BAFTA’s Brexit Blues
The 2017 BAFTA award ceremony took place in the shadow of the seismic political events that took place the previous year. Amongst the grandstanding, the CEO of Curzon Cinema’s Philip Knatchbull provided a measured and cogent assessment of the threat posed to the British film industry by Brexit.
There are many reasons why people chose to vote ‘Out’ on the 23rd of June 2016; some were considered and deeply personal and others were vague, bigoted sentiments regurgitated from the pages of the Daily Mail and the mind of racial arsonist in chief Paul Dacre. What cannot be denied is the length this process will take, and the impact this will have on every facet of British society, particularly the film industry. No matter how matronly Theresa May behaves, nor how soothing the tones of those Tory ministers charged with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit are, we are a long, long way off from any sense of stability.
There is nothing more comical than that often repeated line, boomed in pubs at Sunday lunchtimes up and down the land and displayed in bold print across the opinion pages of every right wing newspaper from Lands End to John O’Groats that: ‘We’re British, we should do what we’ve always done and just bloody get on with it’. As if extricating ourselves from the political and economic union of 28 nations states and over 510 million people is comparable to finally getting round to putting up a garden shed. An instability not seen in our nation’s history since the Second World War looms over academia, business, tourism, healthcare, the arts and many other areas of national dependence and we are poised to feels its furious ramifications.
Nowhere will this be more keenly felt than in the film industry, which has relied on the European Union for funding, distribution and the opportunity for collaboration for over 50 years. In his speech at the British Film and Television Academy Awards, the film producer and CEO of Curzon Cinema’s Philip Knatchbull noted that if essential funding from the European Union is not maintained or replaced following Brexit, ‘then the risks we are able to take with films that exist outside of the mainstream will become much harder and all our lives will be the poorer for it’. This statement gets to the heart of why withdrawal from the European Union is going to have such a devastating effect on the film industry; Britain is a land whose film industry relies upon independent cinema.
As a nation we have the capacity to involve ourselves in filmmaking on a grand scale, evidenced by the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2016) at Pinewood, yet rarely are these productions solely British affairs. In 2016, two hundred films were produced in Britain with forty eight being funded from outside the UK. However, those forty eight represented eighty five per cent of the investiture in Britain for the purposes of film production. For the most part larger projects are transnational in their origin and will rely on money either from the European Union or the United States.
With Brexit and the recent tide of economic nationalism promising tariffs for those investing American dollars outside the shores of the U.S, both of these sources of funding appear in peril. Britain has thrived by producing narratives that are small in budget but large in their societal resonance. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Trainspotting (1996), The Full Monty (1997), This is England (2006), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Imitation Game (2011) and the list goes on and on. The success of these films and indeed their creation in the first place, is in large part down to the European Union’s remarkable dedication to funding films that illuminate the lives of those living in the corners of society. For a sprawling bureaucracy, the EU is surprisingly ‘woke’.
This awareness extends to financing a variety of films that examine the truth behind the political fables of individual nations. I, Daniel Blake (2016) is a film by Ken Loach about the experiences of a man forced to live on state welfare following a heart attack. The debate that surrounded the film’s release is one that Britain has been engaged in for a while, but nevertheless the film offered an original depiction of the realities of a life subsidised by the state in all its demeanity. It was also a pan-European effort, with production companies in France, Germany and Belgium assisting its creation. It is an example of the type of filmmaking Britain will cease to produce should we lose funding from the European Union.
The storyline of I, Daniel Blake (2016) is a hard one to pitch to any production company whose investiture is tied to commercial reward. In a country where the demonisation of the poor appears a national pastime it is perhaps reasonable that few commercial production companies would be willing to finance such a project independently, the ability of such a film to recoup its production cost appearing severely diminished. Without the EU as benefactor, this leaves the British government as a potential source of funds via the BFI or the BBC. The very same government criticized in the film by Loach and whose partisan involvement in the British entertainment industry has slashed the budgets of corporations willing and able to push the boundaries of cinema and champion narratives for the sake of their social value. The representations of individuals existing in the margins are decried by those who feel institutions like the BBC have become obsessed with the promotion of left wing political ideals, rather than merely choosing to countenance that presenting the diversity of lived experience makes for great entertainment.
The impact Brexit will have on the film industry in many ways mirrors the impact felt elsewhere in society. The film industry is reliant on the transportation of ideas, individuals and equipment across national borders. In the government’s rush to close our borders to the terrifying threat of war-stricken child refugees, the likelihood is that individuals working within the film industry will find themselves also barred. With budget and time constraints, the production of feature films relies on the ease with which crews of people can be transported from country to country.
If Britain is not careful, and does not tread a delicate balance between security and selectivity regarding those it lets through the gates, filmmakers will simply journey elsewhere rather than do battle with the bureaucracy of Britain’s border agencies. This, in turn, will have an impact upon a whole network of industries and jobs rarely even considered a part of the industry. It often appears forgotten, that behind the scenes of film production are people who live lives distant from the privilege and glamour of the selected few we see on screen. For the cleaners and security personnel, the catering staff and those who construct the sets, existence is all too often dependant on the agency they work for being hired by the production of a film in the local area. No production means no contract, and thus not enough working hours for those listed. Even if the naysayers are proven wrong and the production of films does continue in Britain to the degree it is now, those who are working behind the scenes have lost many of the valuable protections inclusion in the EU afforded them. Indeed some of worker’s rights most derided by the Eurosceptics are particularly pertinent regarding the film industry. It is very easy to mock the European Union’s seemingly endless directives regarding workplace health and safety when you are safely ensconced in the offices of News UK, but if you are working on a film where any sort of stunts are taking place, you might find yourself rather glad said directives exist.
The uncomfortable truth remains that, at least from governmental perspective, Britain has unwittingly begun the gradual dismantling of our thriving film industry. The arts in general appear the first thing Britain is willing to sacrifice in order to save money, our unique cultural heritage be damned. Evidence for this is everywhere one chooses to look, in the month of February 2017 alone the city of Bath decided to cut 100% of its funding for small arts projects in order to save money.
The incessant portrayal of art subjects at universities as being only for the lazy or the dim has, in times of increased fees in general, begun to steer students toward subjects where a job is more of a certainty but less of a passion. In wider society, those within the creative sector are brandished with the predictable ‘luvvie’ every time they voice an opinion not shared by those brave Brexiteer’s tired of having the shape of their banana’s dictated to them. And yet, what is so striking is the comparison between Britain and the countries poised to become world superpowers over the coming years, that government figures are so desperate to emulate.
China has a fund devoted to the transformation of the country’s film industry into the biggest in the world of $8.2 billion. Clearly this is because they recognise that the easiest way to promote a national identity is through the power of cinema. This in turn leads to greater numbers of tourists wishing to witness the country for themselves, thus bolstering the economy. Whilst it would be foolish to claim that Britain has a deficit of visitors currently, 510 million people are about to find it harder to enter the country, on more expensive flights. It would therefore seem sensible for the government to realise the impact Brexit will have on the film industry and act, before generations of talented filmmakers choose to leave the country and the rich variety of films made in Britain becomes even harder to maintain.
In this respect, BAFTA’s Brexit blues are wholly justified.