s historical plays, but everyone knew what Fiennes was talking about. His acceptance speech for his European achievement award, in which he bemoaned the “distressing and depressing” level of Brexit discourse, came on like a poignant adieu to Europe from the British film community.
A few days earlier, fellow Brit thespian Andy Serkis produced his own, more direct form of Brexit commentary, reviving his conflicted Gollum character from The Lord of the Rings franchise in the guise of Theresa May, feuding with herself over her Brexit negotiations. “This is it: our deal. We takes back control. Money, borders, laws, blue passports,” Serkis growls as May/Gollum. “No, it hurts the people. Makes them poorer,” the meek May/Smeagol replies. That is about as much entertainment value as British film has found in Brexit so far, not counting Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as balding Brexit “mastermind” Dominic Cummings in HBO’s imminent TV movie Brexit: The Uncivil War.
If there are members of the UK cinema community who think Brexit is a good thing, they are all but impossible to find. Actors and film-makers were virtually unanimous in their advocacy of the remain campaign before the 2016 referendum. They still are, but now they are, at least, resigned to the reality of Brexit, as much as any industry can be.
“I still believe, for the interests of our industry, that remaining part of a strong union is the best thing for us both commercially and culturally, and my reasons haven’t really changed,” says Eric Fellner, the co-founder of Working Title films, whose productions include modern classics such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Elizabeth and Darkest Hour. “We are very lucky in that we have a really strong industry, but we rely on a lot of actors and a lot of talent coming from all over the world, not just the EU, and it just seems a real shame to chuck all that away and have to go back to the days of trying to make it work without external cultural or practical help. It seems ridiculous that we are inflicting a wound on this economic powerhouse, especially at a time when the UK creative industries are delivering a substantial part of our annual earnings, and anything that hampers that is a negative on an economic basis.”
Business has never been better for British film and television, Fellner points out. Since Gordon Brown’s introduction of film tax-relief incentives in 2006, Britain has become one of the world’s movie centres. Production spend in the UK has doubled since 2009, to a record £1.72bn on film alone in 2016, and £7.9bn across all screen industries, including television and gaming. Britain has become a destination of choice for Hollywood, with major studios making long-term commitments to the UK, such as the Star Wars franchise or Marvel’s Avengers movies. Pinewood and Shepperton studios are fully booked, with new facilities being built to increase capacity. Britain’s visual effects community is arguably the best in the world. Its film and TV products punch above their weight globally. In addition, the arrival of streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon has only added to the demand for British skills and services.
Some have argued that the relative weakness of the British pound has made the UK even more attractive – as if it were a Brexit silver lining, although, as Fellner points out, it goes both ways: “All of the revenue we’re generating externally is worth less. It’s fine for your costs to be low but your revenue is also low.”
When he goes to Hollywood now, Fellner says, the reaction he gets from most Americans is “incredulity”, he says. “They cannot get their heads around the fact that nobody knows what could happen, let alone what is happening. They can’t understand how we put ourselves in this situation and they’re totally and utterly bemused.”
There is a similar reaction on the continent, says Jeremy Thomas, another veteran British producer. “You feel a certain chill,” he says, citing a recent trip to Lyon. “They don’t want to sit next to you at dinner parties.” Thomas has spent the past 40 years operating as, and thinking of himself as, a European, he says. His films routinely pull in talents and funding from across the continent and beyond, such as the late Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winner The Last Emperor, set in China, or, more recently, movies such as 2015’s Tale of Tales, which was set in Italy, was directed by an Italian (Matteo Garrone), had a cast of British, American and European actors, a British and Italian crew and a British special effects team. “This is sort of a borderless business,” says Thomas. “From the beginning of my career, I’ve been thinking of the world as one place, and it’s been particularly good in terms of co-production treaties to arrange funding, and also getting a mixture of skills into films with free movement of talents and equipment.”
The “free movement” aspect of film-making is a particular concern for the British industry. Thomas remembers the bad old days before EU membership did away with so much red tape. “There was the transportation of equipment. You’d have a truck containing maybe 1,000 little pieces of equipment, and every piece would have to be taken out and checked and put back in. It was a rigmarole. It took days to do it. You’d need carnets and work permits for people. Now it all works in quite a sophisticated way, but maybe that’s all over.”
