By the time the TV and film worlds descend on Cannes for next April’s MipTV and the film festival in May, Britain will no longer be a member of the European Union. “Brexit” officially happens March 29, 2019.
But less than 11 months before that seismic event, the likely impact on the film and TV business in Blighty and Europe remains almost a complete unknown. As in so many divorce cases, negotiations between British and EU officials have been slow and acrimonious.
“It’s schizophrenic,” Adrian Wootton, head of the British Film Commission and Film London, says of the mood in entertainment circles. “On one hand … there is a real fear in the independent film industry and television about issues around whether [British] film and TV qualifies as European, the circulation of that material around Europe and status of EU citizens working here.
“On the other hand, with the exchange rate being what it is and with tax breaks in place, we are absolutely one of the biggest go-to places in the world for people to make film and television programs at the moment. We are seeing a volume of demand that is not letting up.”
Film and TV production spending hit a record $4 billion last year, and studios including Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden are expanding. A new site is being built in Barking, in East London.
The overwhelming majority of production staffers are Brits. But in the visual effects, post-production and animation sectors, up to 40% of personnel are non-British, making the free movement of labor post-Brexit a key issue. Requiring EU citizens — who don’t need visas to live and work in Britain — to go through the existing visa system for foreign skilled workers could result in fewer being allowed in. The current visa process is considered slow, expensive and ill-suited to a sector where experience and reputation count for more than paper qualifications.
Another unresolved area, channel licensing, is leaving Britain vulnerable to poachers. Some European countries have begun wooing U.K.-based businesses considering relocation. Delegations from the Netherlands, Ireland, Estonia and elsewhere have gone to Britain to meet channel operators that run their European business out of the U.K. using British-issued licenses that are currently valid for the whole of the EU but might not be after Brexit.
In March, British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the issue of broadcasting permits for the first time, saying both sides “should explore creative options with an open mind, including mutual recognition.” Giorgio Stock, who runs Turner Broadcasting’s Europe, Middle East and Africa business from London, welcomes May’s words — but he’s still planning for the worst. “We like it here,” Stock says. “But if we are obliged to come up with contingencies, we have the plan ready, and we are only 12 months away from having to execute it.”
Other international channel operators running networks out of Britain include Discovery and Viacom. John Enser of law firm CMS-CMNO, which works with film and TV companies and broadcasters, says most of his clients are preparing for “a hard cliff edge” next March, meaning a British withdrawal from the EU without new trade agreements in place, which would force the U.K. to fall back on World Trade Organization rules. “They have got to the stage, in a lot of cases, of working out which other EU country they would want a license from,” Enser says of his clients.
An agreed-on transition period with the EU through 2020 gives Britain a small bit of breathing room. But British film and TV companies are increasingly courting international business from outside Europe, notably the U.S.
“A lot of the financing and commissioning that is fueling our infrastructure, our visual effects businesses and employment isn’t coming from Europe. It is coming from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Warner Bros. and Disney,” Wootton says. “The globally disruptive platforms, together with the studios, together with broadcasters like HBO, are making the running.”
John McVay, head of indie producers association Pact, believes the U.K. will remain an attractive partner for foreign entertainment companies post-Brexit. “If you don’t want to co-produce with Americans for English-language [content], what is the other place you are going to work with?” he says.
With every industry lobbying hard for a tailor-made Brexit plan, film and TV have banded with other creative sectors — including fashion, video games and publishing — to ensure their voices are heard by the British government. Former prime minister Harold Wilson once said that “a week is a long time in politics.” With so much yet to be done, and as negotiations with the EU drag on, British officials and the film and TV business alike are hoping the adage holds true.