Actor-turned-director Wendy Morgan was devastated when she was forced to miss the West Coast premiere of her directorial feature debut, “Mercy,” last month at the Awareness Festival in Los Angeles due to America’s ban on flights from the U.K.
The ban, introduced by the Donald Trump administration in March 2020, meant that passengers couldn’t fly directly from the U.K. to the U.S.
Brits wishing to enter the States instead had to spend two weeks in a third-party nation that wasn’t subject to a banning order, such as Mexico, before flying on to America — an option that simply wasn’t viable for most people.
Despite applying for an exemption three times and even hiring a lawyer to assist with the process, Morgan was unable to get authorization to fly to the U.S. for the premiere of her film about a factory-farmed pig. “I tried so hard to appeal the decision, and the stress of waiting and trying to fix meetings up with the uncertainty of waiting was crushing,” she tells Variety. “I couldn’t eat or sleep, even though I knew it was a very privileged problem.”
After almost two years, the ban was finally lifted on Nov. 8., allowing fully vaccinated passengers with the appropriate documentation (such as a visa or a visa waiver) to fly directly from the U.K. to the U.S. without the need to quarantine on arrival — as long as they complete a PCR or antigen test up to 72 hours before boarding. Unvaccinated travelers with valid exemptions can also make the trip but face additional requirements.
(Passengers returning to England will also need to submit to a test within 48 hours of arriving; rules for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland vary slightly.)
On Nov. 9, the day after the travel corridor reopened, Morgan boarded one of the first flights to the U.S. to attend a Santa Monica screening of “Mercy.” She had lined up meetings with publicists and distributors. “It’s been very, very, very worthwhile,” she says of her trip.
While Britain is enjoying its own production boom, the U.S. continues to be a major hub for the British audiovisual industry, and the travel corridor remains essential to doing deals.
“We’ve always had an incredibly close link with the U.S.,” James Burstall, CEO of “Masked Singer U.K.” production powerhouse Argonon, tells Variety. “It’s actually been very painful to be cast asunder, if you like, for such a long period of time.”
Argonon, which is composed of eight production companies, has offices in both New York and Los Angeles, and within days of the ban lifting, one of its subsidiaries got the greenlight for a show that’s set to be shot in the U.S. (Burstall was unable to give further details about the show or the broadcaster for confidentiality reasons.) “[Half] of what we do is produced in or out of the U.S.,” he explains.
The end of the ban, Burstall says, marks “a major watershed.” While industry leaders acknowledged that virtual meetings via Zoom, Microsoft Teams or other platforms proved invaluable during the pandemic, enabling people to work remotely and even democratizing the pitching process to some extent, the lack of face-to-face contact has been palpable.
“We’ve all learned that there’s no substitute for that in-person session; that conversation is very different,” says Jane Turton, CEO of All3Media, who flew from London to Los Angeles on Nov. 8 for two weeks. Her flight, she says, was full.
Burstall concurs. “There’s nothing like the face to face,” he says. “It does make a difference.”
Yet working remotely over the past 18 months has inevitably had a lasting effect on the industry. Burstall says that while he welcomes the lifting of the ban, he’s cognizant of the detrimental effect air travel has on the environment. “The climate emergency is very real for us, and we take it very, very seriously,” he says. “It is our responsibility to do as much as we possibly can to reduce our carbon footprints and reduce flying, and we’re never going to go back” to frequent transatlantic travel.
In the future, Burstall says, he will “choose very carefully” the occasions that warrant making the 11-hour flight from London to Los Angeles.
Similarly, Turton says that she will make the trip less often due to environmental reasons, and when a trip is necessary, she’ll likely stay longer to maximize what can be accomplished.
“The upside of almost two years of hiatus in terms of international travel is we’ve learned how to reduce the amount of in-person contact we need, [and] that’s definitely helpful,” Turton says. “But every so often, there’s just no substitute for the more informal, the more spontaneous, the more nuanced meeting one gets face to face.
“We can’t get back to those days when we all traveled possibly too much,” she adds. “And I think there’s going to be, hopefully, a more aware and intelligent use of international travel.”