Freedom of movement is possibly the biggest area of concern industry-wide, given the international make-up of UK film employees. The industry’s continued success depends on having the personnel to fuel it – to crew the movies, to work in areas such as post-production and visual effects, where up to 40% of workers are currently non-British, according to estimates. Britain’s visual effects employers will have to pay an additional £1,500 or so per head for visas for its EU employees, estimates William Sargent, the chief executive and co-founder of leading effects house Framestore.
“In our building in London, we’ve got 1,100 people, roughly 30% of them EU nationals, mostly young graduates [who would be below the government’s £30,000 earnings threshold]. If you multiply that 370 people by about £1,500 a head, you get a number that I clearly don’t want to have as a cost.” Added to that, Sargent asks, what happens if there are not enough visas to go round? Revenues would be constrained, and instead of attracting the best people, London would lose them to potential rivals on the continent. “This is a completely unnecessary cost,” he says. “It took 25 years of hard work to build us into a centre of excellence; we’re going to throw all that away.”
The overall picture might not be totally bleak, though, partly thanks to existing arrangements, but also thanks to bodies such as the British Film Institute (BFI), which has been working behind the scenes to maintain established links to the EU and build alternative ones if necessary. Away from the day-to-day chaos of Brexit, progress is being made, says Harriet Finney, the BFI’s director of external affairs. “It’s all about being incredibly practical and working very, very closely with government to ensure all our concerns are raised,” she says. “An awful lot of what we’ve been doing is telling them where the problems are and what the impacts are likely to be.”
The good news is, some aspects will be unchanged by Brexit. Co-producing with European partners, for example, ought to be unaffected, since those agreements are governed by the Council of Europe (of which the UK will remain a member), not the EU. For the same reason, UK products will still count as “European works” in terms of quotas for broadcasting and on-demand services. The UK has existing film-making treaties with countries such as France, China and India, which will not be affected by Brexit. The government has also pledged to maintain its current tax-relief programmes for the creative sector.
More perilous are the UK’s ties to EU bodies such as Creative Europe, the organisation supporting Europe’s arts and media sectors. This is the arm that allocates EU funds to support British movies, helps provide access to the EU for British-made movies and vice versa (what little European cinema we do get on our screens often comes thanks to Creative Europe support), and supports partnerships, film festivals, training and other initiatives. In terms of public funding for UK film (some £582m in 2016/17, mostly from tax relief), the EU proportion is relatively small ($4.5m [£3.6m] from Creative Europe and other EU sources). Although between 2007 and 2017, UK screen sectors (including television and gaming) received nearly £300m in EU funding. In film terms that support has often gone towards smaller, more culturally relevant projects made by independent and regional outfits – Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, for instance, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2016, benefited from £100,000 of funding.
The current round of Creative Europe funding ends in 2020; after that, nobody knows how it will pan out, but the government is “utterly committed to belonging to it,” says Finney. She also points to the fact that “culture and education” is one of the five “cooperative accords” earmarked in the Brexit white paper, published in July, as areas where continued cooperation with Europe was deemed especially important. Even if the bridges have not yet been secured, there are still provisions to do so in the future. “It has been quite a delicate piece of diplomacy we are trying to undertake,” she says, “in terms of moving people beyond being slightly shocked and disappointed about the UK leaving to saying: ‘Let’s work out the things we want to continue for mutual gain.’ That’s where we are right now.”
Britain’s place in the film world is not in mortal danger just yet, then, but it is a competitive industry. Countries and regions are continually offering rival tax breaks to lure film-makers, who will happily follow the money, given the immense overheads of film-making. Visual effects workers in London might just as easily gravitate to Canada, India or New Zealand for the next job if conditions in the UK are no longer favourable. Besides which, talk of troops on standby, food and medicine shortages, and gridlocked traffic in Kent are hardly screaming “come to Britain” to prospective new clients. The general consensus seems to be that there is little for British film to gain from Brexit – the odd Benedict Cumberbatch TV movie aside – but much to lose.