“The age of national literature has passed, and the age of world literature is at hand.” Mike Downey quotes Goethe to define the idea of Europe and above all the notion of European culture which has been put in harm’s way by the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U. “From the overall U.K. industry perspective, this move is a disastrous one and the repercussions will resonate far and wide,” says Downey, an English producer and Deputy Chairman of the European Film Academy.
Among the most serious threats which Brexit — and especially the so called Hard Brexit — poses to British cinema is the withdrawal from Creative Europe, born precisely to foster production and circulation of European artistic products throughout the countries of the Union. Between 2007-2013, Downey explains, the U.K. has benefitted from €100 million in funding from Creative Europe. Furthermore, “During 2014-2015, Creative Europe has supported 230 U.K. cultural and creative organizations and audiovisual companies as well as the cinema distribution of 84 U.K. films in other European countries with grants totaling €40 million.”
The likely withdrawal from Creative Europe is a threat also singled out by Rebecca O’Brien, head of Sixteen Films, a production company which has relied on the help offered by this program more than once: “We have had slate funding, for instance, on three occasions, which has been very valuable.” Leaving the “club,” she says, would mean that “we don’t get the development money, so we need to think about how else we can develop (a film project).”
The Brexiters rhetoric has often mentioned the “unbearable” costs that being part of the E.U. would entail for the United Kingdom. It’s easy to dismantle that notion — at least when it comes to the creative industry — with Downey’s evaluation that Creative Europe granted €40 million to the U.K. between 2014 and 2015. That’s 13 percent of Britain’s €319 million budget for that period. “Which compares favorably with the U.K.’s contribution to the programme, estimated at €30 million, which equates to 10.7 percent,” Downey says.
Another recurring mantra of Brexit advocates has focused on the falling value of the pound against the euro and dollar, which should make shooting in the U.K. more appealing to foreign producers. In Downey’s words, “The rhetoric of the Theresa May’s Tory government, which claims that the whole world will want to do business with the Brits.” What this rhetoric doesn’t take into account, however, is “the elephant in the room”: What is going to happen with future trade deals, for example with the U.S.?
“So many U.S. states where Trump has massive amounts of support have their own film tax credit schemes,” Downey says. “And so a robust U.S. negotiation could include serious demands that the U.K. abandon its film tax credit. Given how big their entertainment industry is and how many jobs it’s losing to Canadian, New Zealand and U.K. tax credits, it’s actually quite likely that this is something they will probably bring to the table in future trade negotiations.”
Furthermore, O’Brien mentions another serious threat posed by Brexit, which concerns the ability of “having a film seen by European partners and having their films seen in Britain: Creative Europe supports distribution throughout Europe.” Therefore, the damage to free circulation will not only affect the British industry, but also the European one since exporting a film to an important market such as the U.K. is likely going to become more expensive. What is also at stake, O’Brien adds, is the freedom of movement: “For example, if we produce with Belgium — as was the case with I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach — we benefit from their tax arrangements and we get money into the production.”
This means, however, that there has to be a quid pro quo, such as hiring people in the country where the film is being shot. It’s the European co-production system, itself endangered by the less permeable borders demanded by Brexit. “For people like me, who are old enough to remember when we were not part of the European Community,” recounts Nik Powell, producer and director of the National Film and Television School, “and who was doing business at the time, just putting a rock band’s equipment on the lorry to go to Paris to do a gig was a highly complex affair that joining the EC got rid of.”
And he adds: “If the U.K. leaves the EC and doesn’t make any agreement then it will no longer be part of the European co-production, which means that we will no longer be able to participate in the flexibility and access to distribution in cash that the EC gives producers here in the U.K. There will also be complications for the export of television programs, games et cetera. All of these areas will become potentially more expensive and definitely, without any doubt, more complex.”
Nevertheless, co-productions will keep existing as both O’Brien and Downey assure, as they are governed by the European Convention on Cinematographic Co-Production, which involves the Council of Europe, not the E.U.
And yet the future is full of questions: It is impossible to clearly foresee what the U.K. leaving Europe will mean for the artistic cooperation within the continent. Before the elections, says O’Brien, “we thought we were looking at a Hard Brexit, but I think now there are things we don’t know even more.” After all, says Powell, “we don’t even know who our prime minister will be.”
“If we end up with a Labour government,” O’Brien adds, “then I know that they would be looking much more closely at making freedom of movement more possible, and I think they would be looking for a trade agreement that supports people and jobs rather than cutting ourselves off in the way that Theresa May’s government has been talking about.”
Besides, over the past eight years cuts to the government budget for the arts has also damaged the creative industry within the borders, making it harder for working-class kids to access an artistic education. “As far as the National Film and Television school is concerned,” Powell explains, “we have been able to just about cope with the cuts that we have been receiving,” which means tuition fees have gone up. “But we have been very successful in getting industry and other subjects’ investments, that I hope has enabled everyone who has been offered a place at the NFTS from the U.K. to come to it.”
However foggy the future might look, Downey has a proposal to cope with Brexit: “A lobby should begin immediately to maintain status within Creative Europe.” In fact: “Article 8 of the Regulation No 1295/2013 establishing the Creative Europe Programme stipulates that countries other than E.U. Member States may participate in the Programme.”
The recent election, says Powell, “maybe makes that more possible, because arrangements like access to the market are what is called here a Soft Brexit and therefore, at least from the U.K. side, there should be more desire for that outcome. Of course, it is still down to the 28 nations of the EC as to whether they see it in their interest to give the U.K. access to the market. And obviously we won’t be able to do that unless we contribute to the cost of it.” O’Brien too hopes for a similar solution, although she says, “I don’t think it’s going to be very easy: We have a very small voice and I think that we would have to work really hard to get our creative industry to understand how important it is for us.”
At stake there is something that goes far beyond the amount of funding for cinema, however less tangible. In the words of Downey, it is the “sense of being part of an international community of filmmakers, collaborating, sharing ideas, best practices, talent pools and generally working together in a reciprocal way to create something that is bigger than the sum of all its parts.”