It’s been nearly a year since Britain made the shock decision to leave the European Union in a 52 percent to 48 percent public vote, a move that kicked off a major surge of anti-establishment and right-wing sentiment that rippled through much of the western world. After Prime Minister Theresa May began the process in March—by triggering Article 50 of The Lisbon Treaty—the country now has just two years to negotiate the tangled divorce proceedings with the EU. And while the British public—and, indeed, the government—still don’t know what the end result will mean, Brexit is still very much disrupting the conversation across the industry in the U.K. and Europe, raising major questions about how the business will cope.
On the surface, inward investment into the country has never been better. According to statistics from the British Film Institute, inward investment spend was up almost 18 percent to £1.35 billion ($1.68 billion) in 2016, with major Hollywood titles such as Disney’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant all tapping into the country’s studio facilities and booming VFX companies. The exchange-rate decline as a result of the vote has become an increasingly attractive incentive for international businesses. This, coupled with the U.K.’s attractive tax relief, means 2017 looks set to accelerate demand.
“It depends which end of the telescope you’re looking through,” says Adrian Wootton, CEO of Film London and the British Film Commission. “In terms of attracting international business, it’s phenomenal. It’s like having a permanent Christmas and fire sale at the moment. Obviously, we don’t know how long it is going to go on for, but if you’re spending your money in dollars, the U.K. got between 15-30 percent cheaper for people to make television and film.”
London’s world-class VFX business has become an even more attractive destination as well, thanks to the devalued pound. The flip side of this, points out Framestore CEO William Sargent, is that the basic laws of economics dictate that this will translate into higher inflation. Indeed, in February 2017 inflation rose to 2.3 percent in the U.K.
“Our product is cheaper, but, as we’re expecting inflation to come in 2018 or 2019, our costs in general will drift up,” says Sargent. “At the moment, things seem to be sort of neutral in our business. But there are certainly things in the offing that we have to keep an eye on, and the way to counter that is efficiency. We have already had to become more efficient in our business—and if we aren’t efficient, we become less competitive.”
Equally, uncertainty around the issue of free movement of labor around the continent “could be a disaster” for companies long term, says Number 9 Films producer Stephen Woolley. “With a successful U.K. television and film industry that is growing and strengthening,” he says, “we need to be able to supplement that with European talent.” One of Woolley’s recent productions, The Limehouse Golem, was able to pool grips from Rome. “We are continuing to do that with films that travel,” he says. “Shooting in the U.K. is increasingly becoming a more regional activity—just look at [BBC TV series] Broadchurch, which is shot in the [U.K.’s] West Country. Therefore, travel and putting people in hotels becomes the norm. Freedom of movement is vital to us, and we have to have it. It’s not even a joke. We have to have to be able to tap into the huge pool of crew.”
It’s still unclear what will happen to the status of non-British EU nationals living in the U.K., which poses further problems—Framestore, for example, says that around 30 percent of its workforce is from mainland Europe. “We’re an industry where there is a shortage of talent,” says Sargent, who has encouraged his employers to apply for U.K. residency, which EU nationals are currently entitled to do if they have lived in the U.K. for five years or more—and with final Brexit negotiations years away from being settled, that buys them time.
As a producer, says Woolley, the sheer cost of engineering Brexit has proven a hard pill to swallow. Estimates, which have only surfaced recently, have put the cost of Brexit at anywhere from £15 billion ($18.7 billion) and £52 billion ($64.9 billion). “What is so frustrating is that no one had knowledge of what the cost of Brexit would be before the vote,” says Woolley. “You’d never buy a car without knowing how much it costs.”
More long-term questions include whether Britain would still have access to the EU-funded Creative Europe MEDIA Program, which has funneled more than €100 million into the U.K. audio-visual industry since 2010, backing films as diverse as Todd Haynes’s Carol, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise and Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning doc Amy, as well as legislation issues for Brit-Euro co-productions.
One thing is certain: the industry is unified in lobbying government to protect the business. “We cannot allow the change in political circumstances to change our creative business,” says Wootton.
Adds Sargent, “The very nature of this business is that quite often it starts raining and you have to react. We all had better get out there and start hustling.”