Beginning at 7 AM local time Thursday, Scots will head to the polls to decide the fate of a nation that has been part of the UK for 307 years. Politics aside, what would a yes vote on the independence referendum mean for the film and TV business? The London-based centralized government and related organizations oversee tax incentives which have attracted international productions in droves of late (though mostly to England), and London is also home base for national broadcaster the BBC. Meanwhile, the 21st Century Fox-controlled BSkyB has a major facility in Scotland which employs 7,000 people. Then there’s the question of what a separate Scotland would mean for BAFTA.
While the pendulum swings back and forth on the possibility of the measure passing, many are skeptical that it will. One industry exec says they believe that once the curtain is pulled and ballots are poised to be filled in, Scots may feel, “Wait a sec, is it really so bad? Now that I’ve got their attention… It’s like a child crying out, but realizing they don’t really want to run away from home.” Still, this same person says conversations have been held around London as to eventualities for issues like exhibition and indie financing.
At the same time, there is great concern surrounding the fate of the BBC. A White Paper released by the Scottish government proposes the creation of SBS, a new national broadcaster just for Scotland which would have a local focus. BBC Scotland would become SBS and a proposal would seek to have SBS and the BBC come to an arrangement whereby SBS would continue to supply original programming to the BBC that would in turn allow BBC services to still be accessible in Scotland. Notably, BBC One and BBC Two are eyed as still being accessible on the moors under such an accord. The White Paper sees opportunities for Scottish producers and a jump in programming about Scotland as well as access to all current channels available with no additional cost passed on to citizens.
But analyst Claire Enders has called the idea that all of this could be achieved at once “fantasy.” Should the vote pass, BBC spending in Scotland is projected by the Scots to fall to about £175M by 2016 with significant job losses. But, says the Yes Scotland campaign, license fee revenue currently generates about £320M per year and the belief is that a Scottish broadcaster would be able to benefit from program sales outside the country. This would necessitate a boost in local production and could mean an increase in jobs. Scotland has taken the tack of comparing itself to the Scandi countries where unscripted programming has flourished and led to myriad exports like Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge. For the moment though, Scotland is not greatly known abroad for its original programming.
Enders, in a Guardian editorial, recently wrote, “The white paper says the SBS will obtain free-to-air terms for BBC1 and BBC2 as a result of ‘working with the BBC in a joint venture,’ which is revealingly vague: what could a nation of five million produce that is worth the same as a huge share of the BBC’s output? More likely, Scots would pay more for BBC content – content that would also be worse because of fewer economies of scale.”
Indeed, a brouhaha started last week when a years-old internal BBC study examining the effects of Scottish independence reportedly suggested that the license fee paid by Britons to access (and fund) the BBC — currently frozen until 2016 at £145.50 — could double for Scots. A BBC spokesperson told Deadline that the corporation “will not enter into any public or private discussions about the future or the shape and nature of our services after the referendum until that referendum has taken place. To do so might compromise perceptions of the impartiality and balance of our coverage.” The BBC, it has been suggested by former Director General John Birt, would lose 10% of its income.
Still, on the TV side, there remains the question of how a lucrative tax break administered by the British Film Commission would extend to Scotland. It’s true that there are currently few productions that actually shoot in Scotland and benefit from the break — and there is no major studio facility, although a feasibility study has been conducted. Starz’s Outlander is one that has planted a flag, however: A year ago, it began shooting 16 episodes over 38 weeks on location and in a converted warehouse near Glasgow. The production was projected to commission a crew of about 200 and cast more than 2,000 supporting roles. Its arrival in Scotland represented the biggest single inward investment ever at £20M for the year. I’m hearing, however, that the vote – either way – will not have any impact on the show’s production.
For its part, arts body Creative Scotland says it has received clear guidance from the Scottish Government that it should not expect changes to its current funding arrangements from either Grant in Aid or from the National Lottery, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. The government also states on its website that “The tax incentives currently offered by the UK on personal and corporate taxation in relation to the creative industries would continue in Scotland on independence, through the principle of continuity of law.” On a yes vote, within the first term of an independent Scottish Parliament, Scottish Ministers will “look at ways to encourage further development in the sector, through incentives, infrastructural investment and support for development, skills and training.”
In June this year, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop published a discussion paper on support options the Scottish government could make available to the industry under independence. The Scottish government, it was said, is committed to maintaining increased incentives for screen production should Scotland vote for independence, and to considering further options for support in the first term of Parliament. Public sector support reached its highest ever level at £21M in 2012-2013. Hyslop said, “Independence for Scotland would offer the opportunity to make a meaningful change in support for the screen sector, by focusing the world’s attention on our nation and giving power over crucial instruments such as fiscal incentives… The Scottish Government recognizes the huge potential the industry has and is committed to realizing this. Following a vote for independence, we would review the package of support available for the sector within the first term of Parliament.”
She also pointed to Outlander saying, “there are no limits to what our industry can achieve, and… there should be no limits to our ambition. We have consistently championed Scotland as a location for international film and TV productions and we work hard to ensure Scotland is widely recognized for its world-class talent, crews, facilities and breath taking locations. Scottish Ministers are firmly committed to supporting a sustained increase in production.”
It’s worth noting that Scotland does not currently produce a massive amount of movies per year. In 2013, it sent three films involving Scottish talent to Toronto in what was a banner annum.
To that end, a UK film exec says, “Culturally, it means that to the degree there exists Scottish cinema it gets supported by Film4, the BFI and the BBC. If suddenly that goes away and they have to support their own independent cinema, it’s a cost to them.” Creative Scotland has a pot of about £4M to invest in local pics. But money that has traditionally come from a national remit to invest in Scottish movies “is going to be directed to English, Welsh and Northern Ireland films,” I’m told by someone in the know. For Scotland to compete and make up the difference, they “would have to mirror it in their policies or make it better.”
As for BAFTA, CEO Amanda Berry stresses to Deadline that the org is very much in a wait-and-see pattern right now. There will be a two-year period of time in which questions about how independence will happen can be answered. “Scotland wouldn’t gain independence until 2016, so BAFTA would use the time between now and then to assess what it means. It would be business as usual as we continue to understand the impact of a Yes vote. There are questions that would need to be answered on both sides.” Whether the Best British Film award category would exclude Scottish titles going forward is not yet known. The rules that define Britishness would remain unchanged by independence for the next two BAFTA film awards.
BAFTA does work in Wales, Scotland, LA and New York, with branches in each. “We would still have a role to play in the same way we do in America. We’re committed to supporting the industries in Scotland and the next generation of talent,” Berry says, and that includes the BAFTA Scotland Awards. There would be no reason for BAFTA to pull out of Scotland, in the same way it has LA and New York branches despite the fact that the U.S. isn’t British.
No discussion of a governmental change in the UK would be complete without factoring in Rupert Murdoch. The mogul recently did a tour of Scotland, for which he has a great affinity. He has not proclaimed himself on one side of the vote or the other and his Scottish Sun did not take a position today, rather it said, “In the people of Scotland we trust.”
The Murdoch-controlled BSkyB has a major outpost in Dunfermline which employs a staff of 7,000 – that’s ramped up to about 8,000 when outsourced folks are counted. The group has already confirmed that it would not shift its HQ to Scotland should the referendum pass, Enders tells me. She notes that Sky would gain new licenses to replace British regulator Ofcom and “may well pay higher social charges or taxes or both in an independent Scotland.” But it would also have more customers, she says. Similarly, should the proposal go forward, such multichannel operators as Disney or Discovery would have to renegotiate licenses.
To be fair, we’re talking about an eventuality that has been hyped to the hilt and which has made UK Prime Minister David Cameron — and his rival party heads — begin to bend over backwards as the vote nears. But right now the outcome is too close to call and all the hand-wringing could be for naught — or only just beginning